This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 17:1-13
Sermon prepared by Rev. Norman J. Visser, Kentville, N.S.
A book called The Wisdom of Each Other (Eugene H. Peterson, Zondervan, 1998), is a collection of letters from a pastor to an old friend who has recently come back to faith. In one letter, the author says he's glad his friend had a good time at an "international conference for prayer and spiritual life," but adds "I'm a little alarmed that you are planning to go to another similar gathering in six months." He explains, "Conferences on the spiritual life are wonderful — occasionally. I think very occasionally. They do not provide the substance for a life of obedient faith. They contribute almost nothing, maybe even less than nothing, to a life of spiritual maturity. They are stimulus. Appetizer. They are not nutritious. High in fat, low in protein." "The reason is that the Christian life is thoroughly organic — the Holy Spirit grows the spiritual in you, forms Christ's life in you, in the particular conditions in which you live...." For the person to whom the letter is addressed, these conditions are, "Minnesota weather, rural culture, and an uncomfortable Lutheran liturgy." For us, the particular conditions will be different.
The letter addresses what are sometimes called mountain top experiences. People come home from a rally or retreat, a conference or convention, and they are flying. They have been encouraged and energized in their faith. But, almost inevitably and always too soon, it starts to evaporate. No matter how hard they try to maintain their fervor, the particular conditions in which they live begin to assert themselves. Their intensity begins to dissipate. God doesn't seem as close as He once was. The person feels as if they have come down from the heights of a mountain to the depths of a dark, cold valley.
People talking about that experience, often refer to this passage. The connection is obvious. Jesus, Peter, James and John were on a mountain. On the mountain top, Jesus' face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light. They saw Moses and Elijah. They were enveloped by a bright cloud. They heard the voice of God from the cloud. They heard, they saw, they experienced the most amazing things, but then they had to go down the mountain. When they came down, Jesus was greeted by a crowd, a disappointed father, a stubborn demon, and a church that lacked faith and couldn't get anything done. The particular conditions of life asserted themselves.
We are attracted to this passage, because we see our own experience in the experience of the disciples, if not Jesus himself. We are also attracted to this passage because it gives us a short glimpse of glory, just as Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem, towards suffering, towards death. We are attracted, because in giving us a short glimpse of glory, it seems to offer a promise that there is more to life than the hum-drum of every day existence. Life is more than a flat, featureless plain. There are mountains. Mountains, where people are enveloped by the presence of God. Mountains, where the voice of God can be heard. Mountains, where we can catch a glimpse of glory.
And yet, what is remarkable about this passage, is that it doesn't make a big deal of the glory. Sure, we know this as the story of the transfiguration — the headings in our Bibles make sure we know that. Certainly, the story tells us that Jesus' face shone like the sun and His clothes became white as light. But that's not what Matthew underlines for us. That is not what Matthew makes sure we notice.
When we want to make sure someone notices a few words in a letter or something, we underline them — or highlight them or use bold print, or capital letters. We do something to make them stand out. Matthew does something like that here. Unfortunately, it is not easy to see in our modern translations. But listen to the King James Version,
"Jesus... bringeth them up to a high mountain apart. And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with them. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him."
Matthew's underlining is the word "behold", "look." Matthew uses it three times in this passage, but not for the event we find most amazing. The transfiguration is reported matter of factly. They went up the mountain and Jesus was transfigured. His face shone and His clothes were white. But then, "look, there were Moses and Elijah... look a bright cloud overshadowed them, and look, a voice out of the cloud." Matthew reports that glory came on Jesus' face, but he makes sure we notice Moses, Elijah, the cloud and the voice.
Perhaps Matthew figures that he doesn't have to call attention to the glory on Jesus' face, because that's the first thing we notice, anyway. Perhaps Matthew figures he doesn't have to call attention to the glory, because it is simply Jesus' true nature showing through. Perhaps Matthew knows that when we catch a glimpse of glory we are apt to miss what's really important.
Look, Moses and Elijah were there. From the early church, preachers have pointed out that Moses brought the Law and Elijah was a prophet. God spoke to his people through Moses and Elijah. Here, the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) is talking to Jesus.
Look, there was a cloud. The cloud reminds us of the cloud that went before the people of Israel, when they went out of Egypt. The cloud that showed them that God was with them.
Look, there was a voice, and the voice repeated the words the voice had spoken when Jesus was baptized; "this is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well-pleased."
Look, Moses and Elijah. Look, a cloud. Look, a voice. Matthew wants to make sure we notice these, because they tell us that the transfiguration was not just a glimpse of something greater in a human face. This is the One in whom all of God's glory resides. If God was once present with His people in a cloud, God is now present in Jesus. If God once spoke through the Law and the Prophets, God now speaks through Jesus. For Jesus is more than the cloud, more than the Law or the prophets, Jesus is God's beloved Son.
Perhaps Matthew knows that when we catch a glimpse of glory we are apt to miss what's really important. When Peter saw Moses and Elijah, he said, "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."
Peter's first impulse was to do something. To say something. To build something. We share that impulse. When something glorious happens, we can hardly let it pass before we say something. Our first impulse is to talk to whomever will listen. We try to figure out what happened, so that we can make it happen again. We do what ever we can to hold on to the experience. If we can't hold on to the experience, we build a monument and say, this is where it happened.
Peter's first impulse was to say something. And, Matthew says, "While he was still speaking, look a cloud." God didn't let Peter finish his thought. God cut Peter off and said, "This is my Son... listen to him." A while ago I said that the voice repeated what the voice at Jesus' baptism said. That wasn't quite right. This voice said three more words than were said at Jesus' baptism: "listen to him."
Perhaps Matthew knows that when we catch a glimpse of glory we are apt to miss what's really important. The glory, Moses and Elijah, the cloud and the voice all lead up to those three words, "Listen to him."
That may seem like a very mundane application for an event as glorious as the transfiguration. It might seem like a let down for people hungering for a glimpse of glory.
The word "transfigure" shows up in a couple of other places in the New Testament. It shows up, in Romans 12, when Paul says "be transformed by the renewing of your mind." It shows up in 2 Corinthians 3:18, "We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."
The Bible does hold out for us the hope of glory. The Bible does hold out the hope that we will be transformed.
Just before leaving one congregation to serve another, the author of this sermon witnessed the profession of faith of a couple that had worshipped in that church for the entire seven years that he was minister there. When he mentioned that to a friend, the friend said that sometimes leaving is the encouragement people need. They may have been thinking about taking that step for years, but now they have a deadline. They want to profess their faith, while the minister they know is still there.
The friend also said that it was encouraging. Encouraging because when you teach the words of Jesus, week after week, it is very easy to wonder whether anything is happening. Every preacher, every teacher, every Christian knows what it is to have just the right word. The word you believe will make a difference, will make things happen. Every Christian knows what it is to deliver that word and then stand back to wait for it to happen. And wait. And wait.
But, then after two, or seven, or twenty years someone says, "I've been listening, all this time. I've been listening and I'm not sure how it happened, but I'm different than I used to be. My attitude towards others has changed. I'm ready to do things I'd never thought I could. I'm more sure of my relationship with God."
We are being transformed into His likeness with ever increasing glory.
Listen to Him.
Proposed Order of Service
God's Greeting (congregation responds "Amen")
Prayer of Confession
Old Testament Reading: Exodus 24
Hymn #253, "Praise To the Lord"
Hymn #460, "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise"
Scripture: Matthew 17:1-13
Hymn #25, "Lord, to You My Soul Is Lifted"
Prayer and Offering
Benediction (congregation responds "Amen")
Doxology #593, "My Song Forever Shall Record"