A Glimpse of Glory - Matthew 17:1-9
“Is this Heaven?”
“This is Iowa.”
John was so impressed with the love and beauty and opportunity of the baseball diamond in the Field of Dreams that he question whether he was in heaven. His son (though he didn’t know it was his son), Ray, responded that they were in Iowa. When pressed as to whether Heaven was real, John said, “Oh yeah…It’s the place where dreams come true.” Ray looks around and his dad and his family and responds, “Maybe this is heaven.”
Later on, Ray would be confronted with loss, pain, and suffering, which should have convinced him, that while the feeling of love and joy in that scene might have been a glimpse of Heaven, it was not Heaven (for we know that when we will truly find ourselves in Heaven, we will encounter, “…the home of God is among mortals; He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”[i]
Iowa isn’t heaven. There are probably plenty of folks who live in Iowa, where in Dyersville, Iowa (the location where the baseball field was filmed) the temps this weekend are quivering between the single digits above and below zero without factoring in the wind-chill and where more snow is piling up…adding to their seasonal total of over 50 inches (when they normally average less than three feet for a season).[ii] However, like I said, what Ray and John may have experienced in that sense of overwhelming beauty and joy, may have been a true glimpse of Heaven, a glimpse of glory.
Catching a glimpse of Heaven or a glimpse of glory is a timely subject as TriStar pictures, timing it with Easter’s arrival next month, is releasing a movie adaptation of the popular book Heaven is for Real based on a little boy’s accounting of what is believed by many to be a trip into Heaven before returning to his earthly life. Colton Burpo is not alone in this type of experience. Baptist minister Don Piper shares his account of a similar experience in 90 Minutes in Heaven and neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, moved from critic to believer, offers us, Proof of Heaven. I am not going to debate the validity of any of the books—whether those folks truly went to Heaven and returned, whether they were dreaming, or whether God granted them a vision of some sort—because it really doesn’t matter. They each were blessed with a powerful experience that changed their lives, real or vision, they each were given a glimpse of glory.
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Peter, James, and John were all giving an amazing gift—an experience, a vision, an unbelievable glimpse of glory. Jesus had taken them up the mountain, many scholars for the last 1800 years have believed it to be Mount Tabor, without really explaining to them why they were going up the mountain. By this point, though, the disciples that Jesus tended to favor, had learned that when Jesus said, “Come with me,” or “Follow me,” or “Do this,” it was usually in their best interest to do what Jesus asked. It would make sense that they would—I mean if they were willing to simply walk away from their livelihood to follow Jesus, it would only make sense that they would want to go wherever and do whatever Jesus asked—they wouldn’t want to miss anything. So Jesus calls them to come with him up to the top of the mountain, and once there, they had an experience that, short of the resurrection encounters, could ever be topped. They were truly given a glimpse of glory.
Jesus’ appearance is changed right there before them. His face began to shine like the sun. His clothes became a dazzling, blinding white. As if that experience wouldn’t have been enough, Peter, James, and John witness as Jesus is joined by the greatest of God’s people to that day. Moses—the one who lead God’s people from slavery to freedom and who brought the Law from God to His people, and Elijah—the prophet of all prophets, the one who dared to challenge and then defeated those who served as prophets of the pagan god Ba’al, when he called fire down from Heaven to consume a water-drenched sacrifice; the prophet who dared confront evil to its face in the person of Queen Jezebel. Can you imagine the reaction of Peter, James, and John?
We actually don’t have to. Matthew shares with us their response, or at least Peter’s response. Peter never wants to leave from that spot. He wants to take that glimpse of glory and make it everything. Peter turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter can’t imagine anything greater than this experience. He sees Jesus in his glory and Moses and Elijah, likely as they appeared in their prime, much like Ray’s experience on that ball field as he encounters a vision of his dad as a young baseball player.
The placement of this story and Peter’s response is significant. This scene as Jesus leads them up the mountain follows right after Peter has confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus proclaiming that the Messiah must suffer at the hands of men, Peter rebuking Jesus for the thought of the Messiah suffering, and Jesus giving Peter a tongue-lashing of his own by telling Peter that he had his mind focused in the wrong place. Jesus goes on to teach the disciples that those who wish to save their lives must be willing to lose their lives and that to follow Him, means a willingness to pick up their cross and come after Him. Is it any wonder that Peter, catching this glimpse of glory, wants to stay on that mountaintop? Here with a glorified Jesus and Moses and Elijah—the pure power of God on display—there are no crosses here, no suffering here, it is all majesty and awe.
Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s call to build the dwelling places on that mountain. In fact, God the Father, cuts Peter off as Peter is talking. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” There was no affirmation of Peter’s suggestion. There was no, “that’s a good idea, but….” Peter evidently hadn’t taking the words of Jesus and the forecast of suffering to heart, so God says, “This is my Son…You are right Peter, this is the Messiah…I am pleased with Him…He’s doing what He’s supposed to be doing…Listen to him!” Then, once they came down the mountain, after a brief encounter in which Jesus casts a demon out of a child, our scene is bookended with Jesus telling the disciples once again, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” I really believe on that mountain that as they were given that glimpse of glory, God is trying to get through to the disciples, be prepared, listen to Jesus, don’t fight him on this, don’t tempt him to do otherwise, listen to Him…He is on the right path.
Yet we can sympathize with Peter. How many times have we encountered something so amazing, so beautiful, so comforting, so powerful, that we just wanted to stop everything right there and never move from that spot—especially if we had that experience after hearing some troubling news or having a difficult time, or we knew that trouble was on the horizon.
I am sure that not many of you remember your first taste of fruit baby food. I don’t. However, I firmly have to believe that it was so much better than just plain cereal. If we had our way as a baby, we would probably have insisted that this was the most wonderful thing we had ever had that we didn’t want to go back to the cereal; we would be content just eating pureed peaches for the rest of our life… “Mom, Dad, let’s build a dwelling place right here.” How many of you are glad that didn’t happen? Sure we had to move on to other foods…sure we had to endure brussel sprouts and liver…but when we finally experienced Key Lime Pie aren’t we glad we didn’t settle for an lifetime of baby food.
What about that first boyfriend or girlfriend? You know, the one you had when you finally realized that girl’s didn’t have the cooties and boys weren’t all gross. Maybe it was simply a crush…maybe it was an experience of being liked by someone other than your family members that had to like you…maybe it was the one who checked the box “I like you too,” and sent the note back by way of your best friend. How many of you wish you had decided to live right there on the elementary school playground for the rest of your lives, holding hands and swinging, and listening to all the “Suzie and Johnny sitting in the tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g”’s. How many of you are glad you didn’t settle for that glimpse of glory known as first love? Sure you had to go through break-ups and broken hearts? But now that you have been married for your true love for twenty or thirty or forty or fifty or more years or maybe your single and you look back and having run into that first love at a class reunion and seen that they haven’t matured in those thirty to sixty years, aren’t you glad that you didn’t settle for puppy love?
There are times it happens in our spiritual or faith lives. Maybe that glimpse of glory was a Sunday School class when we finally realized who Jesus really is—not just a story, but our Savior. Maybe it was at a church camp or retreat where instead of kids that bullied us around because we were different we were surrounded by a community of folks who loved us just as we were. Maybe it was during worship, when a high and holy moment truly touched us, lifting us from the depths of depression caused by financial woes or the loss of someone we loved or an illness that had come upon us. We caught that glimpse of glory and were ready to stop right there in our lives. We wanted to stay in that place, in that community, in that moment. We didn’t want to go back out into the world where we would experience more pain, more sorrow, more abuse, and even challenges to our faith. We wanted to build dwelling places…we were ready to settle for that glimpse of glory.
I always used to wonder about the last verse of the passage we read this morning, Jesus ordering the disciples to keep quiet, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” I think it is very likely that if the other disciples and all of those that were following Jesus had heard of this mountain encounter, they would have been so caught up in the wonder of that experience that they would have wanted to settle for that glimpse of glory. Those that hadn’t heard God’s command to listen to Jesus would have likely built a shrine to the experience on that mountain and never wanted to stray any further. However, Jesus knew they had to head to Jerusalem…they had to experience the betrayal…they had to experience His arrest…they had to witness the crucifixion…yet on the other side of the cross…they witnessed the resurrection. Don’t you think in seeing the power of the resurrection that they were glad they didn’t settle for that glimpse of glory on the mountaintop?
Truth be told, though, even the days of Jesus walking and talking with them after the resurrection was simply another glimpse of glory. It was a foretaste of what it will be like when He returns for good, a sampling of what it will be like when the New Jerusalem erupts in the midst of God’s new creation and we stand or fall prostrate in the very presence of God Almighty, as we are changed in the twinkling of an eye…and the glimpses give way to the Glory of God’s Kingdom.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.