Complementary Text: Psalm 41:7-10
Preaching Text: Matthew 16:24-17:8
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
We gather today to celebrate the “Transfiguration” – or changed appearance – of our Lord Jesus. The second half of today’s reading is the traditional text for this day, recount Jesus’ encounter with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop in Galilee. The first half, however, would seem to have nothing to do with the event of “Transfiguration”, and if you’re having a hard time handling both halves of this text in your head at once, I suspect you’re not alone. I have no doubt in my mind that as Peter, James, and John headed down the mountain with Jesus, their heads must have been spinning out of control, and you can hardly blame them. It had been a confusing week for them and for the rest of the Twelve, their emotions rising and falling like a roller coaster at their rabbi’s teaching and at the amazing things that they had witnessed.
It had all started six days earlier, when Jesus had asked his disciples to tell him what other people were saying about him and his identity. They’d responded with what they’d heard. There were some people in the crowds who thought that Jesus was somehow John the Baptist, the forerunner who had preached powerfully about the Reign of God until he had been killed by Herod Antipas, one of the ruling elites who was threatened by his message. Others thought that Jesus was the prophet Elijah, who famously had been taken up into heaven and who, tradition said, continued to live in God’s presence as he awaited the coming of the Messiah. Still others thought that Jesus was one of the other prophets, like Jeremiah, who had been killed for their witness to God’s word. When Jesus turned the question on his disciples – Who do you say that I am? – Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus praised him for recognizing the truth… and then told them all that they were forbidden to tell anyone who he was! What’s more, he followed up this miraculous scene of revelation with a brand new teaching – a prediction of sorts, that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer death at the hands of the scribes and Pharisees. It just didn’t make any sense! How could the Messiah die a brutal death by crucifixion? What was to be gained by keeping Jesus’ identity a secret from the crowds who would follow him anywhere if they just knew who he was? Simon, naturally, stood up to speak for the group, and he took Jesus aside to talk some sense into him. Suddenly, Jesus doubled down on his teaching, calling Peter Satan for trying to oppose him, and insisting that the path of discipleship was also a path that lead to suffering and death!
Six days later, some of those same disciples had witnessed something that was almost impossible to put into words. Their teacher had stood on a mountain conversing with Moses, Israel’s great law giver, and Elijah, one of its greatest prophets. As if that wasn’t enough, his appearance had changed too, and the sight of him was so glorious that they could scarcely look at him! Then, a voice had spoken directly to them from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Surely this was the proof those disciples needed to help people understand who Jesus really was, and yet he insisted that they not say anything about what they had seen! Just as before, it didn’t make any sense!
It didn’t make sense, of course, because the disciples insisted that only half of Jesus’ teaching could be true; they wanted to believe that he would be glorified without needing to face suffering and death. Even after 2,000 years, we Christians find it so hard to hold these two fundamentals truths about Jesus at the same time, and so we choose the Jesus that we’d like to focus on. Many of us are drawn to the glorified Jesus, the one whose clothes shine a dazzling white and whose power and authority are without equal. Many others, on the other hand, find reflection on the suffering Jesus compelling. They ponder his wounds for our sake, and they rack themselves with guilt over each lashing, each nail, each moment of agony, until that suffering becomes almost an end in itself.
The reality, of course, is that both of these images of God’s Son are important for understanding who he is. If we focus on the glorified Jesus to the exclusion of the suffering Lord, then we place Jesus on a pedestal, at a distance from our broken and beautiful world, and we fool ourselves into believing that he can’t possibly understand our challenges, our struggles, our pains and fears and grief. On the other hand, if we focus on the suffering Jesus without remembering that he is also the Lord of glory, we risk making Jesus out to be a passive victim, a misguided man whose death was a tragic fact and nothing more. Matthew puts before us both the glory and the pain of Christ because we cannot understand one without the other, and we cannot understand Jesus unless we try to understand both his glory and his humiliation.
What does that matter? If Matthew is right about the life of discipleship mirroring the life of Jesus, then we who follow Christ are called to do so with the recognition that we share Christ’s life in all its fullness. We are called to deny ourselves and take up our crosses, to live each day knowing that discipleship is costly and difficult, to embrace the opportunity to serve others rather than ourselves. We are also called to remember God’s blessing upon us, to live in hope of God’s promised future, to remember that we are destined to share in the glorious presence of Christ, and to keep our eyes open to the glimpses of grace that are all around us if we care to look for them. This life of discipleship is an exercise in keeping before our eyes both the cross that kills and the empty tomb that announces life and freedom and victory.
We remember that truth, brothers and sisters, as we stand at one of the hinges of the church year. Behind us is the season that calls our attention to God’s glory revealed in Jesus. Ahead of us are the observances of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Great Three Days, a time for us to examine ourselves and recommit ourselves to the things of God. Let us pray that, in the season to come, we hold in our minds the glory and the goal of our Lord Jesus, and may we strive each day both to deny ourselves and to claim the transforming power of our Savior in our lives, so that we might bear witness to the love of God whose name is Jesus in all that we do and say. Thanks be to God! Amen.