Good morning, Friends!
Our scripture this morning is another one of those important stories that’s found in three of the four gospels – you can read it in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Today we’ll be reading Matthew’s version of the story.
Today’s story is also kind of strange for us. It’s got things which don’t happen to us very much, so it’s kind of hard to tie in to our own experience.
Some people would call what we’re about to read a vision. Other people would call it a dream, or even a hallucination. I’m not asking you to decide about that right now. I just want you to listen to the story.
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
– Matthew 17:1-8
I’m not going to try to convince anyone about this story. I’m not going to be the umpire for anyone who wants to argue about it.
In spite of what we see in movies all the time, most people don’t believe in special effects any more. Having people change their appearance, and voices coming out of clouds, and figures appearing out of nowhere – those are the sort of things you expect in a science fiction movie, not in the good news of the gospel.
I just want to repeat that this story is found in three of the four gospels. They all believed it’s important. And what I want you to notice is what the story is saying.
Jesus goes up a mountain with three of his special friends. Not the whole crowd who’d been following Jesus everywhere he went. Not the 12 disciples. Just three of the special friends who’d been there with Jesus from the beginning – the fishermen, Peter, James and John.
All through the gospels people keep asking each other, “Who is this guy? Where did Jesus get this knowledge from? Where did he get this wisdom, this authority? Who gave him permission to forgive sins? How can he make these promises? Who does he think he is, anyway?”
There were people who called him the Son of David. There were people who called him Lord. They were giving him titles, and tying him to history. But did they really understand who Jesus was?
When Jesus came back to his hometown for a visit, people said to each other, “Don’t we already know this guy Jesus? Isn’t he Joseph the carpenter’s boy? Who does he think he is? Don’t we know his mother Mary, and all the rest of his family?”
And because they thought they had Jesus all pegged, they thought they had him all figured out, because they told each other that they knew him already.
Today’s story starts of with Jesus taking his friends up to the mountains. This is how you can tell Jesus was from North Carolina – half the time he was fishing down at the beach, and half the time he was up in the mountains. A good North Carolina boy!
Seriously, we need to look at this mountain business. Mountains always mean something important in the Bible. Maybe this is supposed to be like Moses climbing Mount Sinai, to bring back the Ten Commandments.
Or maybe this is supposed to be like the prophet Elijah climbing the mountain and finding out that God wasn’t in the earthquake, wind or fire, but that God was present in the still, small voice that followed.
Maybe all it’s supposed to mean is that Jesus took his three best friends off to a quiet, isolated place to pray together. You figure out the symbolism for yourself.
While they were there, on the mountain top, it says that Jesus was transfigured before them. Another version says that his appearance was altered. A third version simply says that a change came over Jesus.
All three gospels say that instead of the familiar face and appearance of Jesus that the disciples knew, they suddenly saw something else: a radiance, like the sun, clothed in white.
That’s pretty strange.
Maybe it was just the positions they were all standing. Jesus was over here, with the sun behind him. It put him in a glare, and they’d all all forgotten their Foster Grants.
Maybe they’d all been clambering up the steep mountain side on all fours, with their noses to the ground, and when they looked up, it was so bright. I don’t know.
However you want to interpret this story, the bottom line is that suddenly they saw Jesus differently. Maybe a change came over Jesus. Or maybe, the change came over them. Maybe they finally saw Jesus the way he really was, all along.
Maybe that radiance and that glory, that light of God shining through him, was what made people listen to Jesus, even when they didn’t even know who he was. Maybe that light had been there all along, and they finally saw it, up there on the mountain.
The gospel uses the word transfiguration, but maybe you could call it recognition instead. They recognized Jesus, not just the familiar face of the person they knew, but they recognized his glory in a new and incredible way.
There are other moments in the gospels where that same kind of incredible recognition takes place. Think about Christmas, where a host of angels suddenly took the place of the stars in the sky, where a handful of shepherds recognized the Prince of Peace in the birth of a baby in a back-street stable.
Or think about Easter, where a dying thief and a couple of foreign soldiers were the ones who recognized the Son of God when Jesus died on the Cross.
Or think about the road to Emmaus, when two of Jesus’ friends recognized him in the stranger they’d been talking to, because of the fire that burned in their hearts as they listened to him.
Maybe these moments of transfiguration and recognition aren’t so uncommon. Maybe they happen oftener than we admit. A change takes place, even though we think we know who Jesus is. And suddenly we recognize him, in a deeper and truer way than ever before.
We recognize him in the face of a stranger or in the face of a friend. We recognize him in some everyday sight that doesn’t normally move us all that much. Suddenly, it seems as if God is closer to us than before. It’s as though God finally breaks through to us, and we recognize God at last. We realize he’s been here, all along.
In today’s reading, it says that Jesus’ three friends suddenly saw Moses and the prophet Elijah standing there with Jesus, talking with him.
Now, before you say they were just dreaming, I want you to think for just a minute about what that means.
- Moses is the most famous leader of Israel, the one who led God’s people out of slavery, through the desert, and into the Promised Land. Moses is also the one who brought God’s law down to the people, the commandments that God said would lead us to life.
- Elijah is one of the greatest of the prophets of the Old Testament. Elijah is the great reformer, the one who called people back to God when they had wandered away.
Elijah is the one who asked, “How long are you going to go limping along with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, good, then follow Him; otherwise, go follow your other gods. Choose today who it is that you will serve. . .” Elijah called down fire from heaven to set fire to the sacrifice he had prepared, to prove to all the people that God was listening to him. (1 Kings 18:21)
To say that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus, is to say that the whole weight of the law and the prophets supported who Jesus was and what Jesus had to say. Everything they had heard and believed about God, all their lives, was coming together in Jesus. As the apostle Paul said later, “All the promises of God find their Yes! in him. . .” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Whatever really happened, it was a great moment. It was a mountaintop experience. It was the kind of thing that happens only rarely, a moment we could wait a lifetime for, and never see.
And Peter, like anyone, wanted to make the moment last. Peter said, “Wow! Isn’t it great that we’re all here together? Lord, how about I put up three shelters here, so that you, and Moses, and Elijah, can all stay here together. . .”
But moments like that usually don’t last. Even while they were talking, it says, a great, shining cloud came over them. And a voice from the cloud – it doesn’t say whether it was a loud voice, or whether it was only a silent whisper – a voice said, “This is my Son. This is my Beloved. This is the one with whom I am pleased, the one who brings Me joy. Listen to him!”
Now, you can understand that cloud, and that voice, any way you like. It’s up to you, like everything else in the Bible.
Just be sure you understand the bottom line, all right?
It’s saying that Jesus isn’t just an ordinary carpenter, or an ordinary teacher, or even just a travelling healer. In a very special way, in a way we can hardly understand, Jesus is God’s own Son.
On one level, Jesus was human – just like us. He got tired. He got hungry. He got thirsty. He wept, he got angry – though Jesus was always a lot more patient and forgiving than you or I manage to be. It hurt when they beat him. When they stuck him with a spear, he bled just like everyone else. He was fully human!
But all through the gospels, and especially in today’s story, it says there was something more about Jesus. Something higher. Something deeper. Something special. Something extraordinary.
He taught like no one had ever taught before. He did things no one else could do. He said, “Follow me,” and people left everything to go along with him.
Nobody wanted to go out on a limb, and say what they were thinking, because the penalty for blasphemy was pretty high. Nobody wanted to answer their own question, and say that they couldn’t figure out who Jesus was.
In the story, it says that when Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ friends, heard that voice from heaven, they threw themselves face down on the ground and were terrified.
In the Bible, when God shows up, most people don’t feel warm and comfortable. There is something awe-inspiring about the presence of God. In the Bible, when God shows up, most people yell, “Hit the dirt!”
Maybe we could all do with a little more awe in our spiritual lives. I know we’re supposed to feel that we can approach God any time, that Jesus is our friend, that we can address God just like one of our parents.
But this is the same God who made all things out of the chaos of the creation. This is the God who made empty space, earth, sea, sky, stars, and all living things. This is the God who speaks through storm and thunder, wind and waves. God, for whom a thousand years is like the blink of an eye.
God, who hears everything, who forgets nothing, and who makes promises that last forever. God who brought all things into being, and God who alone knows when and how it will all end.
God who hears every prayer and every cry. God who wants peace, but with truth and justice. God who saves.
What they saw that day, on the mountain, was who Jesus really is. Maybe Jesus was transfigured. But maybe it was Jesus friends who had their eyes opened.
And it terrified them, that they had known him so long, and never realized.
And then Jesus, who they had recognized only a moment before as the Son of God, came over and touched them.
He didn’t try to take away what they’d seen. He didn’t say, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s all right! There, there! Nothing happened!” He didn’t say anything like that. He didn’t even tell them how to interpret the experience.
He came over, and touched them. And he said, “Get up. Don’t be afraid. . .” It’s as if Jesus understood that this was all too much for them. It was too much to take in. It was too much to believe.
Every time I hear someone glibly say about Jesus, “Oh, he’s the son of God,” it bothers me. People recite it like a formula. They act like they own Jesus, when it’s one of the deepest mysteries of all.
This story is a turning point in the gospel. In a few weeks, it’ll be Easter again. And we’ll be dealing once again with all of the mystery of Easter.
We’ll be asking ourselves all of the difficult questions, like why anyone would be willing to die for us, or why Jesus suffered. We’ll be dealing with the almost unimaginable mystery of the Resurrection, which is just as hard for me to believe as it is for you.
And through it all, I want to you carry the message of this morning’s reading. Because what it boils down to is Jesus asking, “Do you recognize me? Do you know me? Can you understand who I really am?”
In a way, that’s the question of the entire gospel. Who is Jesus? How does that affect me? Does it change my heart? Does it change the way I think? Does it change anything I do? If he really is the Son of God, how am I going to be different?
As we settle back into the quiet, I want to face you all squarely with the responsibility of discovering for yourself who Jesus really is. Don’t just let somebody else tell you. Let him show you. Let Jesus touch you. And let him put into your heart, the wild discovery of who he is, that makes everything else he did make sense.