02/19/23 “Changed”

Matthew 17:1-9

I’m not generally a big fan of change. I like order and predictability. The words “new and improved for your convenience” strike fear into my heart. I have a sense of dread whenever I see the Dotson’s trucks in front of my Kroger store, because I know they will be remodeling—again. I always adapt, of course. And, often, eventually, I come to see that many changes are good ones.

As I typed that last sentence while writing this sermon, spellcheck corrected me. It changed “many changes are good things” to “many changes are God things.” It occurred to me that my spellcheck might be on to something. Change can be disruptive and disconcerting, or it can be positive and exciting. It can send our lives in new directions, for better or worse. But regardless of how we perceive change, God is in its midst, and God can use it to change how we see Jesus.

Something may have already changed for the disciples in the six days before the events described in our passage. Jesus had given them some stunning and disturbing news. He’d begun to show them, as Matthew puts it, that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” These words so upset Peter that Peter actually pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him for saying such things. Do you remember that word “rebuke” from last week? It’s a scolding. Can you imagine scolding Jesus? Can you imagine being upset enough that you would scold Jesus? And yet, that’s exactly what Peter does. And if Peter says it, you can bet the others were thinking it.

Peter’s words show just how little he and his friends understood the man they had given up everything to follow. Even though the Spirit had moved Peter to correctly identify Jesus as the Messiah—the Son of God—there’s no place in his understanding for this new but clearly-not-improved version of what the Messiah is. The Messiah should be powerful—invincible. A Messiah who can suffer and die can’t be right. A Messiah who must suffer and die? That just has to be wrong.

Maybe Peter thinks that Jesus is just getting worn down by all the demands of people who are sick and need healing. Maybe he’s feeling the effects of the growing hostility from the religious authorities. Maybe Jesus just needs a good talking-to to get him back on an even keel. Maybe this trip up the mountain with his closest friends—the men who had been with him the longest—will produce the change that’s needed.

Something does change there on that mountain. Jesus’ appearance is changed. Matthew tells us that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” There are lots of code words in that sentence. The passive tense that Matthew uses—that Jesus was transfigured—is a way of saying that it was God who was doing the transfiguring. Jesus’ face shining like the sun conjures up images of Moses’ face, shining after his encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Jesus’ clothing becomes dazzling white—clothing so white that, Mark observes, no one on earth could produce by bleaching them, a white that is always evidence that the Divine is present.

Then, Moses and Elijah appear—symbols of the end of the present age, two prophets who were vindicated by God, just as Jesus had said he would be, when he would be raised three days after his death.

Impetuous Peter, whose motto seems to be “Don’t just stand there, do something (or at least say something)”—jumps in. “Wow, Jesus, it’s a good thing we’re here with you. If you wish, I can make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (I always chuckle at Peter thinking Jesus needs an explanation for why there’s a need for three dwellings.)

Before Peter even finishes his proposal, God interrupts. While Peter is still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadows them. Stop for a moment and imagine that: a bright cloud. Usually, when we think of clouds, we think of dark, stormy clouds, or maybe the beautiful clouds we watch drift by overhead and find pictures in, or just the boring gray clouds of winter.

When I’ve read this story in the past, I’ve always remembered a time Marc and Peyton and I took a day hike in the mountains in Oregon. We had read that fog could develop suddenly at the higher elevations, but we were starting out early, it was warm and sunny day, and we weren’t planning to be gone long. We were on our way back down when we learned just how quickly the fog could form. It seemed like it only took a moment to be completely enveloped in a thick cloud that nearly eliminated our ability to see what was around us. That’s how I’ve always pictured the disciples—enveloped in a cloud of dense gray fog.

But that’s not how Matthew describes it. This is a bright cloud. This cloud was like the one that led the Israelites out of Egypt, and then lit up the night sky as the Egyptian army pursued them. We’re familiar with the pillar of cloud that led them through the wilderness by day and the pillar of fire that led by night, but they weren’t two separate clouds. Exodus 40 tells us that the fire was in the cloud of God’s presence.

Matthew’s readers would have had no doubt about who was in that bright cloud. They would have had no doubts about whose voice spoke out of it, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” They would not have doubted whose voice then commanded them, “Listen to him.”

The voice does what the vision of Jesus and the bright cloud hadn’t: makes the disciples fall to the ground in fear. “But,” Matthew writes, “Jesus came and touched them, saying ‘Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up from their place on the ground, what did they see? Jesus himself alone.

This story that we call the transfiguration is a story about change. One meaning of the word “transfigure” is to change in a way that is visible to others. Jesus’ appearance was transfigured before the disciples’ eyes. But “transfiguration” can be more than an external change. It can also mean a change in the fundamental nature or character of someone or something. This can trip us up when we read this story. We may think that, on that mountain, Jesus’ fundamental nature was changed along with his appearance. But, at Jesus’ baptism, God had already affirmed that Jesus was God’s Son. Jesus clearly knew that was the case. He knew that he was the Messiah.

The transfiguration of Jesus’ appearance, and all the events that accompanied it, were only the means by which a much greater transfiguration comes to pass—the transfiguration of the disciples. Their appearances didn’t change—no shining faces, no dazzling white clothing. Instead, what changed was their understanding of who Jesus was. They had been shown that this man was not merely a wise teacher, or a worker of healing miracles, or even a man who had the authority to command nature itself. He was the Messiah, but a Messiah the likes of which they had never envisioned. This was God’s Son, and this revelation was made directly to them when God spoke to them from within that bright, Exodus-like cloud.

When the disciples were so dismayed by what Jesus said about what was going to happen to him in the coming days, they made it clear that something in them needed to change. On the mountain, God made it clear what that needed change was. They needed to listen to Jesus. They needed to hear—really hear, and take seriously, what Jesus was telling them. To listen, in Scripture, also means to obey. As they are wrapped in the that bright cloud of God’s presence, God calls them to a new obedience. They need to give up all their preconceived notions about God’s Messiah. They need to listen to what Jesus tells them about the form his Messiahship will take—that of a servant who is willing to die for the sake of his mission and the world that he loves. That of God’s Son who will suffer from death caused by evil. That of a Savior who, by God’s power, will triumph over both.

This re-ordering of all the disciples’ previous understandings could bring as much fear to the disciples as the cloud and the voice did on that mountain. But Jesus tells them not to be afraid. The vision has shown them who Jesus is, but he is also still the who cares for them, the one who is present with them.

I love the way the scene on the mountain concludes, just before they head back down. Matthew tells us that when the disciples looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. Seeing Jesus that way is the sign of the transfiguration that has happened to and in the disciples. Before, when they looked at Jesus, they saw lots of things—the teacher, the healer, the miracle worker. They saw the Messiah that they had envisioned all their lives—the one who would toss the Romans out of their land and restore God’s people to their rightful glory—military, political, economic, and national. What they saw was their version of Jesus.

But now, they see nothing but Jesus, himself. In that moment on the mountain, their preconceived notions were obliterated by the cloud and drowned out by the voice of God. Now they see Jesus as Jesus wants them to see him. Now they see Jesus as the Son of God whom they are to listen to and obey, no matter how frightening or difficult or challenging that may be. Their understanding is transfigured—changed in a fundamental way.

At first glance, this story is hard to identify with. The trip up the mountain, the vision, the cloud, the voice—these are all things we’re not likely to experience. But, when I think of Peter and James and John going up that mountain with Jesus, with all their uncertainties and misinformation, I think of us. I think of us, following Jesus and yet sometimes not quite sure of who he is. We know that he is more than a really, really good man and teacher, but we are a little unclear about what that “more” is. We say that he’s our Savior, but we’re a little fuzzy on exactly what we need to be saved from or for, and how Jesus does that. We profess that he is both fully God and fully human, but that’s a pretty hard idea to wrap our minds around. We say that he is our Lord, but then we turn around and speak and act in ways that show we don’t really know what that means. We have good labels for Jesus, but we haven’t really grasped who he is. We don’t really listen to him.

But then we find ourselves on a mountaintop with Jesus. We experience something that opens our ears and our eyes to him in a whole new way. Sometimes it’s a high-altitude experience that fills us with a heady joy. We stand in the church waiting for the wedding march to begin or hold a newborn in our arms for the first time.  We watch with pride as a child or friend reaches a long-sought-after goal. We build or achieve or create something that uses all our gifts, and the exhilaration lifts us so high that we indeed have a “standing on top of the world” feeling.

Sometimes we end up on that mountain after a long, slow trudge over steep and rocky terrain. We get the call from the doctor with the diagnosis we were dreading. We slowly make our way through treatments that may or may not work. A loved one dies, maybe after a long and difficult illness. A spouse or friend announces the end of a relationship. We carry with us the burden of fear for a friend or family member who is travelling a destructive or dangerous path. We are laden with guilt over our own bad choices or anxiety about our own uncertain futures.

But whether we have practically flown to the mountaintop with wings on our feet or have arrived there simply by putting one foot in front of the other every day, a change happens as stand there with Jesus. Transformation happens. Transfiguration happens. And, it’s not Jesus who is changed. We are changed.

Our foggy notions of him are burned away and we see him in a new light. When we encounter him in the crystallizing moments of our lives, whether it’s through a flash of dazzling light or from within dense and hazy cloud, we realize that he is who he has always been: the Son of God, God revealed to us in human flesh, the One whom God has anointed to teach us, and heal us, and ultimately, to save us.

In that realization, we are changed. Our understanding of Christ is changed. We look up, whether it’s in the midst of our joy or our sorrow, and see only him. We see him as the one who, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, is with us in every moment of our lives, who died to defeat the power of sin, and who rose again to secure for us the promise of eternal life. We see only him, and trust only him, and so we are moved to listen to him.

In 2014, Transfiguration Sunday came two days after my mother passed away. I had sat by her side for over a week as she slowly made her way through the process of dying. It was the final leg of a long slow trudge up the steep mountain of her years with dementia. But as the journey reached its conclusion, I saw the Christ I thought I knew in changed and powerful ways. I had called him a healer but, in that moment, I saw him anew as the one whom I could absolutely trust to make my mother whole again. I had believed that he could bring new life but, in that moment, I knew absolutely that through the changeless Son of God, we are given the ability to be changed and to grow more like him every day. I had long said that Jesus loves us but, in that moment, I knew with a new conviction that through our faith in God’s Beloved One, we too become the beloved of God. As my mother took her last breath, I looked up and saw only Jesus, himself, alone, and my faith was transfigured.

When we are able to see only Jesus, it’s easier to listen to him. When we are able to screen out all the things that obstruct our view of him, it’s easier to obey him. The bad news is that the obstructions tend to creep back in—our misconceptions, our long-held beliefs, our prejudices and our own desires. But the good news is that God keeps speaking to us. Jesus keeps walking with us. God’s sanctifying grace continues to work in us as we strive to see Jesus himself alone and listen to him.

That day on the mountain, something was transfigured. Someone was changed in a fundamental way. But it wasn’t Jesus. His appearance may have been changed, but his identity wasn’t. What was changed were the disciples, and we can experience the same change that they did. We may not experience a vision or a bright cloud or God’s voice speaking aloud from its midst. But, when we find ourselves on a mountaintop with Jesus, we can be sure that something is going to be transfigured. Something will be changed. It won’t be Jesus. It will be us. And, as my spellcheck knows, that change won’t be just a good thing. It will be a God thing. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young