The Transfiguration of Christ – Matthew 17:1-8 Sermon

by Kristen Gilles

in Liturgy & Sermons

Read or watch Bobby’s sermon on the Transfiguration of Christ, from Matthew 17:1-8. We learn that Christ is the power of the Church and the Lord of history. Whatever we’re going through, it’s just one page – it’s not the final stage. The Lector is Deacon Meg Shaffer. You’ll see the video below. Following that, you can read the manuscript.

May 3, 2020 – Bobby Gilles – Power Of The Church from Sojourn Collective on Vimeo.

Six days later Jesus took Peter and the two brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus.

Peter exclaimed, “Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials —one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground.

Then Jesus came over and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus.

Pt 1 – Setup Mystery/Tension

I don’t need to tell you what a tense, unusual spring we’ve had. This Coronavirus outbreak was such an unexpected twist in the story of our lives that, if you’re like me, you’ve probably been gripped by a feeling of powerlessness. And it’s not just a “feeling” – we literally can’t go where we want to go and do what we want to do. We can’t even help people the way we’d want because of social distancing. 

Of course, it’s worse for those have been laid off, or gotten sick, or lost loved ones. But even if you haven’t yet been affected in these ways, we’ve all been reminded that no matter how healthy, wealthy and secure we think we are, no matter how predictable life seems, it can all change in an instant. 

If we’re honest, we’ve often felt this powerlessness and confusion, long before the events of this spring.

And when something good happens we’re quick to say, “Oh, now I see God’s plan …” and then the next thing happens and we realize we didn’t know what we thought we knew.

Several years ago, my Dad passed away. A month later Kristen and I discovered she was pregnant. What a gift God was giving us in the midst of our grief. He’s the Lord who gives and takes – he had taken from us, and now it’s time for him to give. And then, well before we could even know the sex of the baby, we had a miscarriage. We named him or her Piper Jordan, a good unisex name. 

We had assumed so much about why God allowed Kristen to get pregnant because we were trying to make sense of our family’s story and our recent loss – to know that it somehow means something, that it’s going to be okay, and that God still loves us.


Pt 2: Looking For Clues
Today we have a story which Christians call “The Transfiguration.” It will seem odd for the next several minutes but then we will suddenly see how clearly it speaks to our world right now. 

We meet three followers of Jesus named Peter, James and John. They were Jewish, as all Jesus’ original followers were, meaning they were God’s chosen people as we learn about in the Old Testament. God had elected this nation to have a special relationship with Him, not just so they would huddle within themselves and be blessed but so God would eventually bless everyone in the world through them.

But Israel disobeyed God over and over. They were conquered by one nation, then another, then another, and now they are ruled by Rome. Will God leave them powerless forever? When will he set things right?

Along comes Jesus, claiming that God would set everything right through him. So far, we’ve learned in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus is God’s Son, who has taken on flesh, born of the virgin Mary. He is fully God and fully human, which uniquely qualifies him to represent Israel to God the Father, perfectly obey God’s Law as Israel’s representative, and establish a kingdom that would never end, which would bless the entire world and welcome all races into God’s family.

Peter, James and John bought into this as much as they could understand, but things haven’t been going as expected. The top religious leaders have rejected Jesus. And he isn’t teaching them to fight Rome – they may have felt like the Karate Kid: “Jesus, what’s up with this ‘wax on, wax off’ Mr. Miyagi stuff – when do we learn karate”? When do we get the power?

Is Jesus really the fulfillment of thousands of years of promise in the Old Testament? Does this story make sense? Will all those loose threads come together?

Jesus takes them on a mountain and gives them something they’ll look back on and draw strength from after he returns to his Father. Something that will help us too, in about twenty minutes, so stay with me.

Six days later Jesus took Peter and the two brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

The original readers of the Gospel of Matthew would have immediately caught several allusions to the story of God revealing his glory to Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament. Before we go any further look at these similarities:

  • the reference to six days (Matthew 17:1, Exodus 24:16)
  • the cloud that covers the mountain (Matthew 17:5, Exodus 24:16)
  • God’s voice from the cloud (Matthew 17:5, Exodus 24:16)
  • three companions (Matthew 17:1, Exodus 24:1,9)
  • a transformed appearance (Matthew 17:2, Exodus 34:30)
  • the reaction of fear (Matthew 17:6, Exodus 34:30).”

Wild. But what happens next is really strange:

Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus.

The weirdest thing about all of this is that the last anyone had seen of Elijah, he was riding a chariot of fire 800 years before the birth of Christ. And Moses had been dead for at least 1300 years.

Yet God’s children had expected the return of both Moses and Elijah at the inauguration of the Kingdom of God (Dt. 18:15-18; Mal 4:5). 

Moses was the leader God used to free Israel from bondage to Egypt in the great Exodus, and he’s the prophet who received the Ten Commandments and all that we call “The Law” from God. 

Elijah is a later prophet who called Israel to repent for breaking the law so God would bring their dying, divided kingdom back to unity and life.

And although the parallels between Jesus and Moses on Mt. Sinai are crazy, Jesus ministered more like Elijah than any other prophet, with his mix of healings, miracles, and warnings of judgment. 

So, when the disciples see Jesus shining like the sun, talking with two other guys and referring to them as Moses and Elijah, the wheels start turning. If Jesus has been saying that the entire Old Testament is about him, and if these towering figures of the Old Testament have miraculously shown up to endorse him, then I guess Jesus really is the culmination of the entire Old Testament. Maybe the story makes sense. 

Peter exclaimed, “Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials —one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter is just trying to understand their story. Israel had dwelt in shelters in the wilderness back in the exodus, while the glory of God was among them. Israel commemorated this in a yearly holiday by building replica shelters. So, Peter is making the connection that Jesus wants him to make: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Exodus story and the promise of Israel. 

But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” 

This is exactly what God the Father had said from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, but this time he adds, “Listen to him.”  These words remind us of the commands in the Old Testament to listen and obey God. 

The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground.

Then Jesus came over and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 

And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus.

Having borne witness to Jesus, Moses and Elijah vanish, leaving Jesus alone. The era of the “Law and the Prophets” is over, every loose thread is tied up, and God has pointed the way forward: “Listen to Jesus.”

As they went back down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The scene of transfiguration was like the curtain between the spirit world and our world being ripped open, revealing that this flesh-and-blood human named Jesus was also God. The others will understand this better after Easter. 

In fact, these three will understand it better, in the context of his death and resurrection. When Luke writes of this event in his Gospel, he adds a detail that Matthew leaves out: Moses, Elijah and Jesus were discussing the upcoming “exodus” of Jesus, where he would break Satan’s power on the cross and lead us out of our bondage to death, just as God broke Pharaoh’s power and led his people out of Egypt in the first exodus.

As glorious as the Transfiguration was, it’s just one page, not the final stage, and they will understand this page in the context of the following ones.

10 Then his disciples asked him, “Why do the teachers of religious law insist that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?”

Here again, they are just trying to make sense of the story. The last book of the Old Testament said Elijah would return before the Day of the Lord, but as far as they knew, Elijah hadn’t returned before Jesus had begun his ministry. Can they trust this story? 


Pt. 3: Aha!

11 Jesus replied, “Elijah is indeed coming first to get everything ready. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but he wasn’t recognized, and they chose to abuse him. And in the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.” 13 Then the disciples realized he was talking about John the Baptist.

Now the disciples have an “Aha!” moment, and everything falls in place.

Last December before The Rise Of Skywalker came out I thought, “Rise of Skywalker? But Luke died in the last one. And the actress who played Leia died in real life so it can’t be her. And we found out in the last movie that Rey isn’t the daughter of Skywalkers.”

Ah, but is The Rise of Skywalker literally about Luke or a biological descendant? Or is someone grafted in, carrying on his work, his ministry? Do Luke and Leia appear from the great beyond to endorse someone? If you didn’t see it in the theater, find out this summer on Disney Plus …

John the Baptist wasn’t literally Elijah but he had the same anointing and carried out the same mission. The Rise Of Elijah led to The Revealing Of Messiah.

And so now with this last “Aha!” in place the disciples are starting to see that every page of this story is all about Jesus: 

  • We see Jesus as the new and better Adam, and as the seed promised to Eve who would crush the serpent’s head. 
  • We see Jesus in Moses and Elijah, sure, and we see him in every prophet like Huldah, priest like Aaron and king like David. 
  • We see Jesus in Noah, who built an ark to preserve humanity, and we see him in Deborah, who judged God’s people in equity. 
  • We see Jesus in Joseph, betrayed by his brothers only to forgive and shelter them, and we see Jesus in Esther, a queen who put her life on the line for her people. 
  • We see Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, and we see him in Lady Wisdom of Proverbs. 
  • Jesus has passed the test of the Law and applied his test score to us,
  • and in his death, resurrection and ascension he has absorbed Israel’s exile and led our exodus from our enslavement to sin and death.
  • As we are united with Christ we participate in his victory, living every day knowing ultimately that we cannot lose. 
  • Jesus is the power of the Church. 

As Sally Lloyd Jones writes in The Jesus Storybook Bible, which many of us read to our little ones:

“Every story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle – the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.”

If we can see that God is in control of a story that stretches to the dawn of time, working even in the lives of people who lived much farther before the birth of Jesus than we live after the birth of Jesus, and if God has revealed that Jesus was the point and hero all along – the Jesus who died for us, lives for us, and promises to complete his good work in us – then we know that we are in his story and it will end well. No matter what you’re going through or how things look now, it’s just a page, not the final stage.

This is great if I know what I’m talking about. How can we be sure that today’s odd little story, the Transfiguration, really means everything I’ve said it means? I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Could we take someone else’s word for what it all means? Someone whose very words were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write one of the final letters in the Bible? It turns out, we can. We call this letter 2 Peter: 

16 For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes 17 when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” 18 We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.

19 Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, 21 or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.
2 Peter 1:14-21

Those words are reaching us across the years, reminding us of witnesses who could say, “I know what I saw and heard, and I know what it means. Trust the story. No matter how things look today it’s just a page, not the final stage.”

This story goes way back. We don’t know how much farther it will go but because Christ fulfilled everything that God’s law demanded, because Christ was crucified and raised for us, we can trust that every detail of our lives matters.


Pt. 4: Our Response
Monday Challenge: Read the Old Testament. An easy way to do it, and to see how it tells the story of Jesus along with the New Testament, is to do the daily readings in our app – tap “Media” then “Daily Bible Devotions.”

Each day you’ll read a passage in Psalms, another OT passage and a NT passage – more on Sundays. Each day’s reading reflects the current season of the Church Calendar. The daily passages also fit within each other. The OT passage is a parallel, a contrast, or a symbol finds its fulfillment in the New Testament. 

All the things that happen to us, that we can’t understand? It’s just one page; it’s not the final stage. A page separated from its script won’t always make sense, but we can trust our author to sort every scene in its proper sequence and produce a masterpiece that spans untold millennia. 

We can work in God’s kingdom, not frantically as if victory is up to us, but out of simple gratitude and trust that in our union with Christ – the source of our power – God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven

I don’t know why we lost Dad and Piper when we did. I don’t know why _______ people have died this year from a virus that no one knew about last year. But I know the story we’re in, and that the final chapter is still to come.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;

1 Corinthians 15:42


How do we know this? It’s already happened once. Christ died for us in a broken body, and rose for us in power and majesty, ascending to God’s throne. The mount of transfiguration was a foretaste of his resurrection majesty, but the mount of crucifixion stands in between, showing what great love he has for us.

  • On the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus stands in glory, robed in celestial light. On the Mount of Crucifixion he hangs naked as soldiers gamble for his clothes.
  • On the Mount of Transfiguration he stands between Moses and Elijah, two heroes of the Bible. On the Mount of Crucifixion he hangs between two nameless criminals.
  • On the Mount of Transfiguration a bright cloud envelopes the scene. On the Mount of Crucifixion an eerie midday darkness covers the land.
  • On the Mount of Transfiguration Peter says, “Lord, this is so wonderful, let’s create a holiday.” On the Mount of Crucifixion Peter is hiding in shame, having denied three times that he even knows Jesus.
  • On the Mount of Transfiguration God the Father shouts from heaven, “Listen to my dearly loved Son.” On the Mount of Crucifixion an enemy soldier says, “I think we killed God’s Son.”

N.T. Wright says we only understand one mountain when we see it alongside the other. We must learn to see the glory in the cross. But (pick up the bread) … we must also learn to see the cross in the glory. 

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he took a loaf of bread like this one. After giving thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” And then he took a cup of wine like this one, and said, “This is my blood, shed for you. Drink this in remembrance of me until I return for you.”

Remember Christ’s body and blood, broken and shed for you — the most necessary page, but not the final stage. He died for you and he lives for you. Receive him.

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