While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”
This is one of the most difficult texts in the Gospels to preach from. What do you say about the Transfiguration? As I was preparing and studying the passage, a man came into my study and told me something that had just happened to him.
When he had finished telling me the story, I thought, How do you tell the congregation that? Then he left, and I didn’t think anything more about it. I went back to my desk, but his story and this text were stuck together in my mind. In a day or two, the telephone rang, and it was him. He said, “If you’re really serious about me telling it, I’ll do it.”
I’m a pastor. I’m prone to read Scripture, to understand theology, and to talk to you about the history of the church of Jesus Christ. Many of you have different training. Dr. Bill Maurits is trained as a chemist, not as a theologian. We live in the same world and have the same problems, but we have different ways of looking at things. So I’ve asked Bill to tell you what he told me, and then I am going to try and put the two things together.
Bill: This is an experience that happened to our family in Atlanta recently. We were driving on one of the superhighways down in the heart of the city in light traffic. I was driving about fifty miles per hour, and we came to a left-hand curve with a vertical bridge abutment just following the road, just a few inches back from the road. I happened to be on the inside of the curve and really couldn’t see very much ahead because of the abutment, but I wasn’t too concerned. I didn’t move out of the lane because I could see the rest of the lanes were moving smoothly and there wasn’t much traffic.
Well, we got about halfway around the curve and came upon a line of cars absolutely stopped in my lane. I was still going about fifty miles per hour when I finally saw the cars, and I was only about a car length behind the last one ahead of me in line. I figured it up afterward—at fifty miles per hour I was going seventy-three feet per minute, and if you say a nominal eighteen feet ahead was that “ last” car, then I was going to hit him in about a quarter of a second.
In order to do something about that, I couldn’t wait that long to turn the wheel a little bit, so I would have had to turn the wheel within one-eighth of a second after I first saw him. Now I don’t think, apart from blinking, most people move that fast when they run into surprises, and certainly not after a long fifteen-hour day of driving. I needed something like good luck not to hit him, but there was really no room for good luck this time. I was going faster than I should have been, and I was going to hit him.
I never even got my foot off the accelerator. But here’s the thing. We simply smashed into the next lane, and it was about as hard as a bird hitting the window. I don’t think the kids in the back seat even realized there was a problem. It all happened so fast that I honestly wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been rational. But I was, and I’m telling you, all I had a chance to do was watch it happen. I really needed help, and I got it.
I know this loses a lot in translation, and if someone else was up here telling this story, I know what I would be thinking. I’d be thinking, Oh, he wasn’t really that close. He probably slowed down a little. But I’m telling you what I witnessed. I was there, and the Lord stepped in and spared my family. I’m just really thankful.
Can you see my problem and how Bill has helped? You expect me to talk about the intervention of God. But you don’t really expect God to intervene. I was trying to find something practical to say to you, because I know that most of you, like Bill, have a scientific education and are used to looking at the evidence.
As I was doing that kind of thinking, Bill comes in and tells me about a miracle. He didn’t use the word God as he told me the story, but the inference all the way through was that God provided.
I admit to feeling a little embarrassed because there I was, the pastor who was supposed to be talking about God but was trying to talk about men, and Bill, who works with all things practical, comes in and tells me about God. We need one another, don’t we? The task of preaching involves this kind of intercession, where together we hear the Word of God that comes down to us and we find it in a place in our lives where it makes a difference. And we sacrifice neither the supernatural nor the natural as we do it.
The mountain of Transfiguration is one of those places where such a connection is made. It takes the experiences of hearing God speak and seeing God do something out of the ordinary in such a convincing way that you can’t leave it behind. It goes with you and stays with you. The disciples of Jesus had been walking together for years, and Peter had just made his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus then took them to the high mountain where they saw a vision and heard the words: “This is my beloved Son . . . ; listen to him” (17:5).
How do you tell a story like that—a private experience that is pretty much unbelievable? The same way Bill told his story. You gather, and you make a public proclamation so that we in turn, when and if something similar happens to us, are able to do the same thing.
When Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured before their eyes, they saw him in a way more glorious than they had previously. The Greek word for what happened is our English word metamorphosis—“changed, transformed.” The reality on that day on that mountain was that the inside got outside, and those three men saw it. In a very real way, they were changed as well, at least in the way they understood reality from that moment on.
There are things that happen in our lives, things we witness that from a worldly perspective are simply unbelievable. But we are to be transformed—changed in our thinking and seeing and living. We are to be witnesses, just like Peter and James and John and Bill, to all we’ve seen and heard.
Adapted from A Month of Sundays by Eugene H. Peterson Copyright © 2019 by Eugene H. Peterson. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on November 5, 2019.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eugene H. Peterson, translator of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, is the beloved author of more than thirty books, including A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Run with the Horses, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, and Tell It Slant. He earned his master’s degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University. Peterson was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, where he and his wife, Jan, served for twenty-nine years. Peterson held the title of professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, from 1998 until his death in 2018.