"Seeing Ghosts, Shunning Glory"
Transfiguration Sunday Mar.6, 2011 Mt.17:1-13
STANDING UP TO THE STRONG MAN
The revolution in Libya has been in the forefront of the news in recent weeks. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi clings to power after 4 decades despite increasing rebel activity. He shows no signs of stepping down, and even denies that protests have been as large as foreign media suggests. But then, what would you expect from someone who in 2008 called himself "King of Kings of Africa"?
Gaddafi is playing the Strong Man, insisting on continuing to assert himself. However some of his own military people have defected (complete with Mirage fighter jets to Malta) rather than fire on their own people. Libya's human rights record is abysmal. So it would seem, compared to standards in international law, Libyans have much worth protesting about. Watching the anti-government colonels being interviewed, one cannot help but admire their courage to risk taking a stance opposing the Strong Man. They are willing to put their lives on the line for what they see as a fight in the best interests of their people. There seems to be a mounting conviction that Gaddafi has lost the moral right to rule.
Christians honour Jesus as the true 'King of Kings': He did not take up weapons to enforce His reign. But Matthew presents Him in this text as the new Champion who defeats the Strong Man, and calls us to join Him in the victory by forsaking our own resistance to sin - what's holding us captive to evil's destructive regime.
EXALTED CHAMPIONS, ULTIMATE EXODUS
Note the context in which Matthew tells us about the Transfiguration incident. 17:1 begins, "After 6 days, Jesus took with Him..." 6 days after what? There's a link here to the previous chapter - Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ; Jesus' first prediction of His coming death and resurrection; Peter's protest that that's not what Messiahship is all about; and Jesus' assertion that taking up one's cross is central to what discipleship is all about. Saving one's soul to be rewarded when the Son of Man comes in His glory is more important than gaining the whole world at the cost of losing one's soul in the process.
The prospect of the Son of Man coming in His Father's glory, and seeing the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom, serve as the lead-in for what happens in chapter 17. It's as if we have here a 'sneak preview' of what the Kingdom is really about, how suffering and Messiahship come together. V2, after Jesus leads Peter James & John up a high mountain alone together, He's suddenly transfigured before them, literally a 'metamorphosis': His face shines like the sun, His clothes become white as light. For the first time, the disciples are glimpsing Jesus as He really is in His eternal essence, resplendent with glory. John's vision in Revelation 1(14ff) is similar: "His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.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." This is Jesus like you've never seen Him in any traditional painting! John falls at His feet as though dead. Wouldn't we, too, if we met someone who had a voice booming with the power of Niagara Falls?
And if that's not overwhelming enough - suddenly the disciples feel like they're seeing a ghost! V3, Moses and Elijah appear before them, talking with Jesus.
Moses is associated with the Law, communicated from Mount Sinai; Elijah is associated with the Prophets, who called Israel back to relationship with God including obedience to the Law. So together they represent the Old Testament, God's revelation of truth in word written and His live call back into fellowship.
But consider these heroes in terms of who they stood up against for God's purposes. Moses did far more than carry some stone tablets down a mountain; he stood up against Pharaoh who was holding Israelites captive in exploitive bondage. Exodus 5(1f), "Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.'" Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go."" The Egyptian Strong Man asserted himself against God's clearly-revealed instruction. He wanted to keep all the benefits of holding Israel captive as his slaving work-force. Backing the political leader up were his religious cronies, wise men and sorcerers who copy-catted Moses' miracles as much as they could (Ex 7:12, 22; 8:7).
In Elijah's day, King Ahab and his Baal-worshipping wife Queen Jezebel were the 'strong man' rebelling against God and killing His prophets. Elijah bravely took a stand against Ahab, prophesying it wouldn't rain for 3 years, and rebuking the king for his extensive idolatry. 1Kings 18(18f,21), ""I have not made trouble for Israel," Elijah replied."But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the LORD's commands and have followed the Baals.Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table."...Elijah went before the people and said, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." But the people said nothing."
Moses and Elijah were champions of faith because they bravely interceded for God's people before the 'strong men' of their day. They would accept nothing less than freedom for Israel to worship Yahweh and live according to God's ways. They stood up to the wicked overlords and, through God's miraculous intervention, secured release for the captives from their enemies.
Their appearing on the mountaintop with Jesus is to encourage Him as He's about to take the ultimate step that will make Him the prime Champion over evil. Matthew records in v3 that they were "talking with Jesus". What were they talking about? Luke's account records, "They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem." His departure - Luke actually uses the Greek word 'exodus': parallel to Moses delivering the people from slavery to Egypt, Jesus was about to win for believers deliverance from bondage to sin and death, all evil's schemes and scourge. He would free us, and like Elijah's call, renew people in devotion and relationship with God. It was a mountaintop conference of champions!
CAPTURE AND CONTROL - OR KILL
Colonel Gaddafi doesn't take kindly to protests: he seems prepared to use any military force or propaganda tactic that will allow him to keep his grip on dictatorial power. Jesus summed up the usual use of political force this way: "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them." (Mk 10:42) Even as parents we hope to have obedient children who don't say 'no' when we instruct them. When you're a student working on a team project, you like it better when your partners carry through on their assigned task rather than slacking off or changing their mind. As human beings with hearts minds and wills, we want things to go OUR way. There's a little Gaddafi - a little 'strong man' - in all of us.
Peter is quick off the mark to make the most of the situation; he'd like to 'capture the moment' for maximum advantage. V4, "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."" Three booths - maybe on account of the upcoming Feast of Tabernacles, but more likely Peter was just wanting to seize this golden opportunity, start a revival, sort of a holy headquarters - just think how many pious pilgrims would want to make the trek to this shrine to actually glimpse Moses and Elijah of scriptural fame! Peter could be a gatekeeper to his dying day, living off the charitable givings. You could even sell bracelets, T-shirts, little statues. He could head up a permanent religious colony - "The Holy Hermitage of Hermon" or something like that.
The religious side of us is quick to want to seize fleeting God-moments and freeze them into institutional form. We're much better at machinery than miracles. People travel to Mecca or Lourdes hoping to mimic some famous spiritual sensation, or we sing that favourite worship song hoping to re-induce those fuzzy feelings we had at a retreat 2 years ago. But our Creative God doesn't work on a pre-programmed basis. He wants our attention NOW, in this moment, in a fresh way.
God interrupts Peter (as He has a habit of doing): the cloud of Shekinah glory envelopes them, a brilliant fog alive with God's presence and the strange, mighty beings who accompany the Lord of hosts. The Father speaks, affirming the Son: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.Listen to him!" (Mt 17:5)
Listen to HIM - Jesus, introducer of the New Covenant, rending by the brokenness of His body and shedding of His blood the curtain that, since Eden, separated man from God. Give your attention to Him; follow Him; let Him speak into your soul His living and active Word through the Holy Spirit resident within. Love God totally - that's most important; love one another - that goes along with loving God. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and find your soul by losing yourself in the adventure God's waiting to lead you on.
But - the strong man within resists listening to another. Our will and self-image resent bowing to any other. Like the rest of humanity, we are spoiled for doing, v12, "everything they wished".
As they descend the mountainside and Jesus counsels them not to tell others what they've witnessed until He's proven His championship by rising from the dead, the disciples are trying to mentally adjust their eschatological time-frame to this in-breaking of the Kingdom they sense is happening. This doesn't fit the neat little prophetic charts the TV-rabbis seemed so confident about. V10, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" This refers to Malachi 4(5), "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes."
Jesus assures them, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things.But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished." (Mt 17:11f) V13 says they perceive He's referring to John the Baptist. The vast population may have responded to the wilderness prophet and been baptized, but the religious leaders and Herod the King certainly didn't. Herod wanted to marry his brother Philip's wife - religious scruples notwithstanding. John spoke out against it. Herodias resented it. When Herod was arousingly entertained by her daughter's dancing, she got her chance - her revenge - the prophet's head on a plate. The corrupt people in power get their way again. We can be very dull and resistant in hearing and responding to the Holy Spirit's voice. Just a little more pressure on the gas pedal - nobody'll know. Just bump up the parental control rating for this one movie - it's more exciting. CRA doesn't need to know about that under-the-table business dealing; nobody else would report it. And so we justify our error and sear our conscience. The strong man wins again - and we're just a bit more dead in soul.
So it goes. As Jezebel 'had it in' for Elijah, threatening to kill him as she had done so many other prophets of Yahweh; as Herod terminated the annoying Baptizer; Jesus adds, v13, "In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Suffering, 'pascha' - a mild term for the excruciating, deadly torture He'd endure at the hands of the Roman 'lichtor' (whipper), the beating thorn-crowning soldiers, and the crucifiers. "Son of God, are ya? Take THAT!" And so what we sinners can't capture and control, we kill. We refuse to recognize Jesus' lordship, it's not our style.
Nevertheless - that doesn't stop Jesus from going up against the 'Strong Man'. Back in chapter 12, when the religious folk charged that He drove out demons by the power of the devil, Jesus countered: "Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house." (Mt 12:29) At the cross Jesus bound up the strong man - first Satan, the 'prince of this world' He has driven out (Jn 12:31); but also the 'strong man' of our sinful flesh, the fallen desires, lusts, and envyings that hold us captive to sin. Led by the Spirit, we can now put to death the misdeeds of the body (Rom 8:13). In Him we can be champions over what would drag us down - alive to righteousness. Instead of shunning the Glorious One, we can share His glory - if we first share in His sufferings (Rom 8:17).
FOUR WANDERING WAIFS: THE STRONGMAN'S LEGACY
I'd like to close with a story from Canada - happens to be from Alberta, but could be next door to you. It's a story that makes me want to cry at the legacy the strong man wreaks in people's lives; but that also makes me want to cheer when Christians step in and stand up against the strong man to bring God's love and goodness to bear in a situation. It's a blog our daughter Emily wrote this week about a situation in which her mother-in-law played a key part...
"they woke me at two in the morning, those boys on the road in their plaid jackets and mittenless
fingers, hatless heads and clown noses and "i wonder if they put those on to try and stay warm?"
my husband wondered.
mother in law had stopped to see if they needed help, those bare hands gripping four bags of toys, those legs toddling down the road in the cold of the lion of march
"our dad's not home," the older one told her, and the younger one sniffed and they looked towards the trailer, screen door swinging and she knew she couldn't leave them on the road
the one in kindergarten, the other turning seven "tomorrow" which he said in the disappointed way only a child could, whose mother has run away, whose father wasn't home when his children were dropped on the step by a grandma too overcome by the death of her husband to take care of them any longer
and they were walking back to grandma's, four hours away.
and they got into my mother in law's van too fast, too fast, she said, but they were so cold, so very cold and life holds no fear for the abandoned, for the worst has already happened
and she took them to a place where children are safe, a place with toys and snacks and couches, a place where phone calls were made and authorities told and all the time the boys wondering when they were going to be taken back to grandma's... for even when the familiar doesn't want you, it's still familiar
and when it came time for mother in law to leave, she teared up for "we'd bonded" she told me but the boys, they just shrugged thin goodbyes and put on their clown noses for they were tough, she said... they had to be. otherwise they'd die and no one would notice.
and they woke me up at two, walking, forever walking towards their grandma's with their clown noses and their purple hands and their bags of toys"
It's gripping to consider the children's bondage: a mother run away, a father wasted and passed
out on the couch, unable to care. Yet I recognize in myself some of those same appetites, the
same tendencies that, if given free rein, would make a parent selfish and irresponsible. Urgings
of the 'strong man' that would bring me down and cause suffering for those around me. But by
God's grace, His love can turn a sad story around. We need Jesus' goodness and brilliant glory
to shatter our dullness and wake us up to His Kingdom work and possibilities. To be champions
of freedom and life. Let's pray.