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Last Sunday of Epiphany:
23 February 2020
Sermon text: Matthew 17:1-9.
“I was there.”
Sometimes, something happens that changes history, and when it does, we know it’s worth remembering. We remember where we stood when we heard of the event. Our memories become even more poignant if we see it firsthand, because we can begin every conversation about the event with the words, “I was there.”
In the Bible, we find many accounts written by eyewitnesses of events from Jesus’ life. Today’s sermon text tells us of one of the most memorable, but most secret, events. Only 3 people other than Jesus could have told others about the account. After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, these 3 men told the other disciples of Jesus about the event that happened on top of the mountain. Later, one of those men wrote the passage in today’s Scripture reading.
As we read the sermon text today, I believe we remember times in our lives when we know what we saw, what we experienced, and how it changed us. Our presence here in worship today reminds us that the Jesus who changed lives nearly 2,000 years ago still changes lives today.
In the days before this event, Jesus had traveled with His disciples to the city of Caesarea Philippi, the capital of the region ruled by Herod Philip II, son of Herod the Great. Very shortly after this trip, Jesus would begin His final journey to Jerusalem, where He would suffer crucifixion and then rise again. On this trip, Jesus had asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples had answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Many people in Jesus’ time wondered about His identity, especially when they saw the miracles He performed. However, Jesus had another reason for asking the question. Jesus needed to know that the disciples recognized His true identity. Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” As the disciples’ spokesman, Peter answered the question. Peter told Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
With this identification, Peter confessed that Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophecies about the “Messiah” (“Christ” in Greek) foretold by the prophets centuries before Jesus’ birth. Peter also confessed that Jesus was not merely a man; His actions and power over disease and death demonstrated He was also the Son of God Himself. The Jews had long sought for their Messiah to deliver them from the Gentiles. Instead, God had sent His Son to deliver them — and the Gentiles — from sin and death.
Jesus then began telling the disciples what would happen when they arrived in Jerusalem: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples 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). Following this prediction, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain for time alone.
We can safely guess that Peter, James, and John expected nothing out of the ordinary on the journey up the mountain. Tradition tells us that the 4 men ascended to the top of Mt. Tabor in Galilee. Mt. Tabor towers 1,886 feet (575 meters) high over the Jezreel Valley in Israel. There, St. Matthew records, Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”
In this instance, Peter, James, and John didn’t see the ordinary carpenter from Nazareth. The dusty traveler who had just climbed a mountain with them transformed into the divine Son of God before their eyes. Then, to add to their wonder and astonishment, 2 other men appeared: Moses and Elijah. Neither of these men had walked on the earth in centuries. Moses had died in 1406 B.C., while Elijah rose into heaven sometime between 851 and 841 B.C.
According to St. Luke’s Gospel, these 2 men appeared and spoke with Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Jesus knew His arrival in Jerusalem would begin a confrontation with the authorities there, a confrontation that would end with His death. Moses and Elijah appeared and discussed these coming events with Him.
Peter, James, and John experienced a holy moment, a moment in which they witnessed Jesus appear in His heavenly glory. You would think they would worship Jesus in awe and reverence. Unfortunately, Peter rarely understood when to stay quiet and when to speak. In the midst of this holy moment, Peter spoke and said, “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.” St. Luke records that Peter simply spoke, “not knowing what he said” (Luke 9:34).
I’m certain Peter thought this a wonderful idea, but God thought otherwise. “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’”
No one present doubted who spoke. In the Old Testament, bright clouds often accompanied God’s appearance (cf. Exodus 19:16-20; Number 16:42; Deuteronomy 31:15; 1 Kings 8:10-11). Also, John had attended Jesus’ baptism and would have recognized the voice as the same one he heard then (John 1; Matthew 3:17). In the Old Testament, God’s appearances often struck terror into the hearts of those who witnessed it. This time, Peter, James, and John “fell on their faces and were terrified.”
The disciples may have felt terror, but Jesus “came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’” It seems Jesus found Himself comforting the disciples quite frequently; He had to tell the disciples “don’t fear” at least 3 times in the stories recorded in the Gospels. Jesus did not want to leave the disciples in fear and trembling; He had come to give them peace with God and comfort in His presence.
Jesus told the 3 disciples, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” Peter, James, and John kept the secret until after Jesus’ resurrection. Then, St. Matthew, St. Mark (recording St. Peter’s accounts of Jesus’ life) and St. Luke all recorded the event for future generations. St. Peter referred to Jesus’ transfiguration when he wrote:
“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 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.”
St. Peter could speak of Jesus’ glory and say, “I was there. I saw it, and I heard the voice of God.”
St. Peter could also tell us a far more detailed account today. St. Peter watched Jesus die on the cross, but he also saw Jesus alive when Jesus arose from the dead. St. Peter saw Jesus ascend into heaven 40 days after His resurrection. Again, St. Peter did not follow “cleverly devised myths;” he could say, “I was there.”
The story gets even better. The Bible tells us that Jesus will return to earth one day, and that when He does, He will end death, disease, and sin. Jesus will “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). According to St. Paul the Apostle, Jesus’ return will result in new life for us all: “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). New life, in new, immortal bodies, for everyone who believes in Jesus: I’ll be there, and I want you to join me.
Today, we worship in church for 1 of 2 reasons. Most of us here today can say that, at some point in our lives, we sensed God leading us to believe in Jesus as our Lord and believe that He had indeed died for our sins, for the wrong we have done to one another. We often felt fear when we realize that God cares deeply about the wrongs we do to one another and realized that those wrongs separated us from Him. However, we then felt peace and joy when we believed in Jesus and asked Him to serve as our Lord in life. Today, we meet in worship because we have already witnessed Jesus’ love in our lives. We meet in worship because we have experienced Jesus’ forgiveness and joyfully know He has adopted us into His family as children of God (Romans 8). We can pray to God and call Him our Father because of His love for us. We can say, “I came here because I was there when He saved me.”
The rest of us here today would have to say, “I am here because I want to know about Jesus. Something inside me tells me that I need His love. Something inside me tells me that the wrongs I have done against other people have resulted in guilt and the feeling that I cannot call God my Father. I know I want to know God.” For those in that condition, I have great news! Jesus said, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If you believe in Jesus and ask Him to forgive you for your sins — for the wrongs you have committed in life — you can know that He will forgive you and adopt you into His family as He has done for every believer in history. You then can say to everyone, “I am here because Jesus saved me.” You can point to this moment in your life and say, “I was there. I know Jesus loves me and that He has given me joy and peace.”
“I was there.” Those words started many conversations for St. Peter. Today, those words can apply to this time of worship, to this holy moment, in your life. Believe in Jesus and ask Him to become Lord of your life. This moment will change your life.