28 Now about eight days later Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
They say you should never meet your heroes and I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of meeting some great public figure and discovering what they’re like as a private person – it’s often very different from their public persona, sometimes rather disappointing. And that’s because each of us has a private us and a public us. And they can be quite different. That’s partly because self-preservation means we are unwise to show our full selves in public. It’s partly, perhaps, because we’re not very confident of our private selves and prefer to show the world a more confident, together person than we really feel inside. But it’s also partly because our public persona is not entirely of our own making. How we are perceived in public depends on other people – how they see us, how they interpret us, based on their own expectations, experience and world view. Though Robert Burns is my favourite poet, I’m not entirely sure he’s right in wanting to see ourselves as others see us, because they interpret us through their own baggage. How others see us can be very different from the people we really are.
Simon Peter thought he knew Jesus very well. He had followed him around for three years since that day on the beach when Jesus first called him (I know we only read it three weeks ago, but today’s episode is three years later) and he had spent almost every day of those three years in Jesus’ company. And in the preceding verses, prior to today’s Gospel reading, he had thought he had worked out who Jesus really was – the Messiah, the great King promised by God through the prophets, who would restore Israel and bring peace to the world. He was probably feeling pretty smug because he had just discovered the most important thing there is to know about Jesus.
But immediately after that, with breathless haste, several things happen that make him feel that he hardly knows Jesus at all. Firstly, Jesus responded to Peter blowing his cover about being the Messiah with some weird talk about being arrested and dying, then coming back to life. Hanging around Jesus, I imagine you got used to him saying some pretty weird, unexpected stuff, so after a while I suppose you tend to gloss over it after a while.
But now there was an experience he couldn’t gloss over. He’s up a mountain with Jesus and his appearance changes. And suddenly he is in the presence of the two towering figures of Jewish history: Moses and Elijah, the supreme representatives of the Law and the Prophets that pointed the way to the Messiah. This is not normal, even by Jesus’ standards. Peter is learning something new about Jesus.
Now, I’ve often commented, that people when they met Jesus were first struck, not by how godly he was, but by how human he was. He didn’t go around with a kind of other-worldly glow, or the kind of unblinking eyes and spooky manner portrayed in Jesus of Nazareth. He didn’t look as though he had dropped out of heaven. He looked remarkably ordinary. He was simply the most human person anyone had met.
Yet now, on the mountain top, Peter, James and John were witnessing another side to Jesus: his divinity. And they were not expecting it. You might have thought they would have twigged because of the miracles, but prophets performed miracles too. Jesus’ miracles were not a sign of his divinity, but rather a sign of his faith, his closeness to God. You might have expected them to have assumed he was divine because he was the Messiah, but up to this point, no-one expected the Messiah to be divine. They just expected a remarkable king, not God himself. This was a twist in the plot they never expected, yet could not deny (and if you read Peter’s two letters in the New Testament, you can hear him explain his surprise in his own words).
And it was followed by another twist in the plot. That heavenly moment on the mountain was not the end of the story, as Peter clearly thought, for a moment, it was. Instead it was followed immediately by a short, shocking journey to Jerusalem when everything Jesus said about his arrest, suffering and death would come true – and his coming back to life.
So what does this episode tell us that we maybe need to know today?
Firstly, that unlike other public figures, Jesus really does reveal his whole self in public. He doesn’t keep part of himself back, for his own protection; he doesn’t try to portray a more confident and together person than he really is. He reveals the fullness of himself to us (and according to Paul, he reveals the fullness of God to us by revealing his true persona in Jesus). He is prepared to take that risk of revealing who he truly is, even though we attack him, hurt him, and destroy him, because he wants us to know him deeply, because there is something about knowing him deeply that allows us to know ourselves deeply. When we know him in his divinity, as the God in whose image we are made; when we know him in his humanity, as the one who shows us the full potential of who we are as human beings; when we know him as the one who loves us so much that he gives us his own life, we know where our true love can be found and hence who we truly are.
But secondly, we still have to overcome the problem of the public persona. For though Jesus reveals who he truly is, we do not fully understand him. We still interpret him through our own worldview and mistake him.
I’m sure you will all have had that experience of talking at cross-purposes with someone. I have to say, it happens to me a lot, particularly when I’m preaching. I say something that I think is devastating clear, only to find that someone has taken the completely wrong end of the stick. It may be because I was talking nonsense – that has been known! But often it’s because I’ve made an assumption that my audience shares the same background knowledge about Christianity that I have, and if they don’t, that can sometimes radically change the way I’m heard. Likewise, I can often interpret what other people say, through the lens of my worldview, and leap to an entirely wrong conclusion.
That happens all the time with Jesus. It is why God, in the very breath by which he reveals Jesus as his son, says to us “listen to him.” Don’t just leap to conclusions about him, don’t think you know all there is to know about him, don’t think you understand it all, don’t just gloss over it when he says something weird that you don’t get. Listen to him, deeply. For the rest of your lives, listen to him, more and more, until your worldview changes and you finally get him. Because in knowing him deeply, you will know yourselves deeply, you will know each other deeply and, eventually you will understand all things deeply.
Third (and last for today), glory and pain are part of the journey. It is hard to see suffering as anything other than a threat: destroying what we hold dear, what we most long for. But this story invites us to see things differently; to understand that God’s future for us is good, better even than all we could ask for or imagine. This story invites us to see, on the mountain top, a promise of glory that is far greater than anything we hoped for in our lives; and to see, in the pain, a pathway to that glory.
We cannot truly know Jesus without knowing him both on the mountain top in his glory and on the road of pain that is the journey to the Cross. We always read this story on the last Sunday before Lent to prepare ourselves for that journey to the Cross. To cast off our worldview; to cast off our treasured image of ourselves, the people we like to pretend we are, but never can be; to cast off our addiction to the things of this world that promise to comfort us, but only disappoint and hurt us; to cast off our hopes and plans for our lives, that seem so glorious to us, but are actually could never last and in fact fall so far short of the glory what God wants for our lives. That is the journey to the Cross. To cast off the things we mistake for real life is hard, is painful, sacrificial. It requires us to suffer. But if we understand our sufferings in the context of Jesus, we can see that suffering, though painful, does not ultimately do us harm, because we merely exchange our disappointments and hurts for his glory and hope. If we ‘listen to him’, if we seek to know him deeply, allowing him to transform the way we look at life, we find that the journey to the Cross is like a snake shedding an old, dead skin, painful for a time, but only to release us into new life.
Our Lenten journey is a shedding of that skin, whether it be through our fasting, the simple pleasures we go without; or through our study groups and private reading; or through our almsgiving (which should be generous enough to challenge the way that we live); or through our deeper suffering that lasts beyond Lent, we are shedding our old skin, responding to God’s call to listen deeply to Jesus, to be transformed by knowing him deeply, leaving behind the old dead way of living with all its threats and fears and disappointments, and living his glorious resurrection life instead.
The glory we see on the mountain top is glimpse of where the journey to the Cross is taking us. One day, we will be able to rest there, and, as Peter himself said: “it is good.” Being fully and deeply in the presence of Jesus is so wonderful and glorious, that we will want to say there for ever, and so we will, by taking up our Cross and following him.
Preached: Morland, Bolton, 3 March 2019