A sermon on Matthew 17:1-9
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
By Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
February 23, 2020 – The Transfiguration of the Lord (A)
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
I’ve been reading this week about ways in which scientists are producing renewable energy through human movement. Specifically, there is a field of study called – and I hope I pronounce this right – piezoelectricity.[i] It’s more technical than I understand, but here’s what I gathered – Piezoelectricity is the electric charge created when certain materials are put under pressure or heat.[ii] Here’s where it gets interesting – that means that roads and walkways can be made out of these materials, and the simple pressure of people’s footsteps produces electricity. There’s a train station in Tokyo,[iii]for instance, that has these special sidewalks that, when people walk across them, produce enough energy to power all of the lights and electric signage for that train station. There’s a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro that’s powered by the pounding footsteps of the fans at the nearby soccer field. Locations in London and D.C. are implementing this power for streetlights. California has plans to use this technology in the roads in Los Angeles; they think that the rumble of L.A. traffic alone can power up to half of their state.
But here’s the catch about this type of electricity: you can implant these materials in the roads all you want, but if the road goes unused, then it doesn’t work. For it to work, there has to be movement. People have to walk, cars have to drive, things have to go. Movement and pressure and heat are what make this a reality. It’s can’t just sit there.
Being a Christian is pretty similar.
Jesus takes his three closest friends up to the top of a mountain so that they can see what his power is really about. He’s transformed before them, shining like the sun, dazzling in his glory. Next to him appear Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets of Israel. The message is clear: this isn’t just their pal Jesus…this is God incarnate, glorious to behold, the culmination of all that God has promised through the centuries. This is the Messiah.
Peter, understandably, wants to bask in this religious glory, and so he says: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter is doing what we all do from time to time – he wants to put walls around an experience, to bottle a feeling and domesticate an emotion so that he doesn’t have to say goodbye. It’s the same feeling you get on a really good vacation that you don’t want to leave. I was in San Francisco for the first time years ago and fell in love – the scenery, the people, the food, all of it. I loved it so much I wanted to put walls around it. Like Peter, I thought that it was very good to be there, and perhaps I should look into making a dwelling. So, I half seriously started looking at apartment prices and was quickly jolted out of any notion of settling down just yet.
Peter doesn’t have online real estate to dissuade him; instead he gets a voice coming from a great cloud declaring that Jesus is God’s son and so Peter should listen to him. Peter and James and John fall down in fear, and we only have to look at the previous chapters of Matthew to see why. God says to listen to Jesus, and in the first 16 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus goes around doing things like healing lepers, calming storms, casting out demons, raising a kid from the dead, feeding thousands of people, walking on water, and foretelling his own resurrection. Jesus is a guy on the move. And the things he says are even more intense. Listen to him, the heavenly voice says, and Jesus has been saying terrifying things like Repent! Turn the other cheek! Go the extra mile! Keep asking, seeking, knocking! Follow me! Y’all, none of these things are particularly easy things to do – so of course the disciples fall down in fear. If this is the Messiah, if this is who they are to listen to, life isn’t going to be easy.
This kind of discipleship isn’t sitting in a pew once a week. It’s not just fun fellowship events. It’s not only a peaceful Bible study. It’s certainly not building walls and dwellings around holy experiences and trying to stay there. The faith of the transfiguration is one that requires movement, pressure, heat. Like those fancy scientific sidewalks we talked about, transformed faith doesn’t work if it just sits there. There has to be movement.
If a faith that’s on the move scares you, then you are in good company. It scared Peter. It scares me, sometimes. It would be nice to just kick back where we are and have a comfortable Jesus, but we’re called to so much more than that. And so, when the clouds clear and Peters and James and John are trembling in the dirt, Jesus does such a beautiful thing – he reaches out and touches them. “Get up and do not be afraid,” he says. And when they look up, all they see is Jesus.
I want you to notice, they move again – they all go back down the mountain to minister to the people, which is exactly what a faith that moves should do. But Jesus knows it’s not easy. He knows it’s a little scary. He knows that when the road ahead of us is exhausting or uncertain, it makes us anxious. And so, when we’re expected to listen to his lessons about moving throughout the world, he’s also there reaching out, telling us not to be afraid. Jesus has this incredible ability to challenge and comfort us all at once.
Our faith is not designed to dwell in one place – not even a good place. Our faith is not meant to be contained inside of buildings – even good buildings. Our faith should transform us, should help us to see who Jesus is, should serve the people around us, and should move. Without movement, without change, it doesn’t work. And God is right there, leading us and comforting us and telling us to listen. If we are to be transformed, if we are to be faithful, then we have to be willing to be in motion. It’s scary, it’s holy, and it’s what we’re called to do to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piezoelectricity [ii] Piezoelectricity is the electric chargethat accumulates in certain solid materials (such as crystals, certain ceramics, and biological matter such as bone, DNA and various proteins) in response to applied mechanical stress. The word piezoelectricity means electricity resulting from pressure and latent heat. It is derived from the Greek word πιέζειν; piezein, which means to squeeze or press, and ἤλεκτρον ēlektron, which means amber, an ancient source of electric charge. [iii] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-39934323