Down From Up


Matthew 17:1-9

I wonder sometimes, if we haven’t lost our sense of awe when we gather for worship on Sunday mornings. Worship is pretty serious business. We gather here, Sunday after Sunday, to intentionally put ourselves into the presence of the living God, and when we do that, there ought to be a sense of awe and fear, and perhaps even dread. But I use the word “dread” very hesitantly this morning, and not without a bit of fear and trepidation on my own part. Dread is a feeling that most of us would just as soon avoid. It isn’t a pleasant sensation, and if we all anticipated experiencing a sense of dread Sunday after Sunday, we’d probably all stop coming to church. But a sense of dread actually has a positive side, especially when we gather for worship. It helps us to put ourselves and our hearts into a clearer perspective. And that’s because God is holy and just, and we are not. And the reality is that when an unholy and an unjust people deign to position themselves in the presence of Almighty God, we come as intruders and as interlopers. On our own merit, we have no business coming into the awesome and holy presence of God. We do not belong there.

And yet, in a glorious and wonderful and mysterious paradox, even though we do not belong in the presence of God, and even though we have no business being in the presence of God, we are consistently invited to come, and we are always welcome when we come. And it is always God who does the inviting and the welcoming. And that’s where the sense of awe ought to enter in when we gather for worship. We don’t belong here, but we are always invited and always welcome. And I hope to demonstrate that as we work through our passage this morning.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the Transfiguration of our Lord comes not long after Peter’s enthusiastic proclamation that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. And because Peter has made this bold proclamation, he earns a tremendous affirmation from Jesus. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” And it gets much better than that, but we don’t have time to go into all of that this morning, you’ll just have to check it out on your own.

But then the tide is quickly turned, and Jesus begins to talk about his own suffering and death, and Peter will have none of this. It is inconceivable to Peter that a Messiah could die, and Peter makes this plain to Jesus. Which, unfortunately, on the heels of a tremendous affirmation, leads to what is probably the hardest rebuke in all of the Scriptures. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” If ever there was a moment when Peter felt unworthy and unholy and unjust that was probably it. Later on, Peter will also say and do some more unholy and unjust things as Jesus’ trial progresses, but that simply serves as a reminder to us that though we do not belong, we are always invited and always welcome when we come into the presence of God. In spite of all of Peter’s foolishness and stupidity, the original affirmation from Jesus still held and overcame all of his unworthiness. Such is the nature of God, and that is why we come with awe and wonder, and maybe even dread when we gather for worship.

But there’s one problem, and that needs to be cleared up and straightened out. Peter and the rest of the disciples are looking for a messiah, and they’re convinced that they’ve found that messiah in Jesus. It’s just that they have the wrong idea of the kind of messiah that Jesus is. Peter and the disciples are looking for a political messiah. They’re looking for a messiah who will straighten out their messed up world. We could say that they’re looking for a president who will take control and make everything all better again. But Jesus is not a messiah who will transform or reform political structures, he’s a messiah who will transform the hearts and lives of individuals. And the disciples need to learn this in a big way.

And so Jesus chooses and invites three of his disciples, Peter, James and John to go with him to the top of a high mountain. These three are what we would call the inner circle of the disciples, but that doesn’t really afford them any special status. They aren’t the elite, because in God’s kingdom, there are no elite persons, just sinners saved by grace. I think I’ve made that pretty clear already this morning.

But Peter especially needs to learn about Jesus, because he’s been bold enough to express wrong ideas, and James and John are probably two guys who Jesus knows are reasonably receptive to learning the truth about Jesus.

Once up on the mountain, something completely awesome and amazing, and dare I say dreadful, happens to the disciples. They watch as Jesus is transfigured before them. Matthew says that Jesus’ face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Pretty pathetic words to describe what really happened, but words are all we have, and we’ve got to be content with them. Just know that it was far more amazing and awesome than words can describe. This was Jesus in all of his divine glory, and words cannot describe divine glory, any more than we can make ourselves worthy to come into the presence of God. This is clearly a divine invitation.

And then to complicate things further, and to add to the fear and wonder, Moses and Elijah showed up, two of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Much has been written about the significance of the appearance of these two men on the mountain, but I’ll not go there this morning because our topic is awe and wonder and amazement and dread in the presence of God, and these two fellows add to that sense pretty powerfully.

I don’t know how he did it, but in the midst of all of this awesomeness, Peter manages to speak. He recognizes, as he needed to, that he is in a very holy place. A place in which he has never been, and a place where he now knows he does not belong. But he also knows that it is a very important place into which he has been invited. And he wants to mark that spot. He wants to honor the sacredness of the place, and so he wants to build some kind of sanctuary, to set it aside for future use and remembrance. And what’s so wrong with that? It is a grand tradition in the Old Testament to mark a sacred spot, or to build a holy altar in a place where something sacred and holy happened. And we do exactly the same thing today. We mark spots where sacred and holy things happen. That’s why we erect these great and soaring edifices; buildings that look nothing else like anything around them to remind us, and to demonstrate to everyone else that holy things happen here. We bandy the word “sanctuary” about as if it means “big room where we have church,” but sanctuary means so much more than that. Sanctuary means holy place set aside for holy purposes. It is the place to which we flee, week after week to escape the unholy and unjust world in which we live. It is the place that God invites us and welcomes us to come into his presence however unworthy we may be, or feel that we are unworthy. Sanctuary is the place where we can develop a sense of holy awe as we come into God’s glorious and loving and welcoming presence.

But before Peter can get very far with his intention to build a sanctuary, God shows up. And when that happens, the disciples are completely undone. That is a totally appropriate response for everyone who encounters the presence of God. When we come to worship, we may be able to keep our composure, and stay in our seats, but our hearts ought to be completely undone. Matthew tells us that a bright cloud settled on the mountain. Throughout the Scriptures, God never takes a cab, but he does frequently ride in a cloud. Jesus himself ascended into heaven on a cloud after his resurrection, and he’s promised to return that way also. There should be no question in our minds about the divinity of Jesus, or about his humanity, for that matter. He’s both.

But as the cloud settled on the mountain, there came a voice from it. And the voice said, this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Listen to him. In that phrase there’s a ton of stuff. There’s listen to him, because he has my words, listen to him because he will teach you my ways, and listen to him, because you must obey him.

But what I want to finish up with this morning has to do with something that happens here every Sunday when we gather for worship, and it is one of the most important parts of our worship service. It is grand to come here and greet one another. It is grand to sing hymns and to hear the organ. The choir is always awesome, and from time to time, the sermon is pretty good, too. But one of the most important aspects of our worship together is what happens during the Prelude. that’s when I ask you to read through the passages of Scripture that are part of our worship. I ask us to pray, I ask us to meditate, and I ask us to allow God to speak to our hearts. And that part of the service is absolutely critical, because it is so important that we hear from Jesus before we hear from Wayne. What Jesus has to say is far more important than what Wayne has to say. Jesus has the words of God. Listen to him, learn from him, and obey him.

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