06 February 2011
One of my favorite spots in Phoenix is Dobbins Point in South Mountain Park -- just below all those broadcast towers you get this incredible panoramic view of the Valley. It really helps put things in perspective when you’re up there on the mountain.
Perhaps you’ve noticed how many perspective events -- pivotal events in the Bible take place on mountains. Who can name some of the biblical events which were mountain events?
- Mt Sinai -- 10 commandments
- Jesus is tempted on a mountain top
- Sermon on he Mount
- Jerusalem is Mount Zion
- Mount Calvary -- or Golgotha where Jesus was crucified
The Celts have a term -- “thin place.” Thin places are areas where the veil between this world and heaven is thin. The Eastern Orthodox Christians talk about the space surrounding their altars in similar terms -- where heaven and earth intersect.
I know many outdoorsmen who swear that they’re more aware of God’s presence on the mountain top than anywhere else. At the risk of sounding too far out there I’d ask, are the mountaintops thin places?
Our passage this morning is set on a mountain with very thin air, so to speak -- and that should be the first clue that it is pivotal to the Jesus story.
Now, we don’t know which mountain it was. None of the biblical writers feel the need to give us that information -- or they don’t have it -- or it is unimportant.
At the end of chapter 16, Peter and Jesus are having a confrontation. Jesus has just told the disciples that he would be killed and then on the third day raised from the dead. Peter takes Jesus aside and chews him out for even thinking such a thing.
Flashfoward -- a week later. Jesus takes his three closest disciples -- Peter, James, and John -- on a retreat up a mountain. vs. 1 -- “to the top of a very high mountain.”
And it’s while they’re up there -- I’m sure trying to catch their breath from the climb and admiring the spectacular view -- reveling in the fact that they made it to the top without chest pains -- that the unexpected -- the inexplicable happens.
vs. 2 -- He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
Suddenly the spectacular view from the top fads into the background. The gentle desert breeze that pushes up the side of the mountain goes unnoticed.
And if that were not confusing enough -- suddenly vs. 3 says “Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus.”
Now, nowhere in the story do we learn how the disciples knew that it was Moses and Elijah standing there. After all they’d been long gone from the scene -- Elijah the greatest prophet nearly a thousand years -- and Moses representing the Judaic law 1,200 or 1,400 years -- depending on which scholars you listen to. Both men had unusually ends to their lives -- stories for another time.
But remember, there were no photographs -- and at that point in history Jews didn’t do paintings of people. So we don’t know how the disciples knew. Maybe Jesus introduced them. Maybe it was obvious from the conversation. Who knows. It just was -- and the disciples were stunned -- but not to the point where they couldn’t respond.
I mean, remember, one of them was Peter -- bold brash -- the guy whose brain seemed to lag behind his mouth by a good five minutes.
Vs. 4 -- Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Now, this was not really out of line -- if you think about it. I’m not sure that I’d have enough wherewithal to make such a suggestion.
But it’s what happened after all of this that really drives the story. And I divided it into three sections built around three imperatives -- or commands in the story.
The first is this -- LOOK!
Vs. 5 -- “While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them.”
Did you catch it? -- “Look” Actually, some of the Bible translations don’t even include this word. I’m using the Common English Translation at this point because it does include it. Although, it is a bit clunky in English.
Sometimes we see this kind of imperative translated as “Behold.” Remember, when you were a kid in the Christmas play. “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto us....”
“Behold” -- nobody talks like that today.
Perhaps the closest thing we have in contemporary English is “Look here!”
It’s the linguistic equivalent to someone standing there waving his arms, jumping up and down, screaming -- “Hey, hey... I need your complete and undivided attention. Something important is happening here.”
Look! This is not some meaningless incidental detail in the flow of the story. This is what it’s all about. What you’re seeing here is the unfolding of the event that is going to change the world! And your life!
So if you’ve been cruising through life -- oblivious to everything other than what happens in your little immediate world -- setting your own direction -- tuning out all that isn’t immediately applicable. Sit up, take a breath of thin mountain air, and pay attention, says the gospel writer. LOOK!
Vs. 5 -- “A bright cloud overshadowed them” -- obviously the cloud of God’s presence. Remember, in the OT when the presence of the Lord came to Mt Sinai -- a cloud engulfed the mountain. We read that in Exodus 24.
And then, back in vs. 5, comes the voice.
“A voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him.”
Where have we heard this before?
Yes, at the baptism of Jesus, as he comes up from the water in the Jordon River, there is a voice from the clouds which says this very thing -- “This is my beloved son with whom I am very happy.”
It’s an endorsement of Jesus from above.
But this time, in the Matthew 17 reprise, there is an additional tag line -- “Listen to him!”
This is the second imperative or command -- LISTEN!
“Listen to him!”
This imperative is very similar to a command in Deuteronomy 18:15 in the OT. Moses is speaking and he tells the people that there will be another prophet that will come after him. And then Moses adds -- “Listen to him” -- same words.
The voice from heaven seems to be intentionally echoing Moses -- and identifying Jesus with this prophet. “Listen to him.” He knows what he’s talking about. He speaks for God. He won’t lead you astray. He’s the one.
And this is our calling as followers of Jesus -- to listen to Jesus -- to hear what he’s really saying, to accept what he is saying, and to follow his direction.
Of course, this is where most of us slip up pretty regularly. We, like Peter in chapter 16, are really pretty good at telling God what he should be doing and how he should be doing it and when he should be doing it.
We’ve even come to understand prayer as primarily asking and telling. But the imperative here is pretty strong. “Listen to him!”
It’s amazing that so many of us who claim to be Christians aren’t all that interested in listening to Jesus himself. We seem to let in every voice but his -- and then we’re baffled why it is that we struggle so much in our spiritual development.
Just listen to him -- and you’ll be alright.
There is a movement called Red-Letter Christianity. As you know, in some versions of the Bible they print the words of Jesus in red. Now, I’m not particularly fond of the practice -- for a number of reasons -- one of which is that my aging eyes struggle when they have to focus on blocks of red ink. But the publishers don’t seem to care about my eyes and most Bibles have lots of red ink in the four gospel books at the beginning of the NT.
Well, the so-called red-letter movement believes that we’ve read too much of the epistles and too little of the gospels. Now, I don’t agree with part of their position because it tends to pit the authority of the gospels against the authority of the rest of the Bible.
Having said that, though. They are right on one count. We evangelicals tend to not give as much attention to the words of Jesus as we ought. We are not listening to him.
And this is one reason why I believe that it is important to read at least some of the gospel each Sunday when we gather. We need to hear the words of Jesus himself -- so we can listen to him and be reformed by him.
Can it be that we as followers of Jesus gather in his name -- and yet get out the door without hearing at least something he is saying?
We need to become experts at listening to Jesus!
Now, I told you earlier that there were three imperatives in the transfiguration account. The fact is that there are actually five if you count verse 7.
You see, in verse 6 we read, “Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.”
Jesus responds in vs. 7, “But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’”
How many times do we read this after a divine encounter in the gospels? “Get up, don’t be afraid.”
The words awe and fear are actually the same in Greek. Awe can easily slide into paralyzing fear. But that is not God’s intention. God is not trying to throw us off our game. He’s not trying to mess with us or cause us to live in fear.
So, Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to get up and not be afraid. And Matthew says he touched them.
The transformed Jesus wasn’t a ghost or an angel -- but a real man, albeit glorified with the presence and endorsement of God -- glowing like the halo of a fire. But he could still touch them.
And vs. 8 -- “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. -- Moses and Elijah were gone. It was only Jesus.”
We can only imagine how the conversation went as they were coming down off that mountain with “only Jesus.” I suspect that there was a lot of silence -- not a lot of chit chat.
But Jesus had one more thing to tell them -- and this is the third imperative I’m highlighting this morning. The first was look. The second was listen. And the Third is “CHILL -- UNTIL.”
I mean, that’s not a literal translation but that’s what Jesus meant.
Vs. 9 -- “As they went back down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man (perhaps Jesus’ favorite title for himself) has been raised from the dead.’”
Now, does this strike anyone else as odd?
So much of the time Jesus seems to be sending his followers out to make disciples -- to go. Be my witness. Tell. Speak. Be bold.
The 1 Peter 3 passage we’re going to work on memorizing during Lent says, “And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.”
But here, coming down the mountain, just when you think that Jesus should be giving instructions on how to more effectively communicate the experience they’ve just had, Jesus is telling them to chill.
It’s a bit baffling. It’s like Jesus calls this big dramatic press conference -- and the end of his statement he says, “Oh, and by the way, I need you to sit on this story.”
Uhh? Why in the world? Jesus, you so do not make sense some times -- at least from the valley floor.
But notice that Jesus does not tell them to kill the story -- only to sit on it -- to “chill -- until” -- that is, until the time is right when people can actually begin to process it all. Not that we’ll ever completely understand it all but Jesus wants them to wait until after the resurrection before talking about the transfiguration event.
And the reason for this is that the Transfiguration only makes sense in light of the cross and resurrection -- which had not yet happened. The glory of Christ only makes sense from a resurrection perspective. We’ve got to be big picture Christians and big picture means -- resurrection picture.
Sometimes bits of a story which seem to make sense to us mean something totally different when they’re viewed from a higher panoramic perspective. The traffic on Baseline at 5 p.m. is totally different when experienced from Dobbins Point. It’s not nearly so chaotic and stressful.
If Jesus had allowed the disciples to report the transfiguration event before the events of the passion... Well, the spin that the disciples would put on the experience at that point was so incomplete that it would have created a lot of chaos for a lot of people for a long time.
Think back to the mountain top. Peter, impetus as he was, jumped to a certain conclusion about what was happening and he wanted to set-up three shrines. One for Moses, one for Elijah. and one for Jesus. In his mind this time and place needed an historical marker because it was obviously the coming of the kingdom of God in all its glory.
In his mind he envisioned a descent from the mountain where Jesus in the company of Elijah the greatest prophet and Moses the great lawgiver would take over and make everything right. They would release the glory of God on Israel and there would be a national messianic revival. And it was all starting from that thin mountain top -- so maybe it would be good to set up some shrines -- some memorial markers. He could honor all the big three and then as time went on it would become a place of pilgrimage.
But Peter was missing the point -- and you can’t really blame him. He simply lacked the perspective. He couldn’t see the bigger picture -- that the transforming glory of God was NOT going to be released from that mountain but from a different one -- the one we call Calvary. And the glory was going to be revealed in a different way -- through a cross -- and then the resurrection.
And this is exactly what Jesus is talking about in the gospels. Chapter 16 is about his impending death and the mandate to take up the cross. And then twice more in the gospel of Matthew Jesus predicts his death and resurrection -- a few more verses down in chapter 17 and then in chapter 20.
If Jesus had turned his disciples loose with the details of the Transfiguration -- nobody would have heard a thing he was saying about the cross. They’d just want to jump right over it all to Easter Sunday. And Jesus was trying to tell them that you can’t get to Easter Sunday if you don’t first go through Good Friday.
So this passage is really a challenge to Jesus’ followers -- a challenge to them that they would listen to the whole story -- the whole message. That is, that they would not only be encouraged by his his power over death -- his glory -- but that they’d hear what he is truly saying about the cost of following him. Listen to him.
Look, listen, chill until... but mostly listen. The “look” is about getting people’s attention so they listen. The “chill -- until” is an attempt to get them to put what they hear into the panoramic perspective of the whole story.
This is the Key Point this morning -- IN THE TRANSFIGURATION WE HAVE A PREVIEW OF THE GLORY OF THE RESURRECTION BUT IT ONLY MAKES SENSE TO THOSE WHO HAVE THEIR EARS TUNED INTO JESUS’ WHOLE MESSAGE.
Of course, we live on the other side of the resurrection -- so there is no imperative to chill -- until for us. Until has come! And so we are free -- yes, even encouraged to tell the Jesus story -- the whole Transfiguration story -- even from a mountain top perspective.
The thing is, we are resurrection aware. The season of Lent starts on Wednesday. We’ll be reading more scripture that has to do with sacrifice and the cross. Things will gradually take on a more somber tone as we walk through that part of the story.
But we have a definite advantage over Peter, James, and John. From our perch on the post-resurrection mountain we can see more of where this whole parade is going. And that drives us to listen even more carefully.
If you have not yet given your life to Christ and begun to seriously listen to him -- I want to invite you to do that this morning. Listen to him. And you’ll not only hear that you are forgiven but that you have a new life in Christ that doesn’t end. You’ll hear that you have a new purpose in life -- a new agenda -- participating in his mission to restore the world.
And that’s the good news.
Lord Jesus -- From this point forward I want to be one of the people who truly listens to you -- and who follows. I want to tune out the other voices and follow yours exclusively. I want to live my life from the perspective of the resurrection. I want this because I’ve been listening and I know that it is what you want. Amen.
Let’s join together in affirming our faith using words from 1 Corinthians 15
The Good News! Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time.