Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Advent is a very special time of the year.
It is a season in the Church,
a time set aside,
to prepare our hearts and minds
for the “coming” of Christ.
Just as we prepare our homes for the season
by decorating, baking, and making everything festive,
we can also prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas
by reflecting on the significance of the birth of Jesus
– of what it means, of who He is,
and of how the coming of Christ changes everything.
There are many spiritual themes we can meditate upon
to better appreciate the arrival, the reality of Jesus.
One of my favorites, that is our focal image
for thinking about Jesus this Advent season
is dwelling on Christ as the Light – the Light of the world,
the Light that enters our darkness and overcomes it.
Pure, plain, natural light as a phenomenon of nature fascinates me.
The very first of God’s creative actions,
science has taught us a great deal about light,
starting with the remarkable fact that
it travels 186,282 miles per second.
The renown theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein,
famously connected space and time through
the speed of light as a constant (E=mc2).
All things (matter and energy) can travel
up to this speed – the speed of light
– given the right conditions.
In fact, when we look up into the night sky,
all the non-manmade objects we view
in the astronomical heavens
– we are able to see them due to
light traveling from their location to earth
at this constant speed – the speed of light.
Scientists refer to distance from Earth to a certain galaxy
in terms of measured in light years.
A given star or some other celestial object we can see
that is 10 billion light years away from us reflects
the appearance of light that first shined some 10 billion years ago.
How cool is that? How wonderful!
Light fascinates me.
Especially at this time of year,
I get mesmerized by Christmas lights.
Everything from an elegantly and warmly lit
Christmas tree in the window in the window
to the gaudiest, most elaborate house and lawn light displays,
I become transfixed by all the enchantment of the light.
Today, I’m pretty excited because we are going
to read about one of the best lightshows ever.
It is a strange but illuminating story filled
not only with the most brilliant light ever seen
but like an old TV Christmas variety show,
there will be special, surprise guest stars
and even a voice-over announcer from Heaven itself.
Today, we are going to reflect upon
a memorable experience of
the Light of Christ at its full brightness
– an event that will enhance our appreciation of
the One born in Bethlehem and all that His birth,
His being, His life brings into our lives.
Please open your Bibles and read along as we hear from Matthew, chapter 17.
This is a moment in the life of Jesus known as The Transfiguration.
In most of our Bibles, this, in fact, is the heading
right above the start of Matthew, chapter 17.
Luke also describes this same event
in the 9th chapter of his gospel account,
providing some additional details that
better informs our understanding of what happens here.
The story begins: “After six days, Jesus took Peter and the brothers
James and John, and brought them up into a high mountain by themselves.”
The mountaintop upon which these
events unfolded remains a place of mystery.
Based on where Jesus and the trio were coming from,
they likely climbed one of the high ridges in
the mountainous region not far from Caesarea Philippi
– perhaps, Jebel Jermak in Upper Galilee,
the highest elevation in that area.
But again, we simply don’t know exactly where this happened.
The name of the mountain is not specifically mentioned.
What is mentioned, not by Matthew but in Luke’s version:
Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him
up this mountain in order to pray.
And we know from various asides in the gospels,
when Jesus went off to pray it typically was
his practice to do so while it was still dark
– either in the evening or early in the morning before sunrise.
The inference that all this took place
sometime not during normal waking hours
is further underscored by Luke telling us
in his version of this story that
Peter, James, and John were heavy with sleep
as they arrived at the mountaintop.
So, we should picture Jesus
and three of his disciples hiking uphill,
with the air getting thinner and
the cold temperatures increasing
as they gained altitude, all while it is pitch black outside.
It is against this backdrop,
in a sense somewhere between heaven and earth,
perhaps inside a low-hanging cloud, that
Jesus is transfigured in front of
Peter, James and John’s very eyes.
Transfigured is a strange word
– not one that we use in everyday speech.
The Greek word for it – the one Matthew actually uses here
is the word, “metamorphoo,” from which we get
our English word, metamorphosis
– meaning to be transformed or changed.
Jesus’ appearance is changed.
Matthew tells us
“His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
But more precisely, the word, “transfigure”
or “metamorphize” means to be changed from the inside out.
Think of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly.
Therefore, it’s not as if some weird spotlight shone upon Jesus
– a ray of emerging sunlight
or the illumination of the moon.
No, both the testimony of scripture
and the eyewitnesses present makes it clear
the bright luminescence came from within Jesus.
Jesus, in a sense, turned inside out
and the result was a brilliant, dazzling light
radiating out of His face, shimmering through His clothes
– piercing the darkness all around Peter, James, and John.
And then, as if the flash and intensity of
all blazing light weren’t enough to take in,
something even more remarkable is unveiled,
“Just then there appeared before them
Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”
The word “appeared” is the same word
given to describe of the coming of the angel
to Zechariah in the Temple in Luke, chapter 1.
It’s also the verb Ananias uses to relate Paul’s encounter
with Jesus on the road to Damascus in Acts, chapter 9.
In other words, this was an actual, guest appearance
by Moses and Elijah in visible form and not an apparition.
Much has been made through the centuries
of why Moses and Elijah appear.
The most common explanation given is
Moses and Elijah are both present
to signify that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah.
Moses represents the Torah, the Law – God’s rules of life
– the way things God intended for them to be.
Elijah represents the Prophets – God’s promise
in the midst of human sin to set things right
– to enable us and this world to become
all we were created to be.
Later on, during this happening, the Peter, James, and John
will again look up and only see Jesus. Moses and Elijah will be gone.
This reinforces another reason why
Moses and Elijah make an appearance.
They do so in order to disappear
– to exit stage left so that
only Jesus remains center stage.
Their role is to decrease so that Jesus is increase.
All the purposes and work of the Lord
Moses and Elijah represent come together
and find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus, both the Law and the Promises of God are fulfilled.
In Jesus, both the Law and the Promises of God become the Gospel.
In fact, this fulfillment, this good news, is what the topic
of conversation was between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
This is an insight we gain, once again,
from Luke’s account of this moment.
Luke writes, “they were speaking of His departure
which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
Interestingly, if you check the footnote in your Bible,
the word translated as “departure” is the Greek word for “exodus.”
In other words, they were conversing about
Jesus’ pending work on the Cross – how Christ would
set us free from our slavery to sin through His loving sacrifice,
how Jesus would enter into the glory of His resurrection
through His willing death for all humanity.
This fantastic, incandescent scene unfolds
as if Peter, James, and John were not there.
Their presence in the midst of these mystical proceedings
is either forgotten or ignored by Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
That is, until Peter (it had to be Peter, right?)
finds his voice and speaks up.
Seemingly interrupting the conversation,
Peter’s words aren’t much more than
an attempt to do something useful:
“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.”
Apparently, Peter is not responding to
what Moses and Elijah have been talking about
– that is, it doesn’t look like Peter
understood their conversation with Jesus.
Peter, in mentioning putting up
three tents for this divine trio
(nothing is said of building tents
for James, John, and himself),
Is missing the bigger picture of what he is witnessing.
Imagine having three of the greatest
historical, spiritual figures of all time
materialize right in front of your eyes
and in reply, all you think to ask is
“Can I get you a seat?”
It is Luke and not Matthew who states the obvious
that Peter did not know what he was saying.
And before Peter has a chance to
go on laying out his building plans,
we are told Peter’s words are cut short
as “a bright cloud covered them”
and a voice from the cloud, from heaven
spoke over them.
Very plainly, all three of the disciples
hear and got this message because
in response they fall face down on the ground, terrified.
But, Matthew goes on, after getting some reassurance,
Peter, James, and John again look up.
Except now, they see no one but Jesus
– and Jesus is no longer transfigured before them.
The lightshow is over.
Instead of the dazzling radiance
that emanated from Jesus moments ago,
Peter, James, and John are greeted by
the calm, familiar sight of their master
– no doubt with a sigh of relief!
Typically, the focus when digging into this story is on the lightshow.
Lots of people either caught up in the sight of
the brilliant radiance of Jesus in this moment
or bogged down in skepticism and questions
about what really happened up on that mountain.
My word to us today is not to get distracted
or confounded by all the special effects.
The point of this experience is not to explain
or to explain away the mechanics of this event.
When it comes the special effects in the Bible,
they are just like the special effects in movies
– testifying to a simple truth.
There is more to be known about
what is really real than the eye can see.
Or as Hamlet once put it to his faithful friend, Horatio,
“There are more things in heaven and Earth
than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”
What happens here is not about the lightshow;
it’s about the One from whom the Light originates,
the One who is the Light.
The heart of this story lies not just
in what we see but in what we are told,
not just in the Light itself,
but the direction given to us by the Light.
Like Peter, James, and John,
we need to pay attention
to the instruction we are given.
And what is it? What does the voice from heaven say?
“This is my Son, whom I love;
with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
This is the second recorded time in the gospels
that a voice came from heaven to affirm
the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The first was following Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.
The last one will be just before Jesus’ fateful journey to the Cross.
While all the fireworks on the mountaintop are amazing,
we are directed not just to enjoy the lightshow
but to listen to the One who is the Light.
In lieu of our ideas of staying put and constructing
a nice tent to contain the brilliance of Jesus
– much like the creation of our church buildings
where we invite people to come and see Christ inside,
we are redirected to follow the Light and to build
– not a church building – but the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
We are directed beyond taking in
this luminous vision of Christ
to hearing and obeying the voice of Christ.
But why? Why should we listen to Jesus? Why should we follow Him?
Because of what the light of Christ’s transfiguration reveals
– the sacred secret of Christmas
that on the way down the mountain
Jesus tells Peter, James, and John
it is not time to share
– the big reveal that will finally come
on another mount called Calvary
– as this Light burns brightly
under the shadow of the Cross
– the darkness of all human sin, evil and death.
That Jesus is not Godly. Jesus is God.
If you have a manger scene in your home,
do me a favor and place the infant
at the center of that scene
in the palm of your hand
or in your line of sight
or just picture that child in your mind’s eye.
And let us realize
the coming of Christ is more than
our Creator sending another,
better emissary to us.
Jesus is no angel.
With his birth, we receive more than
another Moses, more than a prophet,
more than a man who would be king.
In the birth of Jesus,
the God who is King of Kings
comes down in person to us.
It is not just any light that visibly transfused the human nature of Jesus
– that radiates from His face and His body and turns His clothing white.
It is the blaze of His true divinity clothed in our humanity.
Jesus irradiated what is called in the Old Testament (check Exodus, chapter 34) the Shekinah presence of God – the undiluted glory of the Lord Most High.
Are you still holding or picturing that infant in the manger?
Try and comprehend how in the birth of a child,
God made Himself visible, incarnate to us.
What we see briefly on the mountain is
the fullness of who this child born to us is.
It is but a glimpse of how we all shall
one day see Jesus when He returns
not as a baby but as our Lord and Savior
(see the first chapter of Revelation).
But again, the point of the lightshow
is not just to open our eyes to who Jesus is
– more than a great teacher,
more than someone who lived peacefully but died violently,
more than a great miracle worker or inspiration martyr,
– but the living and eternal God…
…the point of the lightshow is directing us
to listen to Him, to follow Jesus
the light of Christ is our doorway
to the voice of Christ which is the very Word of God
– our is our human point of contact with all
the mysteries and the answers of the divine,
all the gigantic questions we have about God, life,
its meaning and purpose, and our place and destiny in creation.
There are all kinds of voices all around us.
Some of those voices are outside of us
and some are from within.
We are constantly bombarded by
the voices of talking heads,
of commentators crying out
for our attention.
These are voices that insist on
telling us what is really happening
and what should be done about it.
These are the voices that
make accusations and place demands on us,
that pass judgment even as they offer
their own self-justifications.
These are the voices that kindle
our anxiety and our anger
and tempt us with false promises
that we’ll feel better if we just deny
what is happening or blame it all on somebody else.
And then there are the voices inside of us
– voices of self-doubt, self-criticism,
and all the “would’ves, could’ve and should’ves”
These are the voices that can cause us
to question and to doubt
what is true, what is real,
and sometimes even
our identity and our significance.
The point of the lightshow is to declare
there is only one voice to listen to
– only one voice that has
the words of eternal life.
The voice of Jesus.
What if in the midst of all the noise
we sought to truly hear and carefully listen
to that one voice, the voice of Christ?
What if we kept our ears open to what
he is saying in our life and world today
and tuned out all those other voices?
Because Jesus is always speaking
a word larger and more powerful
than all the other voices.
In the midst of all the noise,
Jesus speaks a word of life,
a word of hope, a word of forgiveness,
a word of mercy, a word of beauty,
a word of generosity, a word of courage,
a word of love, a word of healing.
Jesus speaks a word to and for you and me.
Are we listening to that word, to his voice?
Because here on the mountaintop,
we hear the two most important words,
Jesus has to say to us. Did we hear them?
In the aftermath of all the fireworks, as Peter, James, and John
lie on the ground, their eyes shut, their bodies trembling, Jesus comes to them.
“But Jesus came…”
Jesus approaches them, not vice-versa. So, it always is with Jesus.
Again, this is part of the gift, the celebration that makes Christmas.
As we walk in darkness, the Light comes to us.
Notice, Matthew doesn’t just tell us
Jesus approached these cowering disciples,
he adds that Jesus “touched them.” (“…and touched them.”)
As we find ourselves afraid and lost in how to approach God,
our Father makes the first move and moves towards us,
reaching out like a parent to a frightened child
and touches us through the humanity of Jesus Christ.
Jesus then, extends two commands
– perhaps the two most important things
we need to listen to and hear – especially right now.
In the midst of all our concerns
– worries so bad that can’t help by close our eyes to them,
– fears so strong that they may even paralyze us,
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”
We are live with and haunted by some level of fear.
Change often brings about fear.
And thanks to COVID-19, we have been
and continue to live at a time of massive,
widespread change on multiple fronts.
10 months in and we’ll still reeling from change.
And what, more than anything else, is behind
most of our reactions and decisions to
all that has happened, to all that is still shifting – fear.
Jesus speaks into the heart of the human condition
– the plain and simple truth that
what drives us more than we care to admit it
are our fears – fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of rejection,
fear of the unknown, fear of death – the list goes on.
“Do not be afraid.” God says this to us a lot.
In fact, this instruction, this encouragement,
is given 365 times in the Bible.
One time for every day of the year.
Maybe we’d be better off starting each day
listening to that word from Jesus
before we hear anything else.
But these aren’t magic words from Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t simply tell us to snap out it and suck it up.
Jesus does not call us to be fearless.
Jesus doesn’t just tell us not to be afraid.
Jesus gives a reason – THE reason
– we don’t have to be afraid
– that we can be courageous
in the midst of change and
not let fear have the last word in our lives.
As Peter, James, and John had fallen to the ground
and were overcome by fear, Jesus came to them
and placing His hand on their shoulder,
directed them to “Get up.”
However, what Jesus says here is more than this.
A more literal translation would be
something like “be raised up,”
“wake up” or maybe even “be resurrected.”
The word Matthew uses here as
“Get up” is the same verb he uses when
• Jesus heals the paralytic, telling him, “Stand up” (Mt. 9:6-7);
• Jesus takes the hand of dead daughter of the synagogue leader,
“and the girl got up” (Mt. 9:25);
• Jesus instructs his twelve disciples to
go out and “Raise the dead” (Mt. 10:8);
• Jesus foretells his own resurrection
(Mt. 16:21; 17:9; 17:23; 20:19; 26:32);
• when the angel tells the women who come to Jesus’ tomb,
“He is not here for he has been raised, as he said” (Mt. 28:6).
Life in a broken world, in the age of COVID-19,
life on this side of eternity is not easy; it is hard.
We can and we will stumble and fall.
We will get overwhelmed and maybe even find ourselves paralyzed.
When we get knocked down,
we can struggle to get back up.
We struggle to get our feet back under us
and to regain our balance
– especially when our next steps are into the dark
– a future that is unknown to us.
But in whatever circumstances we find ourselves,
no matter how dark and uncertain it all gets,
Jesus comes to us, extends His hand,
telling us not to be afraid
as he calls us to get up,
to be raised up, to be resurrected.
In this simple command
leveraged on the weight of Christ’s glory,
rests the promise that even though we fall,
God has come in Jesus to lift us back up.
It’s the assurance that even when
we walk through the valley of
the shadow of death and it feels like
our life is over, we can and will rise again.
Jesus calls us to take the first step
into a new and changed life despite our fears.
And it’s a life we can live only because Jesus gives it to us,
only because Jesus is the Light that comes into our world,
the Light the darkness cannot overcome.
This new life begins as we are raised up
– as we let Jesus take us by the hand
and lean on Him not only to get back up
but to learn how to walk – how to follow Him
– into the future.
We call this story the Transfiguration of Jesus.
But the truth is, it really wasn’t Jesus who changed on the mountaintop.
Jesus didn’t change as much as it was briefly revealed
who Jesus is and has been all along – who Jesus will be forever and ever.
No, it wasn’t Jesus who changed on the mountaintop
as much as it was Peter, James, and John who began to be changed.
And we, like them, have been called to
listen to Jesus – to not be afraid and to be raised up
so that we can be changed to.
Where is Christ taking us?
We cannot say for certain.
All we know is that Jesus has come to lead us out of the darkness.
And such a journey will be an uphill battle.
It is a path of ascension that will be strenuous and demanding at times.
It is a road that will be marked with change
– with suffering and sacrifice but also with joy, peace, and everlasting hope.
Jesus will lead us to climb into places
beyond our everyday lives,
circumstances outside of our comfort zone
– things that may seem too enormous, too confusing,
too frightening for us to handle but that never
beyond His control or the exercise of His grace.
Beloved, it’s easy to get caught up in the light show
– to become absorbed by all the brightness and the glow of Jesus
– that we lose sight of the point of His Light
– that we end up just admiring the Light of Christ
but not actually following Him.
Instead, before the breathtaking illumination
of the infinite glory of God,
of our Creator who transcends time and space
and yet is not too big or too lofty
to reach out to us through
the finitude of a baby’s birth,
a child who will grow into the One
who, with his hand on our shoulder
and his voice in our ear saying, “Be not afraid,”
will raise us up
– from sin, from death, from every hell
let us listen to and follow Jesus.
Illumined by the divine light of Christ and filled with the Spirit,
let us become, let us live as a transfigured people
– by the Gospel of God, changed for the better
and by the grace of God, changing the world to be the best it can be. Amen.