Film Scan of a photo from November 2003 – Ireland’s Highest Mountain, Carrantuohill, Co. Kerry
Today’s Sermon, Text Matthew 17:1-9. The Sunday Before Lent (Year A)
Years ago, when Sonja and I were living in Sligo, we climbed a mountain with a group from the Summer Camp we were helping out with. We had climbed it many times before and although it was not Mount Everest, it was a decent enough climb and the view was always spectacular – the lakes, valleys and mountains going into Co. Leitrim to the East, up into Donegal Northwards, and South and West looking over Sligo town and far out into the Atlantic Ocean. On this occasion, as we set out it was cloudy and as we were climbing up the side of the mountain we soon found ourselves in the midst of the cloud, but it was a well-worn path, so we were able to continue without any difficulty. When we got to the top we found that we were above the cloud, as if we were on an island with other mountaintops poking out as islands in the distance, it was spectacular. We sat down to have a rest and to cook some food. A little later the Sun began to set, the sky turned wonderful hues of orange and red and lit up the clouds beneath us, the blanket of cloud looked like a sea of red hot lava! It was a special moment and a spectacular sight and one that I will always remember – a real ‘mountaintop’ experience.
Of course ‘mountaintop’ experiences don’t just have to take place on a mountain! In our lives as followers of the Lord Jesus, we often refer to those times of great religious or spiritual experience, times when we know and encounter God’s love and presence in a special and unique way as ‘mountaintop experiences’. When they happen we don’t want them to come to an end – we want to stay there because it is such a wonderful place to be.
In today’s gospel reading Peter, James and John have what might be described as a very dramatic mountaintop experience! The Lord takes them on a journey, up a high mountain. The heat of the sun, the dust from the path, the hardness of the rocks and their out-of-breath lungs would have left them in no doubt that this was real, they were not dreaming, but nevertheless the things that were about to happen, what they were to hear and see, were something well beyond the realm of normal experience and were to give them a glimpse behind the curtain of eternity – to see Jesus glorified and to see those who had long been dead as very much alive.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. (v2,3)
‘Transfigure’ means to transform into something more beautiful or elevated, and this is what happened to the Lord Jesus, suddenly he was blindingly bright, his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzlingly white. Imagine what this would have been like for the disciples! How would you have responded if you had been there? The purpose of this was perhaps to encourage the disciples, to give them some idea of Jesus’ divinity – everyday they were with Jesus and they saw Jesus the man (though they must also have known and realised that He was so much more than just a man). Here was an occasion when they were reminded of how Jesus was before He came to live on earth and how He would be in eternity and specifically how He would be at His second coming.
There would be much sorrow and hardship ahead for the disciples and this vision of Jesus would have been a great encouragement to them in the darkest and most difficult days that lay ahead (and so also for Christians throughout the centuries and today). Just a few days ago Shahbaz Bhatti, a remarkable man and Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs was assassinated in Islamabad, why? Because he was a Christian. Since he was high profile we heard about it in our part of the world, but there are many many more Christians killed daily only because they are followers of the Lord Jesus. What has kept them going and what has always kept God’s people going during times of persecution and hardship? The knowledge that this life is a preparation for the next; that we shall see Christ in His glory can and does give the believer strength and courage to face the trouble and the evil of today.
Now if we have never heard this bit of the Bible before we might be wondering the significance of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. The remarkable thing here is that these two men had been dead for centuries and yet here they are talking with Christ! Surely then these verses show us that those who have died live on in the next life, but they have another purpose too – Moses and Elijah were two great Old Testament characters, Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets. In other words the whole of the Old Testament was leading up to its fulfilment in the Person and work of Christ. The Lord Jesus does not do away with the Old Testament, He fulfils it. So when we read the Hebrew Scriptures (which we all should) we see them through the lens of Christ, we use His teaching and the words of the New Testament to interpret all that we read in the Old. So the purpose then of Moses and Elijah appearing and talking to Jesus was for the benefit of Peter, James and John (and ultimately all believers) to show Jesus’ authority and rightful place in the scheme of things; yes Moses and Elijah were important, but Jesus is infinitely greater.
Peter, James and John were in awe of what was happening and Peter has one of those moments when he doesn’t really know what to say or how to respond, so he says:
‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ (v.4)
Whether Peter wanted to preserve the moment or to somehow give Moses and Elijah a place to sit down and have a cup of tea we are not sure! This was such an awesome experience that Peter didn’t want it to end – he wanted to stay on the mountain longer. But next, while Peter was still speaking we read:
“… suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” (v.5-7)
We can be left in no doubt that this is God the Father showing not only His approval of God the Son but also proof of Jesus’ divinity – Jesus is one with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. Peter wanted to put up thee tents as if Moses, Elijah and Jesus were on a par with each other, clearly they are not because even before Peter has finished speaking he is told in a most dramatic way that One is there who is far greater than even these towering figures of history. So the warning is there not only to Peter James and John but to all of us never to put our trust in any person other than Christ, people will always let us down, Christ never will let us down.
As the disciples were huddled on the ground in fear Jesus comes over to them and touches them, He comforts them and tells them not to be afraid. They find the courage to open their eyes and when they do so, all they see is Jesus.
So where does that leave us? I think it is an important reminder that our religion, our faith is a supernatural one. Too often, we try to sanitise God, make him presentable and acceptable, ordered and dare I say it tame! But God is not tame; He will not fit neatly in a box! I think it leads us also to being honest with ourselves and asking the question about whether or not we are happy with our relationship with Christ. How is that relationship going? Is it going well or is there any relationship at all? – Only you and He know the answer to that– so let us pray:
Lord God forgive us for trying to keep you at a safe distance, actually we long for a greater encounter with you, we yearn for a deeper relationship with you and we hunger and thirst for more of you in our lives. Help us to let go of all that gets in the way of our relationship and help us to seek you with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. May we know you more fully, more completely and by your grace help us to listen to you, to not be afraid and to do all that you require of us, that you Holy Name may be glorified in us and through us … Amen.