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Sermon for Sunday 14 February 2021

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

29When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Psalm 50:1-6

1The Lord, the God of gods, has spoken; he has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory. 3Our God will come and will not keep silence; before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a raging storm. 4He calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of his people. 5“Gather before me my loyal followers, those who have made a covenant with me and sealed it with sacrifice.”

6Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; for God himself is judge.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 4:1-6

12Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.

1Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9

2After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. 9And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Driven to Their Knees

It occurred to me several days ago, that today is an interesting Sunday.  Today we celebrate two rather different events.  In the secular world, it’s Valentine’s Day and here in the church, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus.  I did a little research, and these two celebrations coincide once every 20 years or so.  Of the two, Transfiguration Sunday is, of course, by far, the more important of the two and we’ll get to that in a minute.  Now, despite the current pandemic, I hope all of our couples have given at least some thought to expressing your love and appreciation to your partner.  If you haven’t, chances are that you’re already in trouble.  

The secular holiday, named in honor of St. Valentine, has become so important commercially, that someone has prepared a list titled, “How to Tell You Forgot Valentine’s Day.”  The following are three of those ways:  #1 – Hallmark calls, offering discounts on apology cards.  #2 – The kids tell you that Mom “went to bed early” . . . and “locked the door” . . . while you were taking out the trash.  #3 – You wake up with a florist’s ad taped to your forehead.  As I said, despite the current situation, I hope all our folks remembered . . . But more importantly, I hope it’s more than once a year you let your spouse know you love and appreciate them. 

Of more significance, each year on the final Sunday of the Epiphany season, we head to a mountaintop with Jesus and three of His disciples where they have an unforgettable experience.  Here Jesus is transformed, and they behold the true glory of God the Son.  It’s interesting to note that in our Old Testament and Epistle readings, the word veiled is used on several occasions. 

In the case of our Exodus reading, Moses uses a veil to hide his face because his face was illuminated due to being in the presence of, and talking directly with God.  In our Corinthians reading, Paul talks about the veil over a person’s heart.  In both cases the veil is there to cover something.  Then in the case of our gospel reading, while the word veil isn’t used directly, the same principle applies.  Jesus to this point had kept His full glory veiled from the disciples; now the veil is removed momentarily, and Peter, James and John see Jesus in His full glory.  For them, Jesus was transformed so that they saw Him as both fully human and fully divine.  It was an event that literally drove them to their knees.

An unknown author tells about a mountaintop experience that, for one young man, was unforgettable.  A group of mountain climbers set out to conquer a high mountain.  One in their group was a beginning climber making his first climb.  The ascent was a strenuous one, but at last they reached the small plateau at the top of the mountain.  Once it was clear that the beginning climber was at the very top, he stood straight up with arms raised and yelled victoriously, “I did it!”  At this point, a strong gust of wind nearly blew him off the mountain.  The more experienced climbers, after a good laugh, explained that when you get to the top of a mountain you never stand straight up, but rather you drop to your knees to avoid being blown off the mountaintop.  This is a good lesson for us as Christians when it comes to our mountaintop experiences with God—first we should go to our knees.  

This morning we’re once again going to deal with history’s most dramatic mountaintop experience—one that quite literally drove three of Jesus’ disciples to their knees.  Chapters 8 and 9 of Mark’s Gospel contain some of the more important events in the New Testament.  Chapter 8 begins with the feeding of the four thousand.  Now for those of you who might have been wondering, yes Jesus fed two different crowds on two different occasions.  This is evidenced by the questions Jesus asked the disciples: “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”  They said to him, twelve.  And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”  And they said to him, “Seven” (Mark 8:19-20).  The feeding of such a large crowd a second time was indeed an extraordinary event.  Now add to this, that near the end of chapter 8 we hear Peter confess Jesus as the Christ and then the chapter closes with Jesus predicting His own death.

To say that the disciples were both shocked and confused to hear Jesus say that He must suffer and die, after all they had witnessed to date, is probably an understatement. The suffering and death of their leader wasn’t what they thought would happen the day they decided to drop everything to follow Jesus.  So at the beginning of chapter 9, when Jesus called His inner circle, Peter, James, and John, to go with Him up the mountain, we have to wonder what they were thinking.  To be sure they were mulling the past few days and weeks in their minds.  Perhaps, they thought, in the rarefied air of the mountain their minds would clear and maybe Jesus would fill in some of the blanks they had.  One thing’s for sure, they weren’t ready for what awaited them at the top of the mountain!

Let’s face it, there was no way the disciples could have been prepared for what would take place on the top of that mountain.  The Bible says on the mountaintop, in the presence of His three disciples, Jesus was “transfigured.”  Transfigured, is an interesting choice of words and every time I read this passage I always go back to the Greek and look it up.  I’m not sure why, but it always seems to be the wrong word for such a monumental event. 

I’m not sure what word I would have used on this occasion but the Greek word metamorphoo, a word you probably recognize, is related to our word metamorphosis and means “to change form.”  Matthew tells us that Jesus’ face became as “bright as the sun” (17:2) and “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” according to Mark 9:3.  And if this weren’t enough, the disciples witnessed Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, both of whom had been dead for hundreds of years. 

I know I remind you of this every year, but it bears repeating: Moses, as you will recall, delivered to the people of Israel the Ten Commandments and God’s laws and led them to the Promised Land, thus Moses for the Jewish people represents the importance of the law.  Elijah was the first and most revered prophet of Israel and, at his death, was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire.  Thus, Elijah represents the prophets.  Together these two men represented the Law and the Prophets, the sources of authority in Jewish life.  This is an important event because it brings continuity to all three.  Jesus is the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, which is what He said in His sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  As I said, it was an amazing event and I’ve always wondered how I would have reacted had I been there that day.

Of course Peter, who could always be counted on to say something whether it was appropriate or not, said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.  Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  Mark at this point speculates that Peter didn’t know what to say, since they were so afraid.  However, all three of the Synoptic Gospels record Peter’s words.  What would you have done had you been there?  How would you have responded?

Think about it, have you ever been so afraid that all you could do was babble?  People react in different ways to dramatic situations and to fear.  Some can become quite talkative, others morosely silent.  Fear can bring out the best in some people, while others will crack under the strain.  But this wasn’t the only time the disciples were afraid in Jesus’ presence.  There were several such occasions.

For example, recall when Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee.  Matthew records that “when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified.  ‘It is a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.  But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage!  It is I.  Do not be afraid.’”  Later when Jesus appeared to them after His resurrection, Luke explains that “they were frightened and terrified because, again, they thought they were seeing a ghost.”

In this same chapter of our gospel for this morning, (Mark 9), Jesus tries to tell His disciples for a second time that He must be crucified . . . but after three days He would rise.  Mark tells us that they didn’t understand what He was talking about, “but they were afraid to ask him.”  It’s hard for us to imagine, this gentle, mild mannered Rabbi—how could anybody ever be afraid of Jesus?  Sadly, we have so sentimentalized this man from Nazareth that we cannot imagine grown men being afraid of Him, but they were.     

But then again, why not?  If Jesus is who we say He is, and I for one believe whole heartedly that He is!, who couldn’t help but be fearful in His presence?  Standing before them is the One through whom all things were created.  Here is a Man who is absolutely pure, is absolute love, the One whom demons and even the winds obey.  That kind of power and authority should bring a sense of awe.  Have you ever been in the presence of someone who was so perfect, so powerful in our estimation that they made you uncomfortable?  Jesus sometimes had that effect on people.  Maybe this is the problem we have today, we don’t have the absolute respect or fear of God that we should. 

For this reason, I think we need to ponder this passage deeply and ask ourselves, do we really understand who Jesus is?  Do we really appreciate the power, authority, love and kindness of the God we serve, or, has satan placed a veil over our minds, hiding the real Jesus from our understanding?  We have the privilege of serving an all knowing, all powerful and all loving God and I don’t think we fully appreciate that fact.  If we take the time to think deeply on the One whom we serve, we too just might drop in awe to our knees as well!  With that in mind, consider the verses that follow Peter’s mindless babbling, I think you’ll find them helpful.

Mark tells us, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them.”  This too is an important part of this passage since the Jewish people associated God with a cloud, remembering how God led the ancient Israelites in a cloud through the desert.  Here on the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice of God thundered from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Beloved.  Listen to him!”  At this, according to Matthew (17:1-6), the disciples “fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.”  Driven to their knees on the mountain . . . If there was any question that there was something different about Jesus, that doubt is dispelled here: Son of man . . . Son of God . . . Savior of the world . . . Immanuel . . . King of Kings . . . Lord of Lords.

All three writers record that God spoke and identified Jesus as His Son and commanded the disciples to “Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:15; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35).  Listen to Him: it’s a message we too need to hear and obey.  Listen not the world, not the talking heads of our times, certainly not our own voices of reason.  God commands us to listen to His Son!  Then “suddenly,” Mark says, “when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.”  It was a life altering experience that the disciples would remember for the rest of their lives.  

Years later Peter wrote in his second epistle, “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory . . . We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).  God the Father Himself confirmed Jesus’ true identity, for the second time.  Think of the impact this experience had on Peter, James, and John.  They were driven to their knees because they were in the presence of God the Father and His Son.

Jon Tal Murphree in his book, Made to be Mastered, tells about the impact that walking on the moon had on two of America’s astronauts.  For one of them he says, “Moon walking had been his greatest goal in life, and he labored tirelessly toward achieving that goal.  But once it was attained, he explained, there was no higher goal, and he became disillusioned.  He lost his ambition and his drive.  Finally, he suffered an emotional breakdown.”  For another astronaut, however, the moon visit meant something totally different.  In his autobiography, To Rule the Night, James Irwin wrote, “As we flew into space, we had a new sense of ourselves, of the earth and of the nearness to God.  We were outside ordinary reality; I sensed the beginning of some sort of deep change taking place inside of me.”

Irwin continued, “The ultimate effect has been to deepen and strengthen all the religious insight I ever had . . . On the moon the total picture of the power of God and His Son Jesus Christ became abundantly clear to me.”  Who wouldn’t be affected by walking on the surface of the moon?  And who wouldn’t be affected by being in the presence of Jesus as His divinity was being made manifest?  But all earthly things must come to their conclusion.

The time came for Jesus and His inner circle to come down off the mountain.  As Peter, James, and John descended the mountain, they pondered the significance of what they had just experienced.  My guess is that they walked back down in silence—they were too filled with awe to speak.

The disciples would make their way back into the valley, but a part of them would forever be on that mountain.  Their fear had been transformed to faith.  The focus of that faith was Christ and Christ alone.  As they came down off the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  The time would come when they would tell everyone, but the time wasn’t right yet.  Jesus and the disciples still had work to do.  That’s why they couldn’t stay on the mountain.

Nineteenth century American evangelist Dwight L. Moody wrote about meeting a man who testified that he had “lived on the Mount of Transfiguration” for 5 years.  I suppose by that that he meant he had lived in the presence of Jesus for that long.  So Moody asked him, “How many souls have you led to the healing light of Christ?”  The man said, “I don’t know.”  “Have you saved anyone from the pit of despair or the sting of death?”  Moody asked him.  “I can’t say that I have,” the man replied.  “Well, that’s not the kind of mountain top experience that makes any difference,” Moody said.  “When we get so high that we can’t reach down to other people, there is something wrong.”

Jesus told the three disciples who were with Him on the Mount of Transfiguration that they were to keep silence about what they had seen until after He was resurrected from the grave.  Then, they were to tell everyone.  And that’s why we’re here today.  Today we’ve once again recalled the amazing event of Jesus’ unveiling on the mountain top.  My hope is that as we ponder this event in our minds and hearts, we’ve hopefully been driven to our knees.  

As we conclude our time today, it’s now our turn to witness with our lives, as well as our speech, that we have been in the presence of the transfigured Jesus—the Son of man . . . the Son of God . . . the One through whom all things were created … the One whom demons and the winds obey … the Savior of the world . . . Immanuel, God with us . . . the King of kings and the Lord of lords.


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