Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 17:1-9:
Gospel passage is known as the transfiguration, and it is read today because it
is, appropriately enough, transfiguration Sunday, which is always the last
Sunday before Lent begins.
Transfiguration is not a word we use a lot these days, although the
Harry Potter fans amongst us probably remembering him going to transfiguration
classes. But we are probably more
familiar with the Greek word used here, which is metamorphosis, which means to
change, or to be changed. Jesus is
changed into something different from what he had been in his normal appearance
so that the Peter, James and John come to understand him very differently than
what they had before, although they still don’t get it, or at least Peter
doesn’t get it. But to illustrate that
we have to take a step back in the story.
Six days before this, which is how today’s passage begins, Jesus asks
the disciples who people say that he is, and they respond that some say John the
Baptist, and other’s Elijah or one of the other prophets, but then Jesus says,
but who do you say that I am, and it is Simon Peter who speaks first and says
“You are the messiah, the son of the living God.” This is the first pronouncement by the
disciples of who Jesus is in Matthew, and Jesus responds his famous phrase that
Simon is “Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” It should be noted that Cephas, which is the
Aramaic word for rock, also had a connotation when applied to someone of
meaning something like blockhead, although as a term of endearment, and that
certainly applies to Peter, but then Jesus begins to teach them about what it
means to be a disciple and says that “If any want to become my followers, let
them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” How often?
That’s actually a trick question, because it’s in Luke’s gospel that
Jesus says daily.
leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain, where he is transfigured before
them. We should be seeing some strong
parallels here between Jesus and Moses. When
we began looking at Matthew just after Christmas I talked about Matthew’s
emphasis in comparing Jesus to Moses, but making Jesus greater than Moses, thus
Jesus delivers the sermon on the mount and when he gives the great commission
at the very end of Matthew, where do the disciples meet Jesus? On the top of a mountain. But this of course is more than just Matthew
as Mark and Luke also have this even taking place on a mountaintop, and any
time we hear in scripture that something is taking place on a mountaintop we
should begin paying close attention, because important things take place on
mountains, encounters with God take place on mountaintops. And here is where
the disciples come to understand who Jesus is, not just something they can
proclaim, but see for themselves.
Moses encounters God, a cloud descends upon him, and Moses’ face glows with a
reflection of God’s glory which scares the people when he comes back down. But here, the cloud doesn’t descend until
after Jesus glows, and it’s not just his face, Jesus entire body glows, and he
is not reflecting the glory of God, he is the glory of God. And then Moses and Elijah appear, and we
might wonder how is that Peter, James and John knew that that is who it was. It’s not as if they could do an image search
on Google to know what they looked like.
Nor did Moses and Elijah have on little tags on their chest saying
“Hello, my name is…” But, the simple
fact is, Moses and Elijah were so associated with the coming of the Messiah, so
that the only two people that would have made any sense to the disciples to
appear with Jesus was Moses and Elijah
The last book in the Hebrew Scriptures as we as Christians
have them arranged, is the prophet Malachi, and it ends with this “See, the day
is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will
be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of
hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who
revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread
down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the
day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. Remember the teaching of my servant Moses,
the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo,
I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord
comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts
of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with
a curse.” And then we turn the page and
we are in Matthew and hearing an account of Jesus the Messiah. It has to be Moses and Elijah with him, not
only because of their significance within Judaism, but because of their
significance for the coming of the Messiah.
They are the indication that the old age has come to an end, and a new
age has begun.
And while all of this is going on Peter chooses to make a
puzzling statement. Rather than saying
something like, “wow, Jesus, this is amazing can you explain it to us?” Or “Hey guys, look I was right when I said
that Jesus was the Messiah,” or even “Jesus, is that Bert and Ernie standing
with you?” Instead of saying any of the
normal things he might say, Peter says “it is good for us to be here; if you
wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for
Elijah.” Just like always, it is Peter
who opens his mouth in order to insert his foot. Although Peter has said the words that Jesus
is the Messiah, he doesn’t truly understand what they mean, and the bigger
problem is that Peter has an edifice complex.
In order to remember this moment, in order to try and keep this moment
going, as if they are all going to stay there for a long time, Peter wants to
construct a monument to these events.
But the problem is as soon as he even wants to begin construction the
moment is gone. We too often seek to
memorialize moments to lock them into memory and history, just think of all of
the churches throughout Jerusalem said to stand where Jesus did something. But the problem with this is that in doing it
we try and box the event in, to contain it and control it, to make it something
easily understood and comprehended because it now has a visible element
associated with it, something we can manage and control.
In the Lego Movie, the bad guy, Lord Business, want to use
kragle (spoiler alert it’s crazy glue) to fix everything into place so that
nothing ever changes. That is the work
of an edifice complex, but Legos are not meant to be permanent, they are meant
to be ever changing, to be taken apart, to be rebuilt, to be shaped and formed
into something else, they are not meant to be permanent, locked in one place
for all time. And the same is true with
us. Our faith life is a journey, which
means it has movement, that we are moving forward, hopefully, that we are growing,
we are not stuck in one place, we don’t build monuments to a moment and hope to
remain there forever, because the simple fact is that we can’t.
And our edifice complexes extend not just to buildings but
to ideas and theology as well, and Peter too demonstrates this for us. Immediately after his proclamation that Jesus
is the Messiah, Jesus begins to teach the disciples that he must go to
Jerusalem and suffer and die and the be
resurrected on the 3rd day, and Peter takes him aside and basically says this
can’t happen and really he should stop talking about it. Why?
Because Peter can’t comprehend this idea, Jewish conceptions of the
Messiah don’t match this, he has built an edifice of theology so that he can
contain and control it, he can box it in and understand it, but Jesus, like
usual, breaks that edifice, that monument, and rebukes Peter saying get behind
me… Satan. It is the sternest rebuke
that Jesus gives to anyone, because Peter is, in Jesus’ words, a “stumbling
block” because he is setting his mind not on divine things, but on human
things. Peter is stuck on edifices, he
wants to build monuments.
Mountaintop experiences are great, those moments when we
have touched the thin spots, and have encountered something important and
meaningful, they are important, but we can’t stay there. As much as we seek to hold onto these
experiences for as long as we can, sooner or later, real life interrupts and
forces us from the mountain back down into the valley. We don’t live on the mountaintops, it is in
the valleys in which we live and encounter the real world, and it is in the
valleys in which we must take up our crosses and follow Christ.
The last person I served communion to last month when we
received here in church was my nephew Wyatt.
I could seek to build a monument to that moment, to try and remember, to
lock it away and protect it, maybe even say that I was never going to serve
anyone else, but I can’t, not only because it doesn’t really serve either Wyatt
or his memory, but it doesn’t help me either.
I can remember it, and will remember it, but I have to move forward in
my life and in my faith journey. We are
called to the mountaintops to experience God, but we cannot remain there, and
we cannot build monuments to keep everything static in its place, we can’t do
it in our lives or with our ideas, and we can’t do it with our faith. Our faith life is a journey, and while who we
were a year ago is important, it is not who we are today, nor who we will be
next year, because we are picking up our cross and following. Following who? Jesus, who is leading us forward.
We all have edifice complexes, a desire to build monuments,
to stay in a moment, but Jesus says that the first step to picking up our cross
is to deny ourselves, to deny our desire to build monuments, as important as
they sometimes may be, and to follow, to “get up and do not be afraid,” but to
follow Jesus, a journey we begin this week as we move into the season of Lent
and make our way to the darkness of Holy Week and climb yet another mountain
for the crucifixion, and then into the valley of the shadow of death and then
the celebration of Easter morning. So
let us spend today experiencing this remarkable event, pondering the view, and
remembering this moment, and then let us go down the mountain as Lent requires
us to do and follow the path to the cross, a path which we all travel together,
and a path which leads us eventually to the celebration of Easter. Thanks be to God sisters and brothers for the
mountaintop experiences, and the reality that it is in the valleys in which we
live. May it be so my brothers and