Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Wonderful Gift

This is my newborn niece, Lauren Ryleigh Marvel, born on January 31, 2008. She came into the world at eight sounds, one ounce, and 19 inches in length. Mom and Dad are getting along very well, and Sara and I are thrilled to be a first-time aunt and uncle!
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Monday, February 04, 2008


Matthew 17:1-9
Sermon Date
Transfiguration of the Lord

© 2008 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Many modern readers have difficulties wrapping their scientifically trained minds around this fascinating story of Jesus’ transfiguration. And yet, we are called by faith to look deeply into the text to discern God’s truth for us – a truth that runs counter to our self-rationalizations and our need to apply the scientific method on everything we encounter.

Sermon Function: To teach listeners that we, as those called into Christ’s church through baptism, are joined with Jesus in such a way that we experience, through our own sanctification by the Holy Spirit, a transfiguration of our minds and bodies and we draw closer to the Crucified One.

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I became an uncle this week, and Sara an aunt! My sister, Bethany, who many of you met over the course of the summer, gave birth to Lauren Ryleigh Marvel. She came into the world at eight pounds, one ounce, and measured 19 inches in length. After an intense day of labor, the doctors decided that little Lauren would have to arrive via caesarian section. Mom is resting and recovering. And Dad is beaming. My parents arrived there on Wednesday sometime around midnight, just in time to join with my sister and brother-in-law for the big event of the birth.

God is great, indeed.

And God’s greatness can be seen throughout out lives. Nature itself testifies to God’s creative genius. Our families and friends remind us of God’s steadfast love for us. And the miracle of birth, well, it does something far more profound to us than ever we might imagine. The scientific atheist would view birth through the lens of Darwinian piety. Of course we have children! If we didn’t, humanity would die out! And this is, indeed, true. But the wonders of God transcend even our own human need to replicate ourselves for the sake of having future generations. The act of birth gives rise to changes that permanently alter the landscape. Two married individuals suddenly add to their number, and instead of having a “married couple,” one now sees a “new family.” Parents become, suddenly, grandparents. Brother and sisters are transformed into aunts and uncles, and children suddenly take on the new role of “cousin.” The birth of children brings with it fundamental transformation.

Today we read of a special, and very different, transformation, called by us “The Transfiguration.” This Sunday is actually a feast Sunday in the larger church. By design, the readings we just heard from the Old Testament and 2 Peter should resonate in your minds as you hear this amazing, awe-inspiring story that forms a great hinge in the gospel of Matthew. Listen, and imagine, if you can, the awe that you might feel had you been Peter, James, or John.

Let us listen now to God’s Word.

[Read Scripture - Matthew 17:1-9]

The Scene

It is difficult to talk about this scene using terms we can relate with. Bill Carter, another Presbyterian pastor, recently confessed “to years of transfiguration aversion.”1 He discovered that for years he had been punting on this text, routinely assigning responsibility for preaching this Sunday to a colleague. Alas, I have no one to assign the text to this week. But I can understand Bill’s issue: How do you talk about this text, this miraculous, wonderful glimpse of Jesus’ awesome majesty, in a way that is relevant for us today?

The initial answer is – you can’t. I don’t think there is any way of collapsing the events Matthew records in a way that we can use our rational 21st century minds to understand. We, instead, are being invited to look in on an event that really happened, but through a lens of language that inherently limits our ability to share Matthew’s eyes to truly take in the full majesty of the Transfiguration event. And that’s okay, really. Because if we try to reduce the majesty of Christ into a nice package, we risk missing out altogether on the mystical, majestic, awe-inspiring core of our faith – a faith that proclaims we can know God, even as conceive of God as being unknowable. Instead, all we can do is point to what this text tells us about Jesus, and then sit in awe that God, despite our sin, would give us the means to know Him through his Son.

The Players and the Mountain of Authority

Matthew records that the ascent to the mountain occurred “six days later.” In the previous days, Peter, at Caesarea Philippi, has just confessed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (16:16). Right after Peter’s proclamation, Jesus begins teaching that he will be handed over, killed, and then on the third day raised to life (16:21). Peter, who one can imagine was annoyed that the Messiah he had just confessed would be humiliated and killed, rebuked Jesus. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter with those piercing words, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23). Jesus then tells us that anyone wanting to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16:24). Jesus concludes his remarks by saying, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt 16:28 NRSV).

And hear we are, now, at the base of the mountain. Peter, James and John, the “inner circle” of Jesus’ disciples, are present. And now we’re present with them, through the eyes of Matthew. Jesus takes them and leads them up to the high, unidentified mountain. Throughout Matthew, the high mountain is the place where Jesus exhibits his authority. Three times in the gospel, Matthew takes us to the mountain. The first time we’re taken up a mountain is way back in chapter five, when Jesus proclaims the beatitudes. While there, he preaches as one with authority. “You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “But I say to you…” and he gives his authoritative interpretation of the law. At the conclusion of Jesus’ teaching, Matthew records this: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:28-29 NRSV).

The second mountaintop experience happens at the end of Matthew, in chapter 28:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:16-20 NRSV)
Note that Jesus is the one acting in the first verse of our text. Jesus takes them, and Jesus leads them up. This isn’t an accident. Jesus does take us, and he leads us. Now, where is he leading us? And why?

Jesus Christ, Messiah, and Lord of All, God’s Very Word Incarnate

And the answer comes to us spectacularly in verse two. Matthew records that he was “transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (17:2-3). The critical word here is “transfigured.” It comes from a rare New Testament Greek word, the same word that gives us the term metamorphosis. Apart from Matthew, this word appears in only three other places. The first is in Mark’s account of this same event. The other two occurrences are both from the writings of Paul. Somehow, Jesus was transformed into something fundamentally glorious and awe-full. Eugene Peterson writes in The Message that, “His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes” (17:2 MSG). Like the piercing light of the Sun breaking over the horizon, his countenance became so bright that we cannot imagine looking at it without singeing our retinas. This must have been a shocking surprise, and electrifying event, and explosive scene, even more explosive than the time I once lit a gas log after letting the gas run a bit too long. Bam! Glowing white, shining Son, altogether beautiful, glorious, amazing, eye-burning, hair-singeing wonder! Imagine yourselves there with them. Imagine the look of surprise, confusion, and wonder.

And that’s just verse two! Matthew writes that two other people were suddenly present at the scene: Moses and Elijah. Moses, the chosen one of God who brought the law, the Ten Commandments, down from the mountain to the people of Israel. Elijah, the great prophe, who was miraculously taken up to God without having to first suffer death. Moses here represents the Law of God that Jesus has proclaimed earlier that he would fulfill. Elijah represents the prophets of God, those who proclaimed the day of the Lord. Both are present with Jesus in his wondrous glory. They have their own glory, to be sure, but it is nothing compared to the One who has been transfigured. One can imagine that even Moses and Elijah would have been awestruck at the sight, even given their intimate knowledge of God. Here is the very One who was promised to us!

Now, what do you do when you directly experience the in-breaking of the divine into our common reality? What do you say when your eyes are being blinded by God’s glory? If you’re Peter, you want to prolong the experience, and memorialize it. “Let’s stay here for awhile and enjoy this spectacular goodness,” Peter says. “Let’s build some tents so you, Moses, and Elijah will stay for awhile.” Sounds grand, but the plan is interrupted. This time by something profoundly serious – the very voice of God.

A voice calls out from the cloud that overshadowed them saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt 17:5 NRSV). And with these words, we see what authority Jesus really has. He is, in fact, God’s very Word. The divine voice did not say, “Listen to me,” but “listen to him!”2 Jesus is the Word, the fullest, most complete revelation of God to us human mortals.

The transfiguration event has now become overwhelming for Peter, James, and John. They collapse from the fear. First it was Jesus’ transfiguration, then suddenly the arrival of Moses and Elijah, and finally the very presence of Almighty God on the mountain. God told Moses that no one could see God’s face and live. I’d duck for cover as well. And that’s what they did. Overcome by their fear, they literally, according to the Greek, fell down on their faces.

Jesus then came over and touched them. He reached out to them. Notice how Jesus works here? Jesus took them up the mountain, he led them there, and now he touches them. Jesus always moves first in the Bible. God always moves first and remains steadfast in his love for us even when we flail about in fear. Jesus reaches out, touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid” (17:7).

In Dale Brunner’s acclaimed commentary on Matthew, he writes:
In a way, the entire gospel is present in this text of the disciples' reaction, for the church believes and teaches that God himself "came up to us, gripped us, and told us to get on our feet and not be afraid anymore" in the Incarnation, person, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. He came to us at Christmas, he grabbed us by his helping words and deeds in his ministry, he put us on our feet by his Good Friday death for us, and he banished fear from our hearts by his resurrection. Everything is in that little seventh verse, and in some ways this little grab-and-list at the end of the transfiguration story, often neglected in exposition as if a mere after-effect, may be one of the most important points in the story. For Jesus shines not just to shine, not just to impress, not even in the final analysis to make us obedient or trembling, but especially to help us up, to put us on our feet, to enable us to breathe again so that we can be obedient to his Word.3
And they looked up and saw no one except “Jesus himself alone” (17:8). And then their fears evaporated. There is, as Bill Carter aptly notes, “Nobody else we have to deal with” apart from Jesus.4

Back Down the Mountain

And the importance of this fact is highlighted when Jesus asks the disciples to keep quiet about what they have seen until “after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (17:9). It won’t all make sense, says Jesus, until after Easter. But you’ve seen a glimpse of the true glory of God, and you’ve seen that same glimpse here this morning. And what awe and wonder it is, that God’s Word would dwell with us each Sunday, right here in Portland, Texas. Having had the mountaintop experience, Jesus descends and continues with his ministry. We ought to do the same as we leave our worship encounter with Jesus today.

The final lesson for us to remember is this: Jesus of Nazareth, the great Son of God who lives among us having been born into our human condition, and who can relate to us directly through his humanity is, still, the Christ, the anointed one, the very Word of God. He is not as we are, thank God!

Let us pray.

O God, in the transfiguration of your Son, you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah; and in the voice from the cloud you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us, with Christ, heirs of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.5

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Carter, Bill. “Homiletical Hottub.” Sponsor: Lectionary Homiletics. Accessed January 31, 2008. . Entry dated 1/28/2008.


3Ibid., quoting Brunner.


5Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, p. 215.