2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12: 1-4a
Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17
Matthew 17: 1-9
“Do not be afraid”
I would like to begin this morning with a question for each of you:
Have you ever had an experience, when after it was over, you wondered to yourself “was that God?”
After a brush with danger and a narrow escape, have you ever thought to yourself: “was that God I felt in the midst of that danger, saving my life?”
Or perhaps following a moment of overwhelming beauty or meaning, have you thought to yourself “was that God I saw?” Was that the face of God I saw in that sunset? Was that God in the music I heard? Was that God I felt in the delivery room?
There are times in our lives, filled with such meaning, with such wonder, with such mystery, that they cause us to wonder deep within ourselves whether it was God, the God of the Bible, the God made known in the person of Jesus Christ on the cross, whether it was God we met in the mystery and not just the same “here and now” material that we encounter in every other moment of our lives.
Chances are that if we have not had these moments ourselves, we have heard stories and testimonies of these moments in the lives of other people.
That person who met God at the moment of their deepest struggle and triumph.
That sister who saw the Bible come to life by the power of the Holy Spirit before her very eyes.
That brother who met the risen Christ out in the world, in the most unexpected place.
For myself, I have experienced God in my life; I have heard God’s voice, I have felt God’s call and God’s comfort, but I have never seen Jesus Christ.
Still, I have heard testimonies that I want to believe. We heard together our friend Rev. Ross Lockhart tell the story of someone he knew who had made the decision to take his own life. He made his choice; he went out to the garage, he loaded his gun, only to have the true, risen, Jesus Christ appear before him and save his life.
I have had another brother tell me that as he was walking along a seaside pier, struggling to know what God was calling him to do with his life, he met a man in a large raincoat fishing off of the pier. The two of them talked for several minutes, about fishing and life until the fisherman finally raised his head revealing the face of Jesus Christ and told him to be a fisher of men. That brother is now a colleague in ministry.
There are times in life. Important moments, meaningful moments, when we wonder whether it was God we saw, and then there are moments when we are more sure, moments that though they may be troubling, though they may be confronting, though they may cause us to struggle to understand and respond, they are still moments where we know what and who we have encountered. And the one and only answer is: Jesus Christ.
For Jesus’ disciple Peter, in the story we have just heard, his experience was one where there could be no doubt about who appeared to him at the top of the mountain.
Within the story we have just heard, of Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration, we heard the story of one frightened and overwhelmed disciple named Peter who struggled to understand and respond to the divine action that was taking place before his very eyes.
Upon witnessing the transfiguration of Christ; of seeing his beloved Master Jesus engulfed in the true light of God, somehow standing with both the Lawgiver Moses and the Great Prophet Elijah, Peter blurts out “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
In response to this, Matthew tells us, that even as Peter was speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed those on the mountain and a voice in the cloud said:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Listen to Him Peter, do not make plans, do not fret, only listen to Him.
In the three tellings of the Transfiguration story from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel writers do not agree exactly on what was going in Peter’s mind as he spoke.
Matthew shares no more information about Peter’s state however Mark gives more detail, saying that “[The disciples] did not know what to say, for they were terrified (Mark 9: 6).
Luke, in his Gospel, is actually both critical and forgiving to the disciple, saying that Peter “did not know what he was saying” for he was “weighed down by sleep”
In any case, whether—as he spoke—Peter was terrified and sleepy or just terrified, Jesus does not condemn his disciples’ words.
Matthew explains that even while the disciples were still clinging to the ground in fright, Jesus came and touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Going back to the beginning of the story, we find that Jesus—six days after telling His disciples about his coming death and resurrection—has invited Peter, John, and James to join him on a hike up the mountain, where they would stop to pray to God.
Perhaps Peter had been anticipating this journey through the day and had been getting into the hiking and camping spirit. Perhaps he fretted over his belongings at home wondering whether to bring his bedroll and tent in case they decided to stay overnight. When they started on the trail that morning, none of the disciples could have predicted what was about to take place, so it came as quite a shock when a very unusual thing happened as Jesus knelt down to pray later that day.
The text tells us that “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. [and] Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”
A very strange sight indeed! A dazzling, glorious light? The two greatest figures in Israel’s history and faith? More shocking news about what the Master was about to do in Jerusalem? And truly, the disciples, Peter especially, struggled to understand and respond.
Indeed, as Peter stood, bathed in the uncreated light of God, awe-struck by the light and the three figures before him, he finally spoke:
“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”
One interpretation of Peter’s suggestion is that it represents our human desire to contain (or to somehow domesticate) the glory of God for ourselves; that our human nature causes us to fumble for a manageable experience of God, one that does not completely overwhelm us. Speaking of biblical interpreters, it should be noted that much has been written on the subject of what Moses and Elijah represent in this Transfiguration story:
Moses—as the giver of the Law—and Elijah—the great Prophet—“The Law and the Prophets” being another name for the Old Testament, a heavenly acknowledgement of Jesus as the fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets perhaps?
Or perhaps it is something else. After all, Moses and Elijah are both figures who also travelled up mountains to speak with God and to receive His illumination.
And even more mysterious than that: we might think of Elijah and Moses as the living and the dead—Elijah—the living (we recall that Elijah doesn’t die at the end of his story, he travels away on a flaming chariot)—and Moses—the dead—who represent Jesus’ dual nature as one who will die but rise again from the dead?
There are plenty of good theories out there, but if we want to be sure of what God’s purpose was in this moment of Transfiguration, all we must do is read on to the following verses in Matthew:
While [Peter] 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!”
Listen to him, Peter. Never mind the swirling questions, never mind what this experience “means” or “represents,” only know that you have seen and heard the Son of God with your very eyes and ears!
One principle I have learned about the Bible and life is that if we are ever in doubt as to how to interpret a piece of Scripture or to hear what God is saying in our lives (or indeed if he is speaking in our lives) it is always safe to assume that it has something to do with the Easter moment: a man named Jesus, a cross on a hill, and the loving salvation of all of humanity.
This is what the season of Lent is all about: it’s about following Jesus’ example to spend forty days in the wilderness, wrestling with the meaning of His life as well as his coming death and resurrection, struggling with our place in this great story, and giving thanks to God for our opportunity to live lives in service to Christ.
The Good News here is that God loves us in our struggle. God loves us so much in our lives of faith: of seeking Him and understanding Him, that He has sent his Only Begotten Son to comfort us and to guide us.
As God spoke through the cloud to Peter, John, and James, He did not punish Peter for his shocked suggestion, He also did not forcehim to understand anything, He only pointed back towards the man He had gone to such great lengths to illumine and said: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! (v.35)”
When the disciples heard [God’s command to listen], they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
The mystery and presence of God is rich in this story.
God is in the light at the top of the mountain.
God is in the cloud, commanding the disciples to listen.
And, most importantly, God is in the person of Jesus Christ, comforting the disciples and urging them not to be afraid.
Through God’s involvement in this story, it is clear that God loves Peter, John, and James. He loves them in their struggle to understand and react to His surprising presence, just as God loves us in OUR struggle to understand and react to His presence in our own lives.
For as wonderful, as loving, and as encouraging as Christ’s presence in our lives is, there are times as well when we struggle to understand:
Was God really there?
Is that Jesus who I saw or heard that day?
And if it was, what is He asking me to do? How can I be sure?
As Peter shows us, the task of following Jesus Christ and witnessing Him to the world is a challenging call. We do not always think we are getting it right. We often don’t even know how to know if we are getting it right.
The God we follow is one who is mysterious, one who overwhelms as well as comforts, and yet, as Jesus shows us on the mountain, we are to Trust Him and Trust IN Him not just because of who he is in the Bible (the one who takes His rightful place between Moses and Elijah, re-splendid at mountaintop) but also because of who he is in our lives:
As one who comes close to give comfort.
As one who touches us to cast out fear.
As one who calls us as we are; afraid, overwhelmed, confused, and says to us “you, you shall be my disciple, you are the one I have chosen to follow me”
Our text this morning ends with the following words:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The Good News this morning is that not only has the Son of Man come into the world in Jesus Christ, that not only has this same Christ come into our lives to guide and to comfort us, that not only has this same Christ died on the cross and been resurrected, but that he will be with us in resurrection again, at Easter, in this community, in our own lives.
Let us come to Him without fear.
Let us come with joy, to understand and respond to His Good News in our lives.