Weak In The Presence Of Beauty: The Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-9 (Sunday Before Lent, Year A, 2023)

Matthew 17:1-9

One of the early solo hit singles by the singer Alison Moyet was entitled ‘Weak In The Presence Of Beauty’. The words describe the protagonist bumping into an old boyfriend, and they imply that this man was bad news. However, he was also good-looking, and the singer knows she cannot afford to spend time with him, for fear that she will go ‘weak in the presence of beauty.’

When we are in the presence of beauty, we do strange things. We stop being rational. Men stumble over their words in the presence of a beautiful woman. Peter babbles incoherently in our reading when he sees Jesus transfigured and Moses and Elijah appear.

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.’

Other Gospels tell us he just didn’t know what to say.

The spiritual equivalent to being overwhelmed by beauty is to be overcome by the tangible presence of God. Right now, there is a story in the news that exemplifies that.

On Wednesday 8th February, a regular daily act of worship began in a chapel at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. It’s still going on. People have so encountered God that they have not wanted to leave. Some are caught up in passionate worship. Others are on their knees, repenting of sin. Still others are sharing testimony to what God is doing then and there in their lives. Others are bringing prophetic words. People are travelling great distances to join the queue and get into the chapel. The American fast food chain Chick-Fil-A has been delivering food to the chapel so that some people can eat there and remain longer.

Does that sound like religious mania to you? If it does, let me bring you down to earth. Asbury Seminary is one of the leading training institutions in the United States for … Methodist ministers. Two of the New Testament scholars who I most frequently use in my studies and quote in my sermons, Craig Keener and Ben Witherington, are Asbury professors.

It’s too early to classify this formally as a revival, but it has all the hallmarks of a work of God. There are some similarities to outpourings of the Spirit as described in the Book of Acts. What is going on at Asbury is a return to Methodist roots, because we were a revival movement at the beginning – a revival movement where it was nothing unusual for people to be overcome by the tangible presence of God, just as Peter, James, and John were at the Transfiguration.

Now here’s the question I have this week about the Transfiguration experience. Who was it for?

And I have to say that I have changed my mind about my answer. In previous years, I have looked at the Transfiguration and those amazing words from heaven that affirm who Jesus is, and I’ve said: that was for Jesus. The words from heaven are very similar to those that come from Heaven at his baptism to affirm him before his public ministry starts. Now, he is about to embark on his journey to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die, and this equips him for it. When I have preached that in the past, I have emphasised how often dramatic experiences of God occur in the church among those who suffer for their faith, and there is some truth in that. I can support that from church history and personal testimony.

But as I said, I’ve changed my mind. I now think the Transfiguration, with its powerful experience of God’s nearness, was for the disciples.

Why? The voice from heaven was not addressed to Jesus, but to the disciples:

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

Listen to him! That can only be addressed to the disciples! Why didn’t I see this before? That’s what I’ve been asking myself in the last few days!

And that’s one of two things that follow for disciples of Jesus from their dazzling spiritual experience: listen to Jesus.

They needed to hear that message. Just before the Transfiguration Jesus has prophesied for the first time that he will suffer and die. They couldn’t handle it. Peter in particular rejected it. That didn’t fit with their understanding of a triumphant Messiah.

So at the Transfiguration God takes matters in hand with these men who will be apostles. Listen to Jesus. He is my Son. I love him, he’s doing great things.

The particular thing they need to heed from Jesus is the necessity of him going to the Cross, as I said. It would be the centre of the Christian message. It would be the means of transformation for anyone who comes to Christ, for there they find love, forgiveness, and a new start. If you go away from the message of the Cross, then you also depart from Jesus.

I mentioned last week that my Byfleet church recently hosted a wedding blessing for a couple from a church that didn’t have its own premises. After the service, everyone was invited to write a message to the happy couple in a special book. This is what I wrote:

Stay together at the foot of the Cross and you won’t go wrong.

We have the reading about the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent starts, precisely for this reason. From here Jesus starts his journey to Jerusalem in earnest, knowing he will be betrayed, falsely convicted, tortured, and killed. If you want to go with Jesus from the Mount of Transfiguration, you have to go with him to Calvary.

I think that’s why many of the people in the chapel at Asbury Seminary were on their knees, confessing their sins. Their dramatic experience of God’s presence took them to the Cross.

And like the wedding couple whom I advised to ‘stay together at the foot of the Cross’, it is not a place that we visit once and from which we then move on. It is a place to dwell.

You may not fully understand it. Like those first disciples, you may feel like you only have a few pieces of the jigsaw and you need more in order to see the big picture God is putting before you. But when you do, you will see a picture of the Cross.

So listen to Jesus, and go to the Cross.

The second of the two things that follow from the awesome experience of God at the Transfiguration is something not said by the Father from Heaven, but by Jesus:

When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’

It may be natural when God’s presence comes close in awesome power to be afraid. This may be a genuine setting for ‘The fear of the Lord.’

And given that most times we don’t experience God as so close (and maybe, if we’re honest, don’t want to) when he comes that near to us it’s not surprising that the nearness of his holiness shows up our lack of holiness. So no wonder the response of many to such an encounter is the confession of sin.

But while that may be a necessary stopping point on the journey, it isn’t the destination. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to remain permanently in the place of fear. Yes, God is holy – but he also loves us. Yes, we need to confess our sins – but God also wants to forgive us and renew us.

So this is an invitation to get going in the life of the kingdom in close fellowship with Jesus. The One who was seen in blazing light by the disciples and who will also be seen in blazing light at his return is the One who will accompany us in life.

So as we like Peter, James, and John prepare to come down from the mountain-top experience, we do so knowing that whatever trials will test us and whatever mundane things threaten to take the shine off the glory, Jesus the Transfigured One is still with us. His light and glory are not far away.

For us, of course, it is not his physical presence but the presence of his Spirit. And while we might prefer, as a child once said, ‘God with skin on’, the fact that his Spirit accompanies us makes it possible for him to be close to all who honour his Name.

Yes, I know there are times when he tests our faith by hiding behind the clouds of life for a protracted period, but he is still not far away from us.

And if he does come in splendour and glory into our lives, don’t run. Hear him say, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Listen to him and let him take you with him to the Cross.

And allow him to draw close to you as friend, even with his stupendous power and authority.

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