How Did Peter Know What Elijah and Moses Looked Like?


You probably know the song, “Surely the Presence of the Lord.” It’s on page 328 in the hymnal. It’s not really a hymn in the traditional sense of the word. No, “Surely the Presence of the Lord” is a single verse, a chorus which asks to be aware of God’s presence in this place and among God’s people. Here’s how it goes:

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings.
I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

Did you see those three verbs in the second, third, and fourth lines? Feel, hear, and see are the words I want you to notice. God’s presence is something felt, heard, and seen. All of our senses are engaged when we enter into God’s presence. These emotions and responses are not like ones you feel when you’re in love, or before eating your favorite dinner and buying that new shiny thing. Those reactions are about us and our enjoyment alone. When we step into God’s presence, what we see, hear, and feel draws us into a deeper relationship with God and the whole community. Being in the presence of God is a realization that knowing God means living in fellowship with others. Why is this so important? Here’s why: we see God’s presence in the lives (or as the song says, “In the faces”) of other people. We cannot be in the presence of God without knowing, listening, seeing, sharing with each other.

This is not typically how we picture being in the presence of God. Our ideas about stumbling through the gates of heaven and ending up in God’s office have been shaped by the Bible, movies, and centuries of religious tradition. You know this story! God, whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian or Incan was thought to be distant beings that lived in faraway and unreachable places. God was always in the plural. No self-respecting civilization had only one God. Real people in real life didn’t encounter God or Gods. One met the Gods when you died. Death was the “thing” which made it possible to reach the presence of the divine.

Sometimes the Gods descended their holy mountains or appeared in a different form to stroll around town. Gods liked to check up on their people and see if all the right sacrifices were being made in the temple. When they did this, it usually happened in disguise. The Gods weren’t recognizable to the people. Not that there were “Greek God” trading cards so that people would know how to spot Zeus when they saw him. Ancient stories tell us the Gods would change their likeness, sometimes assuming the form of an animal. They didn’t want to be recognized. There was a permanent barrier between the living and the divine. It wasn’t designed to be crossed by humanity. In this worldview, people existed to please the Gods. Humans were playthings. The Gods would drop in and out, stir up a mess, date a mortal, and then head off to their sacred mountain. If you had questions about God, one could make a pilgrimage to a temple where a religious would sacrifice a bird and read the entrails. That’s a close as most people thought they would ever get to God.

Christianity is different. Here’s what our tradition says: God isn’t an adversary to humanity, God is not a trickster who’s only interested in humanity’s problems for divine pleasure, and it’s possible to be in the presence of God while you’re alive. Some people would say that’s crazy. When people have thousands of years invested in the rituals and rites of worshiping God from a distance, the idea of an up close and personal God is overwhelming. Or, if your specific faith heritage tells of a man (Moses) going up a mountain to see God and then bringing God’s presence back to the people; you might want to hear more about the time Jesus, Peter, James, and John went camping.

What do you call a trip where a group of guys take a break out of the usual routines and head up to the mountains for a night or two? To me, that’s a camping trip. That’s not how the New Testament describes the event we call the “Transfiguration.” That being said, I know a camping trip when I see one. Jesus and his three closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) head to a mountain to pray. OK, so it’s a prayer camping trip. Even better, work colleagues who share common religious values are going on a retreat. It gets better by the verse.

This story goes from zero to 60 in one verse. No sooner than the disciples arrive, it gets a little strange. Remember, these guys have seen miracles. They’re not new to Jesus asking them to live beyond the ordinary. However, this was well beyond the expected. Jesus starts to glow. He’s radiant like Lady Gaga on Oscar night. Moses and Elijah, two prophets who’ve been long dead (and I’m not sure how they would recognize in the first place, remember no pictures, trading cards for spiritual superheroes, or Google), appear out of nowhere and begin talking to Jesus.

Why would Moses and Elijah have a cosmic Powwow with Jesus? Jesus is a pretty talented guy. When he prays and needs to consult, heaven and earth are moved to get it done. They want to talk about the departure. No one wants to talk about the departure. Peter, James, and John have no idea about the departure or what that means for their lives. Yet there it is, similar to Ash Wednesday; Jesus, Elijah, and Moses set the stage for the events to come. They must be ready if what has already happened in Galilee (Jesus’ teaching and preaching) will go beyond what is going to occur in Jerusalem, at the Passover. Even Jesus plans ahead.

The three disciples, while they might not have understood everything, grasped the importance of the moment. If they were camping and spending the night outside, didn’t Elijah and Moses need shelters? The text tells us, so politely, that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. He was overwhelmed and distracted. Dead guys aren’t too much for creature comforts.

That’s when the cloud arrives. In a movie, you’d call this a mysterious mist, but that’s not it at all. The cloud is the presence of God. Surely the presence of God is in this place! God’s voice comes out of the cloud. God reiterates the same message from Jesus’ baptism. “This is my son, my chosen one, Listen to him.” Then it was over. The Cloud, Elijah, and Moses were all gone. Jesus and the three disciples were the last men standing. What happened?

God’s presence and purposes are beyond our understanding and comprehension. We may not always understand God, but we know God’s real. We can come close to God; we can hear God, we can feel God, and we can see God’s presence. Spending time in the presence of God’s will help us understand our way forward, out of the wildernesses where we’re wandering. I know one thing for sure. If we do step into God’s presence, we will be changed.

Transfiguration is more than being washed in supernatural light and heavenly laundry detergent. For us, it’s about the changes we need to make in our lives as we prepare for the Lenten Journey. The world is a harsh, polarized, and demanding place. The season of Lent and the days to follow are a way to transfigure what we’ve been doing into something healthier and holier. Why? Because we are preparing to make an audacious, world-changing, and life-altering announcement: The tomb is still empty.

Richard Lowell Bryant