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Free Sample for March 9, 2014
By David Howell
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Preaching Matthew 17:1-9
The Transfiguration is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark (9:2-8), and Luke (9:28-36), absent in John. Liturgically, this event in the life of Jesus serves as the bridge from the season of Epiphany to the season of Lent. In that regard, some homiletical reflection might turn toward what themes this story presents that make it the transitional story that it has been in the life of the church. Epiphany themes such as light, manifestation, revelation, and recognition are certainly at work in this pivotal event. Anticipating Lent, the Transfiguration points to our need for permanence, for wanted to keep God and Jesus with us, for our frequent misunderstanding and unwillingness to recognize God in what we do not understand or even reject.
For Matthew, Mark, Luke a primary function of the Transfiguration of Jesus is the public affirmation of Jesus’ identity by God, first acknowledged, of course at Jesus’ baptism. For both Mark and Luke, however, the words spoken from the heavens are second person singular, directed toward Jesus, thus suggesting that others are not able to hear the declaration of Jesus’ identity, "You are my Son, the Beloved." On the other hand, the baptism of Jesus in Matthew records God’s words in the demonstrative, third person singular, a very open claim about who Jesus is that is restated again in the Transfiguration, "This is my Son, the Beloved."
For all three Gospels, this event occurs after the confession of Peter and this juxtaposition highlights what the disciples want with and from Jesus and what will actually come to pass. The perception of the glory of God so evident in a theophany such as this mountaintop experience will be radically challenged in the revelation of God’s glory on the cross. While there are a number of similarities between the three Gospel accounts, tending to the possible function and meaning of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s version of the ministry of Jesus yields some key homiletical themes that might be explored in a sermon.
First, the importance and prominence of mountains in the Gospel of Matthew should not be overlooked. This mountain experience recalls the first public act of Jesus in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew introduces Jesus’ ministry not with a narration of a miracle of some sort, a healing, or an exorcism, but with a long discourse that serves to summarize what being a disciple of Jesus will entail. A sermon on the Transfiguration, therefore, might tie this event back to the setting and themes of the Sermon on the Mount. In addition, the end of Matthew will conclude with a final mountaintop encounter (28:16-20). Jesus comes to his disciples and speaks last words to his disciples, best known as the Great Commission. In other words, the setting of a mountain top for Matthew seems essential and occurs at critical places throughout the Gospel. To investigate and imagine the impact of setting on event would appreciate the importance of this geographical detail as not simply an indication of locale, but as making a theological claim.
Second, the variation on God’s words to Jesus at the Transfiguration compared to the Baptism of Jesus includes the command, "listen to him." The command to listen at this point in each of the Gospels is significant because Jesus will still have a lot to say before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. This is even more true for Matthew, who, as the longest of the four Gospels, will include sayings of Jesus that will demand hearing, especially for the sake of Matthew’s presentation of discipleship. Moreover, Matthew is the only Gospel that ends with Jesus speaking. As noted above, Jesus and his disciples meet for the last time in Galilee, and Jesus leaves them with words to live by. When the Great Commission is placed alongside of the Transfiguration, both events take on greater meaning and significance. The conclusive and definitive act of discipleship in Matthew is to listen to Jesus. Jesus will ask his disciples to obey all that he has commanded, which invites a "re-listening" or "re-hearing" of everything that Jesus has said up until this point. To listen to Jesus (17:5) is what it means to be a disciple now, but is also critical for what it means to be a disciple once Jesus has gone. Jesus is relying on the disciples’ having listened to him during all this time, not only to be believers, but also for the sake of being able to teach others about what Jesus has said. This places an emphasis on "listen to him."
One final homiletical lens through which to view the Transfiguration in Matthew again comes from Matthew’s final verses. To listen to Jesus, all the way through, but especially here and now at the end of the story, is critical on two levels. First, these last words are sending words for the disciples, words of promise that launch them into participation in God’s future. Second, they are extraordinary words of promise. Matthew brackets the entire story of Jesus with the assurance of God’s presence. Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, is now even possible beyond the confines of the narrative. Jesus vows to be with his disciples to the end of the age. Now that is a promise worth listening to.
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