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Show us Your Glory
Go with me, if you will, to the book of Matthew in the New Testament, chapter 17. We’re passing out Bibles for those who want them, just raise your hand.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew, looking into the person and work of Jesus, and his teaching on the coming kingdom of God. Two weeks ago, we talked a lot about Star Wars, but also about what defiles a person being less about what goes into their body than about what comes out of their mouth. Our words reveal the state of our hearts. And in Jesus’ embrace of a woman who cried out to him for healing, in a communion feast in which the gentiles were invited into the people of God, we saw God’s love for all of the nations.
Last week we heard a call from Christ to forsake the lives we’ve built, the façades we’ve constructed, to find real, abundant life in him. We’re far too easily pleased, you and I with the things of this world. For every one person I’ve met in life whose desires are too strong, I’ve met a dozen people who seem to be content with breathing to death, who need to be roused as if from sleep to want something more out of life than just existence. There is forgiveness, love, mission, and meaning—real life—in Christ.
This morning, we get a small glimpse of the glory hidden in Christ, and even that small glimpse is enough to make us fall to the ground. Please stand as we read this morning, Matthew 17, starting in v.1. [Matthew 17:1-9] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
As a whole, this passage is about the glory of God—how we long for it, but we can’t bear much of it—and it’s about the truth that lies just on the other side of the way things seem. It’s also about work and prayer, how both are necessary. We always want to ascend into the glory of God and stay. But we can’t, not yet, which is why Christ came in flesh to us. What we see in this passage is everything of which Christ emptied himself in order to be with us, and incredibly, everything he’s making us to be, those of us who are in Christ, little by little, day by day.
Glory is a word that’s really better pictured than defined. You can see it here, when it says Jesus’ face shone like the sun. That’s glory, the overwhelmingness of God. Too bright to look at, too vast to fully know, too perfect to fit into our broken world, too good to really bear. Have you ever thought about why so many of the most Christ-like people of the world have been martyred? The prophets, the apostles, and all of the thousands of saints through the ages and in our own age, some of them we know but all of whom are known by God. Why do we always kill the prophets? There’s something about goodness we can’t bear, and that something the Bible calls glory. We can’t bear it, but we long for it, and when we actually taste the smallest drop of it, we know it’s more of life than we’ve ever known. Here in our passage we see Christ in his glory, which is just to say we see him as he truly is without anything hidden.
You’re misreading this passage if your focus is on the disciples and their mountaintop experience, in the way that we usually talk about mountaintop experiences of worship. For one, Matthew uses exactly one word to describe the disciples’ experience, and the word is terror—not exactly what you’re going for day three of church youth camp. But even more importantly, ever and always, Matthew’s focus is on Christ, himself, and I would encourage you both in your reading of this passage and in your faith and life to do the same. Focus on Jesus, not on yourself as a disciple. If you’re constantly concerned with yourself, whether you are on one of the mountains of life, or in some valley slogging through the mess, you’re going to miss life itself. The real life of the world—not your own, but Christ’s life breaking through all around you, just under the surface of semblance.
In essence, this is a scene we’ve seen several times before—Christ going up on a mountain to pray. It’s something he does often, several times already in Matthew. The difference here is that he brings his friends with him. Because the scene is so common, you have to wonder if this transfiguration is common, this incredible breaking through of the glory of God, if this is what always happens in the wilderness of Jesus’ solitude, only this time Peter, James, and John are there.
Peter asks to stay there on the mountain, to build booths, meaning shelters to stay there at least for a while, and Peter gets a lot of criticism for wanting to stay, but wouldn’t you want the same? If you were Peter, or Moses, or anyone else who has ever been on the side of the mountain and glimpsed the glory of God in the cloud, wouldn’t you want to stay? Notice, in all of the accounts of the transfiguration, nowhere does Jesus criticize Peter for his reaction. In fact, I would argue Christ’s greatest longing is, not just for Peter, James, and John, but for all of us to live on the mountain of the lord in the midst of his glory. Isn’t that the hope of our faith, to one day live in peace on the mountain of the Lord, with the Lord in our midst, Christ our sustenance and our light?
One beautiful detail Matthew includes than none of the other gospel writers do, after this whole scene and the voice from the cloud, v.17, Jesus comes to the disciples and touches them. He helps them up from where they had fallen in terror, and Jesus is no longer transfigured. He tells them, once again, not to be afraid, and once again he empties himself of glory. Just as he came to dwell with us in the first place, and for the same reason, so in the transfiguration Jesus leaves behind his glory and his rights in order to come down to us. The apostles look back up, and it’s just Jesus as they’ve always known him.
It’s not out of condemnation for Peter that Jesus leaves his glory, it’s out of love for him, and for you the he leaves all of this glory behind. It would be good for Christ to stay on the mountaintop, on his throne, in his glory. It would be good for him, but the rest of us would be lost. Look at the disciples in the passage; they’re terrified. Fallen to the ground, hiding their faces. They can’t bear much of this. We can’t ascend to him, so he condescends to us.
Thinking about how to explain this moment, throughout this week, my mind went, as it so often does these days, to my experience as a father. This desire to bring your children into the deeper things of life is strong, but you have to be so careful, because they can’t take much, not at first. They have to grow into the life you want to give them. If you try to bring them into the deeper things of life before their time, you can terrify them. If you throw them in before their ready, you can destroy them.
Take marriage, for instance. Now, I have no idea whether my children will be given the gift of singleness or the gift of marriage, or even if those gifts, when offered, will be accepted; but let’s say my son one day does enter into Christian marriage and has a family. In one sense, if that is his future, there’s nothing I want more than to draw him into those deeper things of life. To see him playing with his own children, even just to imagine it, fills my soul. It’s how the prophet Zachariah pictures the new Jerusalem, the kingdom come: old men playing with children in the streets of the city.
But he has to grow first in so many ways. For him to attempt any of those things right now—marriage, bearing children, leaving our home. Each of those things would destroy him. I don’t even really want to think about him experiencing these things right now, as I know in many places in the world other children do. My heart breaks for them. That’s the stuff of nightmares as a parent. The most I can do for him right now is just to let him watch us in our marriage, caring for our new child, interacting with my own parents. That’s all he can take right now of marriage and family without being destroyed. I try to tell him everything I can in age appropriate ways of what may be in store for him in his future.
The glory of the Lord is that way. It’s everything God wants us to enter into, but not before we’ve grown to be able to bear it. It’s not by accident Matthew describes the glory of the transfigured Christ by saying he shines like the sun. Like sunlight or water, our biggest need as humans it to take him in, but too much, or in the wrong way, and he would destroy us. But may he make his face to shine on us all the same, and may he form us into a people who can live in the midst of his glory.
The word for transfiguration used here is used in very few other places. Once in Romans, chapter twelve, Paul urges, rather than conforming, day by day to the patterns of this world, to be transformed, to be transfigured instead, day by day into a glory like that of Christ on this mountain. So he uses the word once in Romans, and then once in 2 Corinthians 3, which I’m going to quote at length. Paul writes, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end….But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed [transfigured] into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
So we see, in Paul, that Peter’s desire to stay on the mountain, to converse with Moses and Elijah, is a desire Christ shares—it’s one of his deepest desires, to restore us to glory—but we have to grow first, or else it will terrify and destroy us. Christ desperately longs to set us free in every way, but as with children, the difference between setting us free and abandoning us is our readiness. To really be free, instead of just lost, we have to grow.
We also see in Paul a direct reference to Moses. It’s a connection Matthew intends as well. To understand the transfiguration, you have to remember the Exodus story. God performed great miracles through Moses to show his power, and Moses led the people of God out of slavery by a pillar of cloud and fire to a high mountain, just like the high mountain and divine cloud in our passage today. And there, in thunder and voice, the Lord showed Moses his glory.
The Exodus reference tells us several things. One, that reference together with the appearance of Elijah and Moses tells us that Christ’s teachings aren’t opposed to the law and the prophets, but rather the fulfillment of both, just as a promise of words is fulfilled by a later action, and the action is more real that the word of the promise. Two, the Exodus reference shows us the reason why God is revealing his glory in this moment, and why Christ comes to us in the first place.
Matthew, throughout the entire book, over and over again points to the Exodus story to show us God is doing all of this to set us free. We’re in slavery to sin, as his people were enslaved in Egypt, and this is how he is bringing us up out of our sins. Through Christ’s own death and resurrection, he’s leading us to a land, a kingdom, where he can finally dwell in glory and in peace with us, both and at the same time. And when we were unable to reach that land on our own, he left it, came to us, to lift us up, just as he does with the disciples in our passage. “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’”
Two things, as we seek to take the word of God in this morning and let it comprise us, like the bread and the cup we’re about to eat and drink. One, we have to grow, spiritually. We have to grow, and the transfiguration shows us both our need and our destination. The glory of God, like the shining of the sun, will eventually be our light, but before we can bear it we have to be remade. We need to admit that we’ve done wrong, that we are more sinful and have done more damage in the lives of the people we love than we could ever know, and at the same time that we are more loved in Christ, and forgiven in him, then we have ever thought possible.
I know our culture says to really live you have to be true to yourself and not allow anyone or anything to change you. Christianity’s call is to forget yourself and allow Christ to change you day by day, to transfigure you from one degree of glory to the next. The theological word is sanctification, being made more like Christ day by day, but the practice leading to sanctification is confession and forgiveness, over and over again. We have to realize how weak we are, to fall to the ground in awe of his glory.
Sanctification is twofold, through the renewal, the transfiguration of your mind and through the transfiguration of your works. It has to be both together. If your sanctification is only in your mind, your faith is dead, and if it is only in your works then you’re blind and aimless, you don’t know your destination and so much of your effort will be wasted. There’s a reason we do sermons and Bible studies as a church, and then every week we care for the poor. You have to have both.
Talking about God’s love for our neighbors without actually, with our hands and feet, loving them is hypocrisy; and trying to love our neighbors without evangelism and discipleship is to ignore their deepest need for reconciliation, and their only sure path to wholeness. To be changed, to be transfigured, in all the ways we most desperately need to change, it has to be in word and deed. Talking about doing the works of God is not the same thing as doing them, and trying to do the works of the kingdom without, in humility, giving glory to God is pride. May we be a church that seeks to disciple the people who are a part of us in both word and deed.
In order to be free, we need to transfigure our lives to be more like Christ. We also need to imitate him as he glorifies God and empties himself, both. Just as sanctification is found in the transfiguration of our minds and practice, both, so the imitation of Christ is found in prayer and in service, both. Jesus took his friends to the mountain that day to show them his glory, that they might really know who he is. He took them there to sanctify them, to transfigure their minds and hearts. But he didn’t just show them his glory, he also left it behind again, to be with them. He didn’t build a booth and stay, he choose to pick his friends up off the ground and go back down the mountain with them. It’s incredible how low Christ becomes for our sake, even low enough to serve us, to die on a cross in our place.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fourth century monasticism lately. It’s a work hazard. But monasticism began in the desert, with absolute asceticism and contemplation, and there was much good in that—where contemplation is lacking, the church will always be driven like a boat by the winds of culture. But in the fourth century, one monk founded a monastery in the middle of downtown, and they opened the doors. Anyone who was willing to come into the monastery was welcome, and was cared for by the men of the order, given food, clothing, a bed, and medical care. And through all of that time, they were invited into the spiritual life of the monastery. Prayer and service, both.
This kind of outwardly facing monastic life was described a century later in three simple words: ora et labora, meaning prayer and work. Our savior was in the habit of going out into the wilderness to rest and to pray, to commune with God and the saints of old. And he was in the habit of healing the crowds, feeding and teaching anyone who would come to eat of the bread of life, washing his disciples’ feet.
My hope this morning is that through the renewing of our work and prayer, God would change our hearts and actions, both; that we, like the disciples in our passage, would see Christ and be overwhelmed, that we would know Christ and be changed. I praise God that he comes to us in ways we can bear and understand him.
My invitation to you this morning is into transfiguration. To marvel at the truth of who Christ is, and how humbly he came. To imitate him in his prayer and his work. May he transfigure our minds, mouths, hands, and hearts until we can stand face to face with him, unafraid, knowing that he who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it in the day of our Lord.