Who is Jesus and what has he come to do?
Many of you have probably had the experience of riding the Jasper tramway to the top of Whistler’s Mountain and then looking down at the whole Athabasca and Miette River valleys laid out below you. If you climb to the very peak of Whistler’s Mountain and you’re lucky enough to be there on a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Robson. It really is an incredible view.
Mountains are great places for spying out the lay of the land. Down in the valley you can easily get confused about which direction you’re heading in and which road you should take, but up on top of the mountain you can look down and see the whole land laid out before you. And today’s gospel reading takes place on the top of a mountain – not just literally, but also metaphorically. Today’s reading is part of a cluster of readings that reflect back on what has been happening in the story of Jesus up to this point, and then look ahead at what is to come.
This cluster of readings includes three distinct units. In the first one, Jesus gathers his disciples together and asks them “Who do people say that I am?” “John the Baptist”, they reply, “or Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks; “What do you think?” Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus praises him for reaching this conclusion and tells him that this confession of faith in him as the Messiah, the Son of God, is the rock on which he’ll build his church.
This unit is immediately followed by a second unit in which Jesus begins to tell his disciples what is to come. They’re on the way to Jerusalem, and he’s going to be rejected by the leaders and killed, but on the third day he will rise again. Peter can’t even hear the bit about resurrection; all he can hear is the ‘suffering and being killed’ bit. He’s just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but the Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and be killed; he’s supposed to be a king like David, who will lead an army to set the people free and establish the earthly kingdom of God where justice and peace will prevail. So Peter rebukes Jesus - “This will never happen to you!” – and Jesus, who has just praised Peter’s faith and told him that God was speaking through him, now hears another voice, a tempting voice, in Peter’s words, and says “Get behind me, Satan!” He then goes on to tell his followers that being his disciples isn’t the road to glory; in fact, they will probably die as he will die (that’s what ‘taking up your cross’ meant – being killed as a traitor to the Roman empire).
Then comes today’s reading, where Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and there he is transfigured before them, so that his face and clothes shine as bright as the sun. The two greatest figures in Israel’s history – Moses and Elijah – appear there with Jesus, and Luke adds the detail that they are talking with him about what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem – his death and resurrection – his ‘Exodus’, they call it. Peter blurts out, “Lord, this is a fine thing, to see you and Moses and Elijah like this! Why don’t we build three shelters, one for each of you – then we can stay up here forever!” But suddenly a bright cloud comes down over them, just like the cloud that came down on Mount Sinai when Moses talked with God and received the Law and the Ten Commandments. They hear a voice – obviously the voice of God – speaking to them from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” When the cloud disappears, they see only Jesus.
As I said, this cluster of three stories is like a high mountain from which we can look back on the road we’ve travelled to get to this point, and also look ahead to what is to come. Let me explain what I mean by that.
The question, ‘Who is this?’ or ‘Who is this man?’ has been heard pretty frequently in the story of Jesus up to this point. Not only the crowds, but also even his disciples, are trying to figure him out from day one. He travels all around Galilee, healing people who are sick with many different kinds of illnesses and casting out evil spirits. Then he takes the crowds and his disciples up a mountain and teaches them in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, and afterwards we read that the crowds are astounded at his teaching, because he seems to assume an authority that not even the scribes and Pharisees assume.
He goes out on the lake with his disciples and a great storm arises, but Jesus rebukes the storm just like he rebukes the evil spirits, and it stops. The disciples are amazed, and they ask “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” A few verses later on we see him standing over the bed of a paralysed man, saying to him, “Your sins are forgiven”. The religious leaders are incensed: only God can forgive sins, so Jesus must be a blasphemer! But Jesus confounds them all by healing the man, and Matthew says that ‘When the crowds saw it they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings’ (9:8).
As the story goes on, Jesus continues to heal the sick and drive out evil spirits. He calls people to follow him and tells them that their loyalty to him must come before their loyalty even to the closest members of their families, and that they must even be ready to give up their lives for him. He tells them that if they welcome him they are really welcoming God who sent him.
By the time we reach chapter twelve the crowds are even beginning to whisper the title ‘Son of David’ – in other words, the Messiah, the king like David who God was going to send to drive out the enemies of Israel and establish justice and peace for his people. But the religious authorities scoff at this: he’s in league with the devil, that’s why he’s able to do these amazing things!
And so we come to this cluster of readings, this mountain top half way through the gospel, and the question of the identity of Jesus is front and centre. Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter is the one who speaks for them in saying “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. In the Old Testament the nation of Israel was called ‘God’s Son’, and in later times the kings were also given that title. A Son was the authorized representative of his Father and so could speak on his Father’s behalf. So Peter was saying, ‘Lord, we believe that you’re the one we’ve been waiting for: you’re the King like David, sent by God to set us free and establish peace and justice for Israel. You are God’s Son and you speak to us with the authority of God’.
And Jesus is not just one son of God among many; he is unique. This is underlined for us when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain. Imagine how the disciples must have felt; these were the two greatest figures from the history of Israel, who had lived many hundreds of years before. Moses was the one who had given Israel its Law and was especially associated in people’s minds with the first five books of the Bible. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. When people spoke about the Scriptures in the time of Jesus they often referred to them as ‘The Law and the Prophets’, and here were the two embodiments of the Law and the Prophets, speaking to Jesus. Most godly Jews at the time of Jesus would never have assumed that anyone could be the equal of Moses and Elijah, but now here they are, having a conversation with Jesus as equals. And Peter wants to make them equals: ‘Let’s build three shelters so we can stay here and listen to God’s wisdom from the three of you!’
But this is not what God wants. Impossible though it might be for a godly Jew to conceive, Jesus is not just equal to Moses and Elijah; he is superior to them. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’, says the voice from heaven; ‘listen to him’. Moses and Elijah point to Jesus and his cross and resurrection; in him the story of Israel has reached its climax.
So this passage calls us to give our highest allegiance to Jesus as God’s Son, the King who God has sent to set people free. Jesus is not just one religious leader among many. At the beginning of his gospel Matthew calls him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’; in other words, in Jesus God has come among us in a unique way, and in his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, God has acted uniquely to save us from evil and to bring in his kingdom. ‘This is my Son’, God says to us; ‘listen to him’.
But we also need to look forward, to what is to come on the road ahead. The disciples have a script in their mind about what it means to be the Messiah; he’s the one who will ride a royal charger at the head of God’s armies, slaughter the wicked enemies of Israel, pull down the corrupt leaders and establish God’s justice and peace forever. This script is well founded in the Old Testament prophets and it plays into our hunger to have a black and white world where there are goodies and baddies. In the end, the goodies will be rewarded and the baddies will be slaughtered.
The problem is, we’ve tried this script before and it hasn’t worked. In the Old Testament godly kings have led the people to battle and established freedom and peace for a while, but it’s never lasted. And in the years since the time of Jesus we’ve fought wars to end all wars over and over; we’ve had supposedly Christian rulers who have imposed Christian morality by force from on high, but people’s hearts haven’t been changed.
So Jesus is going to try a new script; he calls it ‘taking up his cross’. Yes, he’s going to oppose the evil tyranny of the Empire and the collaborators in Jerusalem, but he’s not going to try to overthrow them by force. Instead of working by the love of power he’s going to work by the power of love. Instead of forcing people to obey him he’s going to invite them to make a free choice to follow him, and if they do, he’s going to teach them the way of the Kingdom of God, the way of justice and peace and generosity and love for enemies and love for God above all. And when people kill him because of this, he’s not going to resist, and his death is going to become the way of salvation for the whole world.
It’s very revealing to compare this mountain of transfiguration with the hill on which Jesus was crucified just a few months later. Here Jesus is revealed in glory; there, he will be revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there they will be stripped off and soldiers will gamble for them. Here he is joined by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there he will be joined by two brigands, rebels against the empire, showing the depths to which he has sunk in the eyes of the authorities. Here, a bright cloud overshadows him; there, darkness will descend over the whole land. Here, Peter says how wonderful it all is and confesses his faith that Jesus is the Son of God; there, Peter will be hiding in shame having denied three times that he even knows Jesus. Here, the voice of God declares that Jesus is his beloved Son; there, surprisingly, a Roman soldier will give him a title that Romans reserved for their emperor: ‘he really was God’s son’.
This has been a different sort of sermon for me; I haven’t given you lots of illustrations and I haven’t talked about how we should put the message into practice. In the first instance, this isn’t really a message we put into practice, because it’s not about us at all; it’s about Jesus. Matthew is telling us that yes, incredible though it may seem, Jesus isn’t just an ordinary human being; he’s the Son of God, the one in whom God came to live among us as never before. He came to set the world to rights, but he dared to do so by trying a new script – not the way of power, but the way of love. And so he chose to walk the way of the cross and allow his enemies to kill him, and his death became for us the way of salvation.
But nonetheless, there is something for us to do. If we believe this – if we believe that Jesus isn’t just a great religious teacher but is truly the Messiah, the Son of God – then it can’t just be an intellectual idea for us. It’s not even just about coming to church and singing and praying and worshipping him. It’s about taking up our cross and following him. In the time of Jesus people who were carrying crosses were going out to be executed as traitors by the Roman empire. That’s how the world will see you, Jesus is telling us. Because you follow me as Lord and King and are loyal to the laws and customs of my kingdom ahead of the laws and customs of Canada or any other place you may happen to live, you will often find yourself in trouble.
But when this happens, the way of the Cross calls us to respond, not with anger and vengeance and calling down God’s curses on our enemies. When the Son of God went to the Cross he prayed that God would forgive his killers. Now he calls us to do the same. So as we begin the season of Lent this week, let’s pray for the grace to follow Jesus in the way of the Cross, and to find in it the path to resurrection and new life, just as he did. Amen.