A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on March 2, 2014
Did you notice any similarities between the text from Exodus about Moses and Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration?
I hope you did.
And the author of Matthew’s gospel certainly hopes you did. Matthew, if you recall, tends to see the life and ministry of Jesus through Moses-colored glasses.
At the beginning of the gospel, King Herod is a stand-in for Pharaoh, seeking to kill baby Jesus as Moses’ life had also been threatened. The baby Jesus even has to flee to Egypt.
In this text, the Mosaic parallels are not very subtle. Jesus is on a mountain top, with just a few companions. There is a similar cloud on both mountains. God speaks.
People are transfigured—Moses’ face glows when he finally leaves the mountain, showing that you cannot be in the presence of God without being changed. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the people are afraid of him because his appearance is so altered. Moses has to wear a veil when he’s out in public. (Exodus 34:30) And Matthew tells us that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Moses himself makes an appearance at Jesus’ transfiguration, appearing with Elijah, making it clear that Jesus embodies the teachings of both the Old Testament Law and the Prophets.
Why the similarities?
In one sense, I think both texts are preparing people for long journeys. Moses and the Israelites will spend 40 years in the wilderness, preparing to enter the Promised Land.
Immediately before the Transfiguration story we heard this morning, the disciples heard some difficult news. Not 40 years in the wilderness, perhaps, but Jesus’ followers are preparing for a different kind of journey. We’ll begin it this week on Ash Wednesday, with our 40 day Lenten journey to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Listen to Matt 16:21-25:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But he 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.” Then Jesus told 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.”
This was not the news they wanted to hear.
In no possible way were the disciples following Jesus because they imagined an ending like this. No matter how different Jesus and his message might be, they weren’t expecting news about suffering, persecution, death, and cross carrying.
And, I suspect, they skipped right over the phrase about “on the third day be raised”. How could any one, before the resurrection, possibly make sense of that claim?
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter—get behind me Satan!—seems unnecessarily harsh.
Perhaps that is what Jesus needed to say to really get their full attention. To help them wake up to the reality of their situation.
He speaks a Truth that they’d just as soon not hear, and says it in very strong language. Imagine being in Peter’s shoes after receiving that comment.
But this is where I love Peter the most. Remember— immediately after the “get behind me, Satan” comment, Peter is still there. He doesn’t slink away in shame and defeat. He still travels up the mountainside with Jesus.
And if there is a character who knows he isn’t there because of his own actions, because of his own merits, it has to be Peter. I admire this emptied, grace receiving man, taking a day trip with the person he loves the most, who also just spoke the harshest truth to him.
And then we get the Transfiguration.
Which made me wonder if the Transfiguration is a pastoral response to bad news. Jesus takes them, including Peter, up on the mountain. He is transfigured before them. Then God’s voice appears out of the heavens and they fall to the ground, overcome with fear.
Jesus reaches out a hand, touches them, and says, “do not be afraid.”
In that divine, transfigured touch, I wonder if the disciples began to understand in a new way what it meant to call Jesus “Immanuel”—God with us.
Moses saw God face to face, carrying down God’s love and law to the people, but it left him unable to be in the presence of his people without a veil.
The disciples saw God face to face in the person of Jesus Christ. They felt God’s hand on their shoulder, and heard God say to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is offered as gift to us. And in the Transfiguration, the gift is one of comfort, encouragement, and preparation for the journey ahead—the journey to the cross, where their friend will be tortured, suffer, and die.
This gift of Transfiguration doesn’t mean that they are any more inclined to make the journey. Peter offers to build some dwellings there on the mountain, presumably so they can stay there and not continue down the mountain to the cross. But Jesus reaches out and touches them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
While most of us are not likely to have stood on a mountaintop in quite the same way as the disciples have, I suspect that all of us have had, or will have, such a moment. We tend to only think of “mountain top experiences” as good moments, highlight moments.
But the mountaintop might also appear to be a cliff edge. News comes to us—bad news of one kind or another—whether diagnosis or divorce or loss of another kind—and we can’t see where the path goes or what the path will look like. But we see the bottom of the valley, way below our perch on the crumbling mountain side, and we just know we have to get to the bottom somehow.
Like Peter, we decide we’d just as soon not journey down that path. We want to pitch tents and stay right there on the mountainside of denial, hoping that a new highway will be built to keep us from having to take the road indicated on our map of bad news.
But Jesus comes to us, touches us, and tells us “Get up and do not be afraid.”
He does not say that the journey won’t be exactly as bad as we fear it will be. He also doesn’t say the path ahead will be clear and easy to navigate.
When Moses came down from the mountain, he found the people had made a golden calf to worship when they decided they couldn’t wait for Moses to return. The path after the mountaintop wasn’t clear for Moses either.
Hopefully our journeys won’t be 40 years of wilderness wandering as it was for Moses and his band of travelers.
In Jesus’ presence, in his transfigured, bright, shiny glory, we are reminded that we are not alone. That the very presence of God is with us on the journey. We see God face to face, and because of that, we have what we need to make the journey.
The journey to the cross, the journey to death, the journey to loss, the journey to pain is one we only take in the presence of God.
One of the very real gifts of ministry is the privilege I have of being invited into your lives in those moments when the world is turned upside down by harsh and horrible news.
And as I’ve seen you move down the mountainside, down a path you would never voluntarily choose to tread, my prayer has been that you will feel Jesus put his hand on your shoulder and say, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We can’t magically make your bad news go away. But in the Transfiguration, we remember we are not alone as we make the journey.
God’s presence in our lives gets us through it and then opens us up to beauty and grace, giving us new paths on which we journey together.
As we approach Lent, the season where we, as a people, experience corporately that disorienting journey to the cross of Jesus, I pray that we will remember this moment, this transfigured touch of Jesus on the mountainside. And remember that we, together, as people journeying to a cross we don’t want to see, are not alone.
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
As we prepare for our Lenten journey, remember Immanuel, God with us.
This journey cannot take us anywhere that God is not present.
A large part of our life together is celebration and joy—like next week’s Talent Show, or Chili Cook off, all church camp, Easter, Christmas, and weekly worship and fellowship.
But a part of our life together is also the journey to the cross. Our life together is also Holy Week, it is gathering together for funerals, and sitting with each other in hospital waiting rooms. Our life together is sharing our difficult news with each other, trusting that sharing the burden will make the journey less lonely. Our life together is taking casseroles to those who mourn and praying for each other in difficult times.
In our life of discipleship, we are called to be present together through it all, and to help each other hear the transfigured Jesus’ voice saying, “get up and do not be afraid”.
Let us journey together. We are not alone. Amen.