This week's sermon is focused on the Gospel text for the week, Matthew 17:1-9, which can be found here.
Eight weeks. That has been the length of our journey through Epiphany this year. However you’re counting—eight weeks, two months, fifty-six days—it comes out the same. During that time we have traveled from Jesus’ baptism through the calling of the disciples to the Sermon on the Mount, where we are given ironic sayings like “Blessed are you who mourn or are poor…” and difficult ones like “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world…you must be perfect, just as God in heaven is perfect.” We are told that Jesus comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that if we are holding a grudge against someone we are to drop everything—including what we may be bringing to worship—and go reconcile with that person before we continue on as if nothing is wrong. We are told there is not a way to manipulate the law to our own desires, but that we are to look at the law as a gift to be listened to in word as well as spirit.
Where is all of this going?
The short answer is to a mountain. In our liturgical year, this season of Epiphany closes with dazzling light on a mountaintop. Jesus goes up this mountain with three disciples—Peter, James, and John—and suddenly is transfigured, transformed, metamorphed, right before them. There is nowhere else to look but at Jesus with his face shining like the sun.
How would one respond to such a sight? There’s no good English word, really, to describe it. What about Hebrew? Hallelujah—praise God.
We aren’t expected to just magically know that this all happened, either. It’s no mistake that Peter, James, and John are there with Jesus—since they have actually been present, they can now stand as witnesses to what has happened and who they have seen Jesus revealed to truly be. If that’s not enough, we have two more of even higher repute for you—Moses and Elijah. The bearer of the stone tablets of the Law that Jesus is sent to uphold and the prophet God uses to denounce Baal are standing there as well.
I may be a little overly judgmental, but at this point in the story I get a little mad at Peter, but at the same time I definitely understand where he may be coming from. I get a little mad at him because here we have Moses and Elijah and Jesus talking to one another.
Do we get to hear what they have to say?
Peter starts talking instead of listening to what they’re saying. Ugh. Okay, I know I sound like a whiny little kid who doesn’t get their way, but really. Is Peter so flustered that he just starts talking and thinking about what he could do to normalize the situation? Maybe. This is something that’s way out of any of our leagues, and in situations that are beyond our control or comprehension, we can sometimes try to grasp a bit of reality, take an action, or just start chatting away in our nervousness.
Peter suggests they stay on the mountain—they’ll make tents for the honored heavenly witnesses and for Jesus. It is good the disciples are there because they can do that mundane task. Peter totally misses the point.
As if in confirmation that there is something else we should be focusing on, a Voice interrupts Peter. This is not just any voice—this Voice is the one that speaks through the clouds, that talks to Moses on the mountain, that says at Jesus’ baptism “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And here again—as if we need further confirmation of who Jesus is—the Voice says it again, confirming Jesus’ identity the same as it did at baptism.
Something is added here, too. “Listen to him.” Listen to him—Jesus’ identity as a teacher and authority is cemented here in the presence of five witnesses—three disciples and two prophets. What does Jesus say? Well, we’ve been talking about that for eight weeks—those ironic truths and difficult commandments.
What will Jesus say now?
The disciples fall down in fear—fear exactly compared to the fear of the soldiers as the earth shook on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. They look up after this wonderful, beautiful, and terrifying ordeal and see Jesus—only Jesus—who remains with them after their hearts give way to fear.
And then…Jesus speaks. The first thing that Jesus says after the Voice of God says “listen to him” is recorded in this next verse. Jesus says “Get up, do not be afraid” and they walk back down the mountain—back to the people and the fate that Jesus and his disciples know awaits him.
Jesus speaks one more time before our reading for today is over—he says the disciples are not to tell anyone of this until the Son of Man has been raised. We could go down the road of whys and what ifs… Why not tell people? What if the world had known? Would Jesus have been crucified? What kind of world would we have now? Is that even why Jesus asked them this? Fortunately, we don’t have to answer such questions. We can look at what Jesus did say here, though, and realize that he knew this transfiguration wasn’t the end of the story. The climax was yet to come—and it’s not the crucifixion for those of you who are guessing. Look again at what Jesus says—not until the Son of Man has been killed but until the Son has been raised. After the dazzlingly brilliant transfiguration, the witness of Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and the Voice from heaven, we are told that there is still more than even this.
And as we move forward, through Lent, as we face our mortality, our sinful nature, and finally remember the humiliation of the slandering and death of Jesus, we are given this moment to hold on to—this last Hallelujah until Easter. Our story weaves into this one. We know that—like the disciples—we cannot stay on the mountain or in the church building forever. It just won’t work. Eventually we have to leave if our lives are going to be lived and we listen to Jesus to learn how to live them well. It’s not easy sometimes—we have to face harsh truths and realities we would sometimes rather ignore. But we can remember this story and this moment even as we face them. We can remember that Jesus doesn’t leave when things get scary.
This is who we get to follow.
This person, this man, who is transfigured on a mountain, speaks with ancient prophets, shines like the sun, and is affirmed by God’s very voice—
This person, who says get up, there is more yet to do, says do not be afraid, reassures with a gentle touch, and is there when fear seems to rule the world—
This person, who comes down from the mountain, returns to the people, returns to us, faces the certainty of death with resolve and compassion—
This is who we get to follow. His name is Jesus. Hallelujah.