1 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 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.”
5 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!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 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.” (CEB)
Listen to Him
My wife likes French toast. So, early in our marriage, she made French toast for breakfast fairly often. And I ate the French toast she made. About ten years into our marriage, I finally found the courage to admit to her that I don’t really care for French toast. She never asked me if I liked French toast, and I never said anything because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. We both failed to communicate. I think we finally communicated with each other about it when she asked me why I never ate more than one piece. Marriage is a relationship, and relationships require the people in them to relate.
A big part of that relating to each other is a willingness to speak and to listen together. Words like commune and communication come from the Latin prefix com- meaning together and the root munis meaning burden, duty, and obligation. Community is sharing the burdens of life together. It’s our obligations and duties to each other. Sometimes it’s bearing with each other. For community, communion, and communication to happen, we need to listen to each other and learn about each other. We especially need to pay attention to what the other in any particular relationship wants, needs, likes, dislikes, etc.
The reason I mention relationships and the etymology of com-mune is because we’re made for this stuff. God designed us for relationships: relationships with God, with creation, and with each other.
If you were asked to summarize the narratives of the Bible, how would you describe them? When I think on that matter, what I would describe is the story of God’s relentless pursuit of a relationship with us—God’s beloved creatures—who, more often than not, try our darndest to ignore the very God who created us as reflections of the Divine. The Bible tells the story of a God who desires our attention, to be in a relationship; a God who—for our sake—gave the law to teach us, sent the prophets to remind us, sent the Son to walk with us, and gave the Holy Spirit to guide us.
God loves us so deeply, so potently, so vastly that God refuses to give up on us or let us leave. God has fought for us and worked on our behalf from the moment we were created, and God will keep fighting for us until we’re all gathered-in to live with God as a family, which is exactly what we’re made to do and be. God wants our attention because relationships require our attention. Relationships require effort from all parties involved. When we stop giving attention to someone, or they stop giving attention to us, our relationship with that person will break down.
There are innumerable hindrances and obstacles to the necessary work for building up and developing our relationships. Every day, we are assailed by attempts from people and things who want our attention. The bombardment becomes even more of a constant the moment we turn on the television or radio. Every advertisement, whether it’s for a political candidate or a new product which is guaranteed to make our life easier, or grant us more success, or gain increased wealth, or feel a deeper sense of contentment, or find secret meaning: they’re all vying for our attention. They promise us that if we listen to them, then our lives will be better.
The things that want our attention are more than TV and radio advertisements, obviously. There are people peddling ideologies and sentiments that promise us their way will make our lives better. If we exclude these people, for instance, they promise that we’ll prosper. If we blame these people for our troubles, then we can fix our problems by getting rid of them. If we make these people look bad or less important than us, then we can feel better about ourselves.
We all have strong beliefs about lots of stuff. We each have our own thoughts, values, and hopes which we espouse and champion, whether the stance is religious, political, ideological, or otherwise. We’re somewhat defined by the stances we take. Our stances set limits and lines for our lives that we dare not cross. We all have them, and often times these are good things. It’s how we know not to kill someone when we get angry at them, for instance. We all have ideas that we desperately know—to the core of our being—that our beliefs are true and right and divinely approved. The problem, of course, is that God doesn’t always agree with our assessment of what is true and right and divinely approved.
The Apostle Peter was a person with a firm belief in who Jesus was. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is God’s Son, the Christ who had come into the world. Peter was, in fact, the first one to confess this belief. Slightly earlier in Matthew, just before our text begins, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” (Matthew 16:13 CEB). And, they replied by telling Jesus the latest word on the street. Some suggested that Jesus must be John the Baptizer come back from the dead. Others said Jesus was Elijah. Still others said he was Jeremiah or one of the other prophets (c.f. Matthew 16:14). Then, Jesus asked his companions, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 CEB). It’s then that Peter makes his great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 CEB).
And, you know what? Peter nailed it! He knew exactly who Jesus was. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the true Ruler of Israel! And, since Peter got the answer right, Jesus apparently felt he could trust the disciples with more information. So, after blessing Peter for his God-revealed confession, Jesus began to tell his disciples that he needed to go to Jerusalem and suffer terrible things at the hands of the elders, priests, and legal experts. There, in Jerusalem, he would be killed and raised on the third day.
But Peter didn’t like what he heard. We’re told, “Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: ‘God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.’ But he [Jesus] turned to Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts’” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).
Peter reminds us that it’s possible to know who Jesus is without really understanding what Jesus is about. Peter reminds us that we should be cautious about believing—let alone declaring to others—that we possess the whole truth. Sometimes the stances we take—while they might seem good to us—they do not have their origin in God.
“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” (Matthew 17:1-3 CEB).
I wish I could have listened in on that conversation. Can you imagine? Luke’s Gospel tells us that they spoke about Jesus’ departure, which was a reference to his death, resurrection, and ascension. Moses, the prophet of God who represented the law and the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai; Elijah, the Man of God who represented the prophets of Israel; and Jesus, the Christ and Son of the Living God who came to fulfill both the law and the prophets were having a chat on the mountain.
But, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are connected. The teaching of Jesus wasn’t new or innovative. Some of what Jesus taught corrected misguided human interpretations, but it wasn’t new stuff. The teaching of Jesus is inextricably linked to the prophets and the law. That love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength thing, Jesus got that from Deuteronomy 6. And the love your neighbor as yourself thing, Jesus got that from Leviticus 19. Love is at the center of what Jesus taught, just as love is the central reason why God pursues us no matter how badly we mess life up for ourselves and for others.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is this powerful moment in time. And, in a sermon on this day, I should probably talk about the parallel connections to Moses at Sinai: how they both went up on a mountain, how they both were overshadowed by a luminous cloud, how God spoke out of the cloud, how Moses’ face shined brightly and Jesus’ whole being lit up like a newborn star.
I could talk about the connection to Elijah at Mount Horeb with the wind, earthquake, fire, and God’s voice like the sound of silence.
I could, or probably should, talk about the theological significance of this moment being the second time that God is fully revealed as Three-In-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I could talk about how the Son went up the mountain, the Holy Spirit covered them in a luminous cloud, and the Father spoke from the heavens to identify the Son and call him beloved.
I could talk about Peter’s offer to act as servant by building shrines to house this profound appearance of divine splendor where all of Israel’s history suddenly intersected with their present.
But what I want us to hear, what I think we desperately need to hear, are God’s words about listening. “Listen to him!” You see, Peter already knew the first part about Jesus. The voice of God said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him” (Matthew 17:5 CEB), all that, Peter already got. He confessed it. It was the last bit, “Listen to him!”, that was—and so often still proves to be—the difficult part. When Peter didn’t want to hear the lesson Jesus had to teach, Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).
When we listen to the wrong voices vying for our attention instead of the voice of Jesus, we sin. When we heed the wrong teachers instead of the teaching of Jesus, we sin. When we listen to our own rationalizations and pay attention to our own desires instead of the lessons and examples of God’s Son, we sin.
“Listen to him!” We must listen to Jesus in order to learn the way of God, not to our politicians and political leanings. We must listen to Jesus to learn what God demands of us, not to our personal preferences. We must listen to Jesus to discover how God wants us to treat other human beings, not to our human ideologies. The teaching of Jesus trumps everyone and everything because the teaching of Jesus is the teaching of God. What Jesus teaches us is that love is central to everything.
God loves you. God loves you, and God loves the people you think are unholy sinners, and God is as desperate for a relationship with you as you need a relationship with God. God has pursued you with grace and love your whole life long. But, if we want to build our relationship with God, if we want to foster and com-mune with the God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine, who sent the Son to live and die for our sake, then we need to listen to Jesus.
I’ll be the first to admit that listening to Jesus might lead us into places and among people and into ideas that will make our hearts and minds recoil in fear. But maybe that’s where our listening to Jesus can begin. Because after Peter, James, and John fell prostrate to the ground, trembling in fear at the voice of God, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Get up,” and “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 17:7 CEB).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay