Matthew 17:1-13
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg

1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4 Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."

5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

10 The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?"

11 Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

Disciples in the middle of confusion needed their priorities set strait. Peter had seen that Jesus was the Son of the Living God, but what that meant, he totally misunderstood. Jesus had started speaking of suffering at the hands of people, and then dying, this bomb was inappropriate language for the victorious Son of God. Peter had no intent of letting Jesus be crucified, "This will never happen to you Lord!"

"Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

That bomb of rebuke was a shock to them all, more than they could take. The disciples needed to be grounded again. But in what?

Six days of confusion passed, Jesus led Peter, James and John to a high mountain, a place of solitude, certainly, they thought, to regroup, get a grip, strategize for the future, figure out what to do next. Opposition was rising, they would need a battle plan.

But there was no discussion about plans and strategies - simply put, Jesus changed. John, later when he wrote his gospel could only use one word to describe what he saw: "Glory" "We have seen his glory - the glory of the one and only" Other words failed to describe what they saw - Jesus, his face turned brilliant as the sun, impossible to look at, his clothing as white as pure brilliant light. They saw a glimpse of Christ's ascended glory, the same glory that John later saw in his vision where he writes:

And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

Even as we read those words now, we have difficulty imagining this glory, his face shining like the sun in all of its brilliance, this is too bright for the imagination as the sun is to bright for the eyes. Yet they saw this glory - and they saw two other glorious individuals.

Moses was there. Elijah was standing beside him, both talking with Jesus. They too were glorious, not to the same degree, but they were certainly glorious, in the disciples perception, even in our perception. Peter exclaimed "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."

That got an instant response from God. While Peter was still speaking a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" Another rebuke - but this time from God - it was too much for them all, they all fell face down in terror and fear, only to be raised a few seconds later by the touch of Jesus' gracious hand and the comforting words,

"Get up,"

"Don't be afraid."

All that was left of their whole experience was Jesus, only Jesus, just Jesus, no glory, just human flesh, no sun light brilliance, just a dusty man, only Jesus, just like them.

I don't know about you, but if like Peter, one day I had Jesus say to me, "Get behind me Satan" and 6 days later, God himself rebuked me infront of all of my friends, I would be fairly shaken. Now we can understand why Jesus would say to Peter - Get behind me Satan, when Peter wanted to refuse Jesus the cross - because we know that if Jesus had not gone to the cross as a substitutionary atonement for our sins, we would not participate in salvation and the very purpose of Jesus coming to earth would have been thwarted.

But why this strong rebuke from God about shelters for Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus?

To answer that question, we have to understand the significance of the word shelters here - literally the word is tent or tabernacle, which in Peter's mind had some very strong nuances. His intent was to build a temples, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and another for Jesus, three temples in which to ground our being, three temples in which the presence of God was celebrated and his direction understood. Three temples which would clarify confusion and legitimize human action. Three temples in which to find the ground of our being.

The temple to Moses, would of course been a temple that honoured law. The ten commandments would be there inscribed on its walls. The many ceremonial laws, the ethical laws given from God through Moses would be the guide to life, the ground for existence. God would be present in law, in life lived right, in justice accomplished. God's people would be known by how they lived, the ceremonies they kept, the obedience they followed. Where law was broken, judgement would be the mark of God's presence, justice his finger print. Truly, it would be glorious. To Peter, and to the Jews, and probably to many North Americans, in a subtle way, it is the presence of law and correctly applied justice that qualifies us to have God on our side. Israel certainly felt that, after all, they were God's people, with the law and the prophets, on top of being decedents of Abraham, all others were goii - gentiles, in their eyes, not much when it came to God. In American Civil religion, where God's name is attached to money, where there are divinely bestowed inalienable rights, God is seen as "on our side" because we seek justice. God and the cause of justice are equal. Liberty, holding the weigh scale of justice is the temple of North America, and we think God is in her.

But on the mountain of transfiguration, God rebuked Peter, and then Moses was gone, all that was left was Jesus, only Jesus, just Jesus.

Peter also was rebuked for wanting to build a temple for Elijah, the prophet of God. If you remember the story of Elijah, you will also remember that he stands for purity and divine vengeance. He lived in a time when the nation of Israel had come to worship many gods, idols were in virtually every home, Baal and Ashtoreth, were mixed in with what little was left of trust and obedience to the one true God, JWH. And in that heinous mix of demons and the divine, Elijah spoke with fire against the mix, climaxing on Mt Carmel, where in a contest between the gods, altars were prepared, and the true God was called upon to answer by providing divine fire. The priests of Baal, who had led Israel astray prayed and danced and cut themselves - there was no answer. Elijah, the prophet of JWH asked God, fire came down and consumed everything on the altar including the water that had been thrown upon it and in the ditch around it. And then Elijah with a prophet's authority led the people of Israel to purify the evil mixture from among them with a divine vengeance killing 400 of the priests of Baal. Elijah was the prophet of purity, the voice of the vengeance of the jealous God who will not share his glory with another. Israel saw the pure presence of God there on Mt. Carmel. Peter saw the need for purity among the people of Israel who had compromised repeatedly with Greek and then Roman concepts of philosophy, religion and politics. Israel had within it sects and radicals that were devoted to purity called the Zealots, the Essenes, and those who gave their lives in suicide at Massada.

Today to, there are many including those of the Islamic faith who look at the profound and sometimes obscene mixture of North America today, they see a multitude of gods worshipped, they see nothing beautiful in our mosaic or our melting pot, for them the mix is the worst of evils that justifies so many other evils. And driven by the value of purity, and a jealous god, the zealots among them see their suicidal and murderous actions as divine vengeance directed by god, approved by god, divinely justified by god.

Peter wanted to build a temple in honour of purity and divine vengeance, a temple for Elijah. And instantly God responded with a rebuke and he said "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"

And when the rebuke was over, they lifted their eyes, and all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus, just Jesus, no glory, just human flesh, no sun light brilliance, just a dusty man, only Jesus, just like them.

Why just Jesus? Why not even a temple in memory of Jesus?

I could give you a theological and abstract answer with the many scripture reasons for Jesus only, but this morning, I would rather give you my personal answer - why, only Jesus.

My personal answer starts with my own heart. I live with a constant awareness of my sin, it clings to me, it is attached to me. I push it down, try to forget about it, think positive thoughts, get involved in good things in life, but if I stop to evaluate, I start getting glimpses of thing - things that I should have done that I did not, and they things that I did that were driven by selfish motives, and the things I said in the heat of conflict, and the things that I thought in secret, and I tremble at the thought of a just God who judges with a perfect justice. With king David, I must confess, If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,

O Lord, who could stand?

My mind, if I let it go, is weighed down by an unrelenting anticipation of God's just judgement, and against divine justice I am weighed in the balance against perfection, and I know without a doubt that the balance of God's perfectly applied justice will be against me. That is why I flee to Jesus, and Jesus only. In Jesus, hanging on the cross, dying, I see the justice of God enacted upon him, not because he was sinful, but because I am sinful. I see on the cross, God's perfect justice accomplished against me, my sins paid for, God's justice satisfied. And though I continue to be aware of my sin, my failings, I no longer dread God's justice because it has been accomplished already, without fear, even with my failings, I dare talk to God, live with God because my life is hidden in Jesus. My sins are paid for. I am reconciled with God. And it is all because of Jesus, Jesus only, just Jesus. In him, justice and mercy have come together, for me. He is my hiding place, my temple.

Again, when it comes even to the issue of purity - let me talk about my own heart. Because in my own heart, there is a scary mixture, luke warmness all too often characterizes my conversation, half heartedness colours my commitment, double mindedness handicaps my determination, if I am looking for purity of devotion - I best not look at me because I find mixture and sad disappointment, I am unworthy of the purity and holiness that God expects mirrored in us. Be Holy because I am Holy.

That is why I flee to Jesus, hide myself in Jesus, wrap myself in him, my shelter - because he was purely dedicated to doing the will of his father, his devotion did not falter, his obedience was spotless even to death on the cross. When I see myself, there is only one, and one only place that I dare to flee and that is by placing myself by faith in him, Jesus is my hiding place, Jesus is for me the priceless treasure, where fear is removed, where the joy of knowing the love of God soothes my tears and calms my regrets and makes it possible for me to continue on without the overwhelming weight of who I am and have been, past and present.

That is why, for me, there is no other choice, but Jesus. Justice only condemns me. Purity decidedly causes me to anticipate the vengeance of God. Jesus alone sets me free.

We live in a world where many voices call us to come, find shelter in their temples for security, for peace with God. Our world is conflicted by them. Some of our temples of security have come crashing down. But there is a temple that after being destroyed would be raised again after three days to be our temple, our hiding place eternally. The Father said "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'" 16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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