Be Curious, Not Judgmental: What Do We Do When Jesus Changes?

First Baptist Richmond, February 19, 2023

Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

I’m testing a theory, but before I tell you what it is I need to give you some background.  It started more than thirty years ago, when I had just graduated from seminary with a Ph.D. in New Testament studies and moved to Wingate, North Carolina, as the new pastor of Wingate Baptist Church.  Byrns Coleman, who was a member of the church and also chair of the Religion Department at Wingate College, asked if I would like to teach a class or two as an adjunct and that sounded like the perfect use for my new doctorate.

I said yes. 

I decided to start with a class that was required for freshman in those days, at that school: Jesus and the Gospels.  The first big decision I had to make was which textbook to use, other than the Bible itself.  I finally settled on a book called Mark as Story, by a religion professor named David Rhoads who invited his friend Donald Michie, an English professor, to show the students in his New Testament class how to read one of the gospels as if it were a short story.[i]  He writes: “As I listened to an English teacher interpret the gospel, I was fascinated by the fresh and exciting way in which he discussed the story.  He talked about the suspense of the drama.  He spoke of Jesus as a character struggling to get his message across.  And he showed how the conflicts come to a climax in Jerusalem.”[ii] 

Before I finished reading the introduction I was sold.  I chose that book and taught it for seven years.  And at the end of the first day of class I would give an assignment suggested by the authors themselves: I would ask my students to read through the entire Gospel of Mark in a single sitting.[iii]  “Find a comfortable chair,” I would say.  “Make sure you have a good reading light.  And then sit down and read through the whole Gospel as if you were reading a very short novel.  It should take about an hour.”  I don’t know how many of them actually did it, but when they came to class next time I assumed that they had, and I would ask them about their impressions of the Gospel.  Many of them were impressed by how quickly the Gospel moves: “Immediately,” Mark says, Jesus went from one place, to another, and then another.  Some were impressed by how impatient Jesus was with his disciples, and how dense they seemed to be.  And then someone would always ask why Jesus cursed that poor, innocent fig tree in Chapter 11.

Reading the whole Gospel in one sitting gives you a different feel for it than hearing one paragraph at a time preached over the course of a full year.  You come away thinking that Jesus was not as gentle, meek, or mild as you have imagined him to be.  He was in a hurry, anxious to get somewhere, and impatient with slow-witted disciples who couldn’t seem to keep up.  On at least one occasion he took out his frustration on a fig tree that he withered to the roots.  “Who is this guy?” my students would ask.  “And what does he want anyway?”  “Aha!” I would say.  “That’s just what we’re going to talk about…next time.”

On day three I would refer them to an old article by Genni Gunn called, “Getting Your Novel Started in Ten Days.”  “Now,” I would say, “let’s change the name of the article slightly.  Let’s call it, ‘Getting Your Gospel Started in Ten Days.’  And let’s imagine that Mark is sitting at his desk getting ready to write. 

“Day 1,” Ms. Gunn suggests:  “Define your idea.  Begin by asking yourself, ‘What is my Gospel about?’  Write a one-sentence summary.”  “Hmm,” Mark says.  “What is my Gospel about?  It’s the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God” (and by the way, if you look up Mark 1:1 you’ll see that’s exactly the sentence he wrote down.  And then, I imagine, he took the rest of the day off). 

“Day 2,” Ms. Gunn continues:  “List your characters.”  “Not so hard,” Mark says, chewing the end of his pencil.  “There’s Jesus, and Peter, and the other disciples, and all the people he healed, and the Scribes and the Pharisees, and Pilate, and, and . . . .  That ought to be enough for one day.” 

“Day 3,” Ms. Gunn continues:  “List locations and settings.”  “That’s not so hard either,” Mark says, getting out a clean sheet of paper.  “There’s the Jordan River, and the Sea of Galilee, and all those little towns around it, and then, of course, Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Golgotha . . . .” And then he can’t bring himself to write anything else. 

“Day 4,” Ms. Gunn suggests, cheerfully:  “Define your characters’ goals.  Your main characters must want something that they are unable to get.  In one sentence, define what each of your main characters wants.”  And this is where I would usually turn away from Mark, sitting at his desk, and toward my students, sitting at theirs.  “In this Gospel,” I would ask, “What does Jesus want that he is unable to get?”  And then I would watch them struggle, those bright young men and women, many of whom had grown up going to Sunday school in Baptist churches, wrestling with the idea that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, might want something he couldn’t get.  And then a light would break across the face of one of my brighter students, and she would raise her hand tentatively, and I would say, “Yes?  Do you know what Jesus wants that he can’t get in this Gospel?”  “I think so,” she would say, gulping.  “I think he wants to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”  “Exactly!” I would say, slapping my desk, making her jump in her seat.  “That’s exactly right!  Jesus wants to bring in the Kingdom and he can’t do it because we won’t let him.”

Again, if you read the Gospels carefully, you will find that Jesus talks about the Kingdom more than anything else.  120 times, mostly in the first three Gospels, he refers to the Kingdom of God or its equivalent.  He doesn’t say all that much about saving sinners.  He gives passing notice to helping the poor.  The main thing he talks about—the main thing—is the Kingdom of God, and from the beginning of the Gospel to the end you can see that he is trying to get that project off the ground (or rather, on the ground).  So, when my students came back to class on the fourth day we spent some time talking about the Kingdom of God, and what it meant to Jesus.

“A kingdom,” I would say, reading straight out of the dictionary, “‘is a territory, people, state, or realm ruled by a king or a queen.  It is any place or area of concern thought of as a sovereign domain.’  In other words, a kingdom is wherever the king is in charge.  The Kingdom of God, then, would be wherever God is in charge.  That could be a nation, or a city, or a household, or a human being.  I think Jesus would say that if God is in charge of your life, then the Kingdom of God is in you!”  And that’s usually where I had to stop talking about the Kingdom, because there is only so much you can say in a classroom, even the classroom of a Baptist college.  You have to maintain a clear distinction between instruction and indoctrination.  But in church it’s different.  In church you don’t have to hold back.[iv]

So, here’s my theory. 

I believe that if Jesus really was trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, then everything he did and everything he said was part of his strategy.  Including the episode in today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, and leads them up a high mountain by themselves.  In the previous chapter he has told his disciples for the first time that he is going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die, and Peter, for one, cannot believe it.  “God forbid it, Lord!” he says.  “This shall never happen to you!”  But Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  And that’s when he turns to the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  It’s a hard passage to hear, but at the end of it Jesus says, “Listen, one of these days the Son of Man is going to be revealed in all his glory, and there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see it.”

And so, “six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves,” where they saw the Lord revealed in all his glory.  His face was shining like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah were there, talking with him. Peter said, “Lord, it’s good that we are here!  If you want, I can make three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  But while he was still speaking a bright cloud covered the mountain and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  And the disciples fell on their faces, terrified, trembling with fear, until Jesus came and nudged them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up they didn’t see anyone but Jesus.

If you were curious you might ask, “Did that actually happen?”  I don’t know.  On the way down the mountain Jesus ordered them to tell no one about “the vision” (Gk. horama) until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.  Maybe all of it was a vision.  Maybe Jesus led those disciples up to the top of a high mountain and then turned aside, as he often did, to pray.  And maybe while he was praying the disciples fell asleep, as they often did, while waiting.  And maybe it was while they were sleeping that Jesus asked the Father to show them who he really was in a way they would never forget.  We don’t know.  We can be curious about these things.  We can ask questions.  But on this side of eternity we may never know the answers.  Still we can ask: what was the impact of this event?  How did it affect the disciples?  Why did Jesus take them up there in the first place?

The answer?  Jesus knew some dark days were coming.  He knew that when they got to Jerusalem, and when he was arrested and tried and crucified, the disciples would be tempted to fall away.  They would see him hanging there on a criminal’s cross and think that they had been wrong about him from the beginning.  And that’s why he took some of them up on a high mountain where God could burn this image into their brains—an image of Jesus in all his glory—so that when they saw him hanging on the cross that glory would still shine through.  When he was dying with a condemned criminal on either side of him, they would remember Moses and Elijah on either side.  When dark clouds filled the sky and the rain began to fall, they would remember that bright cloud, and the voice that thundered, “This is my beloved Son!”  The Transfiguration was strategic: Jesus knew that if the disciples were going to continue his mission through the dark days that lay ahead it would be because some of them had seen him in all his glory, and could say to the others, “Don’t give up; this isn’t over yet.”

Friends, we are living in some dark days right now.  The number of people who still believe in Jesus, who show up to sing his praises on a Sunday morning like this one, is dropping off at an alarming rate.  And not only that, but on Wednesday of this week we enter into the 40-day Season of Lent, where we will walk with Jesus as he makes his way to the cross.  These are some of the darkest days on the Christian calendar.  We need some people who have seen Jesus in all his glory, who can hold up that image in front of us no matter what else might be happening.  And maybe you are one of those people.  Maybe Jesus is so real for you that it’s like he’s sitting right there beside you, so that you can almost hear the sound of his breathing.  Maybe you know that he really is the Beloved Son of God.  You’ve been listening to him all your life and you’re not about to stop now. 

Well, don’t only listen to him: talk about him.  Be like those disciples who were with him on the mountain, like Peter, who says in today’s Epistle reading: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”[v] 

I think Peter would say it was no vision.  I think he would say it was one of those moments when heaven came to earth, and something like that will get you though some pretty dark days.  It will get you through the 40 days of Lent and all the days that follow.  So, let that image of Jesus in all his glory sustain you through the days that lie ahead.  No matter what anyone else may say about him see him for who he really is, and hear God say again, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased; 

“Listen to him!”

Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

[ii] Ibid., p. xv. I also shared this paragraph in a November, 2022, sermon called, “King of the World,” from the Learning as We Go series.

[iii] These next few pages are from a sermon I preached in 2009 called, “Follow Me,” which was included in my book The Seven FIRST Words of Christ, published by Nurturing Faith in 2020 and available at Amazon.com.

[iv] And now, back to this Sunday’s sermon (smile).

[v] 2 Peter 1:16-18