Sunday February 23rd 2020 — Transfiguration Sunday
Pastor Galen Zook
An Early Morning Hike
“Peter! hey, Peter, it’s time to wake up!” Jesus shook Peter as he slept on his mat next to the other disciples.
“What? What’s wrong?” Peter woke up, startled. He had been sleeping quite soundly.
“Nothing’s wrong — we just need to get an early start” Jesus explained.
“But it’s not even light yet!” Peter protested.
“I know,” said Jesus, rather matter-of-factly, “but we have a long way to go.”
“Where are we going?” asked Peter.
“We’re taking a little hike up Mount Tabor today.” Jesus said, pointing to the mountain a ways off in the distance. Peter knew that mountain well, since it was one of the mountain peaks on which it was customary to light beacons to inform the northern villages of Jewish holy days and of the beginning of new months. Growing up as a little boy in Galilee, Peter had often stared up at the lights on the mountain, but he had never considered actually climbing the mountain himself.
Jesus told Peter to wake up James and John and get ready to go as quickly as possible so they could get an early start.
It wasn’t uncommon for Jesus to wake up long before everyone else. Frequently the disciples awoke and found that Jesus was off by himself somewhere praying, often for hours at a time. And it wasn’t strange for Jesus to tap Peter, James and John to go with him on some sort of mission or other when he couldn’t take all of the disciples. Peter, James and John had been three of the first disciples to follow him when he walked by their fishing business along the sea of Galilee and invited them to leave everything behind to follow him. Having left everything behind in order to follow Jesus, they give little thought to waking up early to take a short hike with Jesus up a mountain.
But that day’s mountain hike would prove to be much more memorable than they could have ever imagined.
Six Days Prior
It had been six days since Peter and Jesus had had a rather tense altercation, and so it was especially meaningful that Jesus invited Peter to go with him.
It had all started when Jesus announced to his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, and then when he got there he would undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, but that three days later he would be raised again (Matt. 16:21). All of the disciples were blindsided by this announcement — this is not at all what they had expected would happen. Jesus — their Lord and master, their teacher, the one who performed miracles and cast out demons and walked on water — Jesus would have to suffer and die? It was absurd!
Peter had taken Jesus aside and told him “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). But then Jesus had turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:23).
As you can imagine, this cut Peter deeply. He cared deeply about Jesus, and he believed in Jesus’s mission. After all, Peter had given up everything to follow Jesus! He couldn’t let anything like this happen to Jesus. Perhaps he thought Jesus was just having self-doubts, and needed his friends to rally together behind him. But when Jesus had called him “Satan” — or, “accuser,” and referred to him as a stumbling block, well that hurt.
And then Jesus had proclaimed to all of his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). Jesus also told them that there were “some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:27).
After all of this, Peter didn’t know what to think. But he was afraid to say anything else, and so he just decided to keep following Jesus and see where it all led.
And so, six days later when Jesus woke up Peter early in the morning and told him they were going to take a hike up Mount Tabor, he dutifully woke up James and John, and the three of them met up with Jesus for an early morning hike up the mountain.
And it was there, on the top of the mountain, which according to Christian tradition was Mount Tabor, that Jesus was transfigured (or transformed) before them. According to the book of Matthew, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matt. 17:2-3).
Peter was once again the first person to speak. But this time, rather than trying to stop Jesus, he tried to express his support. Peter said “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” (Matt 17:4). Peter would much rather that Jesus stay here, on this mountain, with his face shining and his clothes dazzling white, talking with Moses and Elijah, than to suffer at the hands of the chief priests and elders!
To Peter, this must have seemed like a sign that Jesus wasn’t going to have to die. The sheer power and magnitude of this event, the gloriousness of Jesus’s shining face and dazzling white clothes, the magnificence of standing in the presence of these ancient heroes of the faith — it seemed like Jesus (and vicariously Peter, James, and John) had arrived. Perhaps they could stay here for all of eternity! Building a dwelling for Jesus, and Moses and Elijah here on this mountain — high above the fray, far away from the scheming scribes and elders and the corrupt religious leaders — seemed like not only the most logical thing to do, but also the perfect happy ending to this whole messianic event.
The Voice from the Cloud
But, as in the days of Moses on Mount Sinai, a bright cloud overshadowed them (Matt. 17:5, cf. Exodus 26:16), and a voice spoke from the cloud, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5).
Peter, James and John were overcome with fear and fell to the ground, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’” (Matt. 17:5). When they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone. Jesus was standing there by himself. As they were making their way down the mountain, Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had been raised from the dead.
What was the point of this whole event? Why was Jesus’s appearance transformed for a time? Why did Moses and Elijah appear and talk with him? Was this for Jesus’s sake, or ours? What did Moses and Elijah say to Jesus?
Questions about this event abound, but most striking, given the interaction that Peter had had with Jesus six days prior, is the the command uttered by the voice from the cloud to “listen to him.” If Peter, James, and John ever doubted that Jesus was who he said he was, this event must have been a pivotal event in their faith journeys. If they ever wondered whether it had been worth giving up all they had to follow Jesus, and whether it would be worth following Jesus to the end, this event would have sealed the deal.
And so they did listen to him. They paid close and careful attention to everything Jesus said and did. Although they didn’t tell the other disciples what had happened that day, they must have eventually reported the event to Matthew as he was writing this Gospel narrative, as well as to all of the other disciples.
Seeing Jesus transfigured on the mountain that day must have transformed them, too. No doubt they were a little more in awe of Jesus, a little less prone to wonder whether what Jesus said was really true. A little more willing to follow him wherever he led them.
Listen to Him!
Perhaps you never had a vision of Jesus glowing on the top of a mountain. Perhaps Moses and Elijah never appeared in front of you. Perhaps you never experienced a bright cloud descending upon a mountain and a voice calling out to you. If you haven’t that’s OK — I’ve never experienced anything like that either!
And yet the command that God uttered forth from the cloud is the same command given to us today. Listen to him! Listen to Jesus. Don’t just hear — truly listen. Pay attention, give heed to what he says. Christ’s words are life and truth. The words of Christ deserve our full attention and devotion. And when we listen — truly listen — and put into practice the words of Christ, they will change and transform us.
This is why we give special honor to the words spoken by Jesus. This is why traditionally we stand when the Gospel lesson is read. This is why many Bibles print the words of Jesus in red. This is why the Gospel account has been told and retold throughout the ages. This is why we gather weekly on Sunday morning, to remind one another of the words that Jesus spoke, why we share in communion together and remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. This is why, every year, we tell and retell of the birth and the life and ministry of Christ, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection and impending return.
This is also why, every year, during the season leading up to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection, we enter a season called Lent — a time set aside for focusing our attention on Christ’s sacrifice for us, a time to reflect on our need and dependence on Jesus. A time to pay careful attention to what Jesus would have us do.
In order to focus our attention on Christ, some of us may decide to give up chocolate, or alcohol, or coffee, or TV, or social media for the period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday (when we remember Jesus’s last supper). Others may decide to pray or read Scripture more regularly, or to give away more of our time and resources to those in need.
Whatever you might decide to give up or do during this upcoming season of Lent, let us remember that the most important thing we can do is to listen to Jesus. To hear the words that he wants to say to us — which are not always the words that we might want him to say, but they are the words that we need to hear nonetheless. Let us hear his words of love, and truth, justice, and mercy. Grace, forgiveness, and transformation. Hear his words calling us to deny ourselves, to leave it all behind, to take up our cross and follow him. To be willing even to lose our lives for his sake.
Let us turn our focus and attention on Christ. Let us listen to him, and let us allow ourselves to be transformed.