Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Eyewitnesses of His Majesty” (2 Peter 1:16-18)
February 26, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
February 3, 1959 is known as “The Day the Music Died” because on that day a plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. Aboard that plane were three young up and coming music stars. J.P. Richardson, age 28—who wrote “Chantilly Lace”; Buddy Holly, age 22—who wrote “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day”; and Richie Valens, age 17—who wrote “La Bamba”—all three were suddenly gone.
The next morning a thirteen year old named Don McLean was folding his newspapers before delivering them and saw the headline about this tragedy, and years later wrote one of the greatest songs ever, “American Pie.” Most of you remember the classic opening of this song:
A long, long time ago I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for awhile
But February made me shiver with every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
So bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
Each year on the Last Sunday of Epiphany the gospel lesson is an account of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ, when Peter, James, and John were with Jesus on “the holy mountain” and caught a momentary glimpse of the glory of God manifested in Jesus Christ. Matthew tells us: “(Jesus) was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2).
Moreover, Matthew notes that Jesus was not alone, that “suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with (Jesus)”—and as he was wont to do, Peter spoke up with an idea for Jesus, “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”—but as Peter was still speaking, God the Father speaks from heaven, just as he did at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (17:3-5).
Peter wanted to stay put, but he had to move on, he had no choice, and along with John and James, Peter followed Jesus down the mountain shortly thereafter. There are times in our lives when we, like Peter, want to stay put, but we can’t, we must move on, we have no choice. Each of you has experienced this in one way or another.
In his Pulitzer-winning 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck recounts the events during the Great Depression surrounding the great migration west of thousands of families who for generations had stayed put on their land, but had to move on because they had no choice. They had to leave the “Dust Bowl” and head west to start life over again. Many of them traveled along the legendary Route 66, as Steinbeck wrote:
Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars—wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from? (Penguin Classics edition 122).
Steinbeck asks the right questions for those who have no choice but to move on: “Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?” The answer? It comes from grace, as Steinbeck continues:
And here’s a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true…and it’s beautiful. There was a family of twelve and they were forced off the land. They had no car. They built a trailer out of junk and loaded it with their possessions. They pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode in the sedan and seven on the trailer, and a dog on the trailer. They got to California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them. And that’s true…very few things would teach such faith. The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever (122).
Near the end of his life the Apostle Peter wrote a circular letter to all Christians, a letter in which he emphasizes this kind of faith that is “refired forever” because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Rather than writing a letter to a specific church like Paul did to the churches in Corinth or Philippi or Thessalonica, Peter wrote his final letter to “those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). This precious faith is not based on a myth but on actual events—and in this final letter Peter hearkens back to the transfiguration:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Peter was there. Peter saw Jesus glorified on “the holy mountain” and Peter heard the voice of God the Father from heaven. The life and ministry of Jesus was not a myth. Peter was both an eyewitness and an ear-witness of the glory of God revealed at the transfiguration.
But remember what God the Father spoke from heaven? “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” So what did Jesus say afterwards? As soon as the transfiguration was over Jesus said to Peter, James and John, “Get up and do not be afraid.”, Then he commanded them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” and then pointed to his impending passion and death, “the Son of Man is about to suffer” (Matthew 17:7, 9, and 12).
And after Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter—the same Peter who had wanted to stay put on the Mount of Transfiguration and build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—denied Jesus, not once, but three times. Jesus indeed suffered and died on a different holy mountain, Mount Calvary, where the glory of God was revealed as mercy for sinners, while Peter wept alone. For Peter, and for many others, Good Friday was “The Day the Music Died.”
Back to “American Pie” for a moment…in the final verse Don McLean articulates the hopelessness that the tragic plane crash left for those who mourned the deaths of J.P. Richardson, Buddy Holly, and Richie Valens:
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
For Peter it seemed like all hope was lost, that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost had “caught the last train for the coast”…but what Jesus had told Peter after the transfiguration proved true, for Jesus, the Son of Man, was indeed raised from the dead.
And not only that, Peter received an act of grace from the Risen Jesus. Jesus pulled alongside Peter, who felt like an abandoned wreck on the highway, and gave him a ride to begin a new chapter in his life—and Jesus fed him too.
John’s account of the gospel recounts when the Risen Jesus cooked breakfast on the beach for Peter and assured him that he was completely forgiven for denying him, and not only that, he was also completely restored as an apostle—“Feed my sheep,” Jesus gently tells Peter, “Feed my sheep…(and) follow me” (John 21:15-19). For Peter, the music had not died after all; rather, Peter could echo the psalmist who wrote, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:3, The Book of Common Prayer 640).
The gospel is not a myth, it is real. Peter was an eyewitness and an ear-witness of the glory and grace of God in Jesus Christ—not only of Jesus’ transfiguration but also of his resurrection, when once again Jesus’ face “shone like the sun.”
You see, the gospel is good news for those who want to stay put but have no choice but to move on, good news for those who feel like an abandoned wreck on the highway, good news for those who feel like the music has died. The gospel means that the levy is not dry after all.
And what is true for Peter is true for you. The gospel is “a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true…and it’s beautiful.”
And someday you will join Peter and millions of others in heaven—including J.P. Richardson, Buddy Holly, and Richie Valens—where you too will also be “eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
In the meantime, may the Holy Spirit quicken your heart by re-firing your faith and putting a new song in your mouth, a song of praise to our God.