Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘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.’ 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!’ When the disciples heard this, 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.
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.’
We began this church season with one revelation, Epiphany, and are finishing with another, the Transfiguration. First, some astrology scholars protect and pay homage to a child from a poor family whom they say will one day lead his people. And, at this moment, we see the child, now grown, in God’s full glory. That first revelation led to this current one, like the trail up the mountainside where Jesus led his friends. As one might hope, the view from this mountaintop is clear and bright and astounding. We can hope that it will be enough to guide the way through the harrowing weeks to come. As noted in The Salt Project’s commentary on this passage, we will need Jesus, who shines bright like the sun, as we walk into the valley of the shadow of death, even if we can’t yet fully explain what we saw up on the mountain top.
Important things happen on mountain tops. I learned a long time ago in my New Testament class that the author of Matthew works very hard to draw connections from Moses to Jesus. In his commentary on this passage, Eric Barreto reminds us that Jesus’ transfiguration is awfully similar to Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai. The Salt Project’s commentary also notes that Moses was described as radiant as he descended the mountain. Judith Jones, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that Elijah met God up on a mountain, too. Important things happen on mountain tops... things that help us see God more clearly. But, we may not always be able to understand what we are seeing in that moment. Peter, James, and John sure didn’t.
We can hardly blame for being bewildered. In the verses just before this, 6 days prior to the mountain top, Jesus had told them that following his calling would likely end in death. It is likely that even the promise of renewed life after death would have been more disconcerting than comforting for his followers. They would have been in the thick of the conflict with him. He made it clear that following him would require sacrifice. It is likely that they had been feeling the tenson rise around them. It was also clear that they didn’t fully understand what was happening. And, likely wouldn’t until the Resurrection. Maybe that’s why Jesus asked them not to speak of what they saw yet. Their understanding would only be complete in hindsight.
I do appreciate that, in this moment of bright confusion and tremendous awe, Peter falls back onto one of his most important religious values- hospitality- to respond to something he clearly doesn’t fully understand. Not only does Jesus seem to be aglow, but two figures have shown up. Now, I don’t know how the disciples knew that they were Moses and Elijah, but they did. Moses and Elijah, two prophets of particular import, were with Jesus on the mountain. Peter may not know exactly what is going on, but he knows that it is our calling to make welcome, for in so doing, we may be welcoming emissaries of God. I can think of worse impulses in the face of awe and confusion than the impulse to build a dwelling place for someone because they might have been sent there by God.
Eric Barreto, in his commentary, says that the presence of Elijah and Moses “marks Jesus as their heir, their collaborator in [God’s] holy work.” And, just to make very clear, the disciples hear God’s voice, too. In a beautiful reminder that God exists in both the thick cloud as well as the brightest light, something that is described as a bright cloud overshadows them. When Moses was on Sinai, it was said that a cloud filled with God overshadowed him, too. From this cloud, a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” You might recognize part of that. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from above also said, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Sometimes, especially in times of tension and fear, it is good and necessary to be reminded of love and connection. And, in this moment, as Jesus is taking up the mantles of Elijah and Moses, and heading down the mountain, into the valley of death’s shadow, he might have needed this. And, so might his friends. And, the reminder to listen to him. He knew what was coming.
This voice, however, proved to be more terrifying than comforting, and the disciples collapsed in terror. Frankly, they’ve never seemed more reasonable to me than at this moment. Notice that Jesus does not scold them. He offered them the same affirmation that scripture tell us holy messengers once offered both Mary and Joseph: “Do not be afraid.” Get up and do not be afraid. When they bring their eyes up to him, all that was wild and holy and aglow has tempered down, leaving their friend and teacher, Jesus, standing resolutely before them.
The writers at the Salt Project speak of the transfiguration as “a clearing from the mountain top, from here we can survey both how far we’ve come and the Lenten journey ahead.” As they head down the mountain, Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone about what they saw “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Maybe those instructions were a relief. Who would have even believed them anyway. How could they have possibly described all that they had just seen. Or, maybe they were like a kid who knows about a surprise party and can hardly keep delicious secret to themselves. Scripture does not describe their feelings at this moment, just their actions. They keep walking with Jesus.
In the verses just after the reading, they ask him about Elijah and he reiterates that the Son of Man is about to suffer. They had some insight that John the Baptist was a lot like Elijah, too, and to few people heeded his instruction. And, then they followed Jesus as he waded into a crowd of people where he healed a boy who had been suffering. May we follow Christ, too, into the crowds, to tend to those who hurt. And, when the time is right, may we remember that in renewed life, God has shown us Christ once again, even if we don’t understand it at first. Our calling will become clear, once again.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The Commentary from the Salt Project: https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/2/18/transfiguration-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-transfiguration-sunday
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-171-9-5
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-171-9-4
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.