Matthew 17:1-9

The Preview

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Matthew 17:1-9

The Preview

By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Growing up in Paragould, I, along with all my peers, spent a lot of time at the old Capitol Theater, located on the corner of Emerson and 2nd Streets. But never on Sundays, of course! Unlike the multiplexes of today, the Capitol had only one screen. However, a new movie came to town every weekend. Those of you with at least a bit of gray in your hair, you remember, don’t you? It was quite a cultural event for the new movie to come to town.

The price went up when you turned twelve years of age, and because I gained my height early I had to take my birth certificate with me to prove that I could get in for the lower price of 25 cents instead of the required 60 cents for the older crowd. I still remember the time I forgot to take it, and with a long line of very impatient people behind me, kept trying to convince the fellow in the ticket booth that I was still eleven years old. I’m sure he never believed me, but I wasn’t going to give in for several reasons. First of all, like my mama, I’m quite stubborn. And besides, I was right and he was wrong, and I didn’t have enough money to pay the higher price and get the required popcorn and Coke.

There were the Saturday afternoon matinees where I learned to love the old black-and-white westerns starring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. As I got a little older, I became a John Wayne fan, and still recall the long line to get in for the premiere of The Sons of Katie Elder, starring the Duke, Dean Martin, and Earl Holliman. I remember meeting my eighth-grade girlfriend for James Bond’s Dr. No. My racial consciousness was raised when I saw Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night. (“They call me Mr. Tibbs.”)

As I said, I spent a lot of time at the old Capitol Theater.

But the best part of going to the movies, the part we didn’t dare be late to miss, was the previews of upcoming attractions. Because a new movie came to town every week, we were always excited to see what was coming next. The previews provided just enough of the story line to whet our appetites, for they gave us a window into what would be coming to town the next week.

The story of the transfiguration of Christ is the biblical equivalent of Friday night at the Capitol Theater. It is a preview of what it would be for Christ in the resurrection. Jesus’ face shines like the sun, Matthew tells us, and his clothes become dazzling white. Jesus is glorified right before the very eyes of Peter, James, and John as he communes with Moses and Elijah.

Previews, unfortunately, don’t last long by their very nature. If they did, they wouldn’t be called “previews.” They would be full-length movies. But then again, this is one of the Bible’s true mountaintop experiences, and as we all know, mountaintop experiences don’t last very long. Every once in awhile a moment comes along that we wish we could freeze for all eternity. It’s the kind of experience that reaches down into the marrow of our bones and touches us with a special feeling. We wish it would last forever, but it doesn’t.

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Imagine how the three disciples must have felt. They are witnessing something that almost can’t be described. They are in the presence of their Master as he visits with Moses and Elijah, who have come back to life. No wonder Peter wants to build three tents for them so they can perpetuate the experience.

Of course, this story raises questions, and my guess is that you’ve always been a bit puzzled by it. For one thing, we simply don’t know what to do with it. For example, how does Peter know that Jesus is talking with Elijah and Moses? Are they wearing name tags? I doubt he had seen their photographs in the encyclopedia. How does Peter know? And where’s he going to get the tents? Did they carry them around with them, or was there a sporting goods store nearby?

But that’s not the point, is it? To understand at least something of the point you have to consider this story in its context. Just prior to it, Peter has gotten into some big-time trouble with Jesus. His master has told the disciples of what will happen in Jerusalem, that he will be tried, will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, will be killed, and on the third day will be raised again. And how does Peter react? He rebukes Jesus and tells him it will never happen to him. For his effort, Jesus calls him Satan and lets Peter know he is not a Rock upon which the church will be built but a stumbling block, an obstacle to the very will of God.

It is right after this that the transfiguration occurs. Notice Peter’s response. Does he turn to James and John and say, “Look fellas, the last time I spoke to Jesus he took my head off. Why don’t you take the lead on this one?” No, he doesn’t want to give up his position as the spokesman for the disciples, but he’s not exactly full of bravado either. For once, Peter doesn’t come across as John Wayne.

I can almost see him ducking his head as he says, “Uh, Lord, uh, it is good for us to be here; uh, if you wish… now you let me know if you think this is a good idea, or a bad one of course, but, uh, well, just let me run this one by you… What do you think about my setting up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah?”

And Matthew says, “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’”

Peter has done it again, hasn’t he? Every time, it seems, that he opens his mouth he’s either being rebuked or interrupted. And if you think about it, being interrupted is a form of rebuke. Maybe it’s a good thing that Peter ducked his head.

According to Matthew’s gospel, the disciples have heard this Voice before. It’s nothing new. At Jesus’ baptism they heard it. In fact, the liturgical church calls this season of the year Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “to show forth” or “manifest.” It begins with Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River and concludes with the story of the transfiguration. At both times and in both places the Voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” At both the baptism and the transfiguration, God manifests himself in a unique way and speaks from heaven. And Peter, James, and John have been there both times to hear what God has to say.

Have they listened? Between baptism and transfiguration, I mean, have they really listened? Of course not. The disciples of Jesus still don’t have a clue as what this is all about. So God, in his infinite wisdom and patience, says to them again, “Listen to him!”

Robert Fulghum, the author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, tells about a woman who was so stressed she went to see a psychiatrist. Near the end of the session, he wrote out a prescription and handed it to her. Rather than providing for medication, he gave her some instructions. “Spend one hour on Sunday watching the sunrise while walking in a cemetery.”

She didn’t want to do it. Who would? But she did, for she was desperate to find help for what was ailing her. The next Sunday morning, as the sun came up, she stood in the cemetery listening to the birds and watching the world come alive all around her. And she found herself getting in touch with her life again. There’s nothing like a cemetery to give a person perspective. And it doesn’t take a long time either.

The best and most meaningful experiences of life do not last very long. Think about it…

Can you recall that moment when Jesus came into your heart? Whether it was a private moment or very public, you knew instantly and instinctively that life would never again be the same. But it was just a flash, wasn’t it? Just a blink of the eye, and God made his presence known to you in a way you’d never know it before. And you knew what had happened. You just knew. You couldn’t quite explain it, perhaps, but you knew. That moment became a preview of the journey of faith that has brought you to this moment in life.

If a wedding is a good one, it doesn’t last very long. You have the pictures, perhaps, but it’s still a blur. What is a wedding? It’s the preview of the marriage that still finds its significance every day as husband and wife spend time together and share their thoughts and experiences in life. What gives purpose to the wedding is the good and strong marriage that follows, the journey of day-to-day living that enables two people to grow together.

Burial services are brief. But as you gather around the grave of your loved one or friend, you know the next tomb could be reserved for you. So you reflect on the person’s life, but you can’t help but think of your own. Are you giving yourself to the spiritual realities that point beyond the grave?

It doesn’t take long for these experiences to happen… coming to know Christ, getting married, attending a burial. Why are they brief? Because they are previews of what is yet to come.

Occasionally, you will receive an epiphany, just like the name of the Christian season that ends today. Epiphany is a term found almost exclusively in the religious domain. Again, it speaks of the appearance or manifestation of God, and describes those times when God comes to us in a unique and powerful way. Such moments don’t last very long, do they?

But if we will allow these brief experiences, these previews of the life in God that is to come, to teach us what life now is all about, we will listen and not talk. We will take in the presence of God and let it soak down into our soul. And life as we know it will never again be the same.

How do we do that? How do we listen? Well, in order to preview what is to come, it is good to consider what has already happened. That, of course, brings us to the Lord’s Table. When it happened, when Jesus broke the bread and offered the cup, it was a preview of his redemptive and atoning death on the cross. For us, it is a backward look. For Jesus and his disciples, it was a preview of what was yet to occur.

It didn’t last very long, the breaking of the bread and the drinking from the cup, but we still commemorate it, don’t we? Why? Because it points to that which is eternal. Epiphanies are like that. They may not last long, but their significance remains forever. What we are about to do here today at the Lord’s Table is a preview of our eternity as well. So as you lift the bread and the cup to your lips, know that in doing so you are previewing the life to come, life in Christ and life in his kingdom.

May our prayer be that it will lend significance to what we do in these precious few moments.

Lord, be in the bread and the cup, that in our eating and drinking we might see a preview of the life to come. In Jesus’ precious name we pray, Amen.

— Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.