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.
Today’s gospel reading takes place on top of a mountain – not just literally, but metaphorically too. It’s 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 includes three distinct units. In the first, Jesus gathers his disciples together and asks them “Who do people say 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”. This confession of faith is a pivotal moment in the life of the disciple community, and in response Jesus says that this confession – that he is the Messiah – is going to be the rock on which he will build his church.
This unit is immediately followed by a second one, 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 take this in. 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 leading an army to set the people free and establish the earthly kingdom of God. 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, and he 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. Six days after the previous incident 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. Peter blurts out, “Lord, this is a fine thing! Why don’t we build three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – 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 they hear a voice speaking to them from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” When the cloud disappears, they see only Jesus.
This cluster of 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’s coming. Let me explain.
The question ‘Who is this man?’ has been heard frequently in the story of Jesus up to this point. Not only the crowds, but also his disciples, are trying to figure him out. He travels all around Galilee, healing the sick 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; the crowds are astounded at his teaching, because he seems to assume an authority not even the scribes and Pharisees assume.
He goes out on the lake with his disciples and a storm arises, but Jesus rebukes the storm and it stops. The disciples are amazed: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Jesus stands over the bed of a paralyzed man, saying “Your sins are forgiven”. The religious leaders are incensed: “Only God can forgive sins!” 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 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. The question of the identity of Jesus is front and centre in these three stories. Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter speaks for them all: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. A son in those days was the authorized representative of his father and 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 establish God’s Kingdom in Israel. You’re 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’s unique. This is underlined 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 the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law of God. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. When people spoke about the Scriptures in those days they often referred to them as ‘The Law and the Prophets’; well, here were the two embodiments of the Law and the Prophets, speaking to Jesus! Most Jews at that time would never have imagined that anyone could be equal to 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 isn’t what God wants. Jesus is not just equal to Moses and Elijah; he’s superior to them. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him’. Moses and Elijah point to Jesus; 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. He isn’t just one religious leader among many; at the beginning of his gospel Matthew calls him ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God is with us’. In Jesus God has come among us in a unique way, and in his life and teaching and 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 in the story. The disciples have a script in their mind about what it means to be the Messiah; he’s the one who will lead God’s armies, defeat Israel’s enemies, 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 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: ‘taking up the cross’. Yes, he’s going to oppose the 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 going to forgive them, because nothing, not even death, can destroy his love for the world God has made and the people in it.
So this is the view from the mountain. We can look back on the road that’s led to this point, a road in which the disciples have been getting more and more clues as to who Jesus is: the unique Son of God, the one above all who speaks to us with the authority of his Father in heaven. And we can look ahead to the road to come, when Jesus will live out his vocation as God’s Son, not by killing his enemies but by being killed by them, offering his life willingly on the Cross to bring reconciliation between God and us, and to win the great victory over evil by his resurrection.
This has been a different sort of sermon for me today; I haven’t given you lots of illustrations and I haven’t talked about how we should put the message into practice. That’s because this story isn’t really about us; it’s about Jesus. But nonetheless, there is something for us to do. “This is my Son, the Beloved”, says the voice of God: “with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (v.5).
Who do you listen to? Who do I listen to? There are many voices trying to tell us what our life should be all about.
This week I was talking to a member of our parish who was telling me that she feels a lot of pressure because of the fact that she lives in a neighbourhood where people live a very materialistic lifestyle. Her neighbours obviously have a different vision than she does, a vision based on being good consumers, buying lots of things and going on expensive holidays and so on. Those voices are loud: “This is what life is all about! Spend more, enjoy more! You can have it all!”
There are other voices, angry voices, voices telling us that there are people coming into our country who we need to fear. “You’re in danger”, these voices say; “You need to be protected! Forget all this romantic stuff about loving your enemies; it isn’t practical in times like these! You need to be realistic; you need to know who your enemies are and protect yourself against them, and if that means that some innocent people get hurt along the way, well, that’s too bad, but that’s the world we live in!”
There are other voices telling us that we need to tone down this idea that Jesus is unique. After all, “Everyone’s got their way of looking at the world and their way of thinking about God. It’s arrogant to think that one way is more true than another. Jesus was a man of his day, but we’re modern people; we know it was wrong of him to send his disciples out to persuade people to leave their old beliefs behind and follow him. Nowadays we need to be more open-minded; maybe Jesus isn’t such a good guide for us in 2017”.
So many voices; how do we know what’s true? What yardstick do we use to evaluate the many messages we’re hearing? Because we all have a yardstick, whether we think we do or not. There’s a famous story about different views of the world; it says we’re all like blind men feeling an elephant. One man thinks the elephant is long and snake-like, because he’s feeling the trunk. Another one thinks the elephant is like a tree trunk, because he’s feeling the legs. Another one thinks the elephant is flappy like a sail; he’s feeling the ears! That’s how different views of God work, we’re told; we’re all like blind men feeling different bits of God, but because we’re blind, we can’t see that they’re all true.
It sounds like a good and wise story, until we see the fatal flaw: the person telling the story assumes that they’re the one person in the story who isn’t blind! They’re the one person who can see reality as it really is; the others are blind, so they can’t. So who’s the arrogant person here? The person telling the story has a point of view just like everyone else; they’ve got a yardstick they use to judge what’s right and what’s wrong. Everyone has a yardstick, whether they know it or not.
Our Scriptures today call us to listen to Jesus. He is God’s yardstick for us. John’s Gospel tells us that he is the Word of God, the one who embodies God’s highest revelation to us. This doesn’t mean that everything spoken by other voices is always wrong, or that we won’t sometimes hear good and wise things from them. Rather, it means that because Jesus is the unique Son of God, he is the best and most accurate picture we have of what God is like and what God asks of us. So we will listen to him.
But if we truly listen to him, we will have to face up to the life he’s calling us to live. We will have to learn to do the things we’ve been hearing in the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks: turning away from anger and working for reconciliation, turning away from sexual immorality and being faithful to our marriage vows, turning away from lies and being honest in all we say and do, turning away from vengeance and loving our enemies instead. We’ll have to turn away from a life of storing up treasures for ourselves on earth, and work on the heavenly treasure instead: seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.
This week we begin our Lenten journey. On Ash Wednesday we gather together again here at the church to confess our sins, ask God’s forgiveness, and accept the ancient symbol of ashes on our foreheads. Ashes are a symbol of the frailty of human life, but they’re also a sign of true repentance. And if we’re serious about our repentance, we’re going to have to face the issue of who we listen to. What are the most compelling voices in my life today? How do they influence the way I see the world and the way I live my life? And how am I going to make sure that as I start out my Lenten journey this year, I’m intentional about turning to Jesus and listening to his voice?