(Matthew 17: 1-9)
Back in the spring of 2009, my younger brother Brad and I treated our Dad to a guy’s weekend in Gatlinburg, TN and – more to the point – a hike up Mt. LeConte. Mt. LeConte holds a special place in the collective Lindsley heart, as my grandfather – my Dad’s father – died one January morning while hiking his favorite mountain, doing what he loved so much to do. I was young enough at the time to not have any direct memories of the man, so pretty much everything I know about my grandfather came from my Dad – who turned 65 the month my brother and I treated him to a father-son-son birthday hike up the mountain he loved as well.
There is this picture of my brother and me that my father took the morning of our hike. We’re at the base of the mountain, standing beside a wooden sign that reads, “Alum Cave Trail. Mt. LeConte – 5 miles.” We look incredibly rested and energetic in the picture; our faces bright with anticipation of the journey ahead.
Now five miles is a good haul in and of itself; but five miles winding up rugged mountain trail to a peak of 6500 feet is another thing entirely. I was in relatively good shape at the time, but halfway up I was sucking wind in a serious way. My lungs burned with each inhaled breath; my legs were in such pain I could barely feel them anymore.
It took us some number of hours but eventually we reached the top. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so simultaneously happy and relieved in my life. We sat down at a table in the lodge, ordered a cold beverage. We saw the famous LeConte cabins up there; the “dwellings” at the top of the mountain for serious hikers who book them nearly a year in advance (which we had not). We eventually came down – obviously – but for that hour or so there we were, over a mile up in the stratosphere, soaking in the moment and very much still sucking in air.
This past week, I found my mind drifting back to that LeConte hike as I read our scripture today, a scripture that begins with Jesus, Peter, James and his brother going up a “high mountain.” And while it doesn’t specify which mountain, most biblical scholars are inclined to believe, given the proximity of where they were, that these four were on Mount Hermon – a mountain that reaches some 9,232 feet into the sky, a full half-mile higher than LeConte.
So lest we think this was some casual Sunday afternoon stroll up a little incline, this was in fact a serious hike, a calf-burning, oxygen-sucking, strap-on-the-hiking boots kind of serious. And with each step up, they left the familiar behind and entered a realm that was not their own.
This week we continue our own hike, our Lenten sermon series, “Who Is Jesus” – striving to get to a deeper answer than a simple bio or mere platitudes of faith. Striving in an effort, as we’ve taken to saying, “to know who Jesus is for us, so we may know who we can be for him.” Last week we looked at the temptation story and how Jesus refuses to be who we want him to be, but thanks be to God is always who we need him to be.
Today we look at this hiking story in the gospel of Matthew, and the story of the Transfiguration. The word “transfiguration” comes from the Greek word metamorphoo, which, in case you’re wondering, is where we get our English word “metamorphosis.” It means “to change the external form.” Which is certainly what happens here. High up a mountain – nearly two miles up. Jesus’ face shining, his clothes dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, long gone, making an appearance. Peter wanting to build dwellings – or LeConte cabins, if you will. And finally a voice from above saying: This is my son, my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!
It should not surprise us that this Transfiguration – this “change of external form” – happened way up a mountain. Think about it. We often describe the experience of getting closer to God with the phrase “going up the mountain,” as if that act somehow puts us closer proximity with the divine. We call our beloved Montreat a “thin place” – meaning the distance between us and God is perceived as less than it normally is; like a strong cell signal when we’re standing right under the tower.
So this whole scene of Transfiguration in Matthew 17 is intended to convey to us that this is more heaven than earth, more miraculous than mundane. There is something special and holy about this occasion, Jesus and his friends gathered in the thinnest of places. And we can’t fault Peter in the least for wanting to encapsulate it in some physical form, offering to build his dwellings. If it were us there, we very well may want the same too. For when we find ourselves in those holiest of moments when we are keenly aware that time and space are not our own, we cannot help but want to bottle it up and somehow save it for later.
All of which is rendered null and void when the voice comes – a voice that is notably more “around” than “from on high.” It comes from among them, it seems. A voice that proclaims of Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s practically lifted verbatim from what God said to Jesus some fourteen chapters earlier at his baptism. And just the chapter before, when Peter asked Jesus what amounts to our sermon series question, “Who do you say that I am?” His response: You, Jesus, are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
It is no small thing, my friends, that the voice from above and Peter’s response reference three separate times to Jesus in terms of his familial relationship with God. This is my Son. You are the son of God. For one, it is a statement of relationship; describing, in particular, the close tie between Jesus and God. To be one’s son, after all, is to be linked to someone in a way no one else can claim.
It is also a regal title; a direct reference to, among other things, the second psalm, a royal psalm, which says:
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
But we sell ourselves short and miss the whole point entirely if we think that this reference is simply a title, a designation, some descriptive language. For Jesus to be called the son of God – and for us to call him that as well – carries with it much greater significance that we in the 21st century world might fully understand.
It may surprise us, for instance, to learn that the term “son of God” was not unique to Christianity or even Jesus. In fact, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth, Octavian, took on a new name during his power-hungry reign. He called himself Augustus. Literally it means “revered,” but more than that, it indicates a consolidation of power that extended beyond mere earthly forces. The title Augustus took on in Latin: divi filius – Son of the Divine. So Augustus, emperor of Rome, Son of God.
Around the time Matthew’s gospel was written – 90 AD, some sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection – those who would later be known as Christians were living under the turbulent rule of another self-proclaimed “son of God,” Emperor Domitian, who saw himself as “the new Augustus.”
In both the lifetime of Jesus and the one who wrote his gospel, it was no small thing that he was referred to as the “son of God.” It was so much more than just borrowing a cultural image or expression. No, far from that. It was an act of defiance; willful insubordination, an in-your-face fist of resistance directed at the powerful, brutal Roman empire. Because claiming that Jesus was the Son of God was simultaneously daring to claim that the emperor – who ruled the known world and had power over your very life – was not.
And friends, while the Roman empire is long dead and gone, the ramifications of this title still bear out in our world today. As the late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg once wrote, “To be Christian is to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God and Lord, and that the would-be lords of this world are not.
And nowhere is this made clearer to us than at Jesus’ transfiguration. I mean, God could not have been more direct about it. High on a mountain, practically in the heavens. Jesus’ face and clothes glowed brighter than any fancy emperor regalia. Moses and Elijah came out of the woodworks for the coronation. And when Peter offered to build a few LeConte cabins up there, trying to capture the moment, make it his own, that’s when God’s voice stated quite emphatically: Let’s be clear: this is MY son. And you cannot nor should you want to claim this Jesus as yours. He is not yours, he is mine. He is my son.
You cannot make this Jesus yours, God is saying. You can take his words and twist them out of context, making them on face value appear to say something they do not. You can try to mold Jesus into something he isn’t – the Tempter gave it his best shot in the wilderness – but my son will resist at every turn. Because he is not yours. He is mine – he is my son.
You can take the powers of the world you’re living in and lavish all that power and praise upon some person of your choosing. You can call them “son of God” if you want. Or you can just build them up into some kind of savior and claim they’ll fix every problem and make every wrong right. But in the end they will fail you, because they are not my son.
My son is Jesus, and he is among you precisely because I put him there to live with you as one of you, fully you but fully me also. To show you how real power comes from love, real grace comes out of forgiveness, real healing comes when you embrace your brokenness. That’s where his power comes from, and that is why he is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am so very, very pleased.
Don’t you see, people of God? Don’t you understand what it means for us to say that Jesus is God’s son? More than an affirmation of faith, more than espousing theology or doctrine? To say “Jesus is the son of God” is to stand on that high mountain and witness the transfiguration, the “changing-of-external-form” first-hand: the brilliance of Jesus revealed, the cloud of witnesses presented, the voice from all around proclaiming what we already know, what in many ways we’ve always known.
And most importantly, to say Jesus is the son of God is to then come down from the mountain, leave behind the mountaintop experience and return to the valley where we belong and where things are just as we left them. To say Jesus is the son of God is to begin the hard and necessary work of living as if is indeed true, because it is.
To willingly defy the powers of this world, the emperors around us in whatever clothing they choose to wear, and dare instead to say that a peasant carpenter from first-century Palestine is all that any of us need. That a man put to death by the world’s greatest power in the manner of a criminal is, in fact, greater than the very power who discarded his life with relative ease, greater than any power that has ever been and ever will be.
To say that Jesus is the son of God is to proclaim in both word and deed that Jesus is the only one worthy of our complete allegiance, our unwavering confidence, our full devotion; far over and above any woman or man who might claim that right, whether they’re standing behind a pulpit or holding elected office or in some way put themselves in a position they have no right to be in. To believe in and follow Jesus every day of our lives – that is what it means to say that he is the son of God.
I remember the moment my father and brother and I made our way down the mountain, back to that sign where we started. It was a joyful exhaustion we felt in our bones, our time together on the mountaintop, our own little transfiguration. And for a moment there was silence between the three of us, and it was not at all awkward. Some experiences take a while to find the right words to unpack them.
Which is why it makes every bit of sense, as they made their way down the mountain, that Jesus told his disciples, more or less, to keep their mouths shut. Don’t speak so quickly, he seems to say. For more important than saying those six words – Jesus is the son of God – is to do the hard and necessary work of living as if they are in fact true, because they most certainly are.
That is what matters for us now, my friends. That is what can transfigure our world.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://marcusjborgfoundation.org/jesus/yes-and-no/, visited on 3.5.2017.