The Transfiguration of “Lightnin’ Bugs”

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The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A (Transfiguration)
Exodus: 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
March 2, 2014

Listen while you read:

I loved those childhood Summer nights back in Arkansas.  We would go to ballgames at the local park, and afterward, sometimes, we would stay to play on the field.  The coaches would turn the lights off, and we would run and play by the light of the moon and stars.

The nights would get cooler as we ran and played our normal childhood games, but, sometimes, we would see them. On some nights, a few might appear toward the edge of the field and work their way over. We loved when they showed up.  We would run over to them, wanting to see them up close. They were small and hard to see at night, but we would focus our eyes to see where they were. There, after our eyes had settled into the darkness around us, we were drawn to them—surprised—each time their lights blinked on, first one, then a few. On lucky nights, we would suddenly find ourselves surrounded by their miraculous glow, as we stood still and watched the lightening bugs swirl all around us. On lucky nights, we would experience magic…

People throughout time have sought after Divine experiences. There seems to be, within us, this pull, this urge, this yearning, to experience the Divine—to be in the presence of the Holy, of the Something More.

The Greeks would go to the Temple at Delphi, where the oracle would enter her trance and share insights that the people believed were messages from the gods.

The Maya believed that great pools were doorways into the Spirit Realm—as did the Celtic people, who placed wonderful offerings into the pools which we still discover today in the bogs.

Countless cultures have had their particular version of the shaman, or the priest, the one who seems to stand in the middle of the Divine and the community—bringing messages of one type or another.

There is, within us this yearning to experience the Presence, to behold what Rudolf Otto called that mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the mysterious and tremendous mystery.

For Peter, James and John, it just snuck up on them. I picture them in my own imagination, as Jesus comes up to them and asks, “Feel like taking a walk with me?”

“Sure,” Peter says.  “Why not?”

“Great,” Jesus says.  “Let’s grab James and John and see if they want to go.”

And, off they go, as Jesus leads them up what the text calls “a high mountain.”

And, then it just happens. No warning. No opening prayer. Jesus didn’t stand and raise his hands and say “The Lord be with you.” They didn’t respond, “And also with you.” There was no preparation at all. It just happened. Right then and there, the text says, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

What must have Peter and James and John thought at that moment?!

And, then there was more!

“Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”

What.  Is. Going. On!

What would you have done? What would you have said? Something that wouldn’t be polite on Sunday morning?! I can think of a few choice words that might have come across my lips!

What. Is. Going. On!  What do we do? What do we say? Is anyone else seeing this? Is this real?

Peter says what I think is so honest. “Lord, it is good that we are here with you. I will make three dwellings: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Yes. That seems good.  That’s reasonable.  That’s what we need to do, right?  Let’s organize it. Yes. Oh, I want this to stay this way. Don’t you? Yes. Let’s do this: let’s get our minds around this. We need to study it. We’re going to need more time. Others are going to want to know what happened here, and we have to be able to show them something.

And then it happened again.  Something was happening:  where did this cloud come from? This brightness! I can’t see! My eyes! What’s that sound? Who is saying that?? What?  Yes…your beloved Son…you’re pleased… Why is all the hair on the back of my neck standing up? Everything is all warm and…..the light……What are we going to do?

And then it was over. Just like that. The light turned off. It was dark again. Back to normal.

Jesus walks over and says what Jesus and the angels always say when God has knocked someone’s socks off:  “Be not afraid.”  Yeah, right.  Too late for that!

And, when Peter, James and John open their eyes, they see……just Jesus.  Standing there. Normal.

What just happened? And Jesus says what must be the most sensible thing at that moment: “Best not to tell anybody about this, don’t you think?”

Yes…that’s a good idea. How could we ever describe this anyway…what happened to us?  What would we say?

We would always try to catch the lightening bugs. We would find paper cups that were lying around and work to scoop the little light givers up and put them in our cup. We would hold our hands over the cup on the ride home, until we could put them into mason jars with small holes poked in the top. And, we would put grass in the bottom of the jar, because, well, lightening bugs must like grass. We wanted to hold on to the light, take it home, show our friends and family, watch them fly around while we went to sleep. We wanted the magic close at hand.

But, it never really failed that the next day we would wake up and find them….not blinking anymore. Some of them weren’t moving so much, and others weren’t moving at all. It was different. Why wasn’t the light shining?

I don’t know how to define what transfiguration means. I don’t know how to define what it means that Jesus metamorphed—was transmorgaphied—right there in front of Peter, James and John’s eyes. I don’t know how to define that they beheld God’s glory. I don’t know how to define that.  But I know when it’s happened in my life, and I know that you’re all thinking of moments in your life that fit the bill quite nicely too.

Sometimes it’s best not to try to overly define things, just to be there and let them happen.  Be grateful when they sneak up on us.

It’s interesting: the word used in the Exodus text today to describe what Moses saw when he, too, experienced the glory of the Lord revealed on a mountaintop, that word means, of all things, heaviness. Moses was surrounded by something that the Hebrew ancients, the writers who recorded that experience, could only describe as…heaviness.  There was a heaviness that descended upon him, a bright cloud of light….a Presence…

It got heavy on top of the mountain.

It got real.

And Moses, and Peter, and James and John were forever changed by that brush with heaviness.

We are changed in those heavy moments as well…those times when we find our eyes suddenly squinting from a light that comes from somewhere. Or, when we suddenly get a glimpse of what must be nothing less than the Divine Presence—when we know that it is real. That God is real. That Love is real. That we are sometimes given glimpses of grace in ways we could never have imagined. That we are, somehow, for some reason, called to share in that Divine Life….that, we are invited to be transformed into the very likeness of Christ!  WE!


She was six years old.  We went back to the main campus at Sewanee to print out a paper for my doctorate classes. I was in a hurry to get back to our apartment to work on things. But, she had other plans. I relented, and, as Lisa and I walked hand in hand, we looked across the lawn by the chapel and saw our daughter running and dancing with lightening bugs.

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