February 26, 2017
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 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.” 5 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!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.9 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.”
Let’s talk for a moment about reading the Bible.
It’s hard sometimes – things happen that we don’t really understand (like transfiguration).
It feels like there are references to things that we don’t know.
The words can be confusing. It was written in languages we don’t speak. The cultural and religious practices are unfamiliar.
Sometimes the Bible seems to say things we disagree with.
Ellen Davis, professor of the Bible at Duke Divinity School, writes about how reading the Bible, studying the Bible is not about identifying those bits of the Bible we particularly like or do not like (and just reading the bits we like). It is really the opposite, we have to grapple with the “Bible’s inexhaustible complexity,” which means we have to read the whole of the Bible, and investigate and wrestle with those bits that are difficult to understand.
My children wrestle all the time – I am told this is normal, and by doing so they become strong and agile. We wrestle with the text and that is a good thing.
Augustine of Hippo writes in the 4th century about the Bible, that on the surface the Bible might seem flattering, it might seem to confirm just what we currently think but if we dare to look at it deeply, Augustine writes, “Mira Profunditas, my God, the wondrous depth! It causes a shudder to peer into it – a shudder of awe, and a tremor of love.”
Let’s return to the text and see what wondrous depth we can see. Even in the very first verse there is a lot going on. Jesus and his closest followers are on a mountain. Oftentimes when the Bible gives us a location it is important.
Many times in the Bible God meets people on mountains. When we read widely in the Bible we start to notice these patterns.
Moses meets God on a mountain.
Elijah meets God on a mountain.
Jesus preaches from the side of a mountain.
Something remarkable happens when we leave the level and familiar plains of our lives. Something remarkable happens outside the ordinary.
That’s why we talk about mountaintop spiritual experiences – that can be so often where God meets us. So we begin this text guessing that God is going to meet these men on the mountain.
In the very first verse we are told that it is six days later, but we are not told after what?
There is a lot that could have happened six days earlier and if you’ve got your Bible (or your Bible app) open look back to the start of chapter 16.
What has happened earlier is that the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of that time, come and find Jesus and ask for a sign from heaven, and he refuses.
And then Matthew tells us that Jesus makes his way to Caesarea Philippi, which is about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
And there Jesus asks his disciples “who do people say that I am?’ and “who do you say that I am?” And Peter comes through with the right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And then Jesus describes for his disciples his death and resurrection, and Peter gets rebuked for denying it. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”
And then Jesus teaches his disciples that they will have to deny themselves and take up their cross to follow him. Any one of those things could have been six days earlier.
But reading through those passages the person I noticed most of all was Peter. It is Peter who has this moment where he seems to truly understand what is happening – he gets who Jesus is.
And then we see Peter fail utterly – he does not get who Jesus is. He seems lost in a way. Things are happening all around him and he can’t quite figure out what is going on or what to do.
There is a new TV show on NBC called “Powerless” and it looks at the lives of the ordinary people in the world of super heroes. Not the Lois Lanes who get to hang out with the Supermans, but the regular everyday people who the superheroes and supervillains fly right over.
Oftentimes we are so busy looking at amazing feats of wonder that we forget about the experience of the ordinary person. I think this happens when we read the account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus lights up before our very eyes – there are ordinary people there watching and sometimes we forget about them and their experience.
So I’m going to read the text again, and this time pay attention to the experience of the ordinary people, especially Peter. What does he say and do? What does he feel? I know I’ve said this before but this is an imaginative way of getting into God’s word.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
4 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.”
5 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!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 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.”
When something shocking or surprising or terrifying happens, we often do not know what to do or say. When something tragic happens, we show up with casseroles. We often feel like we say or do the wrong things. Peter had no idea what to do in the moment, but he must do something. Let’s put up some tents, everybody needs a tent.
Peter’s talking is interrupted by God. Did you notice that?
While Peter is still talking, God interrupts.
While Peter is making plans for the future, God tells him he is missing the point.
God says in essence, “Forget about tents. Listen to Jesus.” Stop making plans, stop scurrying around because you do not know what else to do. Pay attention. Live with this discomfort of not knowing what to do. Listen to Jesus.
And what does Peter do next? He hides. Forget paying attention, he is so scared he cannot bear to look.
But Jesus comes up to him and touches him and says, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” Get up we have to go down the mountain.
Do not be afraid, I will go with you.
And perhaps Peter didn’t fully understand Jesus’ words until they were all standing one last time on a mountain at the end of Matthew’s account, when everything was said and done just as Jesus said it would happen, where Jesus gives them a final promise, “And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.”
What wondrous depths there are in this story.
What is your point of connection? As you think about this story what is it that the Word is saying to you in your journey right now – and it may different from the person sitting next to you.
We bring ourselves, just as we are, with all our experiences, and questions and uncertainties, we bring all of that with us when we read scripture, and God speaks in remarkable and personal ways through what we read and hear. What you take away from this message and this scripture may be God’s unique message to you today. We may each walk away with something different from this text, and that’s ok. That’s how a living Word works.
Through this text we might be reminded that there are times we when get it right and times when we get it wrong and feel lost and ashamed, and God still invites us up to the mountain top and into God’s presence.
We might be reminded that there are moments when it would be good for us to learn how to be still and silent. We are impatient. We want to solve everything. We want answers now. We want to do something especially about things outside our control. But God interrupts, and reminds us to be still and to listen to Jesus.
We might be reminded that even when we are worried or scared we are never too far from Jesus who puts his hand on us, and says don’t be afraid. There are unknown things ahead, get up and go, we will walk towards them together.