This is a sermon preached in the Church in the City/Beach community in Toronto on Sunday, March 6, 2011.
In the Church calendar we are about to change seasons. Today is significant for it is the final Sunday of Epiphany before we begin our journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Epiphany means “manifestation; appearance”. This is the time of year when we reflect on the fact that the “man born to be king” will rule not by force but by love, not from a throne but from a cross. Epiphany is the season of compassionate encounter.
I’d like to being this morning by posing the question “Who is Jesus?” Well, I suppose the answer you get will depend on who you ask. Is Jesus another prophet of God in the same line as others like him? Is he a revolutionary figure come to liberate the poor and the working class? Perhaps he is the key to a successful life, to hidden riches? Maybe he’s our “homeboy”? Is he a guru with deep spiritual insight into how to connect with the energy in the world around us? Or is he a sort of divine psychologist, come to address our felt-needs and help us see life more positively? Whether or not we pay attention to and listen to Jesus will be dependent on who we think he is.
The gospel writers are trying to tell us something, something particular, something about who Jesus is. Matthew writes as a witness, so to speak, testifying to who Jesus is. Now, writing after the resurrection Matthew obviously has insight into just who Jesus is that the disciples would not have had prior to Jesus’ resurrection. So, working from this position, Matthew wants to guide his readers to a particular picture of who Jesus is. Our gospel text for this morning is Matthew 17:1-9 but before we get there…
About a week prior Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” There was not a concise answer. Some were saying he was John the Baptist. Others were saying Elijah. Others still thought he was Jeremiah or one of the prophets. But then Jesus personalizes his question to address the disciples. It is as if Jesus says, “OK, that’s who others say I am, but who do you say that I am?” Peter initially gets it right, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Yes, it is true that Jesus is the promised Messiah, but when the disciples find out just what sort of Messiah he is they seem unable to accept it. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” (16:21). Jesus’ mission takes him to Jerusalem and the rest of Matthew’s gospel focuses in on this journey. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth the One True God is hidden in weakness and suffering. Perhaps this is a clue to where we may find God today? But Peter and the disciples do not yet understand, and so Peter rebukes Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Well, we know how that worked out for Peter (“Get behind me, Satan!”). At this point Jesus extends an invitation, a call. You see, the journey to Jerusalem is not just Jesus’ journey, no, it is the inescapable journey which his followers must also take (16:24-28). To follow Jesus is to follow him to Jerusalem. It’s to follow him to his agonizing death outside of the city walls. And it’s to bring our crosses and die alongside of him there. However, death is not the end of the story. Viewed from the perspective of the resurrection to lose ones life is to gain life and one day those who die in Christ will be glorified in Christ with new, resurrection life.
This is the setting for Matthew 17. Matthew tells us that 6 days after this happening, after Peter rightly recognizing him as Messiah, after finding out that this Messiah must suffer and die, and after hearing the call to pick up their crosses and follow him there, 6 days after this, Peter, James and John (the “inner-circle” from among the disciples) find themselves trekking up a mountain alongside Jesus. Now mountains are of no small significance to the people of Israel. Israel’s history is peppered with significant moments of encountering God on mountaintops and surely this would have been in the minds of these disciples. There was Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Moses on Mt. Sinai and Elijah on Mt. Carmel. Now, on top of this mountain, Peter, James and John get a revelatory glimpse into the glory that belongs to Jesus the Christ. Jesus is transfigured “before them”, for their sakes: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Then, suddenly, Moses and Elijah are there talking with Jesus. Matthew does not say what they spoke about but Luke tells us that they spoke with him “of his departure” coming in Jerusalem. Peter, rather nervously I’m sure, decides that this is great and offers to build some dwellings for the three of them, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. How quickly Peter forgets that Jesus must journey to Jerusalem, there is no time to set up camp on a mountaintop. The words were still on Peter’s lips when all of a sudden “a bright cloud overshadowed them.” The brightness of the cloud matches the brightness of Jesus’ garments. Immediately we see a connection between Jesus and the cloud. A voice comes from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”. This proclamation ought to harken us back to Jesus’ baptism. Here, as Jesus begins his journey towards Jerusalem his mission is confirmed once again by his Father as it was at his baptism. Only here, more is said: “Listen to him!” This is the focal point of the narrative. Jesus is the Beloved Son of God. Listen to him.
At the utterance of these words from the cloud the disciples are so terrified that they have no choice but to fall to the ground on their faces. Matthew tells us that Jesus “came near and touched them.” The Greek word here translated as “touched” literally means “to fasten to; adhere to”. The Beloved Son of God did not just lay his hand on the disciples. No, he fastened himself to them. He then says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And they were not afraid. Not because they found some strength and bravery within themselves but because they received a courage and peace from Jesus. The ability for them to “be not afraid” arose when Jesus fastened himself to them. Then something striking happens. The disciples look up and the NIV tells us that “they saw no one except Jesus”. However, the original text really emphasizes that Jesus was the only one they saw, literally that “they saw nothing if not Jesus himself alone.” They saw nothing. Just Jesus. Himself. Alone. Moses and Elijah were gone. The transfiguration reveals that Jesus is distinct from Moses and Elijah. Truly, Jesus is the Beloved One, the “Son of the living God” as Peter had declared a week before. Only this Son is on his way to Jerusalem to suffer and die.
Here, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. In these two men Israel’s story is signified. This is Israel’s story. When the disciples look up and see no one but Jesus there is a deep truth being revealed. The Law and the Prophets, Israel’s story, their past, present and future are fulfilled in Jesus the Christ, the Beloved Son of God. This is not to say that the Law and the Prophets are done away with for as Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” (Mt. 5:17). This is true for Christians today also. For as Christians we have been grafted into Israel. Israel’s history is now our history. Their story is now our story. In fact, Jesus is the key to all history. The past, present and future of the world are fulfilled in the 2nd person of the Trinity, Jesus of Nazareth, the Beloved Son of God. Paul echoes this in his letter to the believers in Colossae: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” (Col. 1:15-17).
To conclude, we return to the mysterious voice from the cloud: “Listen to him!” For the disciples (and more broadly for Israel) the Law and the Prophets are good gifts from God but they have served their purpose, they have pointed to the coming Messiah who has now arrived. Now that Jesus is present they should listen to him. In a world of competing voices, whose do we listen to? In a world of competing narratives, which story are we rooted in? You and I were created through and for the Beloved Son of God. In him our lives and destinies are fulfilled. “Listen to him!” Perhaps for us today Moses and Elijah are lesser figures. We see less of an immediate connection to our history. But we in the modern Western world have a history too. Many of the ideals and values of modern Western culture often go unchecked. Perhaps we tend to think that the way we do things in the West is simply “the way things are”. Is the view of human beings as autonomous individuals simply “the way things are”? Is globalization and the advancement of mega-corporations around the world simply “the way things are”? Is the growing divide between the rich and poor, both nations and people, simply “the way things are”? Is the advancement of an unrestrained capitalism guided only by the “free-market” simply “the way things are”? Is the oppression of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and the injustices and hardships they face simply “the way things are”? Our answer must be a resounding “no!” Things need not be the way they are, certainly they will not stay this way forever, for one day the Beloved Son will return and fully and finally put the world to rights. And in light of this Beloved Son of God everything needs to be radically re-understood, for all things were created for him.
Culturally we are conditioned to love ourselves before loving others. In fact, culturally, love is a confusing matter. In our modern Western culture love is sexualized and sentimentalized. It is significant that the title of our recent series has been “What Does Love Look Like?” You see, love looks like something. Love is visible. Love is less a feeling than an action. It is fitting then that this morning/evening we have looked at Matthew’s account of the start of Jesus’ ascent to Jerusalem. For Matthew, love looks like the Beloved Son of God journeying towards death in Jerusalem. Jesus is the primary revelation of God’s unconditional love for all people. For Matthew, to love this Jesus is to listen to this Jesus, even though it means we too will end up picking up our crosses to follow him to his death, and indeed our own death. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For the next 40 days we have the opportunity to consciously journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Are we willing to do this? Are we willing to journey with Jesus, not towards a fantastic and worry-free life, but towards death? Are we willing to lose our lives for the sake of Christ Jesus? Are we willing to lay them down for the sake of our brothers and sisters, our friends and our enemies? Because this is the way of Jesus. There is no other way. Love looks like a life poured out for others, a life lost. Love looks like a life that claims nothing for itself but loses everything for others. Of course, we can never, nor can we be expected to, emulate the unconditional love of God. Far from being a discouragement this ought to be a source of great hope. No matter how great our love may be, God’s love for us in Christ Jesus is exceedingly and infinitely greater still. Love looks like Jesus. Specifically love looks like Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. It looks like Jesus hanging on a Roman cross outside of the city walls. It looks like Jesus raised to new life, the first-born from among the dead, leading the way for the rest of us. And because love looks like Jesus we know that a life poured out, a life lost, is not in fact a life lost. No, it is a life found. For just as the resurrection of Jesus to new life affirmed the pouring out of his life so too our resurrection to new life on that glorious day will be an affirmation of a life poured out for others, for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord, the Beloved Son of God. Amen.