A sermon on Matthew 17:1-9
onight we stand at the hinge that will move us from the season of Epiphany toward the season of Lent. If Epiphany is the season that unfolds in the light of Christmas and the celebration of the Incarnation—and yes, Christmas does seem like it happened a very long time ago—Lent is the season that will take us into the desert. Week by week through Lent, the stories we tell will be marked by an increasing sense of crisis and urgency. As we move forward, there will seem to be less and less light, until finally on Good Friday the skies will fall dark and the hardest story will be told.
But before we make that move into Lent, we tell this ‘hinge’ story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor, and we tell it against the background of the story of Moses on Mount Sinai, readying himself to receive the torah.
In the gospels, the experience on Mount Tabor does serve as a pivot in Jesus’ ministry. From this point on, he is on a steady movement toward Jerusalem and his confrontation with the powers. He will stand in the face of the political, social and religious structures of his day and offer his alternate vision of life and truth. He will stand in the face of the powers of death and rather than flee he will offer his alternative and transforming answer. But this will not be an easy path.
His disciples will follow him, though at the moment of crisis they will lose heart and scatter. Even Peter, James and John, who have shared in this experience on Mount Tabor, will feel their knees go weak and their confidence evaporate. Peter in particular is singled out in the gospel stories—“I tell you, I do not know the man” he’ll say—which is the most devastating abandonment of all, as it is pretty clear that of all the disciples he is one of the closest to Jesus.
And of course in our reading tonight it is Peter, who in the midst of what can only be described as an extraordinary experience, is apparently the most blind to what is going on. Up on that mountain the three disciples are given a glimpse of Jesus for what he truly is. He is brightness and dazzling light, and suddenly he is accompanied by two other figures; Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the law and the prophets. Jesus is not overturning God’s covenant with the people, but is bringing it to newness. He is not replacing what God has done, but rather is what God is doing. It isn’t so much a case of their having some kind of religious or mystical experience, but more that for just a brief window in time, the three disciples see what is actually going on.
In many respects, it is not hard to understand why Peter wanted to do something in response to it all. In all of the gospel stories about Peter, he seems a pretty practical and earthy soul, so why wouldn’t he respond by proposing a little building project?
“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.’”
He just wants to anchor himself somehow, and building a little commemorative site to the event would not be out of keeping with the traditions of his religious forebears. But that is not what this experience is meant to be about. “Peter wants to build booths to commemorate this great event,” writes Stanley Hauerwas, “but Jesus’s flesh is the booth of God’s presence.” And much as Peter might want to keep Jesus in place and safe from the dangers of Jerusalem, “Jesus cannot be… confined to a location, but rather he must go to Jerusalem, and the disciples must go with him.”
While Peter 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!” 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. (Matt. 17:5-8)
There is no need for a commemorative site, and there is no way to remain up on Mount Tabor. The movement toward crisis is underway, and the only thing the disciples need to do is to remember the commendation to “listen to him.” That, and Jesus’ touch and his words to “get up” and “not be afraid.” They’re not even to tell the other disciples about their mountain experience “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And who knows what that might have meant to the three disciples that day, as they stood slack-jawed with their poor heads spinning.
They do follow him, of course. Not without a few serious misunderstandings and that final abandonment on the night of his arrest, but as they can they stretch to keep listening to Jesus and they do all they can to not be locked up in fear. They do keep trying to walk with him, even if he seems to be headed straight for the dragon’s jaws.
It is an important story to tell as our hinge toward the season of Lent. Most of us will never know anything even close to what those disciples experienced that day on Mount Tabor, and most of us will never know anything close to the violence that they faced in Jesus’ name. Yet as Hauerwas observes, “Like Peter we desire to secure in place, if not tie down and domesticate, the wild spirit of God’s kingdom.” We like it on our terms and according to what we think would be the respectable way for God to work. It is so much easier when things go in our favour, and when following Jesus seems to be all payoffs and blessings and spiritual perks. But when the claim placed on us gets tougher and more demanding, or the road we’re walking becomes less clear or marked by pain and loss? Wouldn’t it be nicer to have a mountaintop experience, complete with a commemorative site and maybe some lovely contemplative music as the soundtrack?
Which is why we need to engage Lent, intentionally and even stubbornly. It is in a real sense practice for the realities of the life that we live. If we only sing alleluias and think in terms of blessings and spiritual fullness, we won’t have the faintest clue as to what to do when the mountain gives way to the desert.
So, just a few days from now we’ll arrive at Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty-day season of Lent. As I’ve said in past years, this is a time to walk voluntarily into a symbolic desert or wilderness space, and to make some change in your life that puts you just a little off balance. Give something up for these days, or add a practice or discipline to which you have to attend daily. Give up desserts or some favourite food; swear off buying anything other than necessities; give up Facebook; something that changes your daily habits. Take on a daily reading routine; drop a dollar or two in to a jar every day and then find an organization that could use a little extra donation; write a forty day journal. Something that keeps you mindful of being in a different season. And of course, as I love to remind people every year, the forty days do not include Sundays, so that is your Sabbath break from the discipline. If you’ve given up desserts for Lent, have an extra one on Sunday.
But do walk the symbolic wilderness journey through Lent, and see what you might learn about yourself, your world, and your God.