Sunday, February 26th – Sermon on Matthew 17(1-9)

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 17:1-9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 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.” 5 While he 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!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten us with your celestial fire. For if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. We pray this in the name of your beloved. Amen.[1]

Well, it was family movie night again. Disney’s Tangled this week. That’s the one about Rapunzel and her long hair. Rapunzel who was taken from her royal parents, the King and Queen, when she was a young child and held in a high tower away from the world by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel, who only want Rapunzel for her hair and its ability to keep Mother Gothel young and beautiful forever.

Rapunzel’s parents are obviously distraught and grief-stricken. Every year on Rapunzel’s birth day, the whole town releases lanterns into the evening sky  – this beautiful but also brutal memory of the long lost princess. This symbol of memorial but also a sliver of hope. Rapunzel grows up in this tower, watching those lanterns in the sky every year on her birthday, never knowing who she really is – the long lost princess. Never knowing that those lanterns of light were for her. The film is of course filled with the tension of will she or won’t she be released from the prison tower and reunited with her parents.

My son, Elliot, is the kind of kid who he feels that tension, that uncertainty with his whole body. In fact, about three quarters of the way through the movie, with a hesitant fear and trembling in his voice and tears right on the edge of dropping to his cheeks, he asks the question we all ask – what’s gonna happen? When is she going to be with her parents again? Mom, Dad, can we just fast-forward to the part of where she sees her parents again?

And what do you do? We wrap him up in our arms and we say, “Honey, it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.”

But this weekend, as we comforted our child, I had a moment where I wondered – am I telling the truth? It’s gonna be okay. Is that true? I mean, sure, for the movie, of course it’s true. But on a bigger level – am I lying to my child?

Later, I remembered that this is the exact question that Peter Berger, a professor of sociology and religion, asks. Berger describes a child crying out in terror in the middle of the night, having had a nightmare. What does the mother do? She gets up, she rushes down to the child’s room, she sits on the bed and she holds that child as close as she can, and she says, “Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright.”

And Berger asks, “Is she lying to the child? Does she not know what kind of world we live in? Does she not know that both of them will die? How dare she say everything is alright!”

No, says Berger, she’s not lying. She’s confessing her faith. That despite it all, she and her child are floating on a sea of grace.[2]

I’ve start to wonder if this odd story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which comes about three fourths into the story, is the gospel writer’s way of putting his arm around the reader and saying, “Honey, do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.”

Why do I think that?

Because everything is not okay.

Not yet anyways.

Liturgically, we’ve leapt off the mountain top of the sermon on the mount from the past few weeks and landed down about 12 chapters later here on another mountain top. The mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration. This incredible story of light bursting forth from Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah who have been dead for quite some time, and Peter, James, and John who are just stunned by the whole thing. And then this moment of God surrounding them all in a bright cloud, and speaking once again the promise we heard at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

It is this unbelievable story that defies explanation but begs for meaning and understanding. Taken in isolation and on its own, all it seems like is a pretty cool magic trick that leaves our hearts and our hands empty. But taken in context, it just might be our very salvation. And what’s the context? Everything is not okay.

Since Jesus’ sermon on the mount, things have only gone downhill. As one scholar has put it, “Jesus has been labeled a blasphemer, accused of demon possession, doubted by his friend and colleague in kingdom work John the Baptist, rejected by his hometown to the point that he stopped doing ministry there, resisted by the very people he came to serve and save, and is the subject of murder plots that will, of course, finally be successful.”[3] Things just aren’t going as we imagined. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has just told his disciples that he would soon suffer and be crucified and raised from the dead and that they too are called to take up their cross and follow him. This was so off the plowed path that the disciples saw for their life that Peter stood up to Jesus and proclaimed, “God forbid this from ever happening to you.”

You can almost hear the reader wonder: what’s gonna happen? When’s Jesus gonna be raised from the dead? Mom, Dad, can we just skip ahead to that part?

 Everything is not okay.

Because of this stark contrast between what has been happening down the mountain and what happens up the mountain, some scholars are led to believe that this transfiguration story is misplaced. Sort of like an ancient spoiler alert to the end of the story, this passage, some say, was originally a resurrection story that belongs somewhere after Easter, and that it had somehow been mistakenly placed too early in the gospel.

But preacher and theologian Tom Long suggests while that may be true, that it doesn’t matter. Sure, the placement of this story could be historically inaccurate, but theologically, the placement of this story is spot on. That right in the midst of this dark and dreary world, when things don’t seem to be going as planned, Jesus shines with the glory of God and we are reminded of who Jesus really is.

In this beautiful and spooky collision of light but also clouds we are reminded of those claiming and identity defining words spoken over Jesus in his baptism – This is my Son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased.

Just as the darkness of death looms and the doubts of whether Jesus really is the one we’ve been waiting for darken the minds of the disciples (us included), we get to peak through the keyhole of the locked door to the future, to see who Jesus really is. Is Jesus a failed Messiah? Did we back the wrong horse? No, this really is my Son, the voice from the cloud says. Listen to him.

At the moment when Jesus and his life is the most disfigured from what we imagined it would be, Jesus is transfigured before our eyes so that we might not forget who he has been since the beginning. In the midst of what looks like suffering and death, this is a gripping promise of hope. Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Jesus whispers to his disciples.

But there’s more. If in Jesus’ transfiguration we see who he really is, perhaps we see ourselves and others for real too. This story suddenly becomes just as much about the reader as it is about Jesus. You see, Matthew’s community was in the middle of living through its own crisis. They were likely a group of Jewish Christians who have just been kicked out of their home synagogue, their home church, for believing in this suffering Messiah named Jesus. People whose lives have just been turned up side-down and who are figuring out how to live into this new reality. People who need to see themselves not based on their present circumstance, but to be seen as they were from the very beginning and as they will be in God’s future – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Matthew whispers to his readers.

When your life is falling apart, do you ever need a reminder of who you really are? Who you are beneath everything else. Do you ever wish those around, those whose lives are living breathing collateral damage of whatever mess is happening in your life, do you ever wish they could see you that way too? Who you really are, who you’ve always been since the beginning? And who you hope to be in the future?

A couple of years ago, I heard a story about two kids, Charlie and David, who were not getting along at school. In fact, Charlie and David used to be friends, but now Charlie was bullying David at school. Typically, what happens in this situation is that Charlie is punished for such unacceptable behavior and acting out. But this particular school was trying a new approach to these situations. It’s called Restorative Conferencing. Both parties are brought together along with their parents in for a conference about what has happened. Each person shares the problem as they see it and the effect it has had on them. Together they decide on a consequence for the youth.

But before that happens there is this crucial step that I just marvel at. The mediator asks the group to acknowledge that the problem and the problem story is not the whole story. In this particular situation, the mediator asked this question, “Is this who Charlie has always been? Has this always been his story – being a bully?” And as soon as that question was asked, something soften in David’s mother, who’d known Charlie for a long time. With a heartfelt sigh, she said, “No, that’s not who Charlie has always been. From the very beginning, I’ve known Charlie to be a loving, kind friend to my son, David. Not a bully.” And suddenly, in that moment, Charlie was transfigured in her eyes. Seen for who he has always been since the beginning and not for who he was in that moment. From there, the mediator asked the groups, including Charlie, which story they would like to live out of going forward.

Maybe that’s what it looks like to live out the Transfiguration. Perhaps as Christians, we are called to live this life with Transfiguration lenses. Ones that let you see yourself and others as they were in the beginning and as they really are today, and as they will be in the end – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

I don’t know if you are on a mountain top moment of life right now or if you are in the valley of despair or on some incline or decline in-between. But I think this transfiguration story is for us all and we are to carry it with us. In the eyes of God, there is more to you and everyone else, more to your life and the lives of every person than the present circumstances. Whether you can see it or not, you are a child of God, beloved and held in the arms of God, surrounded by a cloud of grace. Full of light.

Do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.

Is this a lie? No. I don’t believe it is. Amen.


[1] This is a prayer that Barbara Brown Taylor regularly prays before preaching.

[2] As told by Tom Long, here:

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 26.

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