Sermon: Ute Frühwirth
„Listen and Believe!“ – Matthew 17, 1-9
Today I want to take you on a trip we have been led through during the reading of the Gospel according to Mathew, 17, 1-9. I say travel because when I prepared for this sermon, I wound myself around the text verse for verse (I started the journey through the text) and now it is my feeling, that I pretty much understand the text and can recognize connections to other passages. I am also going to try to weave in the second reading from today, 2. Peter, Chapter 2. The text by Mathew is almost identical to the story in the Gospel of Mark Chapter 9 I find this very exciting, because the two texts complement each other, somewhat with their different formulations – but I will get to this later.
The sermon text begins with the following words, „Six days later, Jesus took Peter, Jacob and brother John with them and climbed to a higher mountain where they were all alone.“ These three disciples, Peter and the brothers Jacob and John, whom Jesus took to the mountain, Jesus wants to take to the Garden of Gethsemane in order to pray and guard, and they will witness how Jesus struggles and suffers. A clearer contrast to what is happening here in our history today. While I was reading the passage, I asked myself the question, „what happened six days ago? The time given in Mathew refers to a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Back then Jesus asked the question – Who do people think the Son of Man is? And Peter replied, „you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”. Peter had reached this conclusion six days earlier. In addition, Jesus spoke for the first time about his suffering and his death. I find this brief review for our further journey in the sermon text quite helpful and therefore worth mentioning.
Jesus takes his disciples up the mountain. It is not surprising that he takes them to a mountain. The high mountain is often a place to meet God. Many people go there to climb the mountain in order to be especially close to God. And there something unexpected happens. Jesus is transfigured in front of their eyes. Luther translated this, „transformed“ to, „transfigured“ . Here I had to explain to myself the term, „transfiguration “. Transfiguration means, “revelation”. It is the opening of something previously hidden. Mark reports about this happening, „and his clothes began to shine bright white, so bright like no other color on the earth could have made.“ This sentence shows me that people are left our here and only God can make this happen. And Mark adds something else to this, „his face began to shine like the sun,…“ And that is enough! „and then Moses and Elijah show up at the same time; the disciples saw how they both spoke with Jesus.“
So, enough is enough! Every human brain is overwhelmed. Jesus shines like the sun and talks with the two prophets about the Old Testament who encountered God on the mountain. Jesus stands here with the representatives from law and prophecy in a trusting triad. It is understandable that this happening is a little too much for the disciples. Even Peter recognizes the size of the moment and in my opinion acts very humanly – he wants to build huts. He makes Jesus a suggestion, „if you want, I will build three huts here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.“ Peter wants to keep this special, heavenly scenario that he offers to his two companions. We too! Even if our great happenings are not on the same level as the heavenly scenarios, we want to keep this image, take as many photos as possible so that we do not forget anything and so that we can tell our loved ones back home. I think that this is simply the nature of human beings – back then as well as today.
But Peter does not get an answer and now it is getting really heavy. A voice speaks from a bright cloud to the transfigured Jesus and to the resurrected prophets, „This is my beloved son. I am pleased with him and you should listen to him.“ These are the same words that God used at Jesus‘ christening. And now God personally appeared and confirms Jesus‘ identity – just like Peter had done six days earlier when he answered Jesus, „You are the Messiah“. God speaks about Jesus as his beloved son. The three disciples experience first-hand who Jesus is – God’s beloved son. And if we reflect a little then we can see the connection between this statement – you are my beloved son, and the announcement of suffering that Jesus made six days earlier. The disciples, who were also present should know; God acknowledges him as his, regardless of what could happen. At Jesus’s christening it remained unclear – whom the words of God were addressed. But in this situation on the mountain, the addressees are clear. It is the three disciples, representative of the later Christian community. And they get a clear assignment from God, „Listen to him!“. All the readers of the Gospel of Mathew it should be said, even if we were not present and did not see Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we know what we have to do – listen to his word! A clear assignment from God.
I’m returning to the story of the mountain because now the disciples are really having the rug pulled out from under them. „The voice shocked the disciples so much that they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground. Jesus walked to them, touched them and said: Stand up! You do not need to be afraid.“ Jesus touched them. Touching in frightening situations can work wonders. And also the words, „You do not need to be afraid“ – or „Do not be afraid“ can have an unbelievable healing effect. Jesus still says these words to us today. He touches us when we turn to him in times of fear. He embraces us through people who help us.
„And as they looked up, they did not see anyone but Jesus.“ What the three disciples saw and heard was a present of the moment, a view into reality? Back in the normality of their own lives they were alone again with Jesus. At first Jesus forbid them to talk to anyone about what had happened on the mountain. „Do not talk with anyone about what you have seen until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.“ How difficult it must have been for the three not to talk about what they had experienced. It also must have been difficult to hear again as Jesus spoke about his death. We will not learn about it because in the following verses they talk about Elijiah. – no word about what had happened. We do know how the story continues and we also know that the, „mountain experience“ that the disciples were allowed to make is a part of the Easter glory.
In the beginning of my sermon, I spoke about two passages that I wanted to weave together and here I do not mean the small mention of the Gospel of Mathew. So, the 2nd Peter Chapter 2 is missing. Here, Peter talks about the part that Jesus had forbidden in the Gospel of Mathew. The experience on the mountain. He gives a statement. He reports that he became Jesus’ eye and ear witness. And he claims that the story was not thought through cleverly. He reports in minute details how Jesus was honored by God his father and he talks about the voice of the highest majesty. What is of great importance to me, however, is Peter’s statement that no prophetic statement is the result of arbitrary considerations by the respective prophet. Peter describes it like this, „no prophecy has ever originated in the will of one person. Rather people, lead by the Holy Spirit, spoke on behalf of God.“ This statement is the proof for me that I can believe the words written in the Bible. It is not about taking everything read in the Bible literally. From experience we know, that this is not possible and that some statements and acts back then will be understood differently today. Neverthelss, I stick to my view: everything that I read from Jesus, I can believe because it has been given by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, I can fulfill God’s assignment, „listen to him“. I can listen to God’s son and ask myself again, „what would Jesus have done instead of me?“ II can ask him for help and he will touch me and take away my fear. And I can believe that all the stories are true and even if they surpass our human horizons, I can still believe them because they were written by people who were guided by the Holy Spirit.
In seven weeks we will celebrate East. Finally the disciples can report about what they experienced on the mountain. But we can talk today about what Jesus changed in us, what possibilities he shows us in our lives, what special stories are in the Bible, and how our life can be with Jesus at our side. We do not have to wait until the resurrection.