Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 17:1–17:9
The Transfiguration of Our Lord
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
God bless Peter.
In the Gospel accounts, it always seems like it is Peter – out of all the Twelve of Jesus’ closest disciples – who is the one doing something remarkably shortsighted. Jesus is getting away from the crowds that have followed him, privately taking Peter, James, and John along with him on a hike. They’ve gone up a high mountain, maybe Mt. Hermon up to the northwest of the Sea of Galilee, where they’d have some peace and quiet for time spent with God in prayer. Peter’s generally the one disciple who speaks for the Twelve in Matthew’s Gospel and one of Jesus’ companions at times like these when he went off with a few others for prayer. Now Matthew doesn’t tell us all the details of their time heading up the mountain or how long they were there; he jumps right into the most important event: Jesus’ transfiguration. And Peter is there, witnessing everything what happens. And maybe doing more than just witnessing.
It sounds incredible. One moment, everything is perfectly normal for them. In the next, Jesus is transformed, revealing his divine glory as overwhelming light shines from his face and his clothes appear whiter than the brightest white. At that alone, Peter and the other two men should be transfixed, seeing Jesus as they had never seen him before. But Matthew reports that this incident doesn’t end with this amazing sight. “Look!” the evangelist says: Moses and Elijah are there, too, talking with Jesus. These two towering figures of the Scriptures standing before Peter and James and John, having a conversation with their Teacher! How could that that not completely capture your attention?
I’ve been there before: transfixed. Not on that mountaintop, or on anything as magnificent as the sight of Jesus in his transfiguration, but it’s happened. Unfortunately, I suppose, my attention can get completely caught up in a whole lot of things, and most of them are pretty ordinary. I might be playing an intense video game or watching a really good game of basketball, so I’m not quite listening to what my wife’s telling me at that moment. But when you’re transfixed by something awesome, it’s hard to look away. It’s hard to pay attention to anything else. You might have experienced this while reading a thrilling passage in a book, or out hiking when you come across a particularly striking vista. Caught up in it, you don’t want it to end.
God bless Peter. He sees Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus. Moses, the lawbringer who led the people from captivity in Egypt through the wilderness into salvation in their new life as God’s people. Elijah, the great prophet who pointed to the coming of God’s kingdom, His reigning, which is already breaking into the world in Jesus. Right there! What better to do than listen to this conversation? So what does Peter do? Peter – who not that long ago confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the one who God had promised to send into the world as its Savior – he wants to chime in! Interrupting the discussion, Peter exclaims, “It is good for us to be here!” From there, he just goes downhill. He asks, “How about I” – note there’s no mention of James or John here – “How about I build three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah?” It’s like he sees the three of them as equals. When Peter looked to Jesus, he could walk on water. When he looked away and got caught up in everything else, he began to sink.
Peter’s caught up in the moment. He doesn’t see the big picture. The disciple who confessed Jesus as being the Christ fails to recognize him for who he is. He isn’t understanding that Jesus is God, the God of Israel who Moses and Elijah both serve. Not knowing what to say, he just wants this glorious moment to last. This is the proverbial mountaintop experience! And in his shortsightedness, Peter interrupts when he should just listen. He’s a lot like you and me that way. It can be hard to just listen. Of course you want to be involved, to step and and contribute, to be connected to the great event happening right before your eyes. But then God speaks.
In this passage, Matthew uses the word that we see translated as “Look!” three times. First when Moses and Elijah have appeared, then two more times in rapid succession here. You might also see it translated as “Behold!” but I like to think of it in the sense which Matthew writes it as, “Hey, pay attention to this!” Look! While Peter is still talking, the shining cloud of God’s glory surrounds them on the mountaintop. And look! God the Father speaks, interrupting the interrupting disciple.
In the same words that he spoke at Jesus’ baptism, the Father publicly proclaims that this one, this Jesus of Nazareth, is his beloved Son. The Father gives witness about Jesus, who he is and what he has come into the world to be. Jesus is God, the same God who invited Moses and the elders of the people of Israel to come up and encounter Him on another mountain, to see Him and share a meal with Him. Jesus, in that faithful obedience which pleased his Father, would again take the lowly road of the servant down from this mountain to head to the cross for those he came to save.
God the Father continues: “Listen to him!” Pay attention to him! Listen to this one, Jesus, because he is the one. There is no one like him. He is my Son. Focus your eyes on him, because he will give you that which matters most. That’s why he’s here.
You might feel a lot like Peter sometimes. Caught up in the moment, you lose sight of the big picture. Making shortsighted choices, you might rush to act instead of being still, you might interrupt when you should just listen. On what are you transfixed in these closing days of the season of Epiphany? What has you so caught up that you are losing sight of the big picture, forgetting who Jesus is and what he has come to do to and for your life?
God the Father spoke, and the disciples were filled with fear. That’s a normal reaction when you encounter God in His overwhelming holiness. But fortunately for them – and for us – Jesus is the next voice they hear. When he speaks, he says, really, “Get up and stop being afraid.” Looking up, the disciples see Jesus alone standing with them. This one is there for them. They hear the message that will ring out on Easter morning as they angels proclaim, “Stop being afraid.” Jesus would take your sin and shortsightedness to the cross and leave it there. He has overcome them for you; in his obedience, Jesus has freed you for life with his Father. There’s no need to be afraid, because he alone is the victor over death who will stand by you through the end of time.
Today, we get to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, remembering that Jesus is with us even now. He might not be appearing here in his transfigured glory, but he is still the same God who invited the elders of Israel to come up the mountain to eat and drink in his presence. As He did for them, He does for you: He invites you to come up and eat and drink the divine food He provides, in the shared company of God and His people. Listen to Jesus as he says, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” for he is indeed here for you. As Peter correctly observed, “It is good that we are here!”
But you don’t stay up here. You don’t stay in the pews, either, but go back out into that world where there are so many things competing for your attention and your energy. Jesus goes with you. Listen to him. Let your eyes and your heart and your mind be transfixed on Christ, because he is the one who will guide you in life – the one who gives you life – in these days in-between. Looking to Jesus, you won’t lose sight of the big picture.
We’re all about to come down from the mountain of Transfiguration to head into the valley of Lent. Lent is a season of preparation, a penitential season wherein you and I are called to reflect on our sin and shortcomings, our faults and failings before God our Father. But don’t focus on them. Look ahead. Look to what’s waiting at the end of Lent. Look to Jesus and his cross, because there he has put an end to our shortsightedness and our rushing interruptions. There you can see your Savior.
In this weekend’s worship services, we bid farewell to the use of the “alleluia” in our life together, putting it away until Easter comes. Alleluia is a word of joy, calling out praise to God for who He is and what He has done for us, His people. We set this word aside during the Lenten season ahead as a way of remembering just why Jesus has come into our world, to follow that lowly road of a servant who would suffer and give up his life for us. And we remember that all this he’s done out of love. In doing so, the song of “Alleluia!” will ring out that much sweeter on the day we celebrate the victory of His love.
God bless Peter. He had to come down from glory on the mountain to follow Jesus to shame on the hill of the cross. God bless you, too. As you go from Transfiguration to enter into the season of Lent, look to Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice and see God’s love for you. Listen to him. Don’t be afraid. He is the Son of God. Transfixed by God’s glory shown in Jesus, know that he goes with you.