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 himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 23, 2020) on Matthew 17:1-9. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
It’s hard to talk about today’s story - the Transfiguration of Jesus - without including all the verses that come before it. So that’s what I’m going to try to do now; I’m going to paraphrase what happened in Matthew before Jesus, Peter, James, and John went up the mountain. And to start off, we’re about 12 chapters further into Jesus’ story than we were last week. Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee is almost over. But before he took his final steps towards the city of Jerusalem, Jesus visited the city of Caesarea Philippi. Now Caesarea Philippi was the political, religious, and economic center of the entire area and it was built at the base of a mountain covered in religious shrines and temples. For centuries, people gathered there to worship non-Jewish gods and goddesses. Yet during Jesus’ lifetime, something new showed up and there were suddenly statues honoring and celebrating the Roman Emperors. By this point, the Roman Emperors were declaring themselves to be either gods or the sons of gods. And they claimed they had a kind of divine permission to make the entire world their own. In the city of Caesarea Philippi, the streets were filled with Roman soldiers and their allies; and the marketplaces were covered in images declaring Rome’s greatness at the expense of everyone else. Caesarea Philippi was a place that tried to convince you that it was Rome that gave your life meaning and purpose. And so Jesus brought his disciples there. And while standing in the shadow of a mountain filled with statues dedicated to the Roman Emperor, Jesus asked those who followed him: “who do you say that I am?” Peter, even though he could literally see the political, economic, and religious might of the Roman Empire in front of him - quickly said: “Jesus, you’re the Messiah; you’re true center of our world.” Jesus, in response to Peter’s confession, started sharing more of his story. He told them of his decision to head to Jerusalem and how, instead of overthrowing the Roman Empire, he would be arrested and killed. This wasn’t how Peter thought the story of the Messiah should turn out - so Peter challenged Jesus’ own words. And in a sudden shift, Jesus seemed to turn on Peter. He called Peter Satan - and said he was stumbling block for Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus then turned to all his disciples, telling them that they needed to deny themselves, take up their cross, and be ready to follow him.
And that, according to Matthew, is the last sort of detail we get about what Jesus was upto until he and his friends go up a mountain. For six days, we hear nothing about the direction Jesus walked in or if he visited any other towns. We have no idea if Jesus cured anyone during this break or if took some me-time and maybe visited a spa or saw a show. For six whole days, we have nothing in the story that can distract us from the twist and turns that came right before. And instead we can imagine the disciples replaying this conversation they had with Jesus over and over again in their head. They tried to make sense of Peter’s confession, Peter as Satan, and this cross that seemed to involve them all. They had heard Jesus confirm that he was exactly who they hoped he was. And yet his words also left them confused, worried, and full of doubts.
So after six days, Jesus took Peter, John, and James up a mountain. And as they climbed, the three disciples carried all of their stuff with them. Every doubt they had about Jesus; every question about their choices in their life; and this conversation they had repeated in their minds over and over again - all of that went up that mountain with them. Jesus didn’t invite his most perfect followers to journey with him up the mountain. Rather, he took the doubters; the ones with questions; the ones who, even after following Jesus for some time, still weren’t exactly sure what their faith and this Jesus was all about. Jesus, in other words, basically invited us to go up that mountain with him. Because we, like Peter, James, and John also doubt; and worry; and sometimes wonder if this Jesus thing matters for us as much as it should. We, like them, still find ourselves living through moments where we don’t see Jesus as clearly as we should. And in periods of our life that last much longer than six days, we’re not sure exactly what we should believe. We find times in our lives where every prayer we utter, every worship service we attend, and every piece of bread or drink we share at the Lord’s table feels - a little bit too normal - and no where near divine. God, for us, starts feeling too strange or too mundane; too over-the-top and unrealistic or maybe too down-to-earth and really small. God stops feeling like God. And we find ourselves going up the mountains of our lives not really sure why we’re going up at all.
Yet it’s then, right before the disciples got to the top of the mountain, that Jesus transfigured. His face glowed brighter than the sun and his clothes turned white. Suddenly two others appeared with him and the disciples instinctively knew that Moses, the one who received the law on another mountain top, and Elijah, the great prophet, was there with them. Peter, being Peter, interrupted this scene with his words - and so God spoke. And the disciples fell to the ground, afraid. Matthew doesn’t tell us exactly what they were afraid of - but we can fill in the details ourselves. The disciples, In the words of Joseph Harvard III, “had their eyes opened, and they saw a new reality. It was revealed to them that the way of Jesus was God’s way in the world.” Yet their eyes saw more than just Jesus. They also, I think, came to realize a truth about themselves. Jesus is. They really were disciples who doubt, who wonder, who get confused, and they realized they’re the ones who do not get Jesus right. And so they fell to the ground, covering their faces and their eyes, because they saw the truth about Jesus collide with the truth they knew about themselves.
Yet before they could uncover their eyes and see Jesus looking like his own unshiny self - Jesus first came to them. He came to those who were afraid; to the ones who doubted; to those who didn’t know what to do with this Son of God. Jesus came to them first, and with a gentle touch and world, invited them to “Get up and do not be afraid.” These words were not meant to be harsh or to be a command for the disciples to not feel what they were truly feeling. Rather, it was a word of comfort that Jesus knows we are exactly who we are - right now. Jesus knows we doubt and that we’re sometimes confused. He knows we feel fear and that our fear will sometimes block us from seeing the truth that’s around us. Jesus knows we are exactly who we are - yet he also knows whose we are too. We are already in a relationship with him. And he comes to us not because we are perfect but because his love for us is. He reaches out to us - in baptism, in communion, in our gathering together for worship, and in our prayers - and he continues to remind us that nothing can separate us from God’s steadfast love. Our doubts; our fears; our confusion; and even our lack of an unwavering faith - will not stop Jesus from coming to us. Instead, his commitment to us lets us do a hard thing and that’s follow him. We get to get up, to head down the mountain into our very ordinary lives, and to trust that Jesus is with us even when we are afraid. We follow because we choose that love, not fear, will be at the center of our lives. And Jesus, in our journey on mountains and through valleys, promises he will never let us go.
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