Matthew 17:1-9 Transfiguration Sunday
I love mountains. If I had the opportunity to build my dream home and had to choose between a site on the top of a mountain or a place at the beach, the choice would be tough. However, although I find the beauty and power displayed in the ocean to be supremely alluring, I think I would go with the top of a mountain. There is just something so beautiful, so mysterious and so awe-inspiring about mountains. Being so high up, able to look down upon a panorama of God’s beautiful creation, full of diversity and life and light is simply amazing. And so, as I read this text, my first reaction to this story is, “I want to be there. It must have been spectacular.”
Whether you are a mountain-lover like me or would in fact prefer the beach home, I wonder how the setting for this scene strikes you. I mean, wouldn’t you have just loved to have been on the mountaintop that day with Peter, James and John, as they accompanied Jesus, and then to have witnessed this wonderful event? What must it have been like for the disciples, to have this spectacular sight unfold before them on the top of that high mountain that day? To see Jesus joined by Moses and Elijah, those two cornerstones of the story of the faith of Israel and her relationship with God; then, to witness the glorious transfiguration of Jesus; to see his face, shining like the sun; to witness the brilliance of his clothes, now dazzling white.
Only, I don’t think that these three disciples would have described the scene as “spectacular.” At least, not at first, and especially not right after they heard “the voice”. The text tells us their first reaction upon hearing God’s voice was to do a simultaneous face-plant. That’s right, in this holy moment, upon this glorious mountaintop, we are told that they fell to the ground, face first. They were not just afraid, they were terrified. While that is actually not an unusual first reaction to the presence of the divine in the bible, I wonder - would we, with our 20-20 hindsight have reacted any differently?
Here at the end of the Epiphany season, on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday each year, in order to participate in this mountaintop experience and to remind ourselves that this experience is part of our experience too. Here in the church we pull out the white paraments; we sing songs evoking the glorious transfiguration of our Lord. We share in the blessed meal of our Lord’s bidding. We might remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that we heard echoes of the same voice as it spoke the nearly the same words at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, because the truth is that Epiphany both begins and ends with God’s voice making Jesus known to the world.
Do you remember it? Where have we heard these words before?
As Jesus was being baptized in the River Jordan, the clouds parted and a voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” In today’s gospel text, we have yet another sacred scene. Once again from the cloud comes the voice. It actually interrupts Peter saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased;” but this time, the voice adds these words: “listen to him!”
The repetition of these words declaring the true identity of Jesus, confirm what was revealed at his baptism and has also been confessed by Peter and the disciples. Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah. But in the verses just before these, when Jesus reveals a new word to the disciples - that their journey to Jerusalem would end in his passion, death and resurrection, they had vehemently protested. These poor disciples, who constantly swing between faith and doubt, understanding and misunderstanding, cannot grasp this truth that confuses their worldview.
The Son of God, the Messiah, is supposed to be the victorious Lord of all, who rescues God’s beloved people of Israel, who vanquishes the foe. If Jesus is truly the Messiah, how can what Jesus said be true – that he would suffer and die? I doubt that they even heard the part about his being raised from the dead. They were afraid. They were confused. So by nature, they had begun to doubt. God then adds these words to the declaration on the mountain as an exhortation that they should listen to what Jesus has to say, and obey him. God’s words affirm that what Jesus has revealed has been ordained by God. In obedience to the will of God, Jesus will go to Jerusalem, submit to suffering and die. And there, God will have the last word, from the cross. There, the love of God and Jesus Christ’s solidarity with all those who suffer will be revealed - and with this Transfiguration on the mountain, there should be no doubt of the source of this revelation.
Throughout the story of the bible, mountaintop events are transformational. They are pivotal. On the top of mountains, perspective is changed. Relationship with God is clarified and even changed.
Back a few years ago, there was a series of TV commercials for a financial holding company, EF Hutton. Do you remember them? There would be a gathering of people at a party, or a large group of people working together in an office, or perhaps a couple of people having dinner in a crowded restaurant, when one person says to another, “EF Hutton said,…..” and immediately, the scene freezes; all chatter ceases; even the music and everyday sounds in each of the settings are silenced, and suddenly everyone is focused on listening to what it is that EF Hutton has to say. The tag line then was, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” And not only were these people listening, they were listening with intent. They want to know what EF Hutton, the voice of authority, reveals about what they should do with their money.
I think of those scenes when I read this text, because I think that while God wants to reiterate that indeed Jesus is God’s beloved, and is supremely pleasing to God, there is something important about the additional words of God here, and they draw us into the scene as well. The tense of these words in the Greek is more like, “keep on listening to him”. These words are for Jesus’ disciples of every time and place. These are words meant to carry the disciples all the way to Jerusalem with Jesus and beyond.
Many translations render God’s command here as “listen to him” but I think that it could just as easily and perhaps even more accurately be translated as “hear him.” In fact, it could be argued that whichever way the Greek word is translated, both listening and hearing are important to the life of the disciple.
Our world is filled with words, sounds, music, conversation, myths, monologues, dialogues, instructions, announcements, and these days, weather reports – words, words, words. There are conflicting sounds, words and voices. Like the disciples of Jesus’ time, some of what we hear confuses our worldview and we struggle with doubt. While many of the everyday words and sounds of our lives go in one ear and out the other, here in this biblical text, God commands us, “listen to Jesus….hear him, and keep on hearing him.”
Yet hearing and understanding are not automatic. Listening that does not lead to action has severe consequences in the life of faith and discipleship.
On that mountaintop, Jesus encountered God and was transformed. The scene harkens back to another mountaintop scene when Moses encountered God and was likewise transformed – his face shone like the sun. While we might not physically travel to the mountaintop, while we may be afraid of heights, would rather be at the beach, prefer our feet to be planted firmly on the ground, and are filled at times with doubt or fear, God’s word comes to all who follow Jesus – to all who follow the one whom God declares is God’s Beloved, the one in whom God is well-pleased. God calls disciples to listen to – to hear and to follow in Jesus’ ways. God’s word comes to us – listen to Jesus. Keep on listening to him.
While the disciples were still lying down, on their faces, filled with fear, Jesus came to them. Jesus touched them. What tender action, filled with love. Despite the failure of the disciples to understand, even to believe, first, Jesus loved them. Then he said to them, “Be raised up, and do not be afraid.” In that moment the disciples were pulled from their fear and failure and blessed with new life and courage.
God meets us in Jesus the same way. What is it in your life that instills falling-down-on-your-face fear? Jesus’ response is, “be raised up.” What is it that keeps you from hearing God’s word and plan for you? Jesus’ answer is “I love you – be raised up.” The cross of Christ and the resurrection are the antidotes to all that stands in the way between you and discipleship.
The good news for us this day, is that God doesn’t leave us on our own to figure these things out. God doesn’t leave us on our own to believe, to act or to pray. The Spirit draws us to the written word and there we meet God. God’s grace is poured out upon us in the holy meal, where we share in the Word made flesh. There, Jesus feeds us with his own body and reminds us, “this is for you.” Jesus meets us in the wine, and reminds us once again, “this is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you.” And even if we have fallen on our faces in failure, fear or doubt in the moment we receive this precious means of grace, are fed and forgiven, we are transfigured too. Each and every time.
As we enter the season of Lent this week, my prayer for each of us, is that we might commit to listening to and hearing God’s voice; that wherever our Lenten disciplines take us, as we encounter God’s voice in the scriptures, we might witness to the transfigured Lord of all; as we contemplate God’s transformational activity in our lives, in and through the world, that we might learn to love as Christ loves.
Let us pray; Lord God, as we journey toward the cross, grant that we may learn to listen and to hear well the transforming word of grace and love and might be so inspired in our discipleship, that in the new life of Christ is evident in our engagement in the world. Grant that we might become the instruments of your mercy and grace Jesus showed us to be. And unite us in spirit and love. In the name of Jesus we pray.