The Transfiguration: The Empowerment for Laying Down One’s Life

Mt. 16.21-28, 17.1-13, 14-21 CEV

I hope you have been taking time to follow along in the Gospel of Matthew as we have been traveling in this text since the Epiphany when the three Wiseman came to visit, and we will return to Matthew later on in the year. But today we will be looking closely at the pericope (passage or text from the Bible) of what we understand as the Transfiguration, the empowerment of Jesus for his Passion or last events of his lifestory and death.

The context of the narrative is prefaced by Jesus prediction of his suffering and death (Mt. 16.21-23) followed by the meaning and the cost of discipleship (Mt. 16.24-28). Jesus addresses the cost of discipleship as a life-giving experience. Disciples are required to say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus on the road to laying down their lives. Perhaps the theme of discipleship is “just say no!” to yourself.

Jesus finds himself on a mountainside with only a few chosen companions. Here on the mountain his motives are clear and intentional – to get away from the demands of the people, to step away from the ebb and flow of his busy traveling lifestyle, to pause in his discipleship of the 12, and to take time apart for the specific purpose of encountering his Heavenly Father. He has taken a moment a time to refocus himself not on the pouring out of his teaching or healing those with ailments, but to focus on his personal relationship with the Almighty. Jesus required strengthening for the ministry task ahead. There was a valley of trouble that lay ahead on the journey, and the need for strength was great.

As we discovered last week together the Gospel of Matthew is about authority, and Jesus will soon lay down his human authority as the Son of Man to die a pauper’s death without any financial means or property. We saw at Jesus’ baptism a great affirmation and empowerment for the temptation to act up his divinity as the Son of God, but he was given the strength to endure the temptations. The dual role of Son of God and Son of Man become very discerning in the moments of his empowerments; Jesus needed the heavenly affirmation to sustain him. Jesus in his humanity would have struggled without the empowerment of those affirmations. First, from the transformation the voice from heaven spoke these words, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him” (Mt. 17.5)! Then from his baptism the voice from heaven spoke these words, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him” (Mt. 3.17).

There is a great need within us to hear the affirmation of God to sustain us in not only the business of our lives, but the valleys of trouble that are inevitable. When we travel the journey of life without the voice of God affirming our identity, we struggle to maintain balance and find ourselves feeling overwhelmed and depleted of spiritual resources. We are called to step away from the business and invest in quiet moments of reflection so that we can hear the voice of God. Some of us take time to take a walk to revitalize our spirits. Others create space in their days for a morning or evening devotion to hear the word of God afresh and anew. But mountaintop moments with God require us to get beyond the usual routines of being with God.

Let’s read the story again for self-discovery.

17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James (the holy huddle), and led them up a high mountain (Tabor-Hermon) by themselves. There he was transfigured (transformed) before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses (Moses/Horeb-burning bush/Sinai-Law) and Elijah (Horeb-still small voice, most powerful prophet), talking (Luke 9.31 suggests they talked about the fulfillment of the upcoming Great Exodus) with Jesus (missing Abraham and Isaac, Moriah-the sacrificial ram in the bushing, Gen 22).

Where were the mountaintop experiences in your life? Who was with you? Where you transformed? Mountains are a critical place of faith-building across the pages of Scripture. Since biblical times, mountains have been places of worship, since it is easy to feel the majesty of God from atop a lofty peak. Moreover, many of the New Testament’s most important events occurred on mountains. We can begin with Abraham who climbed Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, and where God would graciously provide a ram as a substitute sacrifice. The signs and symbolism continue with Moses who experienced a burning bush filled with the holiness of God on Mount Horeb, and who would receive the Law on Mount Sinai. Elijah, the most powerful prophet of old, would hear the still small voice of God on Mount Horeb after massacring 450 false prophets of Baal who were worshiping on Mount Carmel. As many powerful holy moments of encounter happened upon the mountains, so too are just as many unholy moments pictured on mountaintops in the Old Testament. Significant worship – both true and false worship – happened on the mountaintops!

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus begins his ministry on a mountaintop being tested in his authority. Satan was quick to offer Jesus earthly authority which he would have had to trade for his Kingdom authority (Mt. 4.8). In Jesus’ first sermon we find him seated on the mount offering a teaching that would define his life ministry Mt. 5). Later Jesus will take time away from the business of ministry to go up the mountain to pray (Mt. 14), and on the side of a mountain many will gather to find healing from physical ailments. They will walk down the mountain healed and restored: the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk, and the mute speak (Mt. 15). In our passage today a cloud of glory will cover the mountain just as the cloud covered the tent of meeting when God talked with Moses, and Jesus will be transformed with his humanity endued with power from on-high to sustain his impending suffering (Mt. 17). Not long after his empowerment he will climb to the Mount of Olives then send his disciples to prepare for his final Passover Fest (Mt. 21). And, in the end we will experience the Ascension of the Christ which is believed to have taken place on the Mount of Olives as he hands off his authority to his followers (Mt. 28).

It is from this mountaintop experience that Jesus would live into a life-giving model of ministry that rests completely on his identity as the beloved of his Heavenly Father. Jesus’ life style was built upon his identity. Jesus’ ministry flowed from being accepted by his Heavenly Father. His ministry was sustainable because his work rested in his identity. Jesus’ significance was found only in his role and purpose provided by his identity. Jesus experienced fruitfulness in his life because he was in complete obedience to his Father’s will. Understanding his identity rested solely in his relationship with God Almighty. His embrace of his identity was essential for his sustenance and longevity. His experience of his identity sustained him through misunderstandings and sufferings in light of his purpose. His identity provided the significance and meaning for his mission, vision, and values. His identity was the foundation for the fruit that he bore in his labors. His fruitful ministry was subjected to his identity, and thus must be evaluated based on his true identity rather than a false understanding of works righteousness.

Let me say this a different way. God calls you to be a dairy farmer. Your identity is a dairy farmer. Your role is to care for the cattle and the pasture land. Your fruitfulness is not in the amount of milk produced by each cow, but in your faithfulness to tend the cows every day. The outcome of your milking the cows will vary from day to day. On the other hand, your unfaithfulness to milk the cows every day will have poor results. Mismanagement of your responsibilities can be painful, if not deadly. The best-case scenario, the cows will simply quit producing milk, however, the worst case is that they get an infection that may lead to death. The best results of your work lies in your faithfulness to continue to milk the cows twice every day, not in the outcome of how much milk the cows produced.

Peter (the compulsive one) said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud (glory cloud) covered them, and a voice (voice spoke in the waters of baptism) from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. (The divine affirmation) Listen to him!” (Obedience to authority) When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified (prostrate is the traditional Hebrew worship posture). But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain (on the other side of the glory experience), Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone (Messianic secret) what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

What was your experience like when you were on the mountaintop of faith? Did you hear God, see his glory? Did you fall down in worship? Did you keep it a secret or tell someone? God Almighty has spoken the affirmation of the identity of his Son in the waters of baptism, and now confirms his identity with the same words of affirmation in the cloud of glory on top of a mountain. We hear the mystical voice of God, and can only imagine those moments in the beginning of time and space when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters and spoke the Word, and now that same Spirit affirms the identity of the Son of God, the Son of Man. Up to this point the content of Jesus’ ministry has been enjoyed by possibly millions, and his identity – his authority – will soon be crucified. We can more fully appreciate his authority as the guards nails the sign over his head that read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Mt 27.37).

Just as Jesus’ identity was revealed in the waters of baptism and his confirmation in his transfiguration, we too experience affirmation of our identity when we remember our baptism. Baptism is the mark of grace upon our lives that demonstrates our Christian identity. We belong to God. You may not hear the mystical voice of God or experience a mystical vision as Jesus and his companions did, but you belong nonetheless. It is from this place of identity that we find meaning in our work whether in the church or in the world. It is the faithfulness to that identity that we find our fruitfulness. We experience the acceptance of Almighty God in our baptism and our confession of faith at confirmation. Our very sustenance is found in the faithful relationship we build with God. Our role in the Kingdom of God may be discovered as we grow in our faithfulness to build our relationship with God. Each one of us has a role, a part to play in the Kingdom of God. Our fruitfulness is measured not by earthly assessments and measures but by our faithfulness to God. At times fruitfulness is measured by sight, but faithfulness to God cannot be measured by what we see.

Measuring faithfulness by sight is more of a taste test, I like this or I don’t like that. Let me say it another way. A farmer plants his fields and tends to them all year long, and at the end of the season a weather event destroys his crop. Was he faithful or unfaithful? With the measuring rod of faithfulness, the end results will vary. The Apostle Paul once said it this way, “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5.7).

10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” 11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist (an awakening moment of clarity).

What happened when you came back to everyday life? Did you have a moment of clarity? Jesus clarifies his identity as the Son of Man, the suffering servant. He is about to relinquish his rights for self-preservation, placing his life into the hands of his accusers who believed nothing of his identity.

14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” 17 “You unbelieving and perverse generation (JW says notes that Jesus was really talking with his disciples),” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out (they were humbled)?” 20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith (Jesus must of felt greatly discouraged). Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed (all it takes is the smallest of faith), you can say to this mountain (and spiritual authority can be exercised to accomplish great feats), ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” [21] [a] [This one comes out only by prayer and fasting.]

When have you experienced “failure of faith” in your relationship with Jesus? How did you respond to failure? As Jesus and his disciples return to everyday life as they journey down the mountainside, the meaning and the cost of discipleship becomes very clear.  Jesus address the failure of faith afterwards to his disciples. He explained to him that faith is required to do the work of the Kingdom of God. Truly faithfulness is not for the faint of heart. In some translations you will find verse 21 inserted. Verse 21 states, “This one comes out only by prayer and fasting” (Mt. 17.21). It is believed that this statement is a very ancient addition to the text possible from the early church father Origen who lived in the 2nd Century.  Adam Clarke, a British Methodist who lived during Wesley’s lifetime, once wrote concerning the missing verse [Mt. 17.21, Mk 9.29] from the transfiguration narrative, “…that there are certain evil propensities, in some persons, which pampering the flesh tends to nourish and strengthen; and that self-denial and fasting, accompanied by prayer to God, are the most likely means, not only to mortify such propensities, but also to destroy them.”

Did you find yourself in the story walking up and down the mountain with Jesus and the disciples? A fresh encounter of holy requires five details: obedience to Jesus’ voice (listening to God’s voice), modesty in sharing your faith stories (sharing our faith intentionally), faith at least the size of a mustard seed (growing in faithfulness), deliberate prayer (asking, seeking, knocking on heaven’s door), and intentional fasting (purposeful self-denial). For us we can take note of these key details for encountering the holy, and implement them in our lives during Lent this year.

A 17th Century lay person named Brother Lawrence lived out his life in a Carmelite Monastery in Paris. Brother Lawrence understood the practice of the presence of God, and made note of the kinds of practices that were avenues for encountering the holiness of God. One such practice was working in the kitchen where he would experience the presence of God even in the peeling of the potatoes! Perhaps we too need to become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s work within our own lives in the common everyday elements of our work experiences.

We are genetically created to crave God, but we are not always self-aware of that craving. Sometimes we fill the space with food, drink, activities, hobbies, friendships, and family instead of creating space that is designated specifically just for God. When we enter the sanctuary of hearts, do we set ourselves apart as whole-devoted to God or are we more interested in our neighbor’s conversation?

Our youthful emotions and cravings will not sustain us in life. Esau is a great example of one who had strong leadership skills but was driven by youthful emotions and physical cravings (Gen 25). Self-awareness is key to faithfulness. Faithfulness is challenged when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. It is those times that we need to halt and go to the mountain. You know that temptation is part of life, even Jesus experienced temptation when he was hungry, lonely, and tired. And, it was in those moments of weakness that Satan tempted him to become angry (Mt. 4). Jesus demonstrated a rhythm of grace in his life. From time to time he left behind the business, the crowds, and the 12 to pray to this Heavenly Father. Jesus fully embraced and understood his identity as the Son of Man and the Son of God. God built in the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath – a day apart designed to stop working and listen to God. Fruitfulness in our lives is faithfulness to being attentive to God’s voice.

Lent becomes an off-ramp for us. We become purposeful in slowing down our everyday pace to listen to God. Lent is a time to clarify expectations and become accountable to your neighbor. Lent offers the opportunity to deal with insecurities, disappointments, and frustrations. Lent provides the place where we reestablish relationships. If you haven’t had your yearly physical, Lent is a great reminder to pay attention to our bodily needs. When our passion for Christ Jesus has waned, Lent is a wake-up call to remember our baptism and be holy. You can create “A Rule of Life” that guides you in the coming year as you establish times for refreshing your relationship with God Almighty.  Lent gives us the opportunity to prepare for the peaks and valley experiences that lie ahead just out of our sight, and encourages us to walk by faith a little more each day!


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