Rev. Matthew Zickler’s Sermon for February 26, 2017

February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read.  Amen.

This last week, I was doing some work in the house and I had the TV turned onto PBS.  As, I was working, I was sort of keeping an ear open to what was being said.  This particular show was talking about things relating to God.  And of course, they had many different people on there representing their particular faiths.  If I remember correctly the two I saw the most from were a Presbyterian Pastor and a Jewish Rabbi.  And the show kept shifting between things the two were saying, but it was interesting because one was talking about the existence of God in conjunction with the existence of suffering, while the other was talking about observing what God is trying to tell us.

Well, I thought both were particularly relevant to this feast of the Transfiguration this morning.  After all, what do we see here?  We see Jesus taking Peter, and James, and John up a mountain.  Of course, we also see Moses up on the mountain in the Old Testament Lesson.  For both of these, there is what many might call a “Mountaintop Experience.”  Have you ever heard someone speak about that?  In particular, in a religious context?  So and so went on a retreat and had a mountaintop experience.  Or they went to a particular church service, and had a mountaintop experience.  Or maybe they literally went up a mountain and had some kind of mountaintop experience.  And what do they usually mean by that experience?  Usually, it means that they experience some kind emotional high, and on occasion, they find themselves in a place where they feel like they are in a particularly prepared state of mind to observe what God wants to tell them.  And in some cases, they decide they now have knowledge of God beyond what others might.  But what does the Transfiguration have to tell us about this?

Well, as I ask this question, I am reminded of a conversation I had this week actually about properly understanding the liturgy.  The person I was talking to made the point that often we perhaps appreciate the liturgy and in a sense maybe even enjoy it, but do we grasp what those words mean, that the Word of God actually does what it says through those words of the Liturgy, and how God meets with us.  But I think we can make the same application for the Transfiguration.  Think about it.  As you reflect upon Jesus climbing that mountain with Peter, and James, and John, how much do you consider the depth of what’s happening here?  I mean after all when it comes to mountaintop experiences, when it comes to observing what God has to tell us, it doesn’t get much more grand than this does.  And so, what does it say?

Well, to begin, let’s look at what actually happened there.  First of all, Matthew tells us, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 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.”  So, Jesus takes Peter and James and John with Him up the mountain.  And while they’re there, Jesus starts shining like the sun.  Now, I want you to think about that for a minute.  If we took a field trip and went on a hike, and I took you up a mountain and my face started shining like the sun, what would you think about that?  And the word there for shining is where we get our word lamp.  Jesus’ face lamped like the sun.  What would think of that?  It would be shocking, to say the least wouldn’t it?  Now, obviously, I’m not Jesus, I haven’t performed the miracles that the disciples saw Jesus perform.  No one has said that I am the Son of God, like Peter just said of Jesus, but even still, even though these disciples knew who Jesus was, you have to think it was utterly amazing to see.  In fact, I often think that this is why Peter responds as he does.  He’s in shock.  He’s sort of bumbling about and he doesn’t know what to say.  In fact, I think he must be thinking that the end is here, and Jesus is bringing His Kingdom.  All the more because just before this Jesus said that some of them wouldn’t taste death before they saw His Kingdom, so Peter is in shock, and He says, “This is great, Jesus.  Now everyone can come see you and worship you.  They can come up the mountain, we’ll make a tent for you, and they can worship you.”

But then what happens?  Then, as if that wasn’t enough.  God the Father shows up.  Here comes a cloud, and what?  Matthew says, “While he was still speaking, 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!’”  Now to be clear, when you see a cloud in the Bible realize that God is there.  You see a cloud at the Exodus from Egypt, you see a cloud at Mount Sinai, you see a cloud at the ascension, you see a cloud here.  And all of this means that God is there.  Talk about a mountain top experience!  God is right there with Peter and James and John!

And how do they respond?  “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”  Boom!  They fell to the ground.  They are scared!  And can you blame them?  How is this then, for a mountaintop experience?  Is this what you think of when you think of that?  When you hear of your friend having a mountaintop experience at a retreat, or at a worship service, or even when you think about observing what God wants you to hear.

I think about that pastor on PBS talking about observing God and listening to where He is speaking, and I am guessing he wasn’t picturing hearing God speak with a booming voice out of a cloud in such a way that I am going to be terrorized and find myself unable to do anything but fall on my face and cower before him.  Likewise, when people talk about their mountaintop experiences, their brushes with God, how often is that the description?  Yes, I was at the Church service, and the band was playing and I felt God speak to me!  And when He spoke I cowered down because it scared the snot out of me!

And yet, how often is this what we seek?  How often do we seek to experience God in what we call His “naked glory” or His “naked majesty?”  For many that’s sort of the ideal, isn’t it?  But is this what we picture?  Bumbling about and falling to our faces?  It’s just not is it?  But this is what we often think is great.

And of course the motivation for it is something I think God even puts into our hearts.  We want to be with God face to face because He has made us to want that.  But what does the transfiguration show us?  Maybe we should see how God wants to come to us, rather than thinking that we can create an experience that carries us to Him.  Right?

Or considering another aspect, that I mentioned in the beginning, what about observing what God wants in the midst of suffering?  What does the transfiguration say about that?  Well, here is Jesus showing that He is in fact GOD in a HUMAN BODY, God in the flesh exhibiting His power!  I mean throughout this Epiphany season we’ve been seeing this in miracles and signs and teaching, but here it is unavoidable.  And so what does that tell us?  God has power!  Absolute power!  But what good does power do in a world of suffering?  It depends on whether that God of power is on your side, doesn’t it?  Right?

So, what then do we do?  If we can’t trust in observing God face to face, if we can’t find comfort in the midst of suffering by seeing God’s power what can we do?  What does the transfiguration have to tell us?

Well, let’s step out of the Gospel Lesson for a moment, and look at what Peter says in His Epistle.  At the beginning of the Epistle Peter says, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”  He’s saying, we didn’t follow people who made stuff up, but we saw Jesus with our own eyes.  We saw His very majesty with our eyes.  Then, He goes on to describe the events we just read about: the transfiguration.  But listen to what he says next: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”  Think about that.  I told you at the beginning to consider what it would have been like to see Jesus shining.  Now think about how that experience would be seared into your memory.  It would be so seared into your memory you might even wonder if it really happened.  But with the resurrection and everything, I am thinking Peter didn’t doubt it happened at all.  And even still, what does he say?  “We have something more sure: the prophetic word.”  And what is that prophetic word?  It’s the scriptures, the Bible, the prophecy written by men as the Holy Spirit gave them the words.  That Word of Scripture is more sure to Peter than the fact that he stood on that mountain and saw Jesus as God. That Word of Scripture is more sure than the fact that Peter had that incredible mountaintop experience.  And so if that’s true for Peter, what should we think?

Maybe we should think that perhaps we should trust that word more than our experiences too, shouldn’t we?  Maybe we should hear what that word says over the voices of our emotional mountaintop experiences.  Maybe when the words of Scripture tell us what sin is, maybe when we see what God’s commands are, how holy and demanding He is we should believe that, right?  And all the more we should cling to that word over and against everything in this world that tells us what to believe about God.  All the more what to believe about how God thinks about us.

When we see suffering, we should cling to the promise that the Word tells us about God working all things for the good of those who love Him.  Even if we as His beloved are the ones who suffer, we should see that this is truly for our good.  And maybe we should cling to the promise that God really has entered into this world in Jesus, not to demonstrate His power on the mountain, but to hide that power in the flesh and show its fullness in the cross, where the true glory lies.  Maybe in that death and in the resurrection of Jesus we should see how much God cares for us, and promises to love us and provide for us even in this broken world.  And maybe we should hear the promise of His love in Baptism where He assures us that we are His, that we have already suffered death in Jesus’ tomb, and the He feeds us in this life.  We should hear those promises, because God doesn’t want to speak to us in mountaintop experiences or in quiet observation.  No, He wants to speak through His Son who died for us, and through His Word which tells us of that Son.  So, Christians, do as God says, listen to His Son, listen to those Scripture through which Jesus speaks to you, because as great as the transfiguration is, and all that it has to say is found in those words given to men by the Holy Spirit for you.  Amen.

Rev. Matthew Zickler