Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Divine Brush with Greatness” (Matthew 17:1-9)
February 23, 2020
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a high school student back in the Dark Ages I would often stay up to watch Late Night with David Letterman, the NBC classic that aired weeknights from 12:30 to 1:30 AM.  My mom was concerned about what kind of influence he was, but was there a better influence for neurotic teenagers in the 1980’s than David Letterman?  I think not.  Every Thursday two of my best friends and I would watch it and then discuss it during Friday lunch the next day, unable to contain our laughter in midst of the chips and chocolate milk.  One of our favorite recurring segments on Late Night with David Letterman was “Brushes with Greatness” in which audience members would share true stories about unexpected encounters with celebrities.

Perhaps some of you have a personal brush with greatness, an unexpected encounter with a celebrity.  I had a one in 1992.  I was on a flight from Dallas to Washington D.C. and sitting across the aisle was none other than retired Washington Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen.  I eavesdropped on the entire flight as he shared story after story with those seated next to him.  After the flight Sonny was standing at baggage claim in a trench coat, enjoying a big cigar (if you are Sonny Jurgensen in Washington D.C. you can smoke a cigar anywhere you want).  I told him I was a big fan and it was an honor to meet him and he spoke with me for a few minutes in his thick North Carolina accent, one of the nicest and funniest people ever—a great moment for a lifelong Redskins fan.

Some people do not realize when they have a brush with greatness.  A high school student I knew in Virginia was on a flight to Hawaii for a band competition the same weekend as the NFL Pro Bowl and she sat next to “some really tall guy—I think he was a football player or something.”  After listening to her description I pulled up an online photo of who I thought it might be and she nodded, “Oh yeah that was him.”  It was none other than legendary quarterback Peyton Manning.  She had sat next to him from California to Hawaii with no clue at all who he was.

The gospel passage for this last Sunday of Epiphany, as it is every year, is an account of Jesus’ Transfiguration, when the disciples Peter, James and John had a brush with greatness.  For about three years they had been following Jesus and yet in spite of all Jesus’ preaching and teaching and miracles, in spite of Peter confessing Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) in reality they still had no clue who Jesus actually was, as Matthew recounts:

Six days later, 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 there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to 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.”  While he was still speaking, 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!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus alone (Matthew 17:1-9).

On the Mount of Transfiguration Peter, James and John had a brush with greatness unlike any other—not only with Jesus the Son of God but also two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, who personally represent the Law and the Prophets (the entire Old Testament) respectively.  In their earthly lives both Moses and Elijah had similarly encountered God on a mountaintop.  Moses had been summoned by the Lord, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment” and so as scripture tells us, “Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud” (Exodus 24:12; 15-16).  Moses encountered God on the mountaintop, complete with the overshadowing of a bright cloud.

Many centuries later the great prophet Elijah was also summoned by the Lord, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Scripture continues:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Both Moses and Elijah had been summoned by God to meet on a mountaintop, and both experienced a divine brush with greatness.  And many centuries later this same God in Jesus Christ had summoned Peter, James and John to a mountaintop where they too experienced a divine brush with greatness.  Some people dismiss all this as make believe or a myth or a legend—but it’s true, all of it.

A couple weeks ago I went with some friends to Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios, where we visited the section of the park “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.”  Having been an avid fan of Star Wars most of my life, I was in awe.  Surrounded by throngs of fellow nerdy Stars Wars fans, many sporting t-shirts and other gear, I thought, “These are my people.”  The recently opened ride, “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance” is epic on every level.  We also rode “Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run”, in which I actually got to copilot the Millennium Falcon, my favorite Star Wars spacecraft, including the famous “jump to hyperspace”—it was surreal.

In Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, there is a scene in which the young heroes Rey and Finn meet the legendary Han Solo and Chewbacca.  Rey exclaims, “This is the Millennium Falcon!  You’re Han Solo!”  Later Han Solo vulnerably reveals to them his past doubt about the supernatural:  “I used to wonder about that myself, I thought it was a bunch of mumbo jumbo—a magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the like.”  Then there is a flashback to a scene from the first Stars Wars film when a young Han Solo was debunking the Force to an equally young Luke Skywalker, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything.  No mystical energy field controls my destiny.”  Then the elderly Han Solo turns and looks directly at Rey and Finn and says, “The crazy thing is, it’s true, all of it—the Force, the Jedi—it’s all true.”

And I have to wonder if when Peter and James and John saw Jesus transfigured, saw Jesus’ face shine like the sun, saw Moses and Elijah, heard God the Father speak out of the overshadowing cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” that whatever doubt they had about whether Moses and Elijah ever really existed, whatever doubt they had about Jesus being the Son of God, was all itself transfigured into “The crazy thing is, it’s true, all of it.”

Peter, James and John were so overwhelmed by this experience they did what any of us would have done, “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”  And then Jesus—gentle as always, patient as always, compassionate as always—touched them and reassured them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, Moses was gone, Elijah was gone, the cloud was gone, and “they saw no one except Jesus alone.”

Do you remember the last thing God the Father spoke out of the cloud a moment before?  “Listen to him”…what did Jesus then tell the disciples?  “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead…also, the Son of Man is about to suffer” (Matthew 17:9, 12).  Later in Galilee Jesus again said, “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” (Matthew 17:22-23).  And a short time after that, as Jesus was leading his disciples to Jerusalem, he reiterated, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 20:18-19).

In the last letter he wrote the Apostle Peter emphasized that when it came to what he saw on the Mount of Transfiguration, “it’s true, all of it”:

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, the Beloved, with him 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).

Shortly after writing those words Peter was himself crucified, albeit upside down, for preaching the gospel of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ, whom he had briefly glimpsed in all his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Although he knew it would cost him his life and result in an unimaginably painful death, Peter refused to dismiss what he had seen and heard as “cleverly devised myths” because he had personally experienced a divine brush with greatness, because he knew “it’s true, all of it.”

Not long afterwards Jesus was transfigured Jesus underwent everything he had foretold to his disciples—he was betrayed and handed over to sinners and beaten and mocked.  And on Good Friday he ascended a different mountain, Calvary, where God revealed his glory in Jesus Christ in a different way, by having mercy on a sinful world, because as we pray in The Book of Common Prayer, “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy” (234).

This time Jesus’ sacred face that had “shone like the sun” on the Mount of Transfiguration was bruised and battered and drenched with blood and sweat and tears.  This time Jesus’ “dazzling white clothes” from the Mount of Transfiguration were gone.  This time instead of a voice from heaven declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved” was Jesus’ cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me—followed minutes later by his final breath, then followed by “a sound of sheer silence”, the unmistakable presence of our forgiving God.

On Mount Calvary Jesus Christ the Son of God fulfilled the entire Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets personified by Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration.  On Mount Calvary Jesus Christ the Son of God revealed the glory of God not just to Peter, James, and John but to the whole world—the glory of the One “whose property is always to have mercy” (BCP 337).

And it was only then that some of those at the foot of the cross realized that indeed they had just experienced a divine brush with greatness because after Jesus died they proclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54).

Today may the Holy Spirit remind you that you too are in the presence of the Risen Son of God, and quicken your heart anew with a divine brush with greatness.