Matthew 17:1-9 CEB
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
In Wilmore, Kentucky, a single worship service at Asbury Seminary has been going on for over two weeks straight with folks worshiping, confessing, and sharing testimony at this small Wesleyan school. Now, what I find interesting about this service is how, much like Peter, the whole country has been about this event. Everyone wants to lay claim to it and say what it means or what it should lead to! We could have a whole discussion of what is happening there, but we might have about as much luck as Peter when he tries to figure out what to do when he starts to see Jesus glow on top of a mountain. What has captured my attention from scripture this morning is the worship seen in verse 6: “Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.” Let’s explore what these disciples, including Peter, saw and heard that led to their worship and should lead to ours on this Super Sunday!
Last week, we had another super Sunday, in that the final football game of the season, the Big Game, where the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles met in Arizona to decide the contest for the NFL champion team! Now, I am going, to be honest, I don’t watch much football, but I will generally watch this one game. From the half-time show to the commercials and spectacle of it all, it is the biggest glitziest game of the whole year! Which seems so at odds with Christianity. Yes, we have this one worship service at Asbury that has captured the attention of the media and many folks around the country. Though, it seems odd for something to get so much attention because we Christians are often a quieter sort. After all, we do not hand out awards for the loudest Christians in the church, instead, we recognize the work of silent disciples, pointing to the fact that we generally agree you shouldn’t parade your piety.
Even Jesus, outside of this one moment recorded in three of the four gospels, is generally pretty humble in his piety. I mean, there is that whole bit in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, where Jesus says things like “‘Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention’” and “‘when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret’” (Matthew 6:1-4 CEB). In contrast, the Transfiguration just seems so loud and showy! You have Jesus taking just a few of the disciples up on a mountain where he “was transformed in front of them” with a face that “shone like the sun” and clothes that “became as white as light.” It doesn’t even stop there because just after this transformation, Moses and Elijah, the giver of the law and the prophet show up to talk with Jesus! At this point, I could use the input of you football fans out there! Would this be like the half-time pep talk with the coach and assistant coaches helping to get Jesus ready for the second half? I mean, if you look at the gospel story, after this Transfiguration moment, Jesus starts his final journey toward Jerusalem to the cross and victory over the opposing teams of sin and death!
Before all that, let’s take a step back to Peter’s reaction to all this for a second because I feel like I would be Peter on the mountain. Here is this big holy sacred moment, and Peter is like “Hey Jesus, should I do something useful, like building tents for each of you?” Is he befuddled? Is he frightened? Does he want to preserve this moment by building shrines? We don’t know for sure, but maybe it's all of the above. I don’t think it’s that unusual of a reaction. For instance, my wife, Caitlin, loves watching horror movies, but I always know when she is getting scared. Whenever she starts feeling frightened, she starts talking more and more. The scarier the film gets, the more conversational she gets! Like with Peter, overtalking and staying busy is a way to maintain control even when something is bewildering and terrifying!
Again, I am reminded of this worship service at Asbury. There are so many people trying to lay claim to this moment, trying to talk over what is happening! Is it good? Is it bad? Is it conservative, liberal, or progressive? We are all bewildered and don’t know what to do! Thankfully, God doesn’t wait for our understanding before moving. Instead, we are told that while Peter was “still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them.” God moves into the moment, speaking over Peter, to tell the disciples and all of us two things. First, God says, “‘This is my Son whom I dearly love.’” While Peter is trying to wrap his brain around the moment and capture it, God, instead, interprets it for him. God tells him to see who Jesus is. Rather than trying to impose his own agenda on what’s happening, Peter should see and fall down in awe.
Second, God says, “‘Listen to him!’” Listen to Jesus! Peter cannot listen if he is too busy trying to talk over the moment. Something must have finally clicked because it is finally at this moment, after hearing God, that these disciples finally fall down and worship in awe.
God moves and we are invited to see and hear. To see is to be in awe, and to be in awe should lead to worship. Transfiguration is not about Peter and it's not about us, it’s about God. Do you see? Do you see the wonder, the glory, and the awesomeness of our God? If you do, worship. Fall to your knees or lift up your hands! Raise your voice in song or whisper out a fervent prayer. Recognize who God is in all the ways you worship.
That’s the thing, for when we are too busy being overcome by awe in worship, too busy seeing God, we can’t talk over the divine. Finally, we are able to listen, to feel Jesus touch our shoulders, to hear his call to go and to follow. Maybe that’s why the over-the-top show of transfiguration works because God should be loud and we should be quiet. Maybe that’s where we run into trouble, those times and places where we try to talk over God, trying to tell God what God should be doing.
It reminds me of the most often misunderstood rule in the Ten Commandments, the one about taking God’s name in vain. It reads, “‘You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name’” (Exodus 20:7 NRSV). Usually, I hear this rule cited as the reason we shouldn’t say “God d**n it!” or “Jesus Christ!” (In the midwest, we try to get away with “Gosh dang it!” or “Jeez Louise!”) However, the true meaning of this commandment extends further. For instance, how many political candidates have tried to claim that they were chosen by God? How many say that their cause or their opinion is backed by Jesus? Those are also taking God’s name in vain. To claim that one opinion, one candidate, one agenda, or even one particular view is the one backed by the Almighty is the height of hubris. That’s us, talking over God.
Worship is the opposite. God speaks, and we listen. We should be quiet because it is God who should be loud in the kin-dom. We need to stop our noise. We need to stop trying to jump ahead and build tents before we have even heard the Lord’s command. Otherwise, worship can be whatever we want it to be, but without God’s presence, everything else can and will be left at the sanctuary doors on the way out. Rather, worship should change us. People should know we have been to worship because they should see something shining on our faces. Like Moses, aglow after coming back from seeing God on Sinai, there should be light there, brightening all the shadowy places in this world. It is our time and place to hear Christ calling us again. Calling us to love, serve, and give ourselves away as he did in the ways he worshipfully lived.
In the end, whether it is something happening in a chapel in Kentucky or on top of the mountain in Exodus, or with Jesus, we could all use a few more occasions where we stop in awe, to see and hear. Thankfully, God gives us just that. While the Big Game might be one Sunday every year, a Super Sunday happens every Sunday in the kin-dom. It is our place to be in awe and to worship. It is our place to be filled again with God’s light and to go out again to shine in Christ’s name. It is our time and place to remember what is to catch a glimpse of the kin-dom of God. So come, let us worship, and then go, serve the world. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman