The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2019
Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
The disciple Peter is what all of the disciples would look like if they were reduced to one person.
They all, together, get it wrong.
But Peter, as the one, gets it wrong the most.
In Matthew chapter sixteen, the chapter immediately before today’s Gospel lesson, Peter makes this wonderful confession of who Jesus is, he says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Immediately after that, however, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, and Peter rebukes Jesus: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).
Rebuking Jesus and denying to Him the cross, the salvation of the world, causes our Lord to call Peter by yet another name when He says, “Get [thee] behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
For Peter and all of the disciples, that must have been a low point.
But then, in Matthew chapter twenty-six, there’s, perhaps, a lower one.
Jesus predicts Peter and the other disciples’ denial of Him, saying, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Matthew 26:31).
But Peter answered Him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). And he adds, “‘Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!’ And all the disciples said the same” (Matthew 26:35).
The sheepish disciples, of course, scatter, when their shepherd is struck. And Peter denies Jesus three times, as Jesus predicted.
For them all, this must have been a low point.
Today, we have in our minds the account of the Transfiguration—both a mountaintop experience for Peter and another low point.
In the presence of the seemingly unveiled Son of God, “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah’” (Matthew 16:4).
Now, to say it simply, Peter has no problem with Jesus being the Christ.
He has no problem with glory on the mountaintop.
Peter’s problem is with suffering. With death. And so Peter stands not only as the twelve disciples reduced to one but as all Christians, all of us, reduced to one.
We don’t have a problem with mountaintop experiences; American Christianity chases after them.
In a lot of places, experience seems to validate the faith of a person, and the more strange, dangerous, or inexplicable the experience, the greater the faith.
If a child, encouraged by his family, makes up a story (or even gives the true account of a dream) about going to heaven, what it’s like there, that it’s for real, you can be sure that boy will be on the news, publish a book, and sell his story for a major motion picture.
Exactly that happened, because those are the stories we like to hear.
But if another child sings a hymn—not a 7/11 song, where the same seven words are repeated eleven times, but an actual hymn of the church—if a child sings a hymn, recites a prayer from memory, or sings the Liturgy, that’s not a story that sells.
There’s nothing fantastical about that.
That—ironically—doesn’t grab our attention with the allure of theophany the way books and movies do.
The popularity of such things shows us that, like Peter, we don’t have a problem with mountaintop experiences, or glory, or Jesus being the Christ.
Rather, we—like Peter—have a problem with suffering. With death. With the gospel truth that a faithful life is lived under the weight of a cross that God designed, cut, and gave specifically to you to bear.
Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ. (Good.)
The Christ Himself confesses “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
That doesn’t look like what we want faithfulness to look like, so Peter, standing in for us all, rebukes Jesus.
But to rebuke Jesus for going to the cross, to attempt to hinder Jesus from His mission, is satanic.
Peter, again, standing in for us, can’t understand death, specifically Jesus’ death, as the sacrifice and victory that it is.
He has pretty words: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:33, 35).
But Peter doesn’t have to die with Jesus—he still denies him (and three times!).
Today, Peter rejoices to see the Christ in glory.
Whatever his motivation, whatever his intent, he desires to prolong his mountaintop experience saying, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17:4).
The center of Peter’s world is what he can see.
The center of the disciples’ world is what they can see.
The center of our world is what we can see.
Peter sees Jesus in glory, and wants to partake of it.
So do James and John, the disciples who are with him.
So would we!
But the center of the gospel is not what we see but what we hear:
The voice from heaven. The voice from God our Heavenly Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
He says this while Peter is still speaking.
God the Father interrupts Peter—gently—but clearly so as to identify all that Peter, the disciples, and we need for life.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Of course we need to know who God is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, reveals the Word of God to us, the Son of God to us. And the Son reveals to us the Father, who is merciful.
And of course we need to listen to all of what Jesus says. Of course we do.
But perhaps, most especially, we should listen to what, in Matthew’s account of the gospel, Jesus says in the immediate context of His Father’s imperative.
Just before and just after today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus predicts His passion, death, and resurrection.
Before the Transfiguration, Jesus says that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
The response to this was Peter’s rebuke.
After the Transfiguration, Jesus says “‘The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.’ And they were greatly distressed” (Matthew 17:22-23).
…Because they don’t listen to Jesus.
The key, the center of our comfort today, is in verse nine. “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Matthew 17:9).
Peter’s life—the life of a disciple of Jesus, the Christ—your life as a Christian—none of it makes sense apart from the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Apart from that, we can’t understand suffering, let alone endure it with patience and faith.
Apart from that, we can’t understand death, let alone die well and teach our loved ones to do the same, with patience and faith.
Apart from the resurrection of the body, we can’t even understand glory, because ever trophy on this side of things will fade away. And on the other side of things, there is only immortality and the imperishable dress God bestows on you.
Only with the resurrection in mind can we—do we—endure suffering and death with patience and faith.
Only with the knowledge and certain hope that Jesus is coming soon, that there’s a place prepared for you, that where He is and as He is you will be also, only with that knowledge and certain hope can we endure suffering and death with patience and faith.
And not only that, we also come to desire for ourselves what God desires for us:
To hear Jesus.
Out of either the perceived need or just the want of the experience, every one of us desires the miraculous, the mountaintop, something like the Transfiguration.
But—after Jesus’ resurrection—this is how Peter spoke of such things: “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.[But] we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16-21).
That is, the words of Jesus are better than any mountaintop or miracle.
Though discipleship may, will, and does include suffering and death—the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us how the story ends.
Shows us how the Christian’s story—your story—will end: with the same words Jesus spoke to Peter and to the disciples: “Rise, and have no fear” (Matthew 16:7).
In Jesus’ name, Amen!