Sermon Text: Matthew 17:1-9
An important event happened on May 30, 1984. (I only remember the date because of Google.) But it was significant: A near-total eclipse of the sun happened on that day—the first time in 84 years in Atlanta. And back then—as hard as it is to believe now—we didn’t get out of school until the middle of June. So I was finishing up eighth grade. But it was great because we were barely in class that day: We were outside, on the track and practice field, with our “shoebox projectors.” As I recall, you put a little pinhole on one side of a shoebox; hold the pinhole side of the box facing the sky; and watch this tiny dot of light projected onto the other side of the shoebox slowly go black as the moon eclipses the sun.
Granted, it would have been much more spectacular if only we could only have watched the sky and seen the sun go black. But we couldn’t. Why? For the same reason you can’t just stare at the sun for very long: you’ll go blind. When there’s an eclipse, however, the darkness tricks your eyes into forgetting that fact. And you watch the sun for a while… and suddenly you’re blind. So all of our teachers warned us: “Don’t look up at the sky! Don’t look at the sun! It’s too dangerous! You’ll go blind!” I remember my smart-aleck friend Paul Heslep glancing up at the sky. “See… No big deal! Watch me! No big deal!” And I’m like, “Paul, are you crazy!” I wasn’t about to do that! Those teachers had me psyched out! I was afraid!
Likewise, in today’s scripture, the “inner circle” of the twelve disciples—Peter, James, and John—were afraid of a light that, according to Matthew, was bright as the sun—and they didn’t dare look at it very long. Only this bright light wasn’t coming from the sun; it was coming directly from Jesus’ face and clothes!
What on earth is going on? What’s going on is the Transfiguration. And every year on this Sunday—the last Sunday before the beginning of the season of Lent—this event, described in either Matthew, Mark, or Luke, shows up in the official church calendar. And what I love about this event is that, in it, we get a sneak preview of everything that Christ will accomplish through his impending death and resurrection. We get a sneak preview of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Indeed, we get a glimpse of the very meaning of the gospel.
First, let’s notice some things… For example, that this event is taking place on a high mountain. Then in verse 3 we notice that both Moses and Elijah appear. You may recall that Moses and Elijah each had some profound encounters with God on a high mountain—on Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai. Elijah, you may recall, fled to Mt. Horeb after his encounter with the prophets of Baal—after Queen Jezebel vowed to kill him. It was there, on that mountain, that God spoke to him in the “still, small voice.” Remember?
But I want to focus on Moses. He was on that high mountain twice: once in Exodus 3, when he encountered God in the burning bush. And then later on in Exodus when God gave him the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law. The experience of the disciples in today’s scripture is supposed to remind us of Moses’ experience—it’s both similar and profoundly different. In Exodus 19, for example, God tells the people, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud.”1 And when Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God, the mountain is enveloped by a cloud.2 The people of Israel were warned not to look into the cloud—because if they saw God, they
would die.3 When God appeared on the mountain, the mountain was so holy that the Israelites couldn’t even touch the mountain, or they would die.4
Also, God speaks the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in his own voice in Exodus 20. Did they enjoy hearing God’s voice? Hardly! They begged Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”5
Finally, in Exodus 34, we’re told that every time Moses came down from the mountain to tell the people what God told him, “the skin of his face shone, and [the Israelites] were afraid to come near him.”6 So Moses had to put a veil over his face, so that the people wouldn’t be freaked out by his appearance. And why was Moses’ face shining? Because Moses had been in God’s presence, and his face was reflecting God’s glory—which, to the naked eye, looks like blinding light.
Okay, so let’s summarize what it was like for the ancient Israelites to encounter God on that high mountain back in Exodus: His appearance was accompanied by a thick cloud of smoke. You couldn’t look at God or you would die. Obviously, you couldn’t get close enough to God to touch him; but you couldn’t even touch the mountain on which God appeared or you would die. Hearing God’s voice was so frightening to the people that they couldn’t bear it; they insisted that Moses’ report what God said. Finally, the people were so afraid of Moses’ shiny face that he had to cover it with a veil.
So… Do we now understand why Peter, James, and John were scared out of their wits? They knew their Bibles. They knew that something like what happened in Exodus was happening to them now. And the fact that Moses was right here reinforced this connection! Like those ancient Israelites, they knew they were standing in the presence of God. And like those ancient Israelites they were terrified!
What becomes clear to the three disciples is that Jesus’ face isn’t merely reflecting God’s glory like Moses’ face; God’s glory is emanating from his face and clothes. He wasn’t reflecting light; he is the light; or as John says, the “true light that gives light to everyone.”7 It’s as if Jesus were lifting the veil that separates his humanity from his divinity showing the disciples the glory that belongs to God alone! If Jesus weren’t clothed in his humanity, he would appear the same way that God appeared to the ancient Israelites on that other mountain two thousand years earlier!
And that’s at least one of the main points of the Transfiguration: It’s as if Jesus were saying, “Let me show you who I really am, in case you missed it so far: I am God!”
By the way, one time I had a Jehovah’s Witness come to my door and challenge me on this very passage. He said, “When God the Father says, ‘This is beloved Son with whom I’m well pleased,’ am I supposed to believe that God is talking to himself?’” And I’m like, “No, God the
Father is not talking to himself; he’s talking to his Son, who is also God… because we Christians believe that God is—what?—a Trinity of three Persons, one God. Three in one. But Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the Trinity.
But anyway… these three disciples are starting to figure out who Jesus is. But not so fast… If Jesus is God, and he reveals himself in all God’s glory, why aren’t these three disciples dead already? Ancient Israel couldn’t look at God; yet Peter, James, and John could. Ancient Israel couldn’t listen to God; yet Peter, James, and John could. And only Matthew adds this poignant detail in verse 7: “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’”
Wait! He touched them? Remember Exodus 19? God’s people couldn’t even touch the base of the mountain or they’d be killed—because the mountain became so holy when God was on it. Yet here God is touching them! And not only does it not kill the disciples, but God in Christ reassures them, “Do not be afraid”! You have no reason to be afraid of being this close to God!
I know y’all don’t know me well enough yet to trust that I have zero interest in partisan politics, and that when I talk about a politician in the news I’m not making any kind of political statement or endorsing any candidate. Please trust me: I simply don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or some other political persuasion. I love all of you, okay? You’re all welcome here!
But last Sunday, at the start of the premier NASCAR event, the Daytona 500, President Trump not only said, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” he took a lap around the track in the armored presidential limo, nicknamed “The Beast.” Think about it: by virtue of simply being president, President Trump is a member of the most elite club in the world: there have only been 45 presidents in our 244-year history. The president commands the mightiest military in the world with the most terrifying weapons at his disposal. He routinely rubs elbows with the world’s most powerful, influential, and wealthiest people. He can choose to be on TV, broadcast around the world, whenever he wants. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that, right now, by virtue of the office of the presidency, that he’s one of the most powerful people who’ve ever lived.
Yet here he was, riding around the track at Daytona! Enjoying NASCAR alongside 100,000 of his closest friends!
What did this mean to those NASCAR fans sitting in the stands—the vast majority of whom could never afford to play on the golf courses the president plays on, or stay in one of his posh resorts, or dine at his elite private clubs?
What it meant was this: “He’s not so different from us! He’s down here with us, on our level. He cares about us! He’s one of us!” I’m sure it melted their hearts, to see the most powerful man in the world down their with them on the track!
That’s a little bit like what the disciples felt in today’s scripture—only so much more! God was right there with them! He had become one of them! God had literally touched them. God was their friend! God was telling them, “You don’t have to be afraid to be close to me—to be in a relationship with me! Not anymore.”
So what’s changed between Moses on his mountain and Jesus on his mountain?
And this is where Moses and Elijah come in…
Moses gave the Israelites God’s Law, which said: if you want to be in a relationship with God and have eternal life, do these things in the Law. This is what God requires of all of us human beings in order to be holy enough, to be good enough, to approach God, to have a relationship with God! But guess what? We can’t be good enough. We fall far, far short of what God requires. Every single one of us! And the Law tells us that our failure to obey it brings eternal separation from God.
And that’s where Elijah and the other prophets come in… to remind the people: “You are breaking God’s Law. You are committing idolatry. You deserve death and hell—you deserve eternal separation from God because of your sins!”
And so, by appearing alongside Jesus, it’s as if they’re saying, “Our mission was to show you why you need a Savior in the first place! To show you that, because of your sins, you can never be good enough for God! But the good news is that God became human in Jesus in order to obey God’s Law for you—with perfect righteousness. And, even though Jesus is without sin, he will suffer the penalty under the Law—the penalty you deserve to suffer—so that you won’t have to!”
And finally, this is why Peter’s suggestion to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was so off base. It’s like Peter was saying, “Let’s just stay here, Jesus… on this mountaintop. We’ll start with tents, but eventually we can build a more permanent dwelling.” But Peter doesn’t understand: Jesus has an appointment to keep, and it’s happening soon. See, unless Jesus comes down from the mountain, and goes up to a different mountain, one called Calvary, and goes to the cross, and dies on it, none of us can be saved.
What does this mean for us?
If we’re already Christians, it means everything; it changes everything.
“Listen to him,” our heavenly Father tells us. Okay, how do we do that? Through his holy Word.
Okay… I’m listening. So what does Jesus say to us Christians through Word? He says things like this: “Our heavenly Father loves you exactly as much as he loves me. You’re no longer a servant of our Father; you’re a son or a daughter. You’re my brother or sister. You’re adopted into God’s family—and I’ll make sure that nothing or no one has the power to remove you from this family. Just as our heavenly Father takes pleasure in me, and shows me his favor, so he now takes pleasure in you, and he wants to show you his favor. God is well-pleased with you… Don’t let the devil tell you otherwise!
“Don’t let Satan the Accuser tell you you’re a big sinner and God can’t love you and forgive you. Are you kidding? “As far as the east is from the west,” the Bible says, “so far does [God]
remove our transgression from us.”8 The Bible says, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”9
We listen to Jesus when he tells us this: “Our Father will always give you exactly what you need to handle any circumstance that life throws your way—any problem, any disappointment, any setback, any failure. You don’t have to worry or be afraid. I am powerful, and I’m going to do mighty things for you. I’m going to give you joy—a lasting kind of happiness right now. You can experience this joy right now, but it will last forever.”
[Invitation to everyone else…]