a Sermon for Epiphany LastA
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
On another mountain
We skip ahead to another mountain; more climbing, more experience with Jesus. Not a place of preaching. No Sermon on the Mount. This time is supernatural. Three followers go; the inner circle. The executive committee. Jesus invites them to follow Him up the mountain. A high mountain.
They are there to witness something different. A change in Jesus. Not a public change, but private. They will be told not to talk about it.
What they see is an incredible light and the changing face of Jesus. What they hear is the booming voice of GOD. They see. They hear. And then they fear.
In the middle of the story, Moses and Elijah appear for a chit-chat with Jesus. Peter tries to suggest they stay awhile—a hospitable interruption, disruption, intrusion. They were brought there to witness. They see. They hear. And the words they hear are the same as the ones at Jesus’s baptism except these: “listen to him.”
It is not yet time to speak. It is time to listen. Jesus is teaching.
I’ve always struggled with the Transfiguration. Something about it. I always wonder how the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah. It’s not like there are dead prophet trading cards or a pictorial history of the faith or a Prophet University Yearbook that goes back 2000 years before them.
And yet I know this story is important. God’s voice is only heard twice in the gospels: in each baptism and transfiguration story.
I struggle most with what it is that the disciples are supposed to be witnessing. What is this strange family reunion? Why is GOD saying to listen to Jesus here? Why are they to keep this event a secret?
I’m drawn (always) to Peter who has a great (human) idea to be hospitable to these ghostly guests—to build them tents—to honor them. Make them comfortable. Maybe they can sit and talk for as long as they want. A kind thought. A good thing.
GOD resides in a tent, carried by the people when they were in the wilderness. Then GOD resides in the Temple. Then, as Jesus tells them, GOD resides in Him.
It seems that we, like Peter, and regardless of what Jesus actually tells us to do, lock GOD into a tent to carry around our necks or in our Temples of grandeur, or even locked into our prayer books or in our brains or in any metaphorical box that prevents GOD from showing us something new, something we don’t already know. Preventing us from doing what Jesus called us up the mountain to do: to witness a change. To listen to GOD.
It is not yet time for Peter to speak. That will be soon enough. It is time to listen. Listen, rather than hear. Hearing is about words, doctrines, and creeds. Hearing is about eavesdropping on secrets to the universe whispered between prophets. Hearing is what your ears do when they pick up all the sounds around us. Listening, on the other hand, is when we give someone our attention. To hear only them.
Peter and his friends are to listen to Jesus. A Jesus who taught them how to love and who. A Jesus who has given them a mission to reconcile the world. A Jesus who has taught them what it means to follow the Law and that sometimes following the Law means breaking the Law. A Jesus who has told them what is to come: His death and resurrection. And theirs.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Peter’s interruption, his attempt to make it better, more comfortable is not listening, but ignoring. It is preserving. It is making permanent what is temporary. It is painting on the sidewalk over a chalk drawing. A moment/experience intended to be temporary.
Unlike Abram, who built altars to commemorate divine interactions and then moved on, Peter is preserving, protecting, making permanent. They are to move. They have a mission to fulfill. They are to climb down again and return to their work. Listening.
Down the Mountain
We, like Peter, want to stay on the mountain, preserving the moment, protecting our powerful GOD in a prison of minor profundity. A neither dead nor living GOD, but one incarcerated by eternal aphorisms about the human condition. As if he teaches us Please try to love each other, if it isn’t too much trouble and they don’t offend us, because then we should feel allowed to hate them. Rather than listen to His words to love each other. It isn’t a suggestion or negotiation.
Come down from this mountain and love. The mountain, the place where GOD speaks and we witness divine change, is not where we, or GOD, dwell. It is where we meet. Where we gather and worship and share and eat. But we are to go, so that we might live in the lowlands, loving GOD and our neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus does not lead us to build tents or Temples to preserve mountaintop experiences, but to listen in the midst of them and return to following Jesus in all that we do. The Jesus of the Bible doesn’t tell us to worship our Temple but to feed His sheep. The Jesus of the Bible doesn’t argue about responsibilities, but sits and eats with the poor, and instructs his followers to serve them. The Jesus of the Bible doesn’t ask his disciples how to fit Him into their busy work schedules, but asked them to leave their lives behind and follow Him.
Listen to Him.
Know that He isn’t staying put. He’s moving again. He’s walking from here to Jerusalem. He isn’t to be locked in here, where we gather in a tent on the mountaintop. To listen, we have to follow Him where He’s going. Out. Away. To die. To rise. To ascend. Our path, following, listening, becoming.