by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are concluding our sermon series, The Wisdom of God, with Jesus going up on a mountaintop with a few of his closest friends. By this time, Jesus has been traveling for at least a couple of years teaching, healing, performing other miracles, like feeding the 5,000. Jesus asks the disciples who the people say that he is. He gets answers like John the Baptist, who have been executed by this time, Elijah, a powerful prophet who is supposed to return before the Messiah came, Jeremiah or another great prophet. So, there was some consensus that Jesus was someone special, anointed or appointed by God.
But then, Jesus turns the question onto the disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter speaks up quickly, as he often does, and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Mt 16:13-16)
Jesus praises him greatly, and tell him that God has revealed it to him. Then, Jesus names him, Peter, The Rock. Maybe when we talk about Peter, we should call him “Rocky” or “The Rock.” That was the impression the people were supposed to get with this name.
Naming was very important in the ancient world. In Genesis, God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sara, thereby changing their identities. (Gen 17:5; 15). A little later, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, also changing his identity from Jacob, which means “liar,” to Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” (Gen 32:28)
Here Jesus names Simon, “the Rock,” the one on whom Jesus will build his (Jesus’) church. It’s all great, and everybody is feeling pretty good about things. Then Jesus starts talking again about his death and resurrection, and Peter, The Rock, speaks up again and rebukes him. Tells Jesus not to talk this way.
Maybe, Peter, The Rock, feels like he was given a special position with his new name and everything, so he could talk to Jesus this way, as his special advisor or PR consultant. But, if he really knew who Jesus was, he would have never talked to Jesus this way. Can you imagine .. Think about this … can you imagine talking to Jesus like this? “Why are you saying these thing? You know this isn’t the way things are supposed to work.”
The thing we have to remember is that Peter (and the rest of the disciples for that matter) had in his mind a whole different definition of “Messiah” or “Christ” when he said that to Jesus. In a generic way, “messiah” (lower case “m”) means anointed or chosen one, by God, savior, liberator. What it meant to them was a person who would come in and liberate Israel or Judea from the oppressors, whoever they might be at the time. In Jesus’ time it was the Romans. So the messiah would come in with is army and throw out the oppressors and go on to rule Israel or Judea on behalf of God. The messiah would be God’s instrument. The wisdom of the world, common sense, says that successful liberators aren’t killed, and to even talk about it is a real morale killer for your closest friends, followers, and supporters.
So, Jesus, once again, corrects this wrong thinking. He tried to show them the Wisdom of God, but apparently, he thought a field trip was in order.
Now, we come to today’s Scripture passage …
Matthew 17:1-9 NIV
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
This is one of the more spectacular events in the Bible, but it’s not merely a light show. You might be asking the question, why? Why this event? Why now? Why did Jesus bring these people? Why the light show? Some people can find these episodes inspiring, while others have a hard time relating to them in the Bible because they seem so far outside our normal human experience. However, really this is one of those that could come close to something we might experience.
Imagine that you are on top of a high mountain … during a thunderstorm. The wind is blowing. The lightning is flashing. The trees are swaying. You can hear the branches creaking. Jesus has moved a little ways from you. He’s already dressed in a light colored cloak, and you can see him. Then, with the lightning flashes, he appears to glow, his face is highlighted. It looks like he is talking to a couple of other people, who can they be?
So, imagine all that. It doesn’t seem so strange. Does it? Okay, picture that, but there is no thunderstorm. But, think about it. Put yourself there. You are up on that mountaintop with Jesus, James, John, and our Rock, Peter. Once again, Rocky has to do something, say something, so he goes up to Jesus and offers to make dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Once again, he’s trying to direct Jesus in what he thinks Jesus should be doing, or maybe, he isn’t thinking at all. But, remember that thunderstorm, it’s coming, and it doesn’t wait for Rocky to stop talking. It envelops the top of the mountain, just like we heard from our Exodus passage earlier. (Ex 24:15-18)
Are you there? Maybe you’re standing at Rocky’s elbow watching the interchange between him and Jesus. Maybe, you’re with James and John, otherwise known as the “Sons of Thunder.” They aren’t saying much at the moment. They are staying out of the way. Then, this cloud rolls in, like a fast moving fog. You are surrounded by it. It seems like fog, like a cloud, but it isn’t. You can’t see a thing, not Jesus, not Rocky, not the Sons of Thunder, and from this, for lack of a better word, cloud you hear this voice, a voice unlike you have ever heard before.
Peter (Rocky) describes it like this in his second letter, “… when such a voice came to Him …” (2 Peter 1:17). Our English translations don’t do it much justice, especially when we read it in our heads, but if we were to read it, “… when such a voice came to Him …”
You are in this blinding fog, and you hear such a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well please. Listen to him!” Later, Peter would describe this voice as coming out of “the Majestic Glory” (2 Peter 1:17), but in the moment he and the Sons of Thunder collapsed in terror hiding their faces. They are literally scared to death. Can you imagine being there with them? When you all open your eyes, everything has returned to normal, and Jesus is there at your side touching you, telling you to get up.
Some of our English translations use the words “get up.” Others come closer when they use the word, “arise,” but these sound so commonplace, like your parent or your spouse encouraging you to get out of the bed in the morning. “Get up.” That doesn’t come close to communicating what is said here.
The disciples have fallen to the ground in terror. They are scared to death, and Jesus comes over, touches them, and says, “Be raised,” yes, be raised from this death. We think of Jesus being transfigured, revealed for who he really is in this passage, but it is these disciples who are truly transfigured. They are changed. They are given new life. This is when they are called to be different. It is just beginning, and they will still make plenty of mistakes, but the change begins here. It is something they can point to, remember. This is when they learned what it really meant for Jesus to be called Messiah, with a capital “M.” And we learn the Wisdom of God is to listen to him. In effect, Jesus, himself, is the Wisdom of God.
Peter is called. James and John are called. We are called. We are all called on a journey to be saints, to be made holy. Called to have a role in the life of Jesus Christ’s church. Called to be in relationship with Jesus, with God. But, before we start running off in all different directions, trying to do something … anything, we need to listen. It might be a vision or a dream, something extra-ordinary. Our culture tends to discount that kind of thing, so people are reluctant to talk about it. Our culture discounts it unless it is part of a movie like Lord of the Rings, then it’s inspiring.
I had one of these experiences when I was very new to the faith. I don’t know whether it was a dream or it really happened. I know that I was in bed, and I had been sleeping, but it is something that has remained with me for about 20 years. It wasn’t being enveloped by a cloud. It was a bright light, so bright that I couldn’t open my eyes, so bright that they hurt, and tears were running out of my eyes. I felt that I was in the presence of God, and I began singing the praise songs that I knew at the time. I don’t remember if I heard any words, but I remember feeling surrounded by this presence. Like I said, I don’t know if it was a dream or what, but it has stuck with me, something I will never forget.
You don’t have to have a dream or a vision. God communicates in so many different ways. I find that God uses the method that an individual needs. I love that about it. God may use another person to explain what they see in you. Maybe, it’s something that you never noticed, perhaps because it’s always been a part of you, so it doesn’t seem special or extraordinary to you, even though it really is.
It can be in the midst of an activity, and you get this felling … THIS is what I was meant to do! This actually happened to me one summer when all of my dreams of going into the professional ministry seemed shattered. A couple of years before this, I had returned to college to finish my undergraduate degree, so I could go to seminary. The previous fall, I was a couple of months from graduating when I had (what I thought was) a terrible meeting with my local District Committee of Ordained Ministry in Texas. One must get their approval to move on in the process to become a United Methodist pastor.
So, I finished my degree, but I had no idea of why I had it or how I would use it. Six months later, I had dismissed the idea of going to seminary. I knew I would like it, but I had already spent so much money. What would be the point? I had a job I hated. Meanwhile, I had this on-going theological email correspondence with a gentleman. We would discuss a wide variety of issues, and when we disagreed, we would each research our perspectives in the Bible and discuss our findings. I found the process exhilarating. I found myself saying, “This is what I’m supposed to do.” Suddenly, the idea of going to seminary didn’t seem frivolous or a waste of money. I had no idea of where it would lead. I certainly didn’t know that I would eventually become a pastor, but now I get to do that kind of intense engagement with God’s Word each week in anticipation of Sunday. (I also had no idea that I would be married to that gentleman eight years later.)
What is God calling you to do? Sometimes you don’t know until you try something and realize, This is it! (Sometimes you find out that this is not it, which can be an equally important thing to know.) What is important to realize is that each of us has a calling from God, all of us (not just pastors). And the MOST important part of living into that calling is to listen to Jesus. We are all transfigured, changed, renewed by God. Remember who Jesus is when we fall down or are confused. Whether we are up on that mountaintop in the midst of the swirling glory or down in the valley in the midst of the every day, Jesus, The Wisdom of God, is always there to lift us up, to raise us, and to set us on the path again.