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Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday 2023

First Reading: Exodus 24:8-18

 8And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” 9Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. 12The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.” 15Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.


Psalm 2:6-12

6”I myself have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.” 7Let me announce the decree of the Lord:  He said to me, “You are my Son; this day have I begotten you. 8Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance and the ends of the earth for your possession. 9You shall crush them with an iron rod and shatter them like a piece of pottery.” 10And now, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. 11Submit to the Lord with fear, and with trembling bow before him; 12Lest he be angry and you perish; for his wrath is quickly kindled.


Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21

 16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.


Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

 1And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 9And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”


 Time to Listen

I bet this has happened to all of us; someone tells you the ending to a joke, a story, or a movie and in doing so ruins the experience for you.  It’s frustrating, isn’t it?  Sadly, there’s nothing we can do about it.  No wonder we encourage people to preface their announcement by saying, “spoiler alert.”  I read a story about a vindictive way to take revenge on someone who ruins the ending to a movie without warning.

This person, who posted their story under the screen name Runawaybucket in an online forum, said that their friend gave away the ending to the 2015 Star Wars movie “The Force Awakens” the day after it came out.  It’s unknown if this was an accident or a malicious act.  The facts didn’t matter since Runawaybucket was highly offended.  That Christmas Runawaybucket bought his friend a large Star Wars puzzle, something he knew his friend would enjoy.  But before he gifted his friend the puzzle, he removed one piece from the box.  Just one small piece.  And the anticipated result occurred.  After days of work, the friend called to complain that he couldn’t complete the puzzle.  He had searched his house frantically for the single missing piece.  Runawaybucket then texted him a picture of the missing puzzle piece with the message, “Oh, did I ruin the ending for you?”  And then he destroyed the puzzle piece.

While this was a creative way to get revenge and ensure your friend understands how it feels to have the ending spoiled for you, it’s rather unkind.  For me, the response was funny, however, destroying the missing piece was over the top.  This reminded me of a hilarious story from the early days of television when shows were filmed live.  In those days, there was no opportunity for editing or correcting mistakes.  Actors had to have their parts perfectly memorized or else their mistakes would be forever captured on film.  During that timeframe, there was a popular show called Studio One.

On one occasion, the Studio One drama involved a story about a group of airplane passengers flying 30,000 feet over the mountains of Tibet.  Three men were in the airplane cabin talking.  In the midst of this conversation, suddenly there was an awkward pause.  One of the actors had forgotten his lines.  Remember, this is live TV.  They couldn’t stop the scene and re-film it.  The other actors froze, unable to move forward with the scene.  The audience kept watching.  The cameras kept rolling.  Somebody had to do something to resolve the scene.  So, the actor who had missed his line suddenly stood up and said, “Well, here’s where I get off.”  And he walked off the soundstage, leaving the other two actors, who were supposedly in an airplane 30,000 feet above the ground, to continue the scene without him.  I guess that’s one way to ruin the ending to a story, just walk off the stage.

In our very familiar gospel reading for today, Jesus led three of His disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a high mountain.  They didn’t know it yet, but Jesus was going to show them the end of the story, the story that God had been telling since the moment of creation, the story of the people of Israel and how God set them apart to be “a light unto the nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).  The story of the salvation of humankind.  But to fully appreciate this event, we need to put this moment in context.

At the end of chapter 15, Jesus feeds the 4000, the second time He has miraculously fed a crowd.  Then beginning in chapter 16, after witnessing this miracle mind you, the religious leaders ask Jesus for a sign to prove He is the promised Messiah.  To this Jesus says the only sign they’ll get is that of Jonah.  Keep that statement in mind as we move through the chapter.  Next, Jesus asks His disciples who do people say He is.  The disciples give Him answers like Moses, Elijah, or one of the prophets.  He then asks a very important question, “But, who do you say that I am?  To this Peter responds correctly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Good for Peter.

Then Jesus goes on to announced that He must suffer and die and be raised to life again.  To this declaration, it’s once again our impulsive Peter who takes it upon himself to rebuke Jesus.  And of course we know that this wasn’t such a good idea.  Peter was admonishing the One God had sent to redeem the world.  For his response Peter got struck with lightning and is killed.  I’m kidding, of course.  I wanted to see if you were paying attention!

However, the fact that Peter didn’t get punished for his impulsive acts gives me reassurance of God’s patience with people.  I, too often, find that I’m more like Peter than I’d like to admit.  I’m so thankful that God is tolerant and merciful.  To Peter’s rebuke, Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  It’s here that we begin chapter 17.

Six days later, Jesus led Peter, James, and John up on the high mountain.  And there before their eyes, He was transfigured.  Matthew writes, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”  Next, the voice of God spoke from the bright cloud that covered them and said, “‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!’  These words mirror the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism with one difference: God’s command, “This is my Son . . . Listen to him!”

There’s an old joke about a well-known scientist who announced he was trying to cross a parakeet with a black panther.  “Good heavens,” responded a newspaper reporter.  “What do you expect to end up with?”  “Well, I can’t rightly say,” admitted the scientist.  “But if it starts talking, people had better listen.”  Now is the time for Peter, James, and John and the other disciples to listen to Jesus.

A mere six days earlier, Peter rightly confesses that Jesus is the promised Messiah and Jesus follows this declaration up by explaining that He was going to suffer and die and be raised to life again.  None of the disciples fully grasped Jesus’ identity or His ministry yet.  Jesus knew He only had a short time left to show the disciples that He was indeed God’s Messiah, the Anointed One.  So now, more than ever, it was time for these disciples to listen.

It’s important for us to note what happened when the disciples did listen.  In verse 6 we read, “When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them.  ‘Get up,’ don’t be afraid.’  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”  What did this moment of transfiguration mean?  How was this moment a glimpse at the end of the story?  In the Transfiguration, they saw fulfilled the promise of reconciliation with God.  Let me explain what I mean.

The disciples saw Jesus on the mountain with Moses and Elijah.  God gave the Law to Moses as a framework for maintaining a right relationship with God.  The intent was to show the people the path to righteousness.  But no one can keep the Law perfectly.  No matter how hard we try, we fail.  And this creates a separation between us and God.  And that separation from God, the Giver of Life, means that we are destined for death.  That’s where Elijah comes in.

Elijah was one of Israel’s greatest prophets.  And it was the prophets’ job to turn the people of Israel back to their relationship with God.  To heal their separation from God.  That’s reconciliation.  At this moment when Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus, then disappeared from the scene, they were reinforcing what Jesus had said, “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 (Matt. 5:17).  With Moses and Elijah absent, God was saying, there’s only one voice for us to listen to, His Son Jesus.  Jesus came to fulfill all the requirements of righteousness to reconcile us to God.  His is the primary voice, we should listen to Him.

Theologian N.T. Wright wrote the most thought-provoking statement about Jesus.  In one of his books, he asked what would it look like if you took the prophets’ message of turning back to God, healing our relationship with God, and turned that message into a human being?  He wrote, “Now ask yourself: what would that prophecy look like if it were to clothe itself in flesh and blood?  Might it not look like a young man going around Galilee making all things new by loving the unlovable, by healing the unhealable, by welcoming the outcasts?”

In essence the law and the prophets became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. And what did it look like?  Grace, restoration, healing, new life.  The Apostle Paul writes about Jesus in II Corinthians 5:21: “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (NLT).  In His perfect obedience and sacrificial death, Jesus gave us His righteousness and bridged the gap caused by sin that separates us from God.

John Wesley wrote in his journals about a disagreement that he mediated at one of his religious gatherings which he called Societies.  Some of the leaders of this gathering had excommunicated fourteen people from their group for various reasons.  Wesley couldn’t find sufficient reason why the fourteen had been removed from fellowship.  He was determined to do everything in his power to help them reconcile with one another.  He invited the fourteen who had been banned to join the Society for worship and Holy Communion.  He only had one requirement: no one was to talk about the past at this gathering.  Not the current members of the Society, nor the fourteen who had been expelled.

As they all gathered before the worship time, they began talking to one another.  What they discovered was that not being able to bring up the past made it very difficult for them to accuse one another or have hard feelings toward one another.  The result was that the fourteen were restored to fellowship.  A healing took place that night in their relationships when their past disagreement was erased.

In II Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  What a wonderful statement of reassurance: the sin of our past is erased.  There’s no longer anything to separate us from God.  That’s the first thing they saw in the Transfiguration: the promise of our reconciliation with God.  The second thing they saw in the Transfiguration was the promise of eternal life. 

In Jesus’ earthly life, He was a humble carpenter and rabbi.  But when Jesus’ face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light, that’s when Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of His true identity as our resurrected Savior and Lord.  Soon, they would see Him arrested and put on trial, beaten and spit on, and nailed to a cross. They would witness Him die an agonizing and shameful death.  They needed to see, if only for a moment, the resurrected Jesus in His glory and majesty.  They needed to know that God’s story would end in victory and everlasting life.  We all need that assurance.

Some of you are familiar with the Harry Potter book series.  When the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was available for pre-order, it set a new record for pre-orders on Amazon, according to Dan Lewis in his Now I Know! newsletter.  All these pre-orders flooded in before author J.K. Rowling even completed the book.  Natalie McDonald, a nine-year-old girl from Toronto, was one of those fans who pre-ordered the book.  The problem was, Natalie wasn’t sure she could wait for it to come out.  She was battling leukemia and the treatments weren’t effective.

Her doctors didn’t think she would survive long enough to see the book released.  So, a friend of the McDonald family approached the publisher of the Harry Potter series and asked them to get a letter to J.K. Rowling.  In the letter, the friend, Annie Kidder, asked if Rowling would give Natalie a synopsis of the book before it came out.  In short, she wanted to know the ending before she died.

Rowling was on vacation when she received the message.  She emailed Natalie’s mother as soon as she got the message, giving her all the details of the story’s ending.  But tragically, little Natalie had died just one day earlier.  Rowling was determined to honor the life of her young fan.  She couldn’t give her the ending to the story while she was alive.  But she could immortalize Natalie by making her a part of the story that meant so much to her.  When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released in 2000, there was a new character added to it.  On page 159, a new witch joined the House of Gryffindor.  Her name is Natalie McDonald.

In his Transfiguration, Jesus let Peter, James, and John have a sneak peek at the ending to God’s story for humanity.  It’s a story of healing our separation from God, not by our own righteousness and good works, but by Jesus, in His death and resurrection, reconciling us to God.  It’s a story of Jesus taking on the burden of our sin and death so that we could receive eternal life.  But before we can receive these gifts of reconciliation and salvation, we need to see Jesus as Peter, James, and John did, as He really is: the Savior of the world.  Romans 10:9 says, “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NLT).  May our lives be transformed as we become reconciled to God and in gratitude, show others the true identity of Jesus.


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