Sunday, February 3, 2008

We Saw What We Saw

We Saw What We Saw

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Transfiguration Sunday, February 3, 2008
II Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-5

We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty...
... We ourselves heard.

By late in the first century of our era — that is, just about 1900 years ago — the original apostles of Jesus had all passed away. The churches they had founded had to find ways to carry the message about Christ into the future without the first-person oral testimony of those who knew him in his earthly life. The collected New Testament, as we know it, did not yet exist. There were new circumstances in the world and the stress of conflicting teaching and world events was confusing the people in the church. As situations around him threatened the life of the church that the apostle had founded, an unnamed church leader committed to writing a call to the church to remember the faith that was taught to them by Peter and other apostles. He wrote this letter in Peter’s name to tell them things that Peter had declared orally to the church. This was a well-accepted, respectable way to keep a sainted person’s words alive in a changing, preliterate, forgetful world. The passage we have before us today comes from that time. And it is good to hear it together, because in its original time, it was read to assemblies of people like this, not in the privacy of a library or home, but in gatherings for worship.

We Saw

We had been eyewitnesses to his majesty.

Probably most of us have seen the paintings we refer to as icons in Orthodox churches, like the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox churches. They are paintings of Mary and the child Jesus or the saints, and considered so precious in those churches that when the Russian Orthodox church in Sitka, Alaska caught fire and burned to the ground back in the 1970s, the people of the church raced in to rescue the icons, disregarding almost everything else in the building. Icons are paintings that are often adorned with precious metal and jewels, and they are generally of a nonrepresentational style, that is, they are not like the religious paintings of the renaissance period in Italy, with perspective and focus on the human qualities of the figures. In comparison, iconic paintings can seem rather flat, almost lifeless. Lifeless, that is, except for one aspect of them that captivates the observer. I once learned that those who paint traditional icons spend about 90% of their time working on the eyes. When you see one of these paintings, it is important to notice whose eyes in the painting are fixed on you, following you around the room. Often, when entering a darkened Orthodox church from the bright light, one of the first things we will see is the sets of the eyes in the icons that are looking at us. Icons are, in this way, windows to the soul. They are not paintings meant for a person to look at or admire, they look at us, and through us, and penetrate into our souls.

What does Peter mean when he says “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty”? He is talking about this memory from Jesus’ ministry, which we can find in Matthew’s gospel:

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white ... suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-5)

Peter knew what he had seen, but probably more important than that, he knew that they had been seen. God had them in view, God, through the eyes of Christ, saw, and heard and taught and traveled with them. Peter knew this, he would never forget it, it was sealed in his memory as one of his life’s transforming moments.

But he is talking about more than a memory. He is also reminding us that as witnesses — those who have seen — we are also those who have been seen. “We saw ... we heard” he said. And once we have seen and heard that Christ is in the world, we then have the eyes of eternity upon us as we carry the message about Christ forward.

The Morning Star

The morning star makes three appearances in the New Testament, the other two are in Revelation. The last star to appear in the heavens before the arrival of the dawn is what the Bible calls the morning star, which we know today is the planet Venus. It came to be associated with the return of Christ, the last heavenly body to appear before the full arrival of the new day, and the time of waiting until his return was compared with the long night which must pass before morning comes, announced by the morning star.

Now by the time II Peter was written, it was clear that the apostles’ expectation of Jesus’ physical return was going to be delayed by at least one generation. Today we know it has been delayed by many more than that. So this line is one of those early realizations that the coming of Christ is not necessarily a physical reappearance on the stage of history, but rather that the coming of Christ occurs in the hearts of those who love him and follow him. Every faithful act, every gesture of kindness, every decision to forego self-interest in favor of helping others is a fresh arrival of the morning star, the new day heralded by Christ’s presence in the world.

It is as if God said to those believers 1900 years ago, and now to us, “I am going to place you in a culture in which the primary task is to acquire goods and enjoy yourself as much as possible, but I don’t want you to do that, I want you to bear a cross. I want you to wait for a bus even when it doesn’t come.” And finally someone worries that maybe it isn’t coming at all, but here Peter breaks into the conversation and says, wait, I know the driver, he is coming.”

And then they remember the words spoken by Jesus, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” We aren’t sitting here today awaiting the return of Jesus so much as we are today celebrating his promise to be present among us. What a different quality human love takes on when “the morning star rises in our hearts.”

This is a nice alternative to the Valentine’s day heart which so many of us will send around to family and friends. It is not the heart that matters as much as the content of the heart. When we meet people in whose heart the morning star of Christ is rising, we know them and we know the gift they are to the world.

Men and women spoke from God

Since the time when II Peter was written, men and women have come to know the arrival of Christ, the morning star, in many ways. One published prayer I appreciate refers to this in a way we can all understand and relate to, saying “It beckons me, Lord, from the tawdriness of my everyday concerns — from a cluttered desk, a messy laundry room, unpaid bills, a car in need of repair. Thank you for hallowing such moments, and for sending a light in my darkness.”1

This passage reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon. You may remember it, it was a famous one : Lucy has her sign up offering psychiatric help for 5¢. Charlie Brown sits in front of her. The good “doctor” tells him, “Life is like a deck chair, Charlie Brown. On the great cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship to see where they’ve been. Others are at the front so they can see where they are going. Which way is your deck chair facing?”

It’s a good question. In many ways, our entire lives are spent in between times, reviewing and reliving our past, or anticipating and planning for our future. But Charlie Brown stays insistently in the present: Without hesitation Charlie Brown replies, glumly, “I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded.”

The morning star of Christ beckons us away from our lives cluttered with anchors from the past and anxieties about the future to focus on the presence of Christ among us now. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”2

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 John Killinger, A Sense of His Presence, Doubleday, 1977, p. 70.
2 Matthew 28:20.