Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our text for today is the Gospel Reading from Matthew 17:1-9. We will be paying particular attention to verses 7-8, which read: But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only (Matthew 17:7-8).
2. Over the last couple of weeks, my family and I were on vacation visiting family in both Indiana and Florida. In our travels, we drove approximately 3,500 miles. The majority of our drive was uneventful and routine, as far as road trips go. But there were three moments in particular from the drive which stand out as especially stressful and challenging. One was driving on Interstate 90 through a mild snow storm in northern Ohio. Another was driving on Interstate 95 through moderate rain and fog in New Jersey. And the last was navigating rush hour traffic in downtown New York City (which was by far my least favorite part of our drive!). As I mentioned, most of our 60-ish hour drive was uneventful and routine. On a lot of the drive, there was plenty of talking, listening to podcasts, and even occasionally listening to music. But during these three particularly stressful and challenging moments, it was time to pause all conversations, turn off all the distractions, and focus on the road only. You never know where there might be an unexpected slick spot or who might randomly slam on their breaks right in front of you (which, by the way, happened quite a bit more often on the East Coast than it did in the Midwest…I’ll let you decide what that says about East Coast drivers…). But in all seriousness, In those moments of extra stress and challenge, it’s vital to ensure that you are prepared to get rid of the distractions and focus on nothing but the road only.
3. I’m convinced that this is one of the more significant lessons to take away from this account of the transfiguration of our Lord. A look at the context surrounding this account in will highlight what I mean. Our text for today comes from the first nine verses of Matthew chapter 17. If you turn back to chapter 16, you’ll see that a couple of important things happen, which setup our text. Beginning in Matthew 16:13, we read about Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. This is a highly significant moment where Peter, so to speak, “gets it right” concerning who Jesus is. In the section which immediately follows, beginning in 21, something else important happens. Jesus tells his disciples about his impending death and subsequent resurrection. But Peter isn’t too keen on the idea of Jesus suffering and dying, so he says to Jesus, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). But Jesus responds to Peter with a strong rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). Peter went from “getting it right” with his confession of Jesus as the Christ to “getting it incredibly wrong” in the span of 7 verses. And what is it that caused this? It was Jesus foretelling his suffering and death. Peter did not want his Lord to suffer—he wanted to avoid suffering and pain at all costs. But Jesus follows up his rebuke of this attitude in Peter by telling his disciples in the verses immediately following: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). The way of Jesus is the way of suffering. Peter know this. He may not like it, but he knows this. The way of Jesus is the way of suffering. This is why we’re told shortly after Luke’s account of the transfiguration that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). Upon leaving the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus has one intent only: to go to the cross where he would suffer and die for the sins of the world.
4. As we come to our text, it’s clear that Peter certainly doesn’t know all of the details of how this will play out, but he should have a pretty good idea of what’s coming. Peter knows that Jesus is the Christ—that is to say, Jesus is God’s anointed one who came to save his people. Peter knows that Jesus must suffer and die—he just got reprimanded for opposing Jesus on this point. Peter knows that the way of Jesus is the way of suffering. He knows, at least in some sense, what is to come for Jesus. And so, as Peter, James, and John are with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, we see Peter do what he can to try to stop (or at least put off) Jesus’ impending suffering. He says, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17:4). That is to say, Peter wants to setup some tents and stay a while. In Luke’s account of the transfiguration, we’re told the timing of when Peter said this. In Luke 9:33 we’re told that it was as the men were parting from [Jesus] that Peter made this statement. In other words, Peter wanted to prolong the moment. Peter wanted to avoid the suffering that would come when they left the mountain.
5. In a similar way to the manner in which Peter was rebuked by Jesus in the previous chapter, we see the voice of God the Father come onto the scene to rebuke Peter once again: He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). The issue is that Peter needs to listen to Jesus. He needs to accept that suffering is the reason why Jesus came to this world. And when the time of Jesus’ suffering would inevitably come, Peter needed to be prepared in that stressful and challenging moment to get rid of the distractions and focus on nothing but Jesus only. And amazingly, for one short moment while on the Mount of Transfiguration, this is what happened: But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only (Matthew 17:7-8). They saw no one but Jesus only. That’s almost as if to say Peter, James, and John didn’t even see each other for that moment—they were focused on Jesus only.
6. The way in which all of this applies to us is very real. We’re not all that different from Peter. We focus too much on ourselves and our desire to avoid suffering and pain at all costs. So many of the decisions we make are made so that we avoid pain and suffering—but we’re almost always short-sighted in this. We don’t want the pain of going to the dentist, so we avoid it, thus making the pain worse in the long run. We don’t want the pain of a disagreement with a loved one, so we look the other way until the problem blows up in our face. We don’t want the pain of being rejected by our friends for our Christian convictions, and so we compromise, thus making it worse in the long run. We have made ourselves into our own god. And as the psalmist says: The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply (Psalm 16:4a). Or, as the author of Proverbs says: Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones (Proverbs 3:7-8). When we seek to please ourselves only and to meet our supposed “needs” at the expense of faithfulness to the Lord, it does not end well. In the words of the psalmist, our sorrows…shall multiply. But when we do fear the Lord and turn away from evil, it is a benefit, even a refreshment, to us in this life, even if all we can see at the time is pain and suffering.
7. But as we see from the example of Jesus, the Christian life cannot avoid pain and suffering. The way of Jesus is the way of suffering. Jesus willingly embraced pain and suffering in this life because he wasn’t short-sighted. He knew that a short time of his own pain and suffering would mean a lifetime of joy and freedom for you and me. As we will see in the coming weeks, Jesus willingly chose the way of suffering and death on the cross for you. He chose to suffer on your account so that you might live with him for all of eternity. And so, beginning next Sunday, we will move into a new season of the church year—a short three-week season of preparation for Lent. We will begin shifting our focus away from Epiphany—we will shift our focus away from the glorious manifestation of Jesus’ divine glory to the world. We will shift our focus instead to the sufferings and death of Jesus, which paradoxically have won eternal life for us. It is only through Jesus suffering and death that we experience true, eternal healing and refreshment.
8. But as we prepare for the long, penitential season of Lent, we are given one final glorious manifestation of Jesus divine glory. In fact, in the transfiguration of our Lord, we see the ultimate manifestation of Jesus’ divine glory. In this vision, we see Jesus for who he is. He is the God of Israel. He has become flesh for us men and for our salvation. He is the God that we can look to, even during the most difficult times of our life, because he is always there to sustain us in our pain and suffering with his words, “Have no fear.” Jesus has conquered the power of sin and the devil through his death on the cross, Jesus has conquered the power of death and the grave through his resurrection on Easter morning, and so, we have no reason to fear. Like the disciples, this text helps to prepare us for the stressful and challenging moments we will face in life by teaching us to focus on Jesus only. When we focus on Jesus only, we won’t experience less pain and suffering in this world, but the suffering and pain which we do experience will be easier to bear because Jesus will be with us reminding us of the joys of eternal life with him which we have to look forward to. One of the ways in which we can ensure that we are focused on Jesus only is to start and end our day in prayer and God’s Word. There are a number of resources available to make this easier. If you want something short and simple, you can use the short Portals of Prayer devotions, which you receive in your mailbox every quarter. If you want something a little bit more involved, you can use the daily lectionary printed in the back of your bulletin or the accompanying Treasury of Daily Prayer. If you want something focused more on our service readings which can be used individually or as a family, you may want to consider using the Lenten devotional guide, which our elders are putting together and will be published weekly through the Lenten season beginning next week. Whatever route you choose, I pray that the Lord would strengthen you in your walk through this life as you focus on Jesus only.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.