The Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Here’s a question for you. You’re not allowed to phone a friend, but you could chat with the person next to you. The question is: what is the first commandment? The answer is: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ Why would God command that? Is he some sort of control freak or on a power trip? Isaiah 40:18-20 (NIV) really gives us the answer:
“To whom, then, will you compare God?
What image will you compare him to?
As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.
A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.”
In the religions of the pagan nations surrounding Israel, each person had their own personal idol they would have had carved or had made and each year they would take it up the mountain for an enthronement festival. God’s own people Israel got caught up in this abomination. Either they made an idol overlaid with gold, or if they are too poor for this, used a block of wood and hoped that it would not be vulnerable to rotting when exposed to the elements! Further, these blocks of wood and stone and metal couldn’t be in all places at once. They couldn’t be a saving presence wherever the people were, so they had to be carted around, and then set up and chained to the carts so that they didn’t fall over in transit! Quite comical, really. And the Israelites themselves fell for this cult of nothingness.
The irony is astounding. Whereas the Almighty Creator created humankind in his image, mere humans created idols in their own image hoping by them to control the weather, but which were instead impacted by the weather. Those which were not everywhere present had to be carried around, and chained down so they wouldn’t fall over. And so the ironic reality for those who worshipped these idols is that they are not freed by, but chained by these idols and the worship of them and this is their downfall. For even though these idols had carved eyes they couldn’t see. Even though they had carved mouths they couldn’t speak. They were not life giving. They could not save, but only enslave.
By contrast, today’s account of the transfiguration clearly portrays Jesus as the true living God. Unlike the little idols that had to be pulled up a mountainside on a trolley, Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain to be with him alone. And for a brief shining moment Jesus is shown in the fullness of his glory to indisputably be the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. And that’s the Father’s verification from the cloud: “This is my Son; with him I am well-pleased.”
This Jesus is the One, who, up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel, has overcome the Devil’s temptation of him in the wilderness, he has healed lepers, the paralysed, and cast out demons from crowds of people. While he was in a boat with his disciples, he effortlessly calmed the storm that was lashing at it by simply telling it to stop. He restores a little girl to life and heals a woman who had been suffering from bleeding for 12 years. He restores sight to the blind. He feeds the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. He walks on the sea.
There is nothing outside the scope of Jesus’ authority and power. So confesses Peter, just before our text today, in Matthew 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
There on the unnamed mountain, for a few moments, the appearance of Jesus is changed so that his glorious divinity is on show. This really is the Son of God, the Saviour, God made flesh who dwelt among us, the One in whom the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. Accompanying this dazzling visual manifestation of God’s glory is the Father’s declaration: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Then adds: “Listen to him!”
Why? Because Peter’s not listening.
Peter just has to say something. We’ve probably all wished that at times: “If only I knew what to say”. Imagine this spectacular sight; it’s impossible to comprehend; it would be mind-blowing—what would we do or say? Peter blurts out the seemingly bizarre offer: “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.”
Peter wants to hang on to the mountain-top experience. He wants to bask in the glory. He hasn’t listened to what Jesus had just told them (for us, the verses immediately before today’s text: that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed—to which Peter replies: “No Lord, that will never happen to you!”—and that his disciples must also lose their lives by dying to self and take up their cross and follow him.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Peter and the others. We have the benefit of the whole story. We’ve received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost to bring to remembrance everything Jesus had said. They were about to lose their dear friend. They were confused and didn’t understand. They expected Jesus was coming to free them; to save them. How then could Jesus possibly talk of death on a Cross? That hardly sounds like the victory and rescue that people had hoped for and had come to see in Jesus.
Jesus’ claim that he must suffer and die smacks of failure, defeat, and compromise of God’s mission. How can suffering and death possibly happen to the One who is the agent of salvation? How can Jesus succumb to the very forces that he’s just overcome? Where is victory in a ruler who is going to be brutally murdered? Such humiliation sounds preposterous!
Jesus’ death is not defeat or failure. The transfiguration is the visual confirmation that the freedom and hope they long for in Jesus will be fulfilled. But glory can only come after the Cross, where his death is the beginning of his victorious rule, once for all. Here Jesus will liberate from sin, Satan and death itself.
Perhaps, like the disciples, we too have experiences in our faith journey where God does not work in the way we would expect. We might struggle to understand what he is doing—or seemingly not doing—in our lives. We might not like the sound of ‘dying to self’ and ‘taking our Cross’ and following Jesus. But only when we do, do we grow in Christian faith and love and life, becoming more like Jesus himself.
“This is My Son; with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him.” When our faith journey is not going as we might expect it to, our text today gives us hope in three ways. First, in Christ, God is a personal God. He is a God of communication. A relational God. He has something important to say to us. He wants to speak to us. Unlike carved idols, He can…and does speak. He wants to talk with us and reveal himself and his saving will to us. “This is my Son; with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him.”
Second, when we do listen to Jesus, we grow in the life of God. When we hold firm to the Word of God and endure in faith to the end, we too will join Peter and James and John and will see Christ face to face in all his glory, not just for a fleeting glimpse but for all eternity. Despite our failings and ways we haven’t taken up our Cross and followed Jesus, but have followed our own heart, or the times we haven’t died to self but revelled in it, through trusting in Christ and his word, we are pronounced righteous, not guilty and we will see Jesus face to face for all eternity and he will say to us, as he did to the terrified disciples: “Do not be afraid.”
Third, until that time, whenever that day will be, Jesus journeys with us. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” the Father says. When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus came down with them.
Jesus is on the plain with us too. He is in the wilderness. He is in those parts of our lives where there seems to be no hope of change for the better, those parts of our lives where we just don’t know what to do, who to turn to, or what to pray. Jesus journeys with us in the depths of our despair and brokenness, our illness, our struggles, our grief and pain. He journeys with us and will remain faithful to his promises even in the times we are unfaithful to him.
How does our appearance need to be transfigured? Where do the commandments painfully show us the areas in our lives where real change needs to come? As we are called to die to self by picking up our cross and following Jesus, hear his comforting words to each of us: “Get up. … Do not be afraid.”
For he is with us and will remain faithful to his promises to us to the very day when he will take us up the mount and we see him in the fullness of his glory, worshipping him forever in brilliant and dazzling light. There, our mortal bodies will also be transfigured to be completely without sin and frailty. Our face will shine like the sun, our clothes will be as white as the brightest light as we stand in the presence of the Lamb.
Praise be to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because all of this is possible only because of him alone. The mountain of transfiguration points ahead to the mountain of Calvary, where Jesus’ blood brought us victory over the devil and released us from our sins.
His outstretched arms nailed to the wood of the cross are the keys to the gate of Heaven, for us. Nothing else could possibly be added to his sufficient work. Nothing else needs to be. You share in all of this, personally, through your baptism into Christ. By virtue of baptism, we become children of God. That is why the Father’s proclamation about Jesus in our text are his words to us: “You are my son/my daughter whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”
Where else could you possibly find more precious words?