Jesus: Bright as Light, Down and Dirty

Matthew 17:1-9

1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4 Peter said to Jesus, “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.”

5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I’m not sure about you, but I feel that I have been lied to my entire life. No, not by my parents, the government, or my teachers. I believe that I have been lied to by my calendar.

My calendar does so much for me, and I really do appreciate it. It helps to keep me organized. It helps me to plan meetings and schedule child care. My wife and I have calendars that automatically synchronize so we can plan events according to one another’s activities. So please don’t get me wrong, I love my calendar. But it lied to me.

My calendar told me that February is the shortest month of the year. But when I woke up on February 28 to temperatures barely into the double digits, I realized that this past month was perhaps the longest in history. Every four years we add an extra day to the month of February and call it “Leap Year.” It feels like we have added an extra week to February this year.

I wish February good-bye and good riddance! March is here.

I’ve noticed some activities in my flower beds recently. The tulips are beginning to poke back through the hard crust of the frozen tundra. This weekend we are to have two days in the mid to upper 50’s. And on Sunday, the family and I are planning to go for a hike. It might be a little chilly, but with a few extra layers, we will be fine.

This hiking trip got me started thinking about my first ever hike as a Virginian. It was the fall of 2005 and we had only lived here for about a month. We went to church with a friend who grew up in Augusta County and asked where we might be able to find a good hike that was appropriate for some very new beginners. They encouraged us to go to Blue Ridge Parkway and look for Humpback Rock.

Fall on the Parkway is a busy time as people come from miles around to see the beauty of God’s creation. The Humpback visitor center was packed the Sunday we went on that first hike as there are often special events going on through the autumn months. And the hike itself was anything but private. We made our way through switchback after switchback, climbing higher and higher. We frequently stopped to catch our breath, to wonder out loud how much further we had to go, and seeking the advice of our fellow hikers.

When we finally reached the top, we were tired, — it was our first ever hike, after all – we were weary, but we were amazed. Remember, you are talking about an Ohio-grown farm boy climbing a small mountain with his Nebraska-grown wife. We didn’t grow up around mountains. As you climb the trail, all you see is trees and other hikers. But finally you pop out into the open and you have a near 360 degree view of the world below.

We were not alone. It was not quiet. We were more than a little afraid we might fall off the edge of the rock.

But in the midst of the chatter, the picture taking, and the heart palpitations brought on by children getting too close to the edge, I felt the presence of God. I do not believe that God is “up there” any more than God is down here. But there is something about climbing high into the sky that makes me feel closer to God. Perhaps it is the opportunity to take in so much more of the world than I normally would be able to. Maybe it is just that the air is thinner and my brain is getting less oxygen. I can’t say for sure, but I feel it; I feel Him.

I don’t think that I am the only one who feels closer to God on the top of a mountain. It is reported that Jesus climbs a mountain seven different times in Matthew’s gospel. He climbs a mountain to give a sermon that we have been looking at for the last few weeks. He climbs a mountain to be in solitude with God and pray. Moses climbed a mountain or two in his day, so did several of the prophets. There is something about climbing up that helps us connect better to God.

This is exactly what we find in today’s passage. Jesus takes three of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a high mountain. We are not told why they are going up the mountain, but it isn’t uncommon for Jesus to take these three men and go on a mini retreat from time to time. For instance, these are the same three disciples that go with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray later in the book of Matthew.

But this trip was different. When they get to the top of the mountain, Jesus is transformed. His clothes, surely dirty and tattered from all of his travels, became “dazzling white.” Matthew tells us that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun.” The only time I ever had a shiny face is when I was a teenager and was producing some excessive facial oils.

There is one other time in the Bible that we find a person with a shiny face: Moses’ face shines when he climbs a mountain and receives the Ten Commandments. And speaking of Moses, it just so happens that he and the Prophet Elijah are on the top of this mountain as well. So Moses, Elijah, and Jesus have a little conversation right then and there.

I have more questions than I have answers about this text. The first one you have probably all heard asked many times before, and that is, “How did the disciples know who these men were?” Moses and Elijah had been gone for hundreds of years and I am going to guess that there were not a lot of selfies of these men still floating around on the internet. I can’t answer that one, and it probably doesn’t matter anyway.

Of more importance is probably the questions of “Why these men in particular were there, and not others?” and “What did they talk about?”

Moses was a pretty big part of the Hebrew tradition, so it doesn’t surprise me to see him included in this meeting. But why Elijah and not Abraham? Why not Isaiah, or another prophet?

Some people have hypothesized that Moses represents The Law, Elijah represents The Prophets, and Jesus represents The New Covenant. Others have suggested that each represents an aspect of biblical salvation: Moses saved the people from slavery, Elijah saved a widow and her son from starvation, and Jesus saves his people from their sins.

So when I think about why these exact men were meeting together and what they likely were talking about, I come to one conclusion: I don’t know. But what I do know is that we can see that more than just Jesus’ clothes were changed in this story.

So Jesus is changed, Moses and Elijah show up and begin a bit of a conversation. Luke includes that this conversation includes some discussion on Jesus’ earthly departure, but this isn’t mentioned in Matthew’s text. Then we come to verse four: “Peter said to Jesus, ‘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 gets a pretty bad reputation for saying this, and other Gospels are a little more harsh on Peter than Matthew. But Peter isn’t saying anything too far out there. The word that is translated as “shelters” here can also be translated as “tents” or “tabernacles.” It is the Greek equivalent of Sukkot. You may see the word Sukkot on your Calendars, and it is commonly translated into English as the “Festival of Booths” or “Feast of the Tabernacles.” Peter isn’t just offering to build a shoddy place for these men to sleep. There is more behind his suggestion.

In Genesis 28 we find Jacob leaving his home to avoid the wrath of his older brother — whom Jacob had robbed not once, but twice — and also to find a wife. During his trip Jacob decides to stop one evening to rest and he has a vision. He sees angels going up and down a ladder. Along with that vision, he hears God speak to him, promising land, descendants, and other blessings. When Jacob wakes up he sets a rock up as a monument and he says, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house…” (28:20b-22).

When someone has a significant experience, it is common to do something to mark the time, date, and place. We will celebrate the birthday of our daughter later this month. We try to do something for our wedding anniversary to keep the magic alive. And many of us still turn our heads when we see a version of our first car go down the road. So it is no surprise that Jacob wants to mark the location of this theophany with a monument and call it a home for God. Jacob doesn’t really believe that God is going to live in this place, but he calls it Beth-el, which means “God’s house.”

So when Peter observes Jesus’ transfiguration and the conversation with Moses and Elijah, it isn’t surprising that he wants to do something to commemorate the day. He wants to set up a tabernacle in the name of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. I don’t think he really believes that these men are going to live in these tents, much like we don’t expect God to live in our church buildings, yet we sometimes call them “God’s house.” But he wants to mark this time and place as a holy time and place. So when people want to connect with God, all they have to do is go to the tabernacles of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

Now let’s turn to verse 5: “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’”

I chuckle just a bit when I hear this because God interrupts Peter; it clearly says “While he was still speaking…” I think that our God is a pretty patient god, but I get the sense that he is saying, “Gosh, here he goes again, babbling, shooting off at the mouth without thinking first!” But it is probably more consistent with God’s personality to think of this as God gently saying, “Shhh, This is my Son, whom I love. Rather than always talking, I want you to listen, really listen to him.”

Obviously, Peter was missing the point. He was hearing Jesus, but was he really listening?

It is kind of like being at a party and overhearing someone tell a joke, yet you don’t quite get it. You giggle a bit, you go along with the laughter, but you don’t know why it is funny. Then, later that evening, perhaps as you are driving home, it hits you. There was a word play, a homonym, or some idiom that made the joke funny. Sure, you heard the joke, but had you really been listening, perhaps you would have understood.

I believe that there are two things from the previous chapter that may help us better understand what is going on here. The first is that Peter begins to show some maturity in his faith; he shows some signs that he is starting to understand. And then immediately after that he shows that he still doesn’t get it.

In chapter 16 Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (v.16).

A+ for Peter!

Then Jesus begins to describe how he will suffer, die, and on the third day he will be raised from the dead. And Peter says, “Never, Lord!”

Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan!”

F for Peter.

Now if we were to average Peter’s A+ and his F, I think we could come to a grade of “C.” And if you know a thing or two about the grading scale, this puts Peter in the position of being average.

I find a lot of comfort in knowing that Peter was average. He had some great moments, and he had some absolute failures. Peter himself made the statement that Jesus was the Son of God, yet it is clear that he had more to learn. He heard Jesus, but was he really listening?

Listen to him. Experience him. Know him.

It is very easy to study Jesus’ teachings and miss knowing him. We can memorize all of his teachings, live as he lived, but never really hear him. Here is the thing about this Son of the Living God. He isn’t some wise, yet dead, teacher. He isn’t a spiritual guru, or a shaman. We don’t just learn his teachings, he walks with us as we learn from him.

In verse 9 we read this: “As they were coming down the mountain…” Here’s the thing, Peter is correct, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Peter, James, and John all witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, his clothes made white and his face shone like the son. He was a conversation partner for two of the biggest characters in the Old Testament. Yet Jesus did not stay on the mountain. They came down from the mountain.

This highly exalted, lifted up, Son of the Living God dwelled among them.

I believe that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, and for that reason we worship him. But that very Son of the Living God came to this world, took on a body like ours, and lived among us. He got dirt under his finger nails, callouses on his hands, and blisters on his feet. And that is why we follow him.

I think the challenge for us that we can take from the transfiguration is that Jesus is both one to be worshipped and one to be followed. My fear is that too many of us choose one over the other; it is a problem that we all fall into. Some Christians do a wonderful job of connecting to God through their prayer times, study of the Scriptures, and meditation. We need to connect with God every day and at a deeper level. And those that fail to connect with the incarnate God will miss on the abundant life.

Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Don’t just hear him, listen to him.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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