Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 17:1–9, 2 Peter 1:16–21
The Transfiguration of Our Lord[i]
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Matthew 17:1-9 (2 Peter 1:16-21)
It’s hard to believe your eyes these days.
Over the past decade, our culture in America has become increasingly dominated by the influence of social media. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have allowed people to connect and share what they’re doing and seeing, even broadcasting livestreams out into the digital ether. One of the blessings of this form of communication is that it’s given people a voice, an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings and experiences with the larger world. But as is often the case with good things, human beings often take them and use them for less-good ends. We’ve already got an abundance of politically slanted reporting and various camps decrying so-called “fake news.” But add into that the advance of machine-learning video-generation technology (creating what’s known as “deepfake” videos), people can literally make it look like someone did or said something they never really did.
Peter, James, and John lived in a time when “social media” pretty much meant “word of mouth.” People shared news and stories with each other. Just a short while before today’s Gospel reading takes place, Jesus had asked his disciples who people were saying he was. They reported the buzz from the social media of their day. People thought that Jesus might be a great figure from their history, maybe even Elijah who was supposed to come before God brought great rescue for His people. When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter answers for them, saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” They got it… kind of. The disciples still couldn’t quite understand what Jesus meant when he told them that the Christ, the Messiah, the Rescuer, would have to suffer and die to accomplish his mission.
The Transfiguration of our Lord, the amazing sight that Peter and James and John got to behold, gives us a perfect example of a central point of this season of Epiphany that we’ve been celebrating since Christmas. Epiphany is about the objective truth of God’s love for all nations. God the Son himself came down to be with us, to reveal the lengths to which God would go to bring all people out of the darkness and confusion in which humanity has lived since Eden. Early on in this season of Epiphany, you heard God the Father’s voice speak out from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17) And today, at the close of the Epiphany season, you heard it again when the Father spoke to Peter, James, and John as the cloud of His glory overshadowed them: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (17:5)
The disciples will be witnesses. They’ll be the ones who will tell others what they’ve seen once the Messiah’s mission has been completed. They’ll report the truth of Jesus’ identity to the world by their word of mouth and writings – the Transfiguration isn’t something that they could Instagram! – so that everyone might come to know that God sent a Savior who was even better than they’d expected. Because even after seeing this glorious sight, the disciples still didn’t truly get it. They, along with much of their nation, had been hoping for a rescuer who deliver them from the Roman Empire. Would a new Moses come along to set them free? No. Someone even greater than Moses had come, and soon, the disciples would be telling the world about him. But first, in order to be witnesses, they had to listen.
Maybe it was the amazement of seeing their teacher shining with heavenly glory, but the disciples didn’t seem to fear what was happening on the mountain that day. Not even the sight of Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus could keep Peter from talking. It was only the voice of God the Father that would give them pause, prompting them to fall on the ground in terror. God cut through the noise. He again declared that Jesus is His beloved Son and, what’s more, that he’s the one to whom they need to listen. There might be many people out there saying different things about Jesus, who he is and what he’d come to do, but his voice is the one that matters. Listen to this one. Jesus had revealed to the disciples what he must do, that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. And he was going to do that so that all nations might have rescue from the darkness and confusion that sin brought into the world.
The cross precedes the resurrection. The truth of God’s love is that He would come down into His creation to pay the price for humanity’s sins – our sins – because we couldn’t. Jesus’ disciples would soon see just how he’d do so, defying their understanding of what the Messiah was supposed to do, disappointing the social media buzz of the day, all so that Peter and James and John and you and I could have life in the kingdom of God. Each of us is a witness of this truth.
“And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.’” The word that Matthew used which we heard in English as “vision” can also mean “sight.” To some, this might seem like a small thing, but I think that “sight” is the better word for us today. Jesus’ transfiguration wasn’t an out-of-body experience for Peter, James, and John. It happened in the real world as an historical occurrence. These disciples were witnesses, seeing and hearing evidence of who Jesus really was. This experience, I suspect, served to encourage them as they continued to follow Jesus through the remainder of his mission here on earth. I pray that it will encourage you, too.
You and I continue our journey through life in a time and place when many voices are speaking at us. Most of them would lead us off course. Some tell us that Jesus isn’t the Messiah, the rescuer. Some tell us that there’s no need for rescue, or maybe worse, that there’s no hope for rescue. It’s no wonder, then, that people have a hard time hearing the truth, or that you and I might forget who we are and whose we are.
In a few days’ time on Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world will receive the mark of the cross on their foreheads as a two-fold reminder. The cross of ashes is a sign that we are mortal, that we do indeed need a Rescuer who can save us from sin and death. It’s also a witness to the truth that Jesus, the Son of God, is our Rescuer. The cross precedes the resurrection. Your resurrection. Peter, James, and John wouldn’t come to grasp that until after Easter. But even though you and I have a ways to go before Easter comes again, we can still live in hope that looks ahead.
As we come to the close of the season of Epiphany, remember the witness of the apostles. Because you, too, are a witness. You’ve heard the report of who Jesus is and what he’s done from those who saw and heard before you. This is what Peter reminds us in today’s Epistle reading. The truth of God’s work in Christ isn’t based in cleverly devised myths. It’s not founded in “fake news.” It’s good news from God Himself, for every human being. We Christians share this good news of God’s love in Jesus because he rescues us people who needed rescuing.
As you show and tell of God’s grace, do it out of love for your neighbor, because you want them to have what you have. Jesus doesn’t need salespeople. Live your faith. Share your life. Point others to the hope you have in Christ. Listen to Jesus.
[i] Passage for memory:
[Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” – Matthew 17:5