So that this story doesn't come out of nowhere, let's go back a bit to build some context for today's reading. As recent as just one chapter earlier in Matthew, Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples told him that some people said that the Son of Man was Elijah, or some said John the Baptist, and others thought maybe it was Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Then Jesus asked them “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed him, and praised him and said that from then on he was to be called Peter, and that he would be the rock upon which Jesus' church would be built. That's pretty high praise.
After that Jesus began to fill in his own story. He began to tell his disciples that he was going to have to go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and raised from the dead. Peter took exception. “God forbid it, Lord!” he said. “This must never happen to you.” Nobody wants anything bad to happen to their hero! Jesus' reaction must have surprised Peter – “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” I can just imagine Peter thinking, “Wait, what?!”
As Jesus began to explain more about what would be happening he told his disciples how to behave. “This is what you are to do if you want to become my followers.” But he didn't make any sense. He was speaking in opposites – lose your life to gain your life; leave everything behind in order to gain everything; die in order to live.
Didn't Jesus just praise Peter, give him a new name, and say that he would be the rock upon which Jesus' church would be built? Why the rebuke now? Peter probably thought he was the golden boy for a while. Being golden never lasts. Peter was right to say that Jesus was the messiah, but wrong to deny the suffering to come to him.
I can't imagine what the next six days were like.
Those were the events that came just before today's reading.
Six days after being rebuked by Jesus for denying that the Son of Man must suffer, Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. The three disciples saw Jesus face shine, and his clothes become bright white, and then saw Elijah and Moses talking to Jesus. As if that wasn't startling enough, then the three became enveloped in a cloud and a voice said, what is familiar to us, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” In addition to these same words that were used at Jesus' baptism, the voice in the cloud adds, “Listen to him!”
There are many symbols in this vision. The cloud and the voice allow us to recall the events at Jesus' baptism and so confirm Peter's earlier confession. The shining face, the glowing white clothing, and the cloud are each signs of the divine. Elijah and Moses represent John the Baptist and Jesus. Also, it is not until Jesus touches the disciples and tells them to get up and do not be afraid, that they see clearly that Jesus is the only one with them. It is not the first time that Jesus' touch and assurance to not be afraid, that changes people. And, although they speak of the event as a vision, it's not with the same mythical connotation that you and I might speak of a vision. Jesus never says that the vision wasn't also true.
I was listening to a podcast about this text, and the commentator said that this text is the bridge “between the Jesus we want, and the Jesus we get.” Going up the mountain, we get Jesus the glorious one who glows and shines and hear a voice in a cloud. Going down the mountain into the mundane strange and complicated messy world that you and I live in that will be his ministry, is the Jesus we get.
It is the Jesus we get, who we need to listen to. The stories to come in the next few weeks represent the Jesus that we get, completely immersed in his human life with all of its complications, joys and sufferings and injustices. Transfiguration Sunday is another bridge; the bridge between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent. Today, as we stand on that bridge, we get to enjoy the epiphany as it fades while we look ahead to a period of quiet reflection.
If we follow the additional command from the cloud – “listen to him!” – what will change for us? Starting with symbols of ashes, we will begin listening to the voice of Jesus in the wilderness, the voice of Jesus persecuted, the voice of Jesus suffering.
The verb used for “listen” in this phrase is the same verb for “hear” that is used in the Shema – Hear O Israel. The Luke version of this story uses the words “Hear him!” Listen to him, doesn't just refer to hearing. Listen carries with it the old testament command to obey.
Just as your mother didn't care if you only heard her say “Pick up your socks!” she probably said “Listen to me! Pick up your socks!” Don't just listen, take action. Pick up your socks! I'm sure you've heard a child say “I don't have to listen to you!” What they mean is “I don't have to do what you say!”
When we hear “listen to him” we are being asked to listen not just with our ears. We are being asked to take in. Take in what our faith tells us, and base our behavior on what we have “heard.”
What should we listen to? What should we listen for?
This is where we turn to the letter from Peter. With a few years with Jesus and then after Jesus death and resurrection, Peter has had time to grow and reflect and live his life with his experiences of Jesus, the Son of Man in his live. Peter wrote letters to communities to encourage them to remain faithful through the trials of their lives, and to remind them of what to listen to, and what to listen for. Much like the Corinthians, Peter this time, not Paul, has spread the message of Jesus, to early communities. Over time the communities would try to come up with ways to figure out what the story meant, since Jesus still had not returned. So the early apostles needed to write to their communities in order to encourage them. Peter's audience was beginning to follow false teachers that came into their church. Peter wrote then, to encourage them to maintain their following of the true word of Christ, the one that Peter had first told them. Peter recounts in today's reading what we witnessed in the reading from Matthew.
What should we listen to?; Jesus' words, not false teachers. What should we listen for?; anything that brings us closer to the Jesus who came down the mountain into the lives that we live, to share our sufferings and injustices.
Peter didn't understand in those first six days, but as of the writing of this letter, he has had time to reflect and experience more of life. Back in Matthew, Jesus praised Peter's confession of who the Son of Man was and included the words, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” It is in remembering this that Peter tells the people, “First all of you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
A spiritual director once asked me how I could tell if something was from God or from myself. I told him that it seemed to me that some things just came into my mind faster than I could have conceived them. I suppose I'll always wonder about that. But it's clear that what Peter heard in his early time with Jesus, and what he says to his audience in this letter, is true. Nothing from God comes “from human will, but by men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
Rather than see the transfiguration images as a pre-cursor to the Easter glory, it makes sense to not rush to Easter. As we prepare for Lent, we are reminded in this text from Peter that “the honor, glory, and love declared about Jesus at the Transfiguration prefigures what he will bring for the world when he comes.” (Peterson)
From this side of the Resurrection, we know the events of the story. Jesus will come down from the mountain. But for today, let's take time to enjoy the shiny Jesus; the one who has made us fall down in awe at the glory of it all at times. There's still a little time before Jesus comes down the mountain and joins us.
Please pray with me….
Reverend Debra McGuire
February 23, 2020