Focus on Jesus – the Transfiguration
Exodus 24:12-18 | Matthew 17:1-9
Today’s gospel reading, the story of the transfiguration, would normally be read at the beginning of Lent, at the start of that journey. We shuffled things around so we could explore the Sermon on the Mount uninterrupted.
The transfiguration is an unusual story in many ways. It’s one of the stories that is found in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
These three gospels are widely thought to have been written significantly before John, and contain a considerable amount of material that is identical (word for word), copied directly from one another, or lightly edited, like a student trying to get away with plagiarism.
I mention that because there’s something interesting about this story – that it is in all three of those gospels, but the language, the wording, is very different in the three. No plagiarism here, nothing for Turnitin to worry about. Suggesting that each of the three writers was retelling a story that they knew independently, that was well known within the community that they were writing from and for. And a story that they considered to be important enough to be included in their telling of the life and ministry of Jesus.
From the very first days, this story, marking the end of Jesus’ time as an itinerant preacher, and the start of his final trip to Jerusalem, was remembered and retold across the whole of the Christian Church. This story mattered to the early Church.
It’s a story, of course, that is replete with images and echoes of what has gone before. Going up the mountain, and being enveloped in a cloud, the cloud of the glory of God, so reminiscent of the story of Moses, from our Exodus reading today. And Matthew notices Jesus’ face shining like the sun, a description given of Moses when he comes down from the mountain; “…the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”. And the words the voice from the cloud proclaims, echoing his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”.
Those are normally the words that I would focus on. I’ve preached a few times on the transfiguration, and generally what I’ve noticed was that of these three figures – Moses, the giver of the Law, Elijah, the great prophets, and Jesus, the Messiah – with these three figures in conversation, the voice of God singles out Jesus. This one, the voice says, this one is my Son, my Beloved. Listen to him.
And that would fit nicely with our theme: Focus. Focus on Jesus, the child of God. In the clamour of voices that compete for our attention, the clamour of assertions as to how we should live, focus on Jesus as your guiding rule, your pole star.
The clamour of voices in our world, and the clamour within the Church. Of different people claiming contradictory clarities in what “The Bible says” or “Christians should believe”, citing scriptures or traditions or theology. In that clamour, focus on Jesus. Not to ignore the rest, but as the standard against which to hold it.
And that’s good. If that’s the bit you remember from today, I’d consider that a good result.
But as I prepared this year my attention was drawn to some words in the story, a detail that only Matthew records for us. And it’s a detail that connected this story, for me, back to things we’ve been seeing in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s the description of the disciples’ response to the voice from heaven:
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
Perhaps it’s not surprising that it is Matthew who records this part of the story. For it is a very Jewish response: recognising the presence of God, they fall to ground in fear.
Fear is a difficult word here, a difficult idea. We might want to speak of it as awe: that they were overwhelmed with the greatness of the presence of God. But it’s more than that – for in Jewish tradition, for a sinful mortal to see God was to die. The only exceptions, in fact, were those gathered with Jesus: Moses, who “spoke with God face to face as with a friend”, and Elijah, who saw God’s back, and heard God speak in the still, small voice.
It’s likely that Peter, James, and John fell to the ground and covered their faces out of a genuine fear that to see God would be their end. A glorious end, but their end, nonetheless.
We don’t think that way. In the time beyond Jesus, beyond the tearing of the Temple curtain, we celebrate God’s invitation to all into the very presence of God, without fear that the holiness of God will strike us down.
So how does that connect us back to the Sermon on the Mount?
Well, I don’t know about you, but as I prepared and preached that series, especially last week, talking about the narrow path, the sense grew in me of the hardness of what Jesus has called us to.
Not just being part of Jesus’ movement, God’s family, not just believing, trusting in the grace of God, not just accepting the gift of life abundant and eternal – all of those things, but more. A calling to live lives that are so radically changed by the grace of God and the call and example of Jesus that they make God known to the world, by who we are, by what we do, by how we live, by what we say.
And when I reflect on that call, and Jesus’ description of it as a narrow path that few will find, I find a different sense of – for want of a better word – fear.
Two fears, in fact.
The first of those fears is of missing the narrow path. What if I don’t find it? What if I don’t choose it? This isn’t a fear for salvation or eternity – for that rests solely on the grace of God, the love from which nothing can separate us. But there is a fear of a wasted life, of good that did not come, and ill that did, because of choices I made.
Just before I started writing this week, I saw a meme which read “If you aren’t where you hoped you’d be in your life by now, that’s ok. But it’s also your fault”. Tongue in cheek, for sure, but with an edge – if I’m not walking the narrow path, that’s on me. And the fear – what am I missing out?
And if one fear is of missing the narrow path, the other is fear of walking it. Jesus ended the beatitudes “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake”. There’s no question that walking the radical way of Jesus will mean conflict (Jesus said himself he came not to bring peace but a sword). Just look at where the narrow path, setting his face towards Jerusalem, took Jesus.
So while I might not fall on the ground in fear like Peter, James, and John, there is something in the holiness of God, the power of the call of God to follow, that it seems very reasonable to respond to with a certain sense of fear.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
And that’s it. That’s the answer to my fear, my fearing of missing out, and my fear of what I might face if I don’t miss out.
The reminder that this call isn’t an abstract consideration, isn’t a strategic decision, isn’t a carefully weighed choice amongst options.
That it’s a call to follow, not a path, not a philosophy, not a set of rules, but Jesus.
That the answer to my fear is in the voice of the one who called me, and who says to me “do not be afraid”.
Not “there is nothing to be afraid of”, for there is – Jesus will very soon start to teach them just how bad things are going to get.
More like, I think, Jesus touches them saying “It’s ok, it’s still me. You know me. You trust me. Hold onto that. Hold onto the fact that you know who I am.”
Focus on Jesus.
Not just as our example for how to live, our teacher in the ways of God.
Focus on Jesus as our friend, our safety, our sense that it will be ok.
Focus on Jesus, and do not be afraid – not because there is nothing to be afraid of (for there surely is), but because we face those fears with him.