INVESTIGATING A MYSTERY (Transfiguration) Matthew 17:1-9

A sermon with the Congregation of the Good Shepherd, the Parish of Kingston North

by Robert Brow    ( February 10, 2002

When a detective is sent out to investigate a mystery, there are some questions to ask. Where did it happen? When? Who were witnesses? Why (any motive)? What exactly happened? Obviously this event was mysterious, at first inexplicable, certainly against the ordinary laws of nature. A man's face shines as bright as the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white as snow (17:2). Moses and Elijah appear, and there is a voice from a bright cloud that appears suddenly on a clear day. So I invite you to be the detective in this case.

WHERE did it happen? On Mount Hermon, which was 9000 feet (2000 meters) high (17:1). This was a hard four hour climb straight up from Caesarea Philippi (located 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee).

WHEN did it take place? It was a week (Luke 9:28) after Jesus had said he was going to build his church, and Peter would be its first leader (16:13, 18, 17:1).

WHO were the witnesses to this event? Three Galilean fishermen, Peter, James, and John were there (17:1) to vouch for the fact. And Peter remembered seeing the glory of the Lord, and hearing the awesome voice from heaven, many years later (2 Peter 1:16-18).

WHY? (the motive) Jesus wanted to pray (Luke 9:28) about very serious concerns. He had appointed Peter to be the gatekeeper (16:19) of the new church. What if he turned out to be unreliable? When Jesus had warned the disciples of his imminent crucifixion (16:21), Peter listened to the voice of Satan and flatly rejected this idea (17:23). The fault of character, which resulted in him denying he ever knew the Lord (26:65-74), was already becoming evident. Actually as Jesus prayed for him, and by the power of the Spirit he eventually functioned brilliantly as the gatekeeper letting in 3000 on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), forming Samaritans into a church (Acts 8:14-17), and doing the unthinkable by baptizing a Roman army captain and his family (Acts 10:44-48).

WHAT actually happened? First the witnesses reported that there was a strange transfiguration. Normally a face shining like the sun, and ordinary clothes (covered in a cloak against the cold) becoming white as snow, seems impossible. But then we remember a plain homely girl suddenly becoming radiant and totally transformed after the man of her dreams proposes to her. There was also the case of Moses. After 40 days alone with the Lord on Mount Sinai, "as he came down from the mountain with the two tables of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God" (Exodus 34:29). Day after day this was repeated and witnessed by hundreds of people who could not face the brightness and Moses had to cover his face with a veil (Exodus 34:35).

Secondly Moses and Elijah appeared suddenly from heaven (17:3). In the Old Testament period people who died went down into sheol (Greek hades, the abode of the dead) to await the resurrection (which took place immediately Jesus died, while his body was still on the cross, Matthew 27:52-53). There were three exceptions to this, Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24), Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5-6 - apparently the body was discarded and the tomb never found?), and Elijah going up to heaven in a whilrwind (2 Kings 2:11-13).

Peter's impetuous reaction was to build shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (17:4), but this project was cut short by the next event.

A bright cloud appeared from nowhere and overshadowed the scene. This is not something meteorologists are comfortable with. They can explain the physics of a rainbow, but God said to Noah "I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13). During the Exodus from Egypt a million people saw an even stranger event day after day. "The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day or by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left it's place in front of the people" (Exodus 13:21-22). And clouds are given as a sign of God's interventions. Daniel said "I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient one and was presented before him" (Daniel 7:13). And Jesus applied this to his coming in to the fall of Jerusalem. "They will see 'the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matthew 24:30, Luke 21:27).

The solution to the mystery of the Transfiguration was that Jesus was praying in a time of crisis, and the three disciples with him saw his face and clothes made radiant. Then God the Father (who has never been seen, John 1:8) indicated his presence by the sudden appearance of a cloud above them, and assured him with the same words that he had used at his baptism "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17).

Now when a mystery is solved by a detective, there are lessons to learn, perhaps a warning to heed, new directions for us to take. So I wonder how you feel the story of the Transfiguration in our Gospel to day might apply to us. What does it say to you?

(Time for responses from the congregation).

Finally I would like to read how Paul applied the principle of Transfiguration to himself and his readers. "Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us with unveiled face, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 3:17-18). Just as Moses and Jesus were transformed by the Holy Spirit, so we have the freedom to let the Spirit change us. As we know, crabbiness, fretful anxiety, being riddled with guilt, persistent anger, and their opposites, are written all over our faces for others to see. It does not work to try and pretend. We do not need to climb up 8000 feet to pray, but if we come apart with Jesus the Son of God, and look to the Father in prayer, the Holy Spirit can change us from the inside. Our faces might not look as bright as the sun, or our clothes go white as snow, but people will be puzzled by the mystery of our transfiguration. They might even ask why? And how?

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