A Better Hope

Matthew 17.1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 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.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

There’s a story I heard once about a church that decided they were going to finally make Easter memorable one year. As if the raising of Jesus from the dead wasn’t memorable enough.

Anyway, they enrolled the Children’s ministry, because that’s what churches do, and they made all these costumes and taught all the children their lines and they made these first century like tapestries to set the scenes. All of it. Weeks of preparation. Programs were printed. The whole town came out for this unforgettable Easter performance.

And all went well, until it didn’t. A few kids showed up too late to put on their costumes so they wore their blue jeans and tee shirts along side Roman centurions. One kid plum forgot his lines so he had to hold the script and squint at it every time he had to speak. On and on.

And then, this pivotal scene arrived: the Crucifixion. The little boy playing Jesus was supposed to lifted up and triumphantly declare, “Father forgive them.” But the centurions who were supposed to strap Jesus to the cross got into an unscripted fight about how to actually tie him down before lifting him up. Their voices grew and they started pushing one another until other kids jumped into the gray and the whole thing started coming apart. 

Until a little girl, perhaps the smallest in the cast, shouted louder than everyone else, “Let Jesus speak!”

Let Jesus speak.https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/3ImmHw3N2yCjRGgImtDOES

It was Jesus’ words and voice that first called Peter. He went from fishing for fish to fishing for people. It was Jesus’ teaching and healings that started the whole ministry – these little miracles that defied understanding. It was Jesus’ preaching on top of the mountain that dwelt deep in Peter’s soul, the blessings, and the salt, and the light, and the law. It was Jesus’ parables that Peter clung to in the moments of uncertainty, the stories of mustard seeds and prodigals and publicans. 

And so, when Jesus asked about the truth, who he really was, it was Peter who said, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah.” 

Jesus, apparently pleased with Peter’s proclamation, pulled back the curtain of the cosmos for a moment and spoke some more truth about the coming days, and his predicted passion – death and resurrection.

But that didn’t sit well with St. Pete – “Hey JC, I don’t think you understand. the Messiah can’t die! The Messiah is here to fix everything!”

And do you know what Jesus’ said in response? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, but I’m here for heavenly things!” And then he started preaching about a call to self-denial, and taking up the cross (whatever that means), and the taste of death, again.

And now, six days later, six days after the confession and rebuke, Jesus asks Peter, along with James and John, to travel to the top of mountain by themselves.

They arrive at the top and immediately Jesus is transfigured – his face is shining like the sun and his clothes are dazzling white.

Suddenly two figures appear on either side of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and they begin talking to one another. 

Peter speaks for the first time and says, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make tabernacle right here on the mountain, one for yo, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

But Jesus doesn’t respond. Instead a cloud overshadows all of them on the mountain and from the cloud comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!” 

When they hear the voice the disciples, Peter included, fall to the ground in abject terror. But then Jesus reaches out, touches them, and says, “Don’t be afraid.” And when they look around Moses and Elijah are gone.


The Transfiguration changes things. It is the turning point in the Gospel from the Galilean mission to the journey toward Jerusalem. And, for us, it is the turning point from the season after the Epiphany toward the season of Lent. 

The Transfiguration is strange. And, every year we proclaim this story as God’s Word for the people of God, I have more questions.

Did Jesus know this was going to happen, hence inviting the disciples up to the mountain? 

What did Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk about? 

How did the disciples know the figures were Moses and Elijah to begin with? It’s not like they had Google to look up their pictures!

The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.

Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple, told all of his followers to take up their own crosses (before they even have an inkling that he will die on one), and then, a week later, they travel up to the top of a mountain and Jesus turns into a walking talking lighthouse with two of the most important figures from Israel’s history flanking him on either side, only to have it end just as soon as it starts.

And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond, at all, to something that someone has said to him. Namely, Peter’s request to start a motel franchise on top of the mountain.

The Transfiguration shows up once a year, every year, as this transitional moment for the church. And, usually, it goes one of two ways. 

A preacher like me will stand and rebuke Peter for his foolishness and then make the strange, but true, connection between Peter and all of you. It’s okay to not have all the answers, it’s perfectly fine to be imperfect. Jesus loves Peter even when he messes up just like Jesus loves you.

Or, using Peter again, a preacher like me will make comments about Peter’s strange desire to stay up on the mountain and how the life of faith isn’t just about mountaintop experiences, but going down the mountain, back to reality, where we get to do all the churchy stuff we’re supposed to do like help people in need. The sermon ends with a call to discipleship or mission with a reminder that the mountaintop moment motivates us toward movement.

It’s either: Peter’s just like you, or we’ve got work to do.

Preaching is strange. I know of a preacher who received a grant to go around listening to other preacher so that he could write a book about preaching. And, when asked about the experience of listening to all these other preachers he said, “If anyone hears anything in a sermon, it’s a miracle.”


Now, on one level, his comment is a critique about the sorry state of preaching in the church today – yours truly included. I never know what’s going to happen when I sit down to write a sermon, let alone what will happen when I stand up here to preach it. 

Preaching is, inherently, a foolish endeavor. We all know that. It is foolish because preachers preach, week after week, with the hope that, miraculously, God’s people will hear a revelation from God. 

And yet, divine revelation is not something within the control of the preacher. God speaks however God wants. Sometimes God does actually speak through a preacher, I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not that happens here. And sometimes, more than preachers would like to admit, God speaks in spite of preachers. 

Only God can speak for God.

Which means, oddly enough, that that other preacher is right – if anyone hears anything in a sermon, it is a miracle. 

Preaching God’s word and hearing God speak is miraculous.

As is the Transfiguration. 

Peter and company experience a miracle – they get to witness a peak behind the curtain of the cosmos. In one brilliantly beautiful moment they see the real truth in front of them, what Paul will later intone with the words, “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” 

For some reason, we (that is preachers) like to take this miracle, and instead of focusing on it, we focus on Peter. We make our theology into anthropology. Focusing on Peter makes this extraordinary story ordinary, which undermines the miracle that is the Transfiguration!

The Gospel isn’t found in Peter and friends cowering on the mountain, and it’s certainly not in the idea of doing good works which we all know we’re supposed to do whether or not we know the Christ on the mountaintop.

The Gospel is Jesus Christ and him transfigured. 

Notice, the light that radiates in and through Jesus’ flesh is the same light that was the result of the One who said let there be light. It is the same light that that spoke to Moses through a burning bush and eventually permeated Moses’ face on top of another mountain, the same light that blazed in the whirlwind that took up Elijah into the sky.

If the point of the Transfiguration is to merely give us a little encouragement when we’re afraid, or a call to more do-goodery, then it is not sufficient for the sin-sick world we live in. 

It doesn’t give us any hope. Or, if it does, it only puts our hope in us. 

Again, that’s anthropology, not theology.

If the hope we need is in us, then we should’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now. 

The great, and staggering, truth of the strange new world of the Bible is that we need all the help and all the hope we can get because all is not as it ought to be. 

And yet, Christ beckons us to the mountaintop even when we, like Peter get it all wrong. We are called to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves. Take it from Peter, the more time you spend with Jesus, the more he invades your life filling it with impossible possibilities. 

The more time you spend with Jesus, the more you hear what he has to say.

If you leave from church today, or any day for that matter, with even the slightest inkling that you heard something from the Lord, it’s a miracle. It’s certainly not a testament to my preaching ability, or even our gifted musicians. It’s an ordinary experience of the miraculous work of God.

Did you notice that, when Peter starts getting all these funny ideas up on the mountaintop, Jesus doesn’t light into him like he did the week before? Instead, a cloud arrives, overshadowing all of them. 

Its as if the Lord is saying, “Pete, shhhh. Just, for a moment, please, listen.”

The rest of the Gospel story will remind us that Jesus was crucified in our vain attempt to stop his talking. But not even the grave could stop of the Word of God made flesh from speaking. Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age. 

Despite all the reasons God should’ve left us behind, abandoned us in the valleys and mountains of our own making, God is with us, speaking to us. 

Therefore, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, listening to him, we begin, thank God, to look and sound more and more like Jesus. To move as he moves, to see as we are seen and to hear as we are heard. That hope, the hope of our transfiguration, the hope of holding what we behold is what the book of Hebrews calls the better hope. 

Behold the Transfigured Christ, bask in his light that is light eternal, and listen to him. Amen.


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