March 6, 2011
We hear this astonishing story every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins. It’s a great story, but it strains our scientific, logical understanding of the world, and pitches us back into a time when people believed in miraculous occurrences. Or at least that is how they explained occurrences they didn’t understand. So what does it tell us Modern, North American Christians that we needed to know?
Our Gospel writer Matthew has gone to great lengths to connect some important facts about Jesus. In today’s story we hear the voice of God proclaim him “My son, the beloved” a title which began his ministry in a similar event at this baptism. And we hear what God wants of those who hear this tale: “Listen to him,” says the voice from the cloud. Again reminding us of Matthew’s telling of the earlier incident. Matthew has had Jesus, Moses-like, sitting on a mountain to teach the Law, the lessons on which we have been reflecting through these Sundays in Epiphany. And now he is on a mountain again, bringing with him a special three, Peter, James and John. This is six days after Jesus has uttered words that put a chill into their hearts. He has told them that he will be arrested, suffer and die horribly. At this prediction, Peter tries to talk him out of it. “No, no, it should never happen to you, Lord.” he insists. Jesus calls him Satan, and tells him he doesn’t understand how God is at work.
And now we have the Moses-like Jesus meeting the famous Moses and Elijah who represent the Law and the Prophets. This story pulls out all the stops: Jesus in his glorious majesty revealed before their eyes, confirming all that they have come to understand about who he is and what that represents in history. This is certainly everything for which the world has been waiting. And then the voice: this is my son, I am well pleased, listen to him. And they were terrified, falling down in fear.
But it is the Jesus they knew and trusted who comes to touch them and tells them to arise. Fear not, he says. I have never been able to understand why he tells them not to tell anyone, but it must have been pretty hard to explain. It is hard for us to understand and we have the whole story, seeing Jesus in his glory emerge from the tomb at the end of his agony and death, setting the whole world free in his resurrection.
This story makes us confront the big questions about Jesus. Was he truly human, being born and living and loving just like we do? Or was he truly God, bringing in himself the power over life and death and evil? Of course the answer is yes. We see both in this vision, the glorious One who knows and is know by Moses and Elijah; and the tender and demanding teacher and healer who knows our earthly sorrows and joys. And the question becomes who is Jesus for us?
In his earlier conversation with his disciples, Jesus has asked them to tell him who people think he is. Then he asks them, “Who do you say I am?” Peter offers the ringing confession, “you are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” Twentieth Century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that this is the great question for us, as well. “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Does it make a difference to us that Jesus is both truly human and truly God? Does it matter that the Spirit of Jesus is here with us now and always?
We see in this story that meeting God face to face is terrifying. Because we are so fragile, because we are so weak and because we are so arrogant and self-sufficient, we are reduce to terror when we are confronted with the truth of what God is and wants from us. But the face of God that we can always turn to is the face of Jesus. In God’s love for us, Jesus came to be us, to close the door of evil for us, to invite us to this table. Here we remember the meal in which the whole story of God’s mercy for us is played out: Jesus’ willingness to face down death becomes the story of our welcome into God’s household forever. We never have to fear that we are not good enough to come. We never have to doubt that forgiven of every sin and selfish fault that would keep us from being included in the life that God through Jesus has won for us. “Arise, do not be afraid,” he says, even to us, skeptical believers that we are. He wants to tell us wonderful things about his love and our freedom. Listen to him.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.