Whether we realize it or not, this scene is closely linked to Jesus’s death. For starters, the last thing Matthew tells us about, what we’re “six days later” from, is a lot of frank conversation between Jesus and his disciples about his impending death. You know the scene—the one where Jesus looks at Peter and says, “Get behind me Satan!” for arguing with the idea. And the one where Jesus harkens discipleship to taking up one’s cross, denying one’s self and following after him.
And, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John go down the mountain, they are set in the direction of Jerusalem and Jesus’s final week.
But there’s one other way that this scene is closely linked with what’s to come: it’s the same little group from among the disciples whom Jesus will invite to come and support him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Could we, then, think of the Transfiguration as a foreshadowing?
The emotional trajectory of the two scenes seem to flow in opposite directions, and the pace of their storytelling stands in stark contrast. When we read of Jesus praying in the Garden, the sad heaviness intensifies and, at least for me, I find myself reading slower every time he goes and finds his disciples asleep.
And yet here, with the repeated use of that Greek word idoú (twice translated as “suddenly” and ignored a third time in the NRSV) intensifies the pace of my reading: I’m tempted to skip ahead to find what I’m supposed to be “looking” at!
It is with good reason. At the first idoú in verse 3, Moses and Elijah appear; at the second in verse 5, a bright cloud fills the space, and at the third, just six words later (also verse 5), the Father’s voice is heard from the cloud. Is this an example of the old adage of what happens you tell God your plans? Where instead of laughing, God decides to overwhelm you with his presence?
Yahweh interrupts Peter sharing his plan with Moses, Elijah and Jesus. God speaks from the cloud to the three disciples—even though we’re tempted to think of Peter alone at this moment—and God repeats the baptismal message, “This is my Beloved Son; with him I am well pleased.” Then Yahweh commands, “LISTEN TO HIM!”
And I don’t think God meant that they should only obey the next words out of Jesus’s mouth (about keeping what they have seen a secret until after his resurrection in verse 9). This is an “in all things” sort of command, isn’t it? As Peter’s experience serves for us, we can become so fixated on what we offer God, that we do not obey God. This was the problem for the people of God, written all of the books of the prophets: God does not care about our offerings when we are not living as an offering of righteousness—especially when what we are doing is hurting others.
Peter, James, and John, in the midst of the very bright cloud, are momentarily swallowed up in the presence of Yahweh. As they hear God’s message, they fall to the ground out of fear. It’s not just any fear, it’s the fright of their life. There is a word present in the Greek that modifies fear, which is translated as “overcome” by the NRSV; so just be clear, this is the highest extent of fear any of them have ever experienced; this is as afraid as they can possibly be. Their falling to the ground may be just as much as “duck and cover” as it is reverence!
And Jesus, being a better human than you or I, doesn’t say, “Finally!” or express any relief that now maybe Peter will get his act together, shut his mouth, and stop giving him so much grief. Jesus doesn’t stand and gloat that his Father’s just shown up and forcefully scared the living daylights out of these troublemakers who keep not understanding his son. There’s no “I tried to tell you!” or gloating about how now everything will go according to his plan now because the disciples have been put in their place.
No. What does Jesus do? Jesus goes to his own beloved, Peter, James, and John, as they have had the fear of God struck in them, and as God, stoops down to comfort them with his touch and gentle voice, “Get up, do not be afraid.”
“LISTEN TO HIM,” and “Do not be afraid,” are both the message and command of God. One does not cancel the other out. In fact, the cloud of God’s presence may be gone, but Jesus, as God, is still present and in their midst. Comfort and compassion can be just as overwhelming and as terror or fright, and as awe-inducing (another way of understanding “fear of God”).
The disciples have surely seen some things as they’ve been with Jesus over the last three years. They’ve even been physically part of some of them. They might have thought they’d been “in it” already, but now these three are keenly aware that there is so much more to God’s glory. In the verses that immediately follow our text, we’re told that the disciples have some greater insight, as they ask Jesus about Elijah and the prophecy that he must come first. In the exchange, they understand that John the Baptist has played a key role in Jesus’s purposes. It’s one of the few times (maybe the only time—I didn’t go back through all of the gospels to check) that the disciples seem to understand something quickly and easily. It’s as though witnessing the Transfiguration and being ministered to by both Yahweh and Jesus—and might we think of the cloud as the Holy Spirit’s presence?—has given them eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to understand what Jesus is saying.
In other words, by being with God, by knowing God’s kindness, they are disposed to obedience and understanding. For tied to Jesus’s command, “do not be afraid,” is the equally loaded (in biblical terms) command to “Get up.” How many times do we hear Jesus tell someone he has healed, to get up and get on with living in the power of forgiveness of sins? So yes, listen and obey. Yes, know God’s comforting presence and do not be afraid. And yes, let these things propel you in taking up your cross, denying yourself and what you’d like to offer, and give your whole self over to God.
There is some talk by exegetes about the “six days later” which transitions the beginning of our text. Some believe it to be a reference to Moses’s time with God, when he sees the glory of God, but he only hears God on the seventh day. That time in between is considered preparation time for the holy event. Had James, John, and especially Peter, sufficiently prepared for what was to come? How could they have known? It’s a good reminder to us that as disciples, we’re always “on the way,” preparing to encounter God at any moment.
Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
Many in the early church read this story as Peter trying to keep Jesus from the cross: “Build him a house on the mountain with Moses and Elijah where he shines! Then he won’t go do this foolish thing!” It’s a bit like the bait and switch we try to pull off with children, isn’t it? They become fixated on something we don’t want them to have, so we try to turn their attention to something else.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 19, 2023
Matthew 17:1-9 Commentary