This sermon was preached for Bedford United Church on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Based on Matthew 17:1-9, Gospel for Transfiguration Sunday, Year A. Sermon begins at 40:00 on video.
This season we’ve been exploring stories of call. Calls that were unexpected—like Samuel hearing an unfamiliar voice in the dark. Calls that challenged our old identities and sense of security with new dreams—like Simon Peter or Elsa of Arendelle. Calls that might have surprised those around us, but not the God who created us—like Mary of Magdala.
And today we have another story of call.
Jesus, with his most problematic disciples (Simon Peter, James and John), heads up to the top of a mountain, to a sacred place. While there amidst the sun and the wind they encounter God’s presence.
My favourite part of this scene is not the beatific face of Jesus, or the awesome cameo with Moses and Elijah. No, my favourite part is the voice of God declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
This is my son; LISTEN TO HIM!
What in the world did that voice sound like? Every time I read it the tone changes. Listen to him…listen to him…listen to him!
Listen to him? But, who? Who is supposed to be listening?
Let’s look at our suspect list… it’s probably not Moses and Elijah. They’ve done a pretty decent job of following orders so far, and besides they disappear right after that—so let’s cross them off our list.
Well, who else is there? Peter? James? John?
Possibly. But we said this is a call story, and Peter and the brothers have already had their call stories. We talked about Peter’s the other day, and James and John’s take place around the same time in the text. Plus, they havebeen listening, right? I mean, they followed Jesus….
I mean, Peter has been trying. Really hard. He’s fighting his instincts the whole way.
Six days before the story we’re reading, Jesus asks his followers, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter, the keener, declares, “You’re the messiah,” the anointed one, “the son of the Living-God”![i] Nice, good job. Gold star!
Then, right afterward, Jesus explains that he is going to go to Jerusalem where he’ll be mistreated, where he’ll suffer at the hands of the authorities, and where he’ll eventually be killed. Peter tries to take Jesus aside and says, “No way! God’s not going to do that. That can’t happen to you!”
And what does Jesus say to him? … “Get behind me Satan!”[ii] Poor, Peter.
But, as much as Peter gets things wrong, he is listening; he’s just struggling to come to terms with what Jesus is saying and his own hopes and dreams. Because they don’t mesh.
If anyone in this room has gone through a worldview shift before you know how challenging that can be. You learn a new truth about the world and it changes the way you see everything. You need to start sorting through your mental file boxes and crossing stuff out, editing your life story. Then, later on something new will pop up and you’ll realize you’ve even more mental paperwork to do!
The first significant worldview shift I remember is realizing as a kid that my dad didn’t know everything. I asked him whether the province reuses license plate numbers, like when you get to ZZZ 999 do you go back to AAA 000? And, you know what he said? “I don’t know.” Absolutely devastating; changed my entire outlook on life!
There was life before, and then there was life after.
So Peter is struggling, but I do truly believe he is listening.
We make fun of him (I mean I make fun of him) because Peter’s always making a fool of himself. But, he does it in the same way as a person who wants so desperately to get it right that they don’t mind asking stupid questions; or falling down; or messing up. Peter’s determination to understand is admirable. And, though Jesus can be snappy with him at times, he is also compassionate and tender.
This is my son; LISTEN TO HIM!
Listen to him? Who?
Well, there’s only one other person here on the mountaintop … you!
You, yes, you! The voice of God in the text, could it be speaking to the listener?
Some scholars describe Matthew as a love letter to new Christians. The author is constantly breaking the fourth wall, looking directly at the hearer and asking: Do you get it!? Do you see what you need to do!?
I can imagine the author looking at me and saying: Can you be like Peter? Can you put aside your old dreams and preconceptions? Can you make way for new life? It’ll be hard, I’ve warned you of that. But I didn’t write “take up your cross and it’ll be a picnic”![iii]
The story brings us to the mountaintop to affirm Jesus’ identity, to make it clear just who we’d be following. And, the voice of God-the-Parent makes this plea: Listen to him, you know who he is now, you know whose calling you, you can trust him.
We’re not like Samuel lying on our mat in the dark wondering whose voice it is. The author tries to make sure we don’t have a doubt in our minds. Nevertheless, he also recognizes that it’s scary. The disciples are in the dust, trembling. And besides, they don’t even get to stay up on the mountain, no they’re headed to Jerusalem next, and some pretty tough stuff.
Well, I appreciate that the Gospels don’t tell us: If you follow Jesus everything will be fine. I’m sorry if that’s the Gospel you were hoping would be preached today. But, I have a feeling you already knew….
Because life is a wonderful but challenging thing. It sometimes seem easier to shut ourselves off because of the difficulties and the pain. And maybe you’ve even been in a place like that before, trying to isolate or insulate yourself from life. Making the move from that place of deprivation and despair into the possibility of new life is a stinking difficult one; it’s brave, and it’s not a guarantee that everything will be alright.
Goodness, Matthew doesn’t even always make a compelling argument for following Jesus. There’s all sorts of bad stuff he warns you will come as a result of it.
But, then we’ve got Jesus who reaches out his hand to those kneeling in the dust, saying…
“Stand up. Don’t be afraid.”[iv]
But why? Why shouldn’t I be afraid if I have every good reason to be? Let me be level with you, BUC, I often am. Life is a scary thing, and being called by God can be even scarier.
“Stand up. Don’t be afraid.”[v]
Why? … because I’m here with you … because I’ll always be with you … because you’re part of my family now.
Isn’t that what Baptism is? We’re saying, “Hey you, you’re part of our family. We take responsibility for loving you, guiding you, and teaching you all about this new way of life.” And Confirmation? That’s a bunch of outrageous folks saying, “Yeah, give me more of that new life! I am here for it! I am not done yet!”
We’ve been going through different call stories, and the entire Gospel of Matthew is a call story. It’s our call story. The author is urging us to take up the way of Jesus despite how hard and counterintuitive it might seem.
And Jesus assures us we’ll have company for the road, he calls any who do God’s work family.[vi]
Let me tell you, this past year has been a painfully challenging one for me. The burdens were heavy, and they kept coming. There was a point where I just knew I couldn’t take care of myself and the other people who were depending on me. That kind of burden locks you down, it’s paralyzing. And, I’ll admit I can be proud—because that’s how society tells us we should be. We shouldn’t need to ask for help. We shouldn’t need to adjust our load. Just grin and bear it.
But that is a toxic lie. And I feel so incredibly lucky that I had family—biological, chosen and given-by-God—to help carry the load, to divide up that burden. Because, here’s the incredible thing about our call: God doesn’t call us to things we’re unable to accomplish, and God doesn’t expect us to do it alone.
Jesus didn’t say “Stand up. Don’t be afraid,”[vii] and then stand there with him arms crossed like a jerk. No! He called his brothers to him and extended his hand with compassion and tenderness. And, he called them together, to care for one another.
As part of Jesus’ family, as little Christs trying to replicate his great example, we’re called to do the same—to listen, to stand up, and to live despite our fears. And we’re called to echo that invitation to tell our fellow family members in this kin-dom of God: Stand up. Don’t be paralyzed by your fear and your burdens. Let me help you carry the load. We are both called to something more than this. Let’s go and see, together.
Can you do that? I think you can. It’s brave, and it’s awkward, but I truly believe you can do it. Because God doesn’t call you to work you can’t accomplish, and God doesn’t ask you to do it alone.
And the people all said: Amen.