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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

March 2, 2014

On Running into God

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

              Every time I find myself face to face with an account like Matthew’s of The Transfiguration, a vision also recounted by Mark and Luke, I am reminded of my favorite scene from The Wizard of Oz.  Dorothy and her friends have gone to great lengths to get the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West, and wearing the ruby slippers, Dorothy returns to the Wizard, having risked her life to keep her end of the bargain.  She stands before the great Wizard, in the Emerald City, and he thunders his words to her, telling her he cannot fulfill his promise.  She is struck with disbelief and outrage, but just at this moment, Toto runs to a curtain on the side and pulls the curtain back, exposing the so-called Wizard as a kindly fake, an inept and fearful old man.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” he intones in one of the all-time most memorable movie lines!  But the gig is up for the great Wizard of Oz, he is found out, the curtain has been pulled back, and we see him for who he really is.

             In a sense, this is what happens on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Admittedly, it is a strange encounter even by New Testament standards!  It is, in fact, an apocalyptic passage, which is a word that means “revelation.”  That is why we also call the Book of Revelation, The Apocalypse of John.  Apocalyptic passages pull back the curtain, or lift the veil, to reveal what is normally hidden.  Jesus Himself refers to this moment as a “vision” when he instructs Peter, James and John to tell no one of it “until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”  But what this vision does is to pull back the curtain, if only for a few moments, to give us a glimpse of who Jesus really is.

             We know of this strange vision only because Peter, James and John told the Gospel writers of it.  Jonathan Edwards reminded his congregation in Northampton  that what the Bible offers is the testimony of reliable witnesses.  Here, Peter, James and John are sharing with us an event that they could not have fully understood.  Yet they give testimony to what they saw and heard upon that mountain.

             Matthew and Mark begin their accounts with the phrase, “Six days later…,” and we ask, “Six days later than what?”  Well, some writers note that there are six days of creation that precede the institution of the Sabbath.  And Moses waited six days upon Sinai for the glory of the Lord to be revealed.  But here it may also be six days after Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

             There is so much going on in this revelatory vision!  We could spend all morning pondering its depth and mystery.  Let’s not build three booths this morning, though, and linger on the mountain of this apocalyptic vision too long!

             Let’s note first, though, that this vision, this revelation, does take place upon a mountaintop.  Biblical visions often do.  It was, after all, upon Mount Sinai that Moses encountered Yahweh in a cloud, and there he received the Ten Commandments.  And it was upon Mount Moriah that Abraham offered his son, his only son, Isaac up to God, only to have God provide a ram in his place.  And it is also upon a mountain that Jesus begins His teaching ministry in Matthew, and on a mountain that Matthew ends his Gospel, with Jesus offering the Great Commission.  It is the only Gospel that ends with Jesus talking, and it is on a mountain where He gives to the Church its great mission.

             Have you ever been on top of a mountain where it seemed like you could see forever?  I stood atop Mount Kilimanjaro on a July morning in 1998 as the sun was rising in the east.  It was so clear that morning that you could see Mount Kenya, over two hundred miles away, in clear view.  I will never forget that mountaintop experience as long as I live.  And when Josh was in junior high and Sarah was in grade school, we climbed Mount LeConte in our own State of Tennessee.  That night, with not a cloud in the sky, with stars shining brightly, it looked like you could reach out and touch the city lights of Knoxville that shimmered below.  There was no haze, no fog, no trees in the way, and crystal clear air.  This is one of those mountaintop moments of revelation, where the disciples are permitted to see Jesus with utter clarity, and to hear as clearly the voice from heaven.

             That is the second thing I would like us to note.  God speaks upon the mountain.  The vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus bathed in light was something that transcended all boundaries of space and time, all boundaries of human experience.  For a moment, it was as if all the law and all the prophets came together to point to Jesus.  In his masterpiece that hangs in the Vatican Museum of this event, The Transfiguration, painted in 1519 and 1520, Rafael shows these three figures suspended in the air, bathed in heavenly light, but he places Jesus in the middle, more to the fore, and hence, larger than Moses and Elijah.

             The moment passes when “a bright cloud” overshadows them, and from that cloud comes the voice of God, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with Him I am well pleased; listen to Him!”  In the Gospels, the voice is in the second person at Jesus’ baptism.  Presumably only Jesus heard it.  “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  But here in The Transfiguration it is in the third person.  It is public pronouncement.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with Him I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

             It has the force of a command.  “Obey Him!”  The command to listen to Jesus at this point in each of the Gospels is significant because Jesus will still have a lot to say before His arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.  And in Matthew, Jesus will end with words to live by, spoken from another mountaintop: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”  We are to listen to Jesus.  Indeed, this may be the conclusive and definitive mark of being a disciple: listening to Jesus, obeying all that He has commanded.  There surely is no voice and no word that is more important for us to listen to than that of Jesus.

             In The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tale, Aslan, the lion who is Lewis’ Christ figure, stands upon the mountain and says to his followers, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly.  I will not often do so down in Narnia.  Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken.”

             We know about air that thickens so that you cannot see and can no longer hear.  The air in our age is thick with that which limits our vision and our ability to listen.  But Peter in 2 Peter 1:17 reminds us, “We ourselves heard His voice from heaven, while we were with Him on the holy mountain.”  “Listen to Him!”  It may be the most important and life-giving words you ever heed.  Of all the voices and all the words that clammer for your attention, none are so crucial to hear because none are as life-giving and true.  “Listen to Him!”

             Finally, we are told the disciples fell down in fear.  I bet they did!  But in Matthew, Jesus comes and touches them, saying to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  “And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.”  Only Matthew uses the reflexive pronoun, “Jesus Himself alone.”  And only Matthew tells us that Jesus touched them.  In Matthew we are also told that we shall call Him “Emmanuel, which means God with us.”  Calvin says that this is the genius of God.  “Does anything quell our fears more perfectly than the touch of Jesus?  God, whose greatness is so grand that not even the heavens could hold it, comes down to touch us, and to still our fears.”

             I mentioned Rafael’s painting of The Transfiguration.  It is, of course, a priceless treasure.  But in 2012, a black chalk sketch of a face Rafael did in preparing this grand painting, called simply Head of an Apostle, went on sale.  People estimated its value at anywhere from $16 to $24 million dollars.  But when it was auctioned, it went for $47.8 million!  All of this was because it was done by the master painter Rafael.  The touch of the master’s hand created a treasure.

             And Jesus’ touch makes treasures of us, His people.  “Listen to Him!”  “In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  “Listen to Him!”  “Be wise as serpents; be harmless as doves.”  “Listen to Him!”  “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  “Listen to Him!”  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  “Listen to Him!”  “Get up and do not be afraid.”  “Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”


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