This blog post was originally written as a Sermon, delivered at All Souls Church, Sutton Green & St Mark’s Church, Westfield on Sunday 23rd February 2020. The reading for this sermon is: Matthew 17:1-9.
Father, as we explore your word, and the transfiguration of Jesus, may we learn more of who you are and grow closer to you. Amen.
I love mountains. Ever since I was little, we would climb mountains together as a family. I remember on one holiday; we were in Switzerland and went up to a saddle between mountains, called Jungfraujoch. And it’s very high up, in the alps, covered in snow. And I picked up these two lumps of ice as we were walking, and much to the entertainment of my family, I named them. One was called George, and one was called Big Ears. So, we explored this mountain, there was ice caves, wonderful views, and then we had to start heading down the mountain; and gradually, my icy friends disappeared.
Because mountains are significant; significantly tall to make the difference between the life and death of my ice friends; significantly momentous to create life-long memories; and in the Bible, they are also the stage for a number of significant moments. In Genesis 8, Noah’s Ark lands upon Mount Ararat; Moses received the 10 commandments from God on Mount Sinai; and it was upon Mount Carmel that Elijah proved God to be the one true God by calling upon him to ignite a water-soaked sacrifice in 1 Kings.
In our passage today, we find another event taking place on a mountain. We find Jesus taking three of his disciples: Peter, James and John, up a mountain with him. And that’s where this story stops being your normal mountain adventure. Up this mountain, rather than simply scrambling up rocks, enjoying the views, or finding ice friends; Matthew tells us that Jesus was transfigured before them: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light”, and then we continue, and we read that “there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus”.
This is quite a crazy story. The first time you read it I think it’s fairly normal to just stop and think ‘What on Earth was that all about?”. And I think this is often our response because something new is revealed, something about Jesus that we don’t see so clearly in his day-to-day ministry throughout the rest of the gospels.
Although we read about Jesus healing people, performing miracles, calming storms, even raising people from the dead; we can easily see these as ‘things that he can do’, and still see Jesus as a fairly normal person – like you or me. And he was, he came to Earth so that he could live alongside us, as one of us. He was 100% human, but what we see revealed here in his transfiguration is a physical transformation, that demonstrates not something that he can do, but who he is. We are reminded that he may be 100% human, but that he is also 100% God.
Personally, I find it really difficult to imagine what Jesus looked like during this transfiguration. Was he glowing? Was he shining light out of his face? Could they even see any of his facial features anymore? But I don’t think the specifics are particularly important. This image of bright light reflects both his divine glory, and his coming exaltation in Heaven. In the book of Revelation, we see Jesus’ face described as: “like the sun shining in all it’s brilliance”. And I think Peter does put it into words really well in the book of Second Peter, chapter 1, when he’s talking about this experience and he says “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honour and glory from God the father”.
So, imagine this scene: you’re on this mountain with Jesus, he’s been transfigured, shining brightly in some way, his majesty revealed. How would you respond?
Well, if we keep reading, we see that Peter’s response here is to offer to build three shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. We don’t quite know Peter’s thought process here: maybe he wanted to show respect to these three individuals by giving them somewhere to shelter, maybe he just wanted to be able to do something to make sense of everything that’s going on in front of him. Either way, he is promptly interrupted. God’s voice, speaking from a bright cloud above them, says “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”.
And this sentence gives us two important pieces of information.
Firstly, if the bright lights and physical transfiguration weren’t enough, surely this must solidify the disciples understanding of who Jesus is, he is God’s own son. Loved and praised by God himself. And when we look at where this story fits into the rest of the gospel, this is quite significant. In Matthew, chapter 16, the chapter before this story that we heard today, we see Jesus ask his disciples “Who do you say I am?”, and Peter answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, and Jesus says that he is blessed because this information has been revealed to him by God the Father. Then, just after that we read of Jesus predicting his death, and Peter saying no, “this shall never happen to you”, proving that he did not yet fully understand what Jesus was telling them.
The second thing that the voice of God highlights is how we should respond to this revelation of who Jesus is. After declaring, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”, he then says simply: “Listen to him”. This is what our response should be. Not looking to make sense of it all, to find a human, worldly solution for what we should do next, but simply turning to Jesus, listening to what he was to say, and acting in obedience to him.
If this person, Jesus, is God, which we have just had declared to us by the very voice of God and seen a glimpse of his majesty in physical form; then our response should be to listen. We often talk a lot about how Jesus is our friend, how we can chat to him like he’s next to us, that he loves us and cares for us. And all of these things are true, but sometimes we can forget to look at the other side of this coin, that this same Jesus created the Universe, created each one of us, he’s the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, ruler of the Heavens and the Earth, the beginning and the end. And this doesn’t take away from the fact that Jesus is a close and caring friend, in fact it makes that fact even more incredible. It’s great to have a good friend; but for that friend to also be the king of the Universe? For the person who created everything about you to choose to come and live alongside you, and to die for you? That’s different.
So, this reading: The Transfiguration of Jesus, as crazy as it may seem on first reading, points us in two directions: firstly, to a greater understanding of who Jesus is. And this is something we need to continue exploring and learning about. I don’t believe this is something that any one of us can ever fully understand, because we are mere humans and God is God. His ways are not our ways and he is far greater than our imaginations could envision. But, if we want to live in relationship with God, then we should want to know ever more about who he is.
And the second thing this reading points us to, is to listen. Listen to what Jesus has to say.
In order to really look at these two points, and because Lent is beginning in only a few days, I want to set you a Lent challenge. This Lent, why not read the whole story of Jesus’ life on Earth, from beginning to end? Pick one of the four, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, and over the 40 days of Lent read through it bit by bit. That’s less than a chapter a day, whichever book you choose. And after each section that you read, spend some time prayerfully reflecting on these two questions. Firstly, what does this passage tell me about God? and secondly, what is God saying in this passage? By doing this, we will be learning more about who God is, and pushing ourselves to listen to what he has to say. I began asking myself these questions as I was reading the Bible a few years ago, and I’ve found it so much more interesting, and so much more useful to begin with what I can learn about God. It helped me to learn a lot more about God’s character, and helped me to keep my focus upon God, rather than upon myself.
And I think Lent is the perfect time to do this. By exploring Jesus’ life, and who he is, we come to better understand the events of Good Friday, another significant event in the Bible that takes place on a hill top, but this time not flanked by Moses and Elijah but by two thieves, his clothes no longer as white as the light but stripped away, the bright cloud above him replaced with darkness, not God’s voice declaring that this is his son but the voice of a Pagan soldier realising the truth. And again, this image of Jesus upon the cross does not take away from the glory of Jesus we have seen revealed, but in fact it amplifies it. By understanding the majesty and glory of who God is, we see just how much he has given up to come to Earth and to die for us in this way: the creator of the Universe revealed by a bright light on a mountain top put to death as a criminal.
Dear God, thank you that you sent Jesus to earth to die for us. As we prepare to celebrate your sacrifice and your resurrection this Easter, help us to better understand the truth of who you are as you reveal it to us through the transfiguration of Jesus. Help us to know you better, and help us to listen. Amen.