In this sermon, based on Matthew 17:1-9, I explore the Transfiguration of Jesus, which was both thrilling and terrifying for those who witnessed it.
You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and Peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
If you happen to be a movie buff as I am, then today is an exciting day for you…because today, or more specifically, this evening is…the Oscars. One of countless award shows that goes on every year, but in the movie world, this is the big one…the most important.
Now my only complaint with the Oscars…is that it is really long…the typical runtime is usually way over 3 hours. Its long for different reasons…but one of them is the number of awards that are given out. There are a lot of them…and they are aimed a lot of different directions…but if I’m perfectly honest…I don’t really care about most of them…the only ones that I’m really excited about are Best Picture…which makes sense as that’s sorta the big one…and then the acting categories. Best Actor and Actress as well as Best Supporting Actor and Actress.
I think both sides are pretty important. In the lead category, you are looking at the actor or actress that carries the story…they are absolutely central…the supporting categories are aimed at performances that occur more in the background…important for the story…but not absolutely central…but that being said…I’ve often found that for those supporting characters…we could describe their role within the movie as “the story within the story.” (pause)
As I was working with this week’s text for the Transfiguration…and honestly as I was pondering on the gospel as a whole…I recognized that this idea of a story within the story seems to apply. (pause) Now I don’t think any of us would argue that Jesus would fall in the leading actor category when it comes to the gospels. Its kinda hard to have a Gospel of Jesus Christ without Jesus in it…and understandably, as we work our way through the different gospels…doesn’t matter which one…Jesus is at the center…and if the New Testament had its own Oscars ceremony, I think Jesus would take Best Actor every single year.
And maybe, just maybe, today’s story would win for best visual effects…because here at the Transfiguration some pretty amazing things happen. You’re likely familiar with it…we hear it every year at this time, just before the season of Lent kicks off. Jesus decides to hike up a mountain…he takes the Big Three disciples, Peter and James and John and up they go…and while they are there…Jesus is transfigured.
Now just what that means, we don’t really know. All we hear within the different gospel accounts is that his face starts to glow like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white…honestly that’s not a lot to go on…but as I’ve pondered on this event over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that somehow, someway…the Big Three were given a glimpse at the truth that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine…and this man that they’ve known…this man that they’ve followed around without too much in the way of problems…somehow the divine nature comes blasting through the human.
Now this is not to say that in this moment he became fully divine…I think its safe to say that the divine had been there all along. By this point in the gospel he’s performed countless miracles…but for what ever reason…it is in this moment that the divinity of Christ…the God-ness if that’s what you want to call it…becomes visible for a brief moment.
Now that in itself is amazing enough…but to add fuel to the fire…we also hear that Moses and Elijah show up here on the mountain and they are hanging out jabbering with Jesus as well. Admittedly I don’t quite know how Peter James and John would have known that this was Moses and Elijah…as both of them lived centuries before Jesus and the disciples were walking around…who knows, maybe they were wearing nametags.
But what we do know is that this moment is so amazing…it is so GOOD…that Peter wants to capture it. If it had happened today…he’d probably want to take a selfie and post it all over Instagram and Twitter and Facebook…and if he did, he’d probably end up with millions of likes. (pause) But truly, Peter wants to stay put doesn’t he? Lord…it is good that we are here…how about I build three tents, one for you and Moses and Elijah…and we can just stay here for a while.
Peter wants to stay in this amazing moment…he wants to stay in the good…to capture it…because I think Peter realizes the truth…that it won’t last…because Peter knows that there’s more coming…that there’s some stuff right around the corner that will be a polar opposite of the glory that he’s witnessing here on the mountain. (pause)
And that brings me around the point that I started off with…the story within the story…because if there was a New Testament Oscar for supporting actor…I think it would go to Peter…at least here in the gospels.
I don’t know about you…but I’ve always related to Peter. He’s present for much of what goes on throughout the gospel…and maybe this is intentional on the part of the authors of the gospels…but he seems to be portrayed as the MOST human out of any of them. He sees incredible things…and he marvels at them. He makes incredibly Spirit filled proclamations about the true identity of Jesus as the Messiah….but he’s also impulsive…and he’s a blabbermouth. He doesn’t think things through. He walked on water with Jesus, but then promptly sank. He expressed faith, and then when Jesus revealed that he would be killed, Peter rebukes him and promptly gets called Satan.
Later on he’ll swear up one side and down the other that he’ll stay with Jesus even into death, only to wimp out and swear up one side and down the other that he doesn’t even know Jesus.
Maybe its just me…but I often think that we are supposed to see this stuff through the eyes of one that we can relate to…because this stuff all happened…and real people witnessed it…real people who lack the ability to describe these amazing things that occurred…and for Peter…right on the tail of this amazing moment that he is seeing…Jesus transfigured on the mountain…just as Peter makes the statement that he wants to hang out here where its good…where he’s happy and comfortable…things take a turn.
Suddenly out of nowhere, a bright cloud envelops them…cutting off their vision…and the voice of God booms out “THIS IS MY SON THE BELOVED. LISTEN TO HIM.” (pause) It’s not quite a “no” in response to Peter’s question of “should we stay here.” But in the very least, it reveals, once again…just who Jesus really is.
And Peter, along with James and John…all three of them freak out…because they have now realized that GOD…IS…HERE. And they are on the ground, flat on their faces because they are terrified….scared out of their wits…or to use a phrase made popular by Luke’s gospel in the King James Version…they are sore afraid, just like the Shepherds who hear about the birth of Jesus…not to mention the women who will experience the empty tomb at Easter and a couple of angels addressing them…they’re absolutely terrified as well…not to mention when the resurrected Jesus shows up and starts talking to them.
It seems, that when God shows up…that when something truly DIVINE happens…it is simply too much for us. I don’t why…and even if I did I don’t know if I could articulate it. The only conclusion that I can reach from these different moments in scripture…including this one at the Transfiguration…is that whatever God is…whatever the DIVINE is…words cannot adequately express it…we cannot truly describe it.
That’s why we only hear that Jesus starting glowing…that’s why Moses was unable to actually look at God back there on Mount Sinai but couldn’t look at the place where God had just been. Because God is simply too much. God is in someway bigger…or stronger…or greater than we are…and to be in the presence of the divine must make the individual feel every aspect of being smaller…of being less…of being inadequate.
When I think about the attempt to describe God, I can only realize that our language is insufficient, just as our human limitations are insufficient…however “big” we might describe God, its not enough…and the only thing that I have ever experienced that might just give me a glimpse of this is when I stand next to the ocean…because as I have stood there on a few different beaches over the years looking out at this endless expanse of water, it makes me feel very small…but admittedly that’s not the right word either. Language fails me both in that description as well as in trying to define God.
So no wonder Peter freaked out…because God showed up…and if I was there, I’d say it’s a fair assumption to say I’d be facedown groveling in the dirt right next to him. (pause) But here’s the thing…this isn’t the end for Peter…and even though there’s still some dark junk that he’s going to experience between now and the cross of Christ…the message that he receives is one that we need to hear as well.
Listen to Jesus…and the next words that Jesus speaks are “Be risen and fear not.” Get up, and don’t be afraid because I am with you. (pause) I love Peter’s story, especially today…because today his example shows us that we will experience the good and the terrifying. Perhaps you’ve heard me say that the point of the sermon is to bring comfort to the afflicted and the bring affliction to the comfortable…and often times there are people on both sides of that coin sitting out there. But Peter’s example reminds us today that we will experience both in our lives…and sometimes we can go from one to the other just like that.
Peter went from absolute joy and wanting to bask in it, to absolute terror…and our lives reflect the same…but just as Peter was reminded to listen to Christ…we do the same…When we are comfortable and thinking that things are going well, let us look to Christ. (pause) When we are terrified because what we are experiencing is simply too much for us…let us look to Christ.
Because if we are all doing that…regardless of the division that might be going on that separates the comfortable from the afflicted…well then maybe we can all begin to see what we have in common…a shared humanity redeemed by the one who allows us to approach the divine and not experience the holy terror that comes when our smallness butts up against the Lord’s bigness. (pause)
Truly, Peter’s journey through the gospel is a smaller story within the story…but if he shows us anything…its that he’s human, just like we are…and our limitations are on full display. (pause) And if today’s story of the Transfiguration shows us anything…its that we can’t really describe or understand just what it means when the divinity of Christ shines through the human…and you know what, that’s okay. Maybe we don’t need to know what it looked like…but we can be encouraged to know what the transfiguration means. That Christ bridges the gap…somehow, someway…and that he has assured us that we don’t have to be afraid. Amen.