Matthew 17.1-9 2
Most of us know what it is to have a close relationship with another person. Maybe with a husband or wife. Maybe with a child. A friend. A parent. A grandparent. Close relationships are not automatic. Just because we are related to someone, it doesn’t mean we are close to them. There may be all sorts of reasons for this. To get close to someone you have to spend time with them. Listen to them. Do things together. Relationships grow. They develop and change.
This morning we are going to look at our relationship with God. If you think about it now: how close is your relationship with God? How well do you feel you know him? Would you like your relationship with him to grow? To deepen?
God invites each one of us into a close and loving relationship with him. This relationship is made possible because God has chosen not to be a distant and remote deity who created the world and then left us to get on with life. God has chosen to reveal himself to us. He does this in many ways, but the way he does this most clearly is through Jesus.
God reveals himself in Jesus, but we have a choice whether we respond to this revelation or not. We can choose to be drawn closer to God in love and worship or we can choose to keep him at a distance. As we look at the gospels we can see both of these reactions. People being drawn to Jesus. People keeping him at a distance.
In our bible reading this morning we see Jesus drawing three of his disciples closer to him. He reveals more of who he is and the disciples fall to the ground and worship him. We’re going to look at this story this morning and see how it can help us get closer to Jesus.
We see at the beginning of chapter 17 of Matthew that Jesus takes Peter, James and John up onto a mountain with him. It is a private place away from the other disciples. Matthew tells us in verse 2, ‘And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.’
There are critical points in our relationships when we have the chance to share more of who we really are. I can remember that in the early days when I first knew my husband Oliver when we were at university, he mentioned his love of sailing. I had never been sailing but I was open to having a go. It was only later that Oliver revealed that he had never been out on the tiny dinghy that he then sailed without capsizing it. I didn’t think much of this. I don’t like getting wet or cold. I told him that I would only go out with him if we didn’t capsize. Now I know more about sailing, I know that it was an almost impossible demand. Oliver gamely agreed and so far although we’ve gone aground lots of times, we haven’t yet capsized.
For the disciples, it was a critical point in their relationship with Jesus when Jesus chose to reveal more of who he is. Peter, James and John had been with Jesus for some time. They knew him really well. But they still had a very limited understanding of Jesus. When Jesus was born as a baby he chose to empty himself of the radiance of his glory. The glory of God. He appeared as an ordinary human being. Now on the mountaintop Jesus revealed to Peter, James and John his pre-incarnate glory. Here the disciples glimpse the magnificence of Jesus’ glory.
The day became even more extraordinary when Moses and Elijah appeared. These two leaders of Israel are thought by many to represent the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. Both men had been privileged to have visions of God’s glory. But now Jesus stood before them and he is the one who radiates God’s glory.
Peter as always manages to say the wrong thing. There he is in the presence of the transfigured Jesus and Moses and Elijah and he offers to put up three shelters for them. Quite why he thought they needed them we don’t know. What we do know is that God was not worried about Peter’s stumbling efforts to honour his Lord. Matthew tells us in verse 5, ‘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!’ This cloud immediately brings to mind other occasions in Israel’s history where the bible tells us the glorious presence of God had appeared to people. The light, the cloud, recall the shekinah glory of God-his radiant presence with his people. We see glimpses of it in the pillar of cloud that the Israelites followed in the desert and at the dedication of the first temple built by Solomon when God’s glory filled the sanctuary.
God the Father speaks from the cloud. The disciples hear God’s voice and God says much the same thing that he said at Jesus baptism. He once again declares Jesus to be his Son. Jesus the beloved of the Father. And God the Father declares his delight in the Son. On this occasion God adds, ‘Listen to him.’ Listen to what my Son says.
At the sound of God’s voice the disciples fall to the ground. They are terrified. Jesus as a good friend understands them completely. He touches them and says, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ As they go down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to tell anybody about what had happened until after the resurrection.
- How can we understand all this and just what did the disciples understand?
- Why did Jesus choose, at this point in his relationship with the disciples, to reveal his glory?
The key to understanding this is in the words of God the Father, ‘Listen to him. Listen to my Son.’ If you have a bible open in front of you, you will be able to see that about six days before this extraordinary encounter, Matthew tells us in chapter 16 that Jesus and the disciples had been in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus had asked the disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ Peter had said to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ This was a great break through for the disciples in understanding who Jesus was. But then Jesus had gone on to explain that he was going to undergo great suffering and be killed. The disciples couldn’t understand how this could be. How could the Son of God die? It just didn’t fit in with what they thought God should be like. Peter once again blurts out his reaction in Matthew 16.22-23, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ Jesus turned to him and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
When we understand all this we can begin to understand the transfiguration. It was one of those critical points in the relationship when Jesus decided to share more of who he really was. The disciples needed to know that he really was God. That even though they might not fully understand it, somehow the Son of God was going to suffer and die. God the Father’s words not only confirmed who Jesus was but commanded the disciples to listen to what he said. Jesus would suffer. He would die. He would rise again.
There is no indication that Peter, James and John did understand or as we might put it, put two and two together. It was only after the resurrection that these things began to fall into place. As we read through the letters of Peter and John in the New Testament, we see how they responded with love and worship to the revelation of Jesus’ glory as they meditated on his death on the cross. We see in our first reading how Peter wrote about it in his second letter (2 Peter 1.16-18) ‘…we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.’
What does all this mean for us today? Jesus invites each of us into a close and loving relationship. God reveals himself in Jesus, but we have a choice whether we respond to this revelation or not. We can choose to be drawn closer to God in love and worship or we can choose to keep him at a distance.
The apostle John, who was one of the disciples with Jesus on the mountaintop, writes this in 1 John 3.16, ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.’
This Lent as a church we are going to be reflecting on the love of God as shown in the death of Jesus on the cross. I believe that this is a critical point for us as a church in our relationship with Jesus. We will have the opportunity to reflect on and respond to the revelation of Jesus’ love for us in his death on the cross. Someone once described the cross as being like a beautiful diamond, as you turn it round the light shines radiantly from each of it’s many facets. Over four Sundays we will look at different aspects of the cross and have a chance for discussion on Sunday evenings. Details of the dates are in Church Matters. I have also given details of a small book on the cross by Jane Williams called, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ which you may like to buy. There is a link in Church Matters to forty days of Devotional Reflections for Lent by Tim Keller. Wonderfully on Good Friday Bishop David will lead us as we kneel in worship at the foot of the cross in the Last Hour.
My hope and my prayer is that as we together learn about and meditate on the death of Jesus on the cross, we will all grow closer in our relationship with God. I pray that our hearts will be full of love and worship and that this love will flow out of our lives into our relationships with other people. When we encounter the crucified and risen Christ in worship we cannot not be changed.