Matthew 17:1-9 – Sermon – Mystery

Warning rough draft ahead…

Matthew 17:1-9

Have you ever met someone out of context and it opened your eyes to who they really are? Have you run into one of your teachers from school later on in life at a restaurant and seeing her in that situation added to your understanding of who she is? Or maybe you see a co-worker at church and your eyes are open to a new understanding of this person. It seems that when people are removed from our regular place of interaction, we learn a little more who they are. “Paul was always quiet and calm at work; always even handed and never hotheaded. Then I ran into him at a restaurant during the Duke/Carolina game. He was yelling at the TV at the top of his lungs and even cursed out the server once for forgetting something with his order. I never saw him the same after that.”

When I was a youth minister one of my youth came up to me and said, “My mom and I were talking and we don’t think you ever get made at anything. I don’t think you can ever get upset at us.” Little did he know that only a couple of months later there was a moment when the youth were a little out of control. They were yelling and goofing off and I was trying to bring their attention back around. They wouldn’t have it and my fuse was getting smaller and smaller. Finally I yelled out, “THAT’S ENOUGH, SIT DOWN NOW!” The youth all looked at me like my head just did a 360 on my shoulders. I looked at the youth who said he could not imagine me angry and I said, “I guess you were wrong.”

I know many of you have experienced the death of a loved one recently. Some of you have been or are executors of their wills as well. As you have dived into the lives of the people who have loved you start to learn some things you never really knew about those people. For four years I visited a shut-in at my previous appointment. I hung out in her dark, hot, and uncomfortable nursing home room. Our conversations where always about the same thing; she would look at me and say, I think this is it. I think I am going to die very soon. This went on for four years and then the year after I moved here she actually did pass away. What she left changed a ton of people’s perception of her. In her will the church, the United Methodist Foundation and a couple of other charities all learned that his woman, confined to a bed in an overheated room, left almost a million dollars to all of them. I have to say my perception of her changed when I heard this and I am sure as you have dived through your loved ones finances, personal effects, and intimate secrets your perceptions might have changed as well.

There are moments when our perception of people change. Jesus was battling with perception for a while before he and the three disciples headed up the mountain. In chapter 16 of Matthew’s gospel Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers Jesus correctly by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter earns some great brownie points here and receives Jesus’ blessing. I’m thinking Jesus thought, “finally at least one is getting it. He can see who I truly am.” Then after he is done praising Peter he tells the disciples of his death and resurrection. When he is done Peter looks at him and says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus looks at the disciple he just praised and now tells him, “Get behind me Satan.”

The disciples don’t know what to think when it comes to this teacher they have been following around. They want him to be the Messiah, the one who will make right what went wrong in this world. On the other hand they want to be a faithful follower, a tried and true believer who won’t let anything bad happen to their dear Lord.

We are like this. We look at our God and we want to wash away the pain and sorrow he felt while here on earth. We clean up every image in order for it to look polished and perfect. We have a gorgeous stain glass window here. It is a wonderful image of Jesus praying at the garden and my guess he is praying at the garden of Gethsemane. But when Jesus is praying this deep prayer his heart is aching and he is under so much stress that the scriptures tell us his sweat became like drops of blood. I don’t see that image up there. I’m not sure if I want to worship every week under an image of a God who is under that much stress. I like the fact we worship with this image. It would be a constant reminder of the pain God went through and it would be a little off putting. But when I think of this, I’m no better than Peter because I am trying to control what God has done and still doing.

Jesus continues to tell the disciples of his upcoming trial, suffering, death and resurrection. He predicts directly it three times in Matthew’s gospel. In between the first and second prediction Jesus ushers his inner circle of disciples, Peter, James and John, up to the top of a very high mountain. Six days after calling Peter Satan he welcomes him to the top of this mountain. “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”

There is this wonderful experience for these three disciples and they are privilege to be a select few who get to see Jesus for who he truly is. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both 100% human and 100% God. In this weird concoction of DNA we get the only being to be this. In this moment Jesus sets himself apart from all other religious figures. He demonstrates his divinity for the three disciples to see and God comes down and tells them to listen to His Son. Jesus probably gave glimpses of his divine side as he healed and taught but I am sure the disciples passed it off as his magnetic personality. That is just Jesus being Jesus. But here on the mountain, when his face shone like the sun, this was a whole new level of divinity. Their perception of who Jesus was shifted and they could not deny that Jesus was the Son of God.

Then Peter opens his mouth. I never really understood why Peter suggests they stay up there until I started put it in the framework of the previous chapter. Peter gets into this debate with Jesus. Peter doesn’t want Jesus to go and suffer, die and be resurrected. He wants to protect Jesus because he loves him deeply. Now they are on the mountain top and having this wonderful experience. Peter suggests they stay there because he remembers what is waiting them on the bottom of the mountain. At the bottom of the mountain is the reality that Jesus was talking about, pain, suffering, and death. Here on the top of the mountain is joy, happiness and the wonderful feeling of being close to God. In the valley below is the shadow of death and why would any sane person want to go back down there?

I thought I could stay up on the mountain top forever. When I graduated high school I thought I would be the head of a Christian camp. I wanted to lead spiritual retreats for youth every weekend because on those retreats in my life I felt the presence of God in real and tangible ways. I had mountain top experiences and I wanted to stay up there. But I learned after one semester of college that was not where God was calling me to be. I had to come down off that mountain into the muck and mire of real life. Mountain top experiences are great but they don’t last a lifetime they are only moments in our lives.

My hope is that our revival is one of those experiences for at least someone. Back in the day a church would start to pray about their revival six months ahead of time. They would be so wrapped up in the Spirit that by the time the services got there they would explode in anticipation. We don’t live in those times anymore but I have been praying about these services. I want them to be meaningful to those who attend. I pray that someone will be touched by the Holy Spirit in one of these services and have a mountain top experience. I hope someone walks away and into the rest of Lent with a renewed passion for the Lord. I pray this because when we receive an experience like that everything is clear. Everything makes sense for a little bit. All the chaos in the world drifts off and we are a peace with our lives and with God. But it also gives us some light to see through the darkness in the valley where we have to live.

Peter worried about the reality that awaited them down in the valley. He was scared that he would lose his Lord and he had all the reasons to do so. He never really got it while Jesus was here on earth. He never really understood why Jesus did what he did until Jesus was gone. Only then did it start to sink in. Only then did the mountain top experience of the Transfiguration start to dig deep into his heart and give him strength. This is because Peter finally got use to living in mystery.

We live in a factual world. If we want the answer to a question all we need to do is pull out our phones and find the answer. It is right there in Wikipedia. We want answers to all of our questions and we are as demanding as a three year old as we constantly ask any authority around us, why? Why? Why? And the answer “just because” doesn’t cut it anymore. But the truth is what happened on the mountain, the unveiling of this God-Man named Jesus Christ, doesn’t make sense. I cannot explain to you how Jesus is 100% human and 100% God. He just is. I cannot explain to you with facts and a pie chart how the Holy Spirit is present in the sacrament we are about to partake in. I do not have an answer to how God is God. It is a mystery.

We have moments when we come in contact with this mystery. I feel this mystery every time I walk into a Hospice room. When a family brings a loved one to Hospice there is a reality that is named simply in that action. Everyone is staring death in the eye. They still don’t know when or how but it is happening. I usually say the same prayer in these places because I have experienced them enough now to recognize the mystery these rooms hold. When I pray, I recognize the fact that we are on holy ground. We are walking where God is and in this moment we take off our sandals and stick our toes in the sand. I cannot explain what happens in those rooms except that the living God is hard at work and we are simply coming in contact with the mystery.

If you have ever felt the presence of prayer you understand coming into contact with mystery. If you have ever felt the hairs on your neck stand up and a chill run from your toes to your head, you have come in contact with mystery. When you start listening to your heart instead of your head and you give into the unexplained because although you can’t explain it you know it is true, you have touched the mystery. That mystery is the God we worship.

When we come in contact with this mystery our perceptions change and we understand this God a little better. This new understanding helps us go down into the shadow of the valley and live our lives. As we go into the darkness and trial of the 40 days of Lent we need to be reminded of the power of the mystery we worship. It is this mystery that can see us through these 40 days. It is our willingness to walk with our Lord as he suffers, dies and is resurrected that enables us to see God for who he really is. Our God is the one who had a conversation with Moses and Elijah while his face was aglow while three disciples looked on. We worship a God who can walk on water, feed five thousand, raise the dead, heal the sick, and rise again on the third day. We worship a God that is mysterious and unexplainable. Thanks be to God.

And all God’s people said…Amen.


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