MATTHEW 17:1-9 AND 2 PETER 1:16-18
There are some moments in our faith that take us into the unknown, into the unfamiliar, into the transcendent. Moments that are so holy and unexplainable that all we can do is stand in open-mouthed awe and wonder. When Moses encounters the burning bush that never burns up in the wilderness of Mt. Horeb – it is such a moment. When Elijah encounters God outside of a cave on the same mountain – not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the stillness – it is such a moment. And in the shining presence of Jesus, dazzlingly bright there on the mountain – it is such a moment. Take off your shoes and worship, friends, for our Lord, Jesus Christ, the light of the world is among us and it is so very holy.
In planning for today’s message, it was very tempting to read this passage and just sit down, allowing us to absorb the glory of it, and to ponder the holiness. How do you explain this encounter or elaborate on something like this, it goes beyond mere words? Barbara Brown Taylor describes it as, the “luminous story of a mystical encounter between God, God’s Beloved, those at the center of the story and those who watch (including us).” Let’s hear it again. Only this time I want you to place yourself inside the scene. Imagine that you are there on the mountain. That you have plodded up the side of the mountain alongside Jesus and the others – over rocks, around bushes, sweating, maybe pausing occasionally to enjoy the view. By the time you reach the top all of you are hot and tired and sweaty, your clothes are dusty and your feet are dirty (all of you – including Jesus). What do you see? Where are you standing? What do you hear, smell, feel? Perhaps you will choose to imagine you are Peter in this scene – anxious for action, flabbergasted by what you see, reacting (as usual). Or James (one of the sons of thunder) unable to fully comprehend what you are seeing, or John, the other one called “son of thunder,” who possibly wrote the book of John, where Jesus is called “the light of all people.” Maybe this is the event that inspires you to write those words. As you listen, close your eyes and picture yourself there that day. Read again:
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.” (Matthew 17:1-9)
The earliest Christians who heard this, would have had Old Testament stories in mind. They would have been reminded of Moses being invited by God up onto the mountain to wait to be given the stone tablets. They would have heard of the cloud enveloping the mountain and of the times that Moses descended the mountain with his face glowing. None of this could be explained, only noticed, imagined, marveled at.
And here in Matthew we read that Jesus is “transfigured” before them. This word, this Greek word is the same as that used to signify metamorphosis. What do we think of when we hear that word? Don’t we think of tadpoles turning into frogs? Or caterpillars changing into butterflies? But something else is happening here. This isn’t so much a metamorphosis or a transfiguration as it is a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature. Fully human, yet fully God. The disciples who went up the mountain with him would have seen his fully human side day in and day out – the part that laughed at their bad jokes, that sat at the dinner table with them, that slept and maybe even snored. Here is someone they thought they knew really well, standing in front of them shining with light, face like the sun, clothes dazzling white. God’s glory. What if what they saw on the mountain that day was not so much a transfiguration or metamorphosis, but what if instead, it was a revelation – a glimpse of the divine, of the Christ, the fully God. What if they had seen, really seen Jesus the Christ in his fullness? How he appeared before humbling himself to be clothed in human likeness. I can’t even imagine, can you, what that must have been like. “His face shone like the sun and clothes became dazzling white.” We know what that is like don’t we? Living in Florida we know how dazzling it is when you step outside on a sunny, summer day – you’ve got to put your sunglasses on. This was brighter than the brightest Florida day.
Then it is Jesus and Moses and Elijah talking together. These incredible three having a conversation. What do you think they were talking about? (pause) We really don’t know. But I have often wondered if they were offering wisdom and encouragement for the next part of Jesus’ earthly mission, if they were helping him prepare in some way for his coming journey to Jerusalem and the cross. All we can do is wonder, we aren’t told what they talked about.
Then, Jesus’ identity is repeated and underscored, as the very bright cloud overshadows the group. This great, bright cloud is similar to how God is represented elsewhere – it is the “Shekinah” or visible glory of God, Then a voice is heard – do we have any doubt about whose voice it is? It is God speaking, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Listen to him!
Aside from all of the awe and glory, these three words are perhaps the most important of the entire passage. Listen to him! When we listen, what do we hear him saying? Well, we just spent five weeks listening to what Jesus said in the part of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes. When we listen we hear Jesus say, “don’t be afraid.” “Come follow me.” When we listen we hear Jesus say, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.” (Mtt 25:40 NIV paraphrase is mine) Really see them and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When the spectacle was over, verse 8 says that the disciples looked up and “saw no one except Jesus, alone.” And strangely, with a tap on their shoulders, their lives went on from there. Sweaty and dirty and greasy and thirsty, they headed on back down the way they came.
I wonder, don’t you, how long it took for this incredible event to begin to fade in their memories, to grow less glorious, less shiny, less important. How long before they put it aside and normalized it in some way.
From my front yard – I can run out and see the launches from Cape Canaveral. They go up in an impressive, bright blaze of glory, especially dramatic in the early morning hours when the sky is still dark. The shining trail of clouds they leave behind linger for a while then fade, then they are gone. I wonder if it was like that for the disciples at that time. There were so many things that followed that would have demanded their attention pushing the event into the background. When they came back down the mountain, a crowd was already there waiting for them, needing attention. But scripture tells us they didn’t forget. Peter didn’t forget. 2 Peter (1:16-18 MSG) “We weren’t, you know, just wishing on a star when we laid the facts out before you regarding the powerful return of our Master, Jesus Christ. We were there for the preview! We saw it with our own eyes: Jesus resplendent with light from God the Father as the voice of Majestic Glory spoke: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of all my delight.” We were there on the holy mountain with him. We heard the voice out of heaven with our very own ears. We couldn’t be more sure of what we saw and heard—God’s glory, God’s voice.”
So what then, do we do with this vision of the shining and transfigured Jesus, this Christ revealed – this one who teaches us to see, really see? Maybe we simply allow ourselves to wonder and worship and praise – maybe that is the purpose of this encounter. Maybe the purpose is to make our faith stronger, to affirm what we believe, to help us better see the divine nature of Jesus. Yet, I think it is significant that Jesus puts aside this glory in order to return, along with his disciples, back down the mountain. He does not, then exploit the experience. Instead, he humbly enters into the lives of those he encounters – bringing them, life, and hope, and light. This passage isn’t about us – but it is definitely for us, for Christ similarly enters our lives. In Him we, find that the one who says, “I am with you always” is the one standing at the center of the cloud with us, shining so brightly we may never be able to wrap our mind around him and he is the one that is with us, when all the glory is gone. Maybe we listen to him – because he is God’s beloved and we are his.