A sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 by Pastor David Jacobson
Over the years, we’ve enjoyed reading the stories of Beatrix Potter with our kids. She’s the author and illustrator of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and many other children’s stories. All of her tales take place in the Lake District in the northwest of England, which is somewhere that Katie and I happened to have traveled a few years back when she could catch a break from residency.
You’ve probably heard of Peter Rabbit, but I’m guessing not as many of you have heard of the “Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.” They just don’t make names like that anymore, do they? It’s about a girl named Lucie who lives in a farmhouse. Lucie loses her handkerchief and goes searching for it. She sees some white on the mountains in the distance, and she decides that it must be her handkerchief. The mountain she went to was named Cat Bells.
The first time I read this story with Caleb, I read that, and I was immediately transported back to a moment in my life when I was absolutely awestruck. I was taken in my mind’s eye back to a reall glory sighting.
When we’d visited the lake district, Katie and I had hiked to the top of Cat Bells. It was a rather nasty day– windy and rainy– but I didn’t mind because we were on an adventure. The hike took us up a ridge with a Lake on our left and a sheep-filled valley with our Farmhouse B&B on our right. After a relatively steady climb, mixed with periods of getting to scramble up a few rocky parts, we were rewarded the most satisfying summit I’ve experienced, despite the weather. Other summits that I’ve experienced have had things preventing a panoramic view. But on this summit (thanks to deforestation!) there were no trees or other obstructions. The summit itself was even small enough that you could look in any direction and see the ground at the foot of the mountain.) But even better than that, in the distance there was a break in the clouds. And these fantastic rays of sun shone down into the valley. I was in awe. The scene in itself was incredible, but it also pointed to the fact that the time was coming soon that the wind and the rain would stop, and bright sun would soon cover the whole landscape.
Have you ever had a moment like that– a moment where you’re just full of awe and wonder? Words always fail to describe the experience of it. In fact, these moments can simply leave you speechless. It is as if reality– true reality– has burst into the mundane and the uncomfortable. We might even say that it’s as if the veil between heaven and earth has become thin, and we’re able to see what is usually hidden from us.
But here’s the thing, the sense of the glory of God that I got several years ago from the view on the top of a storybook mountain is dwarfed by the awe-inspiring sight of what the disciples saw on the mountain of transfiguration. On that day, in a story that shows up in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ appearance is changed. The word in the original greek that means “transfigured” is the same word that we get our word “metamorphosis” from. This is more than a few rays of sunlight falling on Jesus’ white clothes. Something incredible happened. And in the words of second Peter, this is not a cleverly devised myth. Rather, it is was a historical event that Peter, James, and John got to witness.
The experience of Jesus’ face shining like the sun is impossible to capture fully in words. But the scene really just begins there. Beside Jesus, Moses and Elijah appear– two great heroes of the faith who had profound experiences of God’s glory on mount Sinai. And Peter… Peter just can’t help himself. He tries to put his feelings into words– “This is great! Let’s pitch some tents for the three of you!” Whenever I think of Peter saying that, I picture the Donkey from Shrek, played by Eddie Murphy, saying, “We can stay up late swapping manly stories, and in the morning, I’m making waffles.”
But Peter doesn’t get to go on. You would think that Peter would have ruined the moment, but instead things just keep getting more powerful. It says
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!”
The story up to this point in Matthew has been getting progressively darker. It’s clear that Jesus is facing opposition that will continue. And he has been sharing with his disciples about how he will need to suffer and die. Luke’s gospel shares the detail that Jesus was going up on the mountain to pray. It’s not too much of a leap that Jesus, in his praying, would ask God, simply, “am I on the right track here?”
And so the voice from heaven says, “This is my son.” Perhaps that is exactly what Jesus himself needed to hear. As Jesus began his ministry and was baptized, God’s spoke and said, “this is my Son.” Now again, as Jesus reaches another pivotal moment in his ministry, where he is convicted that he is headed for suffering and death, the voice speaks again. “This is my Son.”
This Thursday we’re beginning our 8 week prayer course. We we’re using a video series featuring a British pastor named Pete Greig, who wrote the “How to Pray” book that we’re reading together as a church this year.
One thing that Pete Greig points out is that most often when God speaks to us, God speaks into our identity rather than our destiny. We want God to answer the questions about where, when, and what. We want to know where to go, and what to do. And we want to know when it’ll happen– because “it better be soon God!” But as we ask the where, the when, and the what questions, God’s responses frequently seem to be about the who, the how, and the why.
I ask God for guidance in a situation, and God says, “You are my child.” I ask God for wisdom to do the right thing and God says, “spend time with me.” I ask God “why?” and God says, “I love you.”
The voice from heaven doesn’t just reveal something about Jesus and affirm his identity. The voice also reveals something about the disciples identity too. They hear the voice and what do they do? They fall on their faces, awestruck.
The disciples have a true glory sighting. The reality of things– their true reality– bursts onto the scene. The disciples might spend their days walking and talking with Jesus, but they and we need to remember, this is the Son of God. All of the wonder, majesty, power, and authority of the Godhead are present within this human being, Jesus of Nazareth. This is the King of Glory. We might go around singing “what a friend we have in Jesus!” And rightfully so. But let’s not forget that this is what the voice of God does.
Have you ever, truly been in awe of God? I long for us to come to worship, or even just to go through life, expecting to be in awe of God, expecting to be surprised by God. Sadly so many will miss the opportunity to encounter the glory of God.
Some time ago, I remember Katie telling me that as she was walking out of the store, there was an incredible double rainbow. When Katie saw it, she told me that it stopped her in her tracks. She just had to stop and say “wow.” But almost as striking was how most everyone around her was busying to and from their cars as if the sky wasn’t telling the glory of God at that very moment. God I hope that I’m never so busy that I don’t have time to enjoy your glory through creation.
Have you ever been in awe of God? Are you able to balance the idea of walking and talking with Jesus with the idea of falling to the ground before the sound of God’s voice? This is the one of whom the prophet Nahum said, “The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt.” The psalmist says, “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it came to be.” When Ezekiel saw “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD,” he “fell on [his] face.”
Jesus goes over to his disciples and touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
You’ll notice what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “There was no reason to be afraid.” No, you get the feeling that the disciples were going to continue on with their faces in the dirt until Jesus told them that the cloud of God’s glory had lifted from that place. Awe is the appropriate human response to a glory sighting– to God’s holy presence.
Fear is like awe. Throughout the Bible, it is consistently the response of the faithful to the presence of God. God told Moses that “no one can see me and live.” If you find yourself in God’s presence, it’s worth noting that you may be one glance away from death. Our limited, fallible, and sinful humanity simply cannot take in the fullness of God’s glory unmediated.
And so here is the shocking thing; The transfiguration shows us that God’s glory streams from our friend Jesus. Look at Jesus, and see God’s glory. It’s as if God gives us darkened eclipse glasses so that we are able to gaze at the Son.
And the testimony of scripture is that we hold this image together with another time when God’s glory is shown in Jesus– in his suffering and death. The transfiguration and the crucifixion go together. Bible scholar N. T. Wright speaks of this more concisely and poetically than I ever could. He says,
“Here, on a mountain, is Jesus, revealed in glory; there, on a hill outside Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them. Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the law and the prophets; there, he is flanked by two brigands, representing the level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land. Here Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus. Here a voice from God himself declares that this is his wonderful son; there, a pagan soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God’s son.”
We must learn to stand in awe of the glory of Christ. Not only Christ of the transfiguration and the resurrection, but Christ of the cross. At the same time we need to see the suffering in the transfiguration. It’s not like everything was smooth sailing when Jesus headed up to the mountain. It’s clear to Jesus that there is more suffering ahead, not less. But he goes up the mountain to spend time with God. And just like the rays of sunlight broke through the nastiness of our day on Cat Bells, pointing to a brighter day in the near future, God brings transfiguration to Jesus in the midst of the difficulty, pointing to Christ’s final victory.
And what’s more, the voice that tells us “This is my beloved son, listen to him,” is telling us to take seriously the voice of Jesus, who said “if you want to follow me, take up your cross.” Jesus could not be more clear: the path to share in his glory is the path to sharing in his sufferings.
Perhaps you have some suffering in your life right now. We have a good, good God, and I don’t blame God for suffering. But sometimes, seasons of pain and difficulty are where we are best able to hear God’s voice and to perceive God’s presence. By all means, pray for the the suffering to end. Pray for cures, and open doors, and well-lit paths for the way forward. But also take time to listen to the voice of the God of Glory saying, “You are my son, you are my daughter,” “I love you,” “Spend time with me.”
This Wednesday begins the church season of Lent, where we spend 40 days, not including Sundays, preparing ourselves to stand in awe of the risen Christ. But we won’t have eyes to see the glory of Christ in the resurrection if we don’t first travel with him the path to the cross and the tomb.
It’s nearly a 40 day journey to Golgotha, where Christ is crucified. Bring all your burdens. Bring all your suffering. Stand in awe of your savior, who died for you. Because the good news is that when we do that, God transfigures our suffering, and turns it into God’s glory.