The account of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) is a topic that has been the subject of many rousing sermons. This is Matthew’s account that instantly reminds us of Moses and his three companions being led up a mountain where God speaks to Moses after six days of cloud covering (Exodus 24).
As this transfiguration takes place, Moses and Elijah appear on the scene “talking with Jesus.” In response, Peter declares: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” Peter, at a loss for words, then suggests that they build three shelters — one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. What Peter is suggesting falls short of God’s purposes revealed in Jesus.
Peter attempts to control the experience. He wants to remain on the mountain with Moses, Elijah and Jesus. By building shelters, Peter feels he can extend their time on the mountain, sustaining this “mountaintop experience.” He is thinking only of how this experience benefits him and his circle of close friends.
Peter sees Moses and Elijah as equal to Jesus — each deserving a shelter of their own.
Peter’s suggestion is interrupted when “a bright cloud covered them.” The Father doesn’t scold Peter; he doesn’t negotiate with Peter. Instead, he goes right on with his purposes.
While Peter wanted to provide cover for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, God ends up providing cover for the three disciples. The word “covered” is Old Testament language for God’s Shekinah or presence. In spite of Peter’s intentions to the contrary, God’s outward movement of love is not stopped. God covers them with his grace and love.
Then the Father’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” At the sound of this voice, the disciples are “terrified.” Who of us would not be terrified at hearing the audible voice of God?
Jesus then provides the means to obey this voice that commands them to listen to God’s Son, as he “came and touched them.”
This is the deeper meaning of the incarnation. Jesus comes and touches us — he comes to be with us. He does so by becoming human like us, while remaining God. This is how God makes it possible for us to be able to listen to God face-to-face. Jesus’ first words to them are “Get up” and “Don’t be afraid.” These are the words we are to listen to.
After Jesus touches them, the disciples “looked up” and “saw no one except Jesus.” No Moses, no Elijah, only Jesus. This makes it clear to us that there are no other words of life to listen to other than the words of the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, who has spoken to us, by the Spirit, in his written Word. His words to us are words that both lift us up, and bring us out of fear.
After seeing “no one except Jesus,” the disciples are led back down the mountain. Jesus is the one constant in the story. Jesus leads them up the mountain, he is with them on the mountain, and he is with them as they descend. This is why he can command us, “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus is Emmanuel — God who always is with us, whether we be on the mountain, or in the valley — even in the valley of the shadow of death. May we attune our ears to his voice and his voice alone. Let us listen to “no one except Jesus.”
What are some of the other voices we need to tune out? Is it a voice that condemns us because of our past? Let that voice disappear with the old covenant law-giver Moses. Is it a voice of worry about the future? Let that voice disappear with the prophet Elijah. Let Jesus speak to you — let him have the final say. Hear his word to us all: “Get up… don’t be afraid.”
Kathy Houston of White Hall is pastor of Christian Fellowship Center of Grace Communion International.
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