Scripture Readings: Exodus 24:12–18 | Psalm 2 | 2 Peter 1:16–21 | Matthew 17:1–9
“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!’” (Matthew 17:5).
What does God have to say to us today?
Along with Christians around the world, today we’re celebrating Transfiguration Sunday, the final week before Lent begins, and taking place at the end of Epiphany: a season we contemplate the Good News that Jesus has been revealed as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s well beloved and eternal Son, sent to save not only one people, but all the peoples of the Earth.
The Transfiguration story itself marks a kind of watershed moment in the life of Jesus, where Christ’s hidden glory is suddenly glimpsed by three of His frightened followers, challenging and changing their understanding of His significance forever.
More than just a righteous religious teacher, or powerful miracle worker… the Transfiguration proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Christ… the beloved Son of God… whose word above all we must heed.
Of course, there are many other voices that we are drawn to… there are lots of other ideas about who God is, and what He is up to in the world. Voices inviting us to give them our ears, and hearts, and loyalties.
And many of these other voices use the Bible to back up what they have to say. Taking up portions of the Holy Scriptures to amplify and justify their own agendas… often in ways that distort or completely conflict with what the Christian faith proclaims.
But these voices can be pretty convincing, making it hard to know who to believe. And on top of that, there are seasons in all of our lives when it can seem like God’s face is hidden from us… like His presence is somehow veiled by a cloud our eyes and minds can’t penetrate.
In times like this, how are we to discern what God is actually trying to say to us? How can we be sure that we are truly listening to His voice?
In the story of the Transfiguration, St. Matthew is inviting us to contemplate how we Christians can come to hear the voice of God with confidence… teaching us where we are to turn to know His will, and walk in His ways.
In this strange and short episode in the life of Jesus, the entire expanse of the story of the Bible comes to into focus… with key representatives from both the Old and New Testaments on the scene.
We heard how Jesus took three of His disciples, Peter, James, and John, with Him up a mountain, where they would witness a startling change in their Master, and a remarkable meeting. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” (Matthew 17:2-3).
As we know, Moses and Elijah were two of ancient Israel’s most renown prophets, serving as those who shared God’s message, God’s word with His people in powerful ways. Moses had been the one God had chosen to lead Israel through the wilderness, after the LORD had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Moses was seen, even centuries later, as Israel’s ultimate hero: the one who God gave the Law and Commandments of the Covenant to at Mt. Sinai, entering the cloud to meet with the LORD alone, as we heard in our first reading today, making known how Israel was to live as God’s people in the world… transforming how they were to relate to the Living God, each other, and all their neighbours too.
While this meant that Moses would come to be closely associated with the Torah, the Law, the first five books of the Bible, the Prophet Elijah, who came on the scene many centuries after Moses, had a different role: he served as a messenger on a mission to call God’s people to repent… to turn back to the LORD, whom they had abandoned to serve the gods of the Canaanites, led by their unfaithful Kings. Elijah called out King Ahab and challenged the people to give God alone their allegiance, and the LORD worked through Elijah to dramatically display His divine power and authority.
But this moment of Elijah’s victory would be followed by discouragement and despair, as he would be hunted by Israel’s leaders who persisted in resisting the LORD and His ways. Eventually, Elijah would also find himself alone on Mt. Sinai (or Horeb, as it is sometimes called), encountering God’s presence in the silence after the storm, and listening to His voice.
In time, Elijah would come to stand as a key representative for the whole prophetic movement in the Scriptures… for those who speak on God’s behalf, inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, to share God’s message with His people… calling them to turn back to Him, and find true life by walking in His ways.
Both the stories of Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, involve chosen figures who were set apart to share God’s word with the world: making known God’s own character, His divine will, and the ways for His people to faithfully follow.
And yet, both of their stories, and the whole of the Law and the Prophets point forward beyond themselves to One who will fulfill God’s promises, and rescue His people once and for all: the promised Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.
But now we must turn to consider the others that St. Matthew tells us had gone up the Mountain with Jesus: three of His disciples, St. Peter, St. James, and St. John.
These three disciples will all have special roles to play in the story of the Christian Church. St. James would be the first of the Apostles to be put to death, slain by Herod in Jerusalem in the years after Christ’s resurrection. St. John, James’ brother, would be the only Apostle not put to death, and his influence on the Church’s understanding of Jesus would by significant, with one of the four Gospels, three letters, and the Book of Revelation being linked to him.
And finally, we have St. Peter, who has been widely recognized as the leader of the Apostles, and who God uses mightily as a key servant in the early days of the Church, but who also has a bit of a mixed track record… including in our Gospel reading today.
But as usual, having some context is key. Just before the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus had asked His disciples who they believed that He was, and St. Peter replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus praises Peter’s response, and then warns his followers not to tell anyone He is the Messiah yet, because His mission was about to take an unexpected turn:
Matthew 16: 21-23, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned 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.”
St. Peter had not yet wrapped his head around what Jesus had been sent to do as God’s Messiah. The idea that his beloved Master would have to suffer such a cruel fate was one he would not willingly listen to. It went against all of his own expectations, all of his hopes, and plans.
But as Jesus points out, Peter was listening to the wrong voices… setting his heart and mind on human designs, rather than listening to and following divine designs.
And so, when the three disciples see Jesus transformed before their eyes, and see Moses and Elijah, two heroic saints from his people’s ancient past, talking with Jesus, St. Peter still struggles to understand what’s really going on, and what it really means for Jesus to be the Son of God.
“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.’” (Matthew 17:4).
In this pious sounding suggestion, St. Peter was trying to elevate his Master to the level of Israel’s two heroes, Moses and Elijah, making them equals in his estimation. But what happens next shatters this vision, as God sets the record straight:
“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!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” (Matthew 17:4-6).
The cloud overshadows Peter, James, and John… they too are brought into God’s holy presence on top of a mountain, just like Moses and Elijah experienced centuries earlier, when the LORD shared His divine word with them. But the message these three disciples hear is simple and direct and clear: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’
The story of the Transfiguration reveals to us that it is in Jesus Himself that we are able to truly hear God’s word. As St. John would one day put it, Jesus is Himself the Word of God in the flesh!
Jesus is God’s Word to us today. Jesus is where we must turn to know what the Living God is up to in the world, and how we are to take part in it.
In Jesus, the message of Moses and Elijah comes to its fulfilment… as He is the One the entire Old Testament and the story of Israel is pointing us to.
In Jesus, the stumbling voices of St. Peter, the rest of the Apostles, and all of the members of the Christian Church throughout the ages is taken up and transformed into God’s message of Good News for the world… as He is the One that brings to life the faith, and hope, and love revealed in the New Testament.
Jesus is the One, who through His own suffering, betrayal, death, and resurrection, sets in motion God’s great rescue mission… bringing His forgiveness, mercy, self-giving love, and New Life into our world torn apart by our obedience to bitterness, condemnation, self-centeredness, violence, and death.
Jesus Himself is where the Living God has chosen to make His character, will, and ways known to the world, once and for all.
So, if we want to know what God want to say to us today, and every day, we must look to Jesus. We must constantly make time to listen carefully to Him. Not just to what we assume He would say… or what we might want Him to say… we need to honestly focus… to fix our eyes and our ears on Jesus, and listen.
And what might this kind of listening looks like?
Well, first of all, listening looks like humility. To listen to anyone means recognizing that we all have much more to learn. That we all have plans and ideas that can be way out of wack, and need to be challenged.
To listen to Jesus means to be open… to trust. To have faith that He knows better than we do. Especially when He challenges all the voices that tell us what we naturally want to hear.
Remember how St. Peter had his own ideas about what Jesus should and shouldn’t do. Remember how often we too have needed to have our eyes opened to see things from a new point of view.
To listen to Jesus means to learn to trust Him above every other voice… even our own.
This kind of relationship of trust does not just happen in an instant. It comes with time spent with Him in prayer, both together with others and alone.
Christian prayer is a posture of openness and readiness to obey our LORD… to say to our Father in Heaven “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth… starting right here in my heart.”
But like any relationship, if we’re always the one talking, we aren’t really listening. Prayer isn’t just going on asking God for what we want, we are also making sacred space in our lives for God to make Himself and His will for us known, inviting the Holy Spirit to speak into our hearts in Jesus’ name, and testing that voice to make sure it lines up with what Jesus Himself has already made known in the Holy Scriptures.
Which leads us to another vital way we listen to Jesus: by reading and studying the Bible, both together and alone, becoming familiar over our whole lifetime with the story of God.
We read both the Old and New Testaments together, and both with Jesus Himself in mind, reflecting on how every part of this story points us to and fits within His story… Christ’s cross and resurrection, as God’s ultimate victory.
If we want to know what Jesus is saying to us, we need to keep prayerfully turning to Scripture, and seeking to understand it. But the point of all this understanding is to put it into practice. To not just hear what Jesus is saying, but to heed His words… to obey His voice.
In Hebrew, the word for listen ‘shema’ is the same word as obey. The two concepts are indistinguishable: to listen means to hear and do!
It won’t help us at all to memorize the entire Bible, and pray every day, if we refuse to do what Jesus tells us to. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus invites you and I to be transformed as well by listening to Jesus, and doing what He says. This is what it means to have a Living Faith… trust that turns into action, that shapes our lives as we learn to listen to the voice of our Lord.
Speaking of listening to our Lord: What is the first thing Jesus says in this passage, to the three disciples, and all of us today?
“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.” (Matthew 17:6-8).
To His frightened disciples, back then and today, Jesus says “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
There are so many reasons today for us to want to simply stay put… paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. To let ourselves be overwhelmed by the unknown, or to be weighed down by our pain, or our mistakes and failures… or our growing sense of helplessness.
But even so, Jesus Christ our Saviour is reaching out to touch our hearts today, and to raise us up… calling us to trust in Him, to listen to His voice, and not to be afraid. To lift up our heads and fix our eyes on Jesus alone, and find our hope in Him.
May the Risen Lord transform our minds and hearts and lives so that we may truly listen to God’s beloved Son… get up, follow Him, and not be afraid. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School