February 19, 2023
St. Stephen’s UMC, Burke, VA
Matthew 17:1–9 (NRSV)
In the past weeks, we have been talking about discipleship. The life of a baptized Christian is meant to walk this narrow path of discipleship. Baptism is not only about believing, not only about joining, but also about serving, walking, and living out the life Jesus calls us to live.
I used the metaphor of “journeying” to describe this Christian faith — traveling on foot as a community from Point A to Point B. Last week, Pastor Spencer used the metaphor of “sailing” to describe this journey — getting on a boat, getting familiar with the boat, its builder, and its abilities, and exploring the world with the boat.
Whether we are on foot, in our boat, or driving our car, our Christian faith is about journeying, and our Christina identity is about us becoming people on the move, following the Way who is Jesus Christ.
In this metaphor of journeying, a mountaintop plays a significant role. And it would be equivalent to a crow’s nest of a ship. By removing ourselves from the surface level, both a mountaintop and a crow’s news give us the widest field of view for lookouts, helping us to see what is coming, what is ahead of us, and what we should expect and prepare for. By distancing ourselves from the surface level, we get to have more of an objective view of where we are. By retreating from the surface level, we get to take a breather in quietness and solitude and reorient ourselves for what is next. And by elevating ourselves from the surface level, we feel like we are an inch closer to God.
In the Gospels, we see Jesus often going up the mountain by himself to pray, removing himself from the crowds, from his everyday ministry, and even from his disciples. It was his spiritual discipline, repeatedly finding time alone to connect with God the Father. And in that intimate time alone with God, I believe Jesus was able to reorient himself for what was to come next, for the next step of his journey.
And in today’s story, Jesus took his disciples to the mountaintop for the first time. Why did Jesus decide to invite them now? Today’s scripture lesson begins with “six days later.” So, what happened six days before?
At the end of Chapter 16, Jesus told his disciples that it was now necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, submit to an ordeal of suffering at the hands of the religious leaders, be killed, and then on the third day be raised up alive.
Hearing this, Peter rebuked Jesus, saying “This must never happen to you.”
Peter thought he knew what was best for Jesus.
I think we are very much like Peter. We think we know what is best for us, for our future, and even for our church.
It is of course unfair to criticize Peter here. He just did not want to see his favorite teacher suffer and die. And he simply could not comprehend the idea of the Messiah, the Son of God, being killed.
But Jesus took Peter’s words seriously. “Get behind me, Satan! You have no idea how God works.”
Then he followed up by telling his disciples, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Here, Jesus was not just talking about following his footsteps in a general sense as a mentee would follow a mentor, but he was making a clear connection to the journey he was about to take towards Jerusalem, that they were to follow him to a place where he was about to be denied, suffer, and die. Not only was Jesus giving the disciples a heads-up on his impending suffering and death, but he was also inviting his disciples to join in his suffering and death — to be denied, suffer, and die with him.
I am sure all the disciples, including Peter, were gravely troubled by this. They were standing at a crossroads where they had to decide. Do I follow Jesus to Jerusalem, or do I stop following him here? Or perhaps some of them were asking themselves a simpler question. Is Jesus really who he says he is, or is he a fraud?
The disciples were at a crossroads needing to figure out where they were going and why they should follow Jesus. I imagine this is what they were figuring out inside their heads the next six days — calculating, praying, contemplating why they should continue to follow Jesus if the end of this journey was suffering. Maybe they were also pondering what Jesus meant when he said he would rise up after his death. And this is when Jesus took them to a mountaintop.
On the mountaintop, Jesus transfigured before Peter, James, and John. This is some kind of transformation, a metamorphosis. The scripture says Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Perhaps Jesus transfigured into his post-resurrection form. And we speculate this because the scripture says later in Chapter 28 that the resurrected Jesus’ appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was white as snow (v. 3).
And not only did Jesus transform into his future self, but the figures of the past appeared beside him. Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere and started talking with Jesus.
Recently, there have been a lot of interesting visual explorations of what time-traveling or a multiverse might look like. And I like to imagine this is what was happening on the mountaintop — the clashes of past, present, and future which defies our understanding of time and space. Or maybe this is simply a glimpse of heaven. Who knows? No one knows.
But what is the significance of this mysterious moment where the resurrected Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk to one another? This validates Jesus’ identity, ministry, and teaching as the promised Messiah, the coming savior, and the Son of God who came to fulfill the law and the prophets. It is all connected under God’s orchestration. How could anyone doubt Jesus’ identity after witnessing this transfiguration with their very own eyes?
Peter was so amazed that he could not think straight. And the only thing he could think of was to memorialize this amazing event by building a marker to capture this divine revelation for good. He asked, “Master, what a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain — one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”
Peter is just like us. He wanted to capture the One who is beyond time and space into a marker within time and space we can control. We do this with our church building, defined by its address and Sunday hours.
Once we have a church building, we think we have control over our experience of God. We can feel the presence of God whenever we come into our church building. We can show and tell and invite others to our building so they may also experience God’s presence.
But this often backfires. Instead of having control of time and space, we are often controlled by time and space. A marker like a church building confines our understanding of God’s presence, limiting God within a designated time and a given space. The undesired consequence is forgetting to experience God’s presence outside our church building.
As soon as Peter shared his idea, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed the disciples, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
I think this is one of the lessons that today’s scripture reading teaches us. God is omnipresent. God is all-present. God is everywhere. God is beyond our understanding of time and space — through God, heaven and earth collide, and past, present, and future meet. God defies our desire to control time and space. God is like this great cloud that overshadowed the disciples like a consuming fire. God’s presence is all around us. And we are just living in it. And how do we do that? By listening to the Son of God, Jesus Christ — and by listening, accepting Jesus’ invitation to join his self-denying journey towards the cross.
When the disciples were at a crossroads, God revealed Godself in the most obvious yet the most mysterious way, all to affirm Jesus’ identity and calling as the promised messiah, the suffering-servant savior. Now the disciples knew how to move forward. They knew where they were going and why they were following. They were refreshed and rejuvenated for the upcoming journey.
Whether you are Christians or not, all of us walk this journey called life, some alone, some with loved ones, and some with communities. What distinguishes Christians from others is our decision and determination to walk this journey together following Jesus Christ, or as Pastor Spencer put it, getting on the boat and traveling with others in the boat.
And in our journeys, it is important to visit our mountaintops and crow’s nests. We have to keep reminding ourselves who we are, whose we are, where we are, what is ahead, and why we are doing this. We often need to remove ourselves from the busyness of our daily lives in order to witness and experience God in the most obvious yet the most mysterious ways. This is what spiritual discipline is, repeatedly finding time to connect and commune with God. It is in the moments of our spiritual discipline when we hear God’s voice telling us, “This is my Son; Listen to him!”
In our church calendar, this transfiguration story is strategically placed in between the seasons of epiphany and lent. At the crossroads, we are putting ourselves in Peter’s shoes as we are about to embark on the 40-day Lenten journey, reminding ourselves why we are accepting Jesus’ invitation to join his self-denying journey towards the cross.
In our daily life, each Sunday is our mountaintop and our crow’s nest. We come to church to witness the glory of God who transcends our understanding of time and space. We see a glimpse of God’s glorious kingdom, and we are reminded of whom we are following and where we are going. And once we leave this building, outside this location, and Sunday hours, we continue our faith journey Monday to Saturday, whether it is on green pastures or valleys low, while being sensitive to God’s presence who is always with us no matter what.
Peter recalled this transfiguration event in his own letter and wrote how his message was not based on “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16–18). But rather, he was an eyewitness to Christ’s glory, hearing the voice of the Father declare, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
He was there on the holy mountain with him. He heard the voice out of heaven with his very own ears. He couldn’t be surer of what he saw and heard — God’s glory, God’s voice. And this is why Peter listens to Jesus, both in person and in spirit.
Accordingly, Peter encouraged those who listen to Jesus to support their faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love (vv. 5–7). These are the characteristics we bring down from the mountaintop. For those who listen to Jesus, these are the fruits we bear when we go back to our daily life, whether on green pastures or valleys low.
Why are you on this journey called Christian faith?
What are you looking to gain from this Christian life?
Why are you following Jesus who calls us to join him in this difficult self-denying journey toward the cross?
Maybe these are the questions you have been pondering and wrestling with. Maybe you have been standing at a crossroads of faith for a long time. Maybe you needed a quick reminder as we enter the Lenten season, a time of self-examination and reflection, repentance, fasting, and preparation for the coming of Easter. Or maybe you just needed a quick breather from the craziness of daily life. Wherever you are in your journey, my prayer is that you may witness God’s glory in the most obvious yet the most mysterious way, and you would join our invitation to walk this journey together as one church.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Minoo Kim is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, currently serving in the Virginia Annual Conference. Follow his Mecium profile to receive his latest sermons or check out his website minoowkim.com for his latest content. Peace!