Sunday the 26th of February 2017
Today is the day in the church year that we call transfiguration Sunday. Now I don’t know about you but I find this reading from the Gospel to be full of mystery. Jesus is changed to be glowing white; Moses and Elijah suddenly appear from nowhere and then strangely disappear; Peter is confused; while James and John are there, we don’t hear anything about them; the disciples are overcome with awe; Jesus tells them to say nothing about what has happened! So what do you and I make of this reading, how do we understand what is going on?
One way to start is by recognising that this scene took place in a context.
In the previous chapter of Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus for the first time makes it clear to his disciples what was going to happen to him. Verse 21 says: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
And how did Peter respond to this? Verse 22: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’”
One of the key verses in today’s reading is when God speaks from the cloud. Where the voice says “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
This divine voice commands these disciples to listen to Jesus. In doing this it directs their attention to what Jesus had spoken to them about his destiny and about the destiny of disciples in the previous scene. This voice, by commanding that they listen to Jesus, confirmed Jesus’ announcement of what he must do as God’s chosen one. That He must go to Jerusalem, the centre of power for the Rome-allied Jerusalem elite. That He would confront these rulers. They will kill him. On the third day, God would raise him from the dead (Matthew 16:21).
In order for the disciples to follow Jesus a change was needed, because they simply could not receive the truth and accept that Jesus was called to the way of the cross. They had their own ideas and understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus was to be, but they did not match the actual Jesus. A change was needed. The type of change that challenged their view of the world; a change that needed some sort of earthquake kind of event to wake them up. A change that would help them re-evaluate who Jesus was to them.
It is easy for us here to see how foolish Peter and the other disciples were being by not listening to Jesus because we stand on the other side of the resurrection looking back. But the reality is it is easy to want Jesus to be the messiah that we want, and not receive the truth of who he is. This is a very real struggle, and I believe that it is a struggle that any people have who were once worshipping with us, but are no longer. The struggle to listen to Jesus and follow him in the way of the cross is just as real for us today, it just looks different. We can easily come up with our own ideas and interpretations of who Jesus is to us, but are we listening to him and what he says about himself?
The disciples, who were Jews, would not have been ignorant of the significance of Moses and Elijah appearing before them. Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the Prophets; both of these men were revered by the Jewish people. And perhaps this is why Peter wanted to build tents for them; in doing so he was putting Jesus alongside these great heroes of the faith, but the lesson here was one in which he had to learn: that Jesus Christ, was greater than these, that He was the one to listen to. This stands out clearly in verse 8 where we are told: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” To be a true follower of Jesus he told them, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24, 25)
Listening to Jesus is so important that God used extraordinary ways to communicate this. In the bible God often speaks to people on mountains, as he does here. He often spoke to people from the clouds, again as he does here. When people saw his glory they saw brightness, as these disciples saw Jesus’ brightness. These disciples were left in no doubt, of who Jesus was and that they were to listen to him alone and follow him. This dramatic scene was to get their attention in many ways.
As I was pondering on Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus showing his disciples His glory, it made me think about the irony of our Christian faith. Whilst these disciples saw a glimpse of his majestic glory, the real glory of God was displayed by his death on a wooden cross; this is where we get the real view of who Jesus is. This is what he was trying to show his disciples. Like them, I don’t think that many of us would see this as a glory event. The transfiguration of Jesus occurred on the eve of his journey to Jerusalem. We have this reading in our church year on the eve of Lent, which begins this Wednesday. The two are connected.
You can imagine that these disciples who had been with Jesus and seen all the miraculous things he had done, all the ways in which he had ministered to people, all the ways in which they were exposed to the miraculous works of God through Jesus, would not have expected Jesus to be speaking of being handed over and killed. It just does not make sense does it? It is easier to see God being the miracle worker, than him being the one who suffers for our sake. It is easy to imagine our God as one who is all powerful (which he is), rather than one who comes in humility and weakness.
This temptation is not just for the disciples who actually saw Jesus in action, but it is for all humanity. We all want God to be the miracle worker, the one who makes our lives happy, the one who protects us from all harm and danger. But we struggle with a God who sends his Son to walk with us in tough times, who comes to us in humility and weakness; who comes to suffer for our sins. But this is precisely who Jesus is and what he has done and still does. This is the true Jesus who is with you always, even in the midst of despair.
As these disciples went down that mountain, their lesson was not over, as throughout Matthew’s Gospel we hear of how these disciples were encouraged to walk the path of the cross, following Jesus. They learnt that He is God and he will perform the saving works his Heavenly Father has given him to do. They learnt that he can and would sustain them as they denied themselves and took up their crosses and continued to follow him. This was a lifelong lesson. The lessons were not just for them, as we have his Word to us that does the same thing. His Word encourages us in our lives to listen to Jesus, to focus on him alone, and to follow the way of the cross with him. This is what being a Christian is all about.
You and I stand here today knowing that Jesus did follow through his Father’s will and did die on the cross for our sins. We are gathered together as God’s children, because of what Jesus has done for us. Despite many of the struggles that we have, that were similar to that of the first disciples, we know that Jesus does not leave us alone in our struggles. My encouragement to you all as we come into the season of Lent is to refocus back on Jesus and to listen to him, as we focus on his journey to that cross for you.