2/26/2017: Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-13

Last week was Peter’s identification of Jesus.  Jesus asked, “Who am I?” and Peter gave the right answer:  “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

This week we learn that it’s one thing to say it, and another thing to see it.

 Before I went to the Grand Canyon, I could have said, “The Grand Canyon is a really big, very impressive national park.”  With a little research I could even have said, “The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and in some places over a mile deep.”  But that’s just book report.

A whole different experience came during my family’s obligatory out-west trip as an 18-year-old.  We unloaded from our rental van and stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon.  It was near dusk.  The view went on from horizon to horizon, a huge rupture in the face of the earth.  My stomach flipped as I looked over the edge and saw just how deep a mile looks from above.  At that moment, all I could say was…


So here’s Peter – and James, and John – following Jesus up a mountain.  They’ve already given the book report about how Jesus is the Christ.  But now they’re about to see it.

And what do they see?

The gospels use a certain word to describe the event:  “transfigured.”  It comes from the root, “metamorphosis,” and it means “changed.”  It’s a strange word – not one we use in everyday talk.  What in the world does it mean to say Jesus was “transfigured”?  I think we’re meant to be left to wonder to some extent, but we do get a few specifics from the text.

His face shone like the sun.”  Think Moses coming down from Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35).  When Moses got close to God, God’s glory was so intense that it rubbed off.  More than that, it was so intense that the Israelites couldn’t even look at Moses’ shining face – it scared them.  So Moses took to wearing a veil after he came down from Sinai, so that the people could better handle the sunburn of the glory of God.  Jesus is shining like that.  Jesus is reflecting the glory of God.

His garments became as white as light.”  That makes me think how first thing God created was light (Genesis 1:3).  And then John describes Jesus as “the light of people” that shines in the darkness (1:4-5).  Peter, James, and John are seeing that light in its unfiltered essence, nothing held back.

And behold, there appeared with him Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”  Jesus is literally in conversation with two of the greatest Old Testament figures.  Jesus is not a new story; he is part of the original story, God’s big story that began with creation and is driving toward the coming of God’s kingdom.

This is, apparently, what it means to be “transfigured”:  Jesus is changed to reveal his true self, God’s shining glory, the Word made flesh.

And Peter said:  “WHOA.”

Okay, Matthew doesn’t record that part.  But based on what Matthew does record in verse 4, I imagine Peter – who always has to have something to say – letting this string of words tumble out of this mouth:  “WHOA.  Uh, Jesus… Um, this is really good that you’re here, like this… Seems like we should stay here… Want me to set up some tents?”

This would sound ridiculous, except that I’ve had this reaction before.  When something really amazing happens, why would we want to leave?  To stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, knowing that no picture will do this thing justice…  What do we do now?  Do we just stay here?  Or to go on a retreat – the Walk to Emmaus, or Wilderness Trail, or something like that – and have this amazing God moment.  What do we do with that?  Should we just stay here, forever?  Why would we ever go back to everyday life?  Things are so good here, in this moment.  Everyone is getting along.  I have zero cares for my email inbox.  I am not opening or worrying about bills.  Let’s just stay here, in this God place.  Let’s just live here in wonder forever.  Someone, go get some tents!

That’s what Peter had in mind.  Then God interrupts him with a different plan.

Peter has barely finished saying the word “tents” when a bright cloud shows up.  A clear, confident voice speaks out of the cloud, reminding them of the lesson that began at Jesus’ baptism:  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him.”

A small detail to consider is that Jesus isn’t saying anything at this particular moment; neither does he say anything until they seem to be halfway down the mountain.  “Listen to him”?  Listen to him about what?

The word “listen” here has more of the meaning, “obey.”  Like when you mom says, “Mary Catherine, listen to me!”  Or when God says to the Israelites, “Hear, O Israel…” (Deuteronomy 6:4).  It’s not just listen up so you can hear him, it’s listen hard because you must do what he says.  Listen and obey.

So Peter, James, and John don’t get to stay on the mountain with Jesus.  They pick their jaws up off the ground and walk back down into the chaotic world below. 


The Transfiguration by Raphael, 1516-1520

And the world below is chaotic indeed.  Raphael – the master of the Italian High Renaissance, not the Ninja Turtle – had a good way of picturing this.  His last painting was of the transfiguration.  You don’t have to look carefully to see the contrast between the bright revelation above and the dark depravity below.  Peter, James, John, and Jesus go back down into that, into human life with all its highs and lows, beauty and failures.

But they go down having seen who Jesus is, and with the clear instruction to “listen” to him.

Not long after this Jesus would say one of this best-known teachings, a clarification on the greatest commands.  “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” was the first Jesus named (Matthew 22:36).  Perhaps not coincidentally, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, the passage that begins, “Hear, O Israel:  The LORD our God is one LORD.” What Israel is commanded to hear – as in “obey” – is the same lesson Jesus will teach so many years later::  “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  If he did, Peter could have set up his tents.  If all we’re asked to do is to love God, then we can stay on that mountain, camp out by the Grand Canyon, live at a place like Wilderness Trail.  But there’s more, and the more is this:  “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

And you can’t love your neighbor if you are camped out on the mountain top.

I hope and pray that you’ve had a God moment of your own.  Maybe it was inspired by some beautiful Grand-Canyon-like view.  Maybe it was at a retreat like the Walk to Emmaus.  Maybe it was just a moment by yourself, when everything became a little brighter and you found your heart strangely warmed.  I hope you’ve had that moment, and that the memory of it feeds your soul.

But you were not intended to stay in that place.  Like Peter, James, and John, you had that moment so you could be sent with confidence.  You are sent so you can listen, listen to the one who said to love God first but also love those neighbors you live among.  Love them just as you love yourself, even though that’s hard and sometimes you’d rather just stay up on some mountain somewhere.

And do you know why?

Because Jesus said to, yes.  Because we listen and obey what Jesus says.  But also because God did it first.  God didn’t stay up, far away, in some God space, but came down and lived among us to love us.  So we do it, too.

May you go, and make it so.


Craddock and Boring’s The Peoples’ New Testament Commentary, especially for making me aware of Raphael’s last painting.

Boring’s commentary on Matthew in The New International Bible Commentary.

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