Let’s look at Matthew 17:1-8 this morning.
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.Matthew 17:1-2 NRSV
What we often forget is that to his disciples, Jesus was a human. He was a special human, but still just a human. He was a miracle-worker, storyteller-extraordinaire, lover of people… but still just a human. But everything would change in this moment. Peter, James, and John would never be the same.
1-2 Six days later, three of them saw that glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light.Matthew 17:1-2 The Message
This moment was revealing Jesus as fully God, something otherworldly, beyond their imagination, in this transformation that is visible and tangible.
This Jesus was no ordinary man. His face was shining like the sun, his clothes were dazzling and brilliant. Maybe, just maybe, there was more to Jesus than they knew…
3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.Matthew 17:3 NRSV
Peter, James, and John see this glorified Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Jesus is elevated into the realm of two larger-than-life figures in the Jewish cultural and religious pantheon.
3 Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.Matthew 17:3 The Message
It says that Jesus is in deep conversation with Moses and Elijah. I’ve wondered, “What were they talking about?” To paint a picture here, we need to understand who Moses and Elijah represent to a Peter, James, and John, and the larger Jewish community in Judea:
Moses represents the Law → in Israelite history, he is responsible for their redemption out of slavery, their coalescing of national identity, and their entering into the land that God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he was responsible for codifying Israel’s law, and encouraging their adherence to Yahweh’s rule and reign.
Elijah represents the Prophets → in Israelite history, he is the greatest in the line of the prophets; the prophetic tradition spoke truth to power, walked in miraculous signs and wonders, and encouraged the people to turn from their idols and worship Yahweh.
To Peter, James, and John, there are the undertones of messianic fulfillment and national salvation from Roman occupation. Moses and Elijah represent a deep hope for an oppressed people, long under foreign occupation, and hopeful for salvation.
The text also demands that we look at our hopes and dreams. Just like Peter, James, and John, we need to be aware of the ideologies and identities that we’ve put our hope in. What do we take for granted, assume, and have wrapped our motivations, dreams, and goals around? Who is our Elijah or Moses, or what are our Law and Prophets?
As a community seeking to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, we have to be mindful of our American exceptionalism, or our lack of love for neighbor and enemy, or how disconnected we may be to the soil and sea, or our indifference to those with less privilege or the oppressed among us.
But I digress… this text is taking us somewhere.
4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, 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.”Matthew 17:4 NRSV
Up and till this point, they have never seen Jesus in his complete divinity. They’ve only ever seen Jesus as human. He’s been their rabbi, a teacher, a miracle-worker, an extraordinary public speaker, and even a rabble-rouser at times. And truthfully, all of these things weren’t that different from a Moses or Elijah. Jesus wasn’t all that different from these giants in Jewish tradition.
4 Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”Matthew 17:4 The Message
Peter is in awe and he wants to stay in the moment. He says he will make three dwellings (or memorials) for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, which at face value seems well-intentioned. But when you look closer, you’ll begin to see how off-base Peter is here.
He’s saying, “Jesus, everything you’re about, is as good, as relevant, as necessary, as the Law and the Prophets. We’re so glad you came; now we can place your words and your message alongside what we already know.” Peter is essentially saying, “You’re right up there with Moses and Elijah.”
How often have we done that with Jesus? How often have we placed him alongside our established ways of thinking, our religious ritual, alongside our love for country or people or culture? How often have we brought him alongside other ideologies, identities, and ideals? How often do we say, “Jesus your way and your kingdom is so good and right and I value it so much.”
There is more Jesus expects and wants.
5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”Matthew 17:5 NRSV
While Peter is speaking, a bright cloud overshadows them, and voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is a peculiar statement, one that points to this idea of Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit), which seems fitting because of how it ends. The Father says, “Listen to him!”
God is revealing to Peter, James and John, that Jesus is no ordinary human. There is this mystical union of God and man in the person of Jesus, and he has that special place of Sonship, co-equal and in perfect relationship with the Father and Spirit.
This glorified (or transfigured) Jesus is surprising. When not in his transfigured state, Jesus can almost become too familiar to us. We can see ourselves in him, which is good and necessary and right; but this can also lead us astray and imagine Jesus to be just as we are, and we can forget the fullness of Jesus is. Yes God has a human face in Jesus, but we must never forget that while God is made approachable in Christ, he is still in his fullness God. Awesome, otherworldly, divine and eternal.
For the Jews, Moses led them out of slavery and bondage. He was known for his close relationship with Yahweh, and in many ways had earned Yahweh’s trust. He was Yahweh’s mouthpiece to the Israelite nation, and he represented Israel to Yahweh. And most important of all, Moses was sole recipient of God’s laws. These laws and Moses’ leadership directly shaped the character of Israel.
And so yes, Jesus is like Moses, a liberator, savior, national leader… but Jesus is more.
For the Jews, Elijah represents the height of the Israelite prophetic tradition. He ministered in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. In the text he was associated with performing miraculous signs and wonders and healing. He routinely spoke against the idol-worship of his day, and encouraged the people to look to Yahweh. Like Moses, Elijah had a close relationship with God, and was God’s mouthpiece to the people.
And so yes, Jesus was like Elijah, a prophet, a miracle-worker, a healer… but Jesus is more.
To take this thought even further, during this time in Palestine during Roman occupation, the Jews were looking for messiah. Someone who would liberate them from Roman occupation, restore the kingly line of David, be a savior, national leader, a miracle-worker, a healer… and Jesus in more ways than one, seemed to fit the bill.
Jesus looked, sounded, and acted like a Moses or Elijah… but Jesus is more.
For Peter, James, and John, their perceptions of Jesus are being reoriented. He is God, a Son beloved, who pleased his Father. From this point forth, God the Father was pointing to God the Son, and saying, “Listen to him. Whatever you know of the Law, the Prophets, tradition, rules, legal code, national identity, hopes and dreams, all of that is necessary and even relevant, but from this point forward, listen to Jesus.”
5 While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”Matthew 17:5 The Message
God’s self-revelation, this moment of utter grandeur… needs to also reorient us. What stories, or ideals, or laws, or hopes, or dreams, have caught our imagination? Have we added Jesus to our pantheon of national identity, or political ideology, or economic opinions? Are we acutely aware of the temptation to place Jesus in the same realm as everything and everyone else we hold dear? Are we listening to Jesus?
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.Matthew 17:6-8 NRSV
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Earlier on in the story, when Peter, James, and John heard the thundering voice, they had fallen to the ground in fear. Like the rest of us, when we are confronted by moments that are completely beyond our understanding, moments that tell us there is more to life than the natural order of things, it completely disorients us, and we can retreat into fear and uncertainty.
In times past, when God revealed himself in awe and wonder, humanity has often retreated into fear. When you read Elijah and Moses’ story, this is also what happened to them, and you can see this play out throughout Israelite history in the OT.
While all of this is to be expected, there is something different afoot this time. Unlike the Israelites of old, in Christ God doesn’t leave Peter, James, and John in that place of fear. Jesus says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus is encouraging them and saying: “Take heart, it is I.”
6-8 When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.Matthew 17:6-8 The Message
It is telling, that when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. God was reminding them that this Jesus would now be the crucible through which all others and everything else passed. Jesus was and is and continues to be the reason, the motivation, the goal… for it all. The Law and the Prophets, Moses or Elijah, all pale in comparison to who Jesus is and what he represents.
And so for us, Jesus seeks to be elevated above pantheon of all other ideologies, hopes, dreams, aspirations, goals, even yes our idols. He wants everything (and everyone) else to pale in comparison to who he is, the kingdom he represents, and his message of redemption and re-creation.
So what does this mean for you and me, and for our Union community?
2020 has been an incredibly trying year. Disruption, change, anxiety, worry, distress, fear, and even depression are words we might use to describe this year. Whether it’s COVID-19, racism and police brutality, political partisanship and the election, climate change and economic anxiety, this year has me coming back to this phrase in verse 8: “All they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.”
Do I see Jesus, only Jesus? Does our community see Jesus, only Jesus?
As I thought about this year and pressures we’re all facing, I was reminded of a story from 150 years ago in the Assam region of north-east India:
There was a family who had decided to follow Jesus. A man named Nokseng, his wife, and their children were called out in front of the whole village. They were asked to renounce their faith. The village elders were ready to publicly punish this family for converting to Christianity.
In the face of extreme opposition, this family stood up for their faith and didn’t turn away. Nokseng proclaimed in front of the whole village, “We have decided to follow Jesus.” The village folk began to hurl insults and threaten them, but this family stood firm. The village would go on to murder this family for their faith.
They had decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no rejecting the faith. No matter the cost, they were ready and willing. That proclamation of faith by a murdered family would eventually lead the entire village to Jesus. The sacrifice of one family would lead countless others to faith.
Years later an Indian Christian mystic, named Sadhu Sundar Singh would reflect on this family’s story and their bold proclamation of faith, and pen the words to a song many still sing to this day.
I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; No turning back, no turning back.
Though I may wonder, I still will follow; Though I may wonder, I still will follow; Though I may wonder, I still will follow; No turning back, no turning back.
The world behind me, the cross before me; The world behind me, the cross before me; The world behind me, the cross before me; No turning back, no turning back.
Though none go with me, still I will follow; Though none go with me, still I will follow; Though none go with me, still I will follow; No turning back, no turning back.
Will you decide now to follow Jesus? Will you decide now to follow Jesus? Will you decide now to follow Jesus? No turning back, no turning back.Song: I Have Decided To Follow Jesus
“All they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.” In light of persecution, loss, disruption, anxiety, stress, and even murder, all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.
Peter would reflect on this Matthew 17 moment in a letter he would write years later. The Message paraphrase translates his letter this way:
16-18 We weren’t, you know, just wishing on a star when we laid the facts out before you regarding the powerful return of our Master, Jesus Christ. We were there for the preview! We saw it with our own eyes: Jesus resplendent with light from God the Father as the voice of Majestic Glory spoke: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of all my delight.” We were there on the holy mountain with him. We heard the voice out of heaven with our very own ears.2 Peter 2:16-18 The Message
My job this morning is to remind us of who we worship. This God-man, incarnate, awesome, fearsome, tender, compassionate Jesus… that’s who we worship.
Paul describes Jesus this way to the Colossians:
15-18 We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. 18-20 He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.Colossians 1:15-20 The Message
May we recognize his rule and reign.
May our stress, worry, fear, and anxiety, pale in comparison to who he is.
May we step up and into the light, and recognize his involvement in our lives.
May we become aware of his presence and care for us.
May we walk into that open, expansive place of trusting and surrendering to him.
In all things, may we see Jesus, only Jesus.
Jesus, only Jesus