Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Sermon - "Build Something!"
Transfiguration Sunday Preached February 23, 2020, at the 9:30 am Worship
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown
In early 2008, I joined a newly formed pastor’s group. The 17 pastors in the group had several things in common with each other. We were all in the Atlanta area, we were all pastors of a Presbyterian church, and all of our churches were either going through or needed to go through some significant changes. We were young and old, male and female, light-skinned and dark-skinned. Together, with our guide and mentor Tom Tewell, we became a family, and learned lessons of leadership, pastoring, and ministry, and supported one another to become better at our craft.
That group traveled to the Holy Land together in late 2009. We spent two weeks there and tried to put real experiences into our minds from places we had only imagined or heard about in scripture. We walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We visited Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, as well as many other sites named in the Bible beyond those cities.
One of the sites we visited was Mount Tabor, which some believe to be the Mount of Transfiguration. It’s not the only mount in the area, but it does stand out and is only a few kilometers from Nazareth. Today’s scripture is Jesus’ transfiguration, which some say happened on that mount. Let’s listen to the Word of the Lord, from…
Scripture Matthew 17:1-13
7:1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 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.”
5 While Peter 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!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
(This is the word of the Lord…)
Sermon Build Something
No one knows, of course, which mount or hill Jesus walked up with Peter, John, and James. But someone long ago decided that it might just be Mount Tabor, and enough people agreed and built a large church and a monastery on top of it.
The pastor’s group I was in visited the sanctuary on top of Mount Tabor in 2009. The Sanctuary is designed into three zones, a large central zone for Jesus, and two smaller side zones in the back, for Moses and Elijah. Before you enter, Matthew’s version of this story is engraved over the doors in Latin. As you enter, a huge mural tries to depict the shining Jesus, with Moses and Elijah beside him, and with the three disciples watching from a distance. To the rear, and on either side, are very small rooms, one for Moses, the other for Elijah, also with small murals on the arced ceilings remembering their mountain top experiences... for Moses, it was receiving the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai.
I don’t know why Jesus went up a mountain at that point in his ministry. Jesus has been healing all kinds of illnesses and issues in his people and has fed 4000 or more with seven loaves and few fish. He has warned his disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees which can contaminate the whole loaf, meaning even the smallest untruth about God can contaminate a whole community, but the disciples thought he was talking about actual bread.
He has just asked them who they think he is, and they respond with a variety of answers before Peter finally confesses Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus promises to build a church around Peter’s confession and promises whatever they forgive on earth will be forgiven in the community of heaven. Just before this mountaintop moment, Jesus tells them how he will suffer, die, and be raised, and when Peter rebukes him for saying such things, Jesus says “Get behind me Satan” to the same one who just called him the Messiah, the same one around whom Jesus will build his church.
It is right after these things that Jesus climbs the mountain with this subset of disciples. There, Jesus steps away from them a bit, and they look over and see something amazing. Jesus is somehow transfigured. He shines as if he himself is light. They also see two other figures with him, and they somehow intuitively know these figures are Moses and Elijah.
So far, the disciples have done well. They went where he led them. They followed him, even if it meant up a steep climb. They went when he asked them, right now, even if they were hungry, thirsty, or tired. They stayed beside him on the path he walked, that he wanted them to walk with him. There at the top, Jesus stops, and they stop with him. He steps away a bit, and they wait and watch.
That is the first part of being a disciple. Walk with Jesus, when he wants us to walk, where he leads us, no matter what else is going on, no matter which direction he leads.
What if leaving right now with Jesus doesn’t match our plans, our preferences, our other commitments, our calendars? What if Jesus seems to be walking a completely different direction than we had hoped for, or think wise or safe? On this day, the disciples didn’t resist or buck. They simply followed.
As disciples, that is our first calling as well, to simply follow. We might have our own plans. We might have set our own schedules. We might want to go in a specific direction, or we might want to go nowhere at all. But sometimes, God interrupts us and invites us to move, to do something new, to walk through something that seems difficult in a direction that doesn’t feel best to us. To go with God up a mountain, to say yes, to follow, to walk beside God when God calls in the direction God is headed… that is the most faithful response we can muster.
We don’t get to hear too much about the journey, how long it took or how difficult it was for the disciples. We just arrive at the destination and are shown what they also were shown, Jesus, shining, and accompanied by two other great prophets and leaders who also led people through faith in a God-led direction.
Then, Peter tries something. He inserts himself. “Hey, Jesus, this is great, being here, just us, together. We could build structures here for each of you, so we could come here and hang out together whenever we want.”
It is cute how Peter tries to make it sound like a good idea. I think Peter wanted to keep this mountaintop moment with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah forever. I think Peter wanted to capture it, to neatly package it into something he and these other friends could return to whenever they wanted. Think about the arrogance of that. “I, Peter, will make houses for you, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and it will be where you stay so we can come and visit you whenever we need you.” He didn’t hear it like that, or maybe even mean it like that, but I think that’s what he was saying. After doing so well with the “follow” part, Peter blows it in the same way we sometimes blow it as well. He tries to protect what he likes and wants.
It’s very common in church, among pastors and members alike. God calls. We follow. We take a risk and walk with God. We get through the rough spots, the moments of transition or difficulty. We find ourselves amazed at what God has revealed after our journey, and our first impulse when we get to the mountain top experience is to capture it, to bottle it. We want a way to hold it and return to it on demand. We interrupt God with our ideas, words of our own, instead of soaking in the experience and listening to what God is revealing. The risk and hard work of getting there paid off, and now we want to hold onto the payoff and not have to go through anything hard, difficult, or different again.
God interrupts and tells us what the next step is when we get there. Peter tries to come up with something to say and something to do to hold onto this moment, and a cloud descends over them and God says out of the cloud, “This is my son! Listen to him!” Listen to God in Christ by Holy Spirit. When the risk and work of a journey pay off with a mountaintop experience, the response is not to capture it but to listen, listen for the next invitation to risk something else and take another journey.
Good disciples follow where Jesus wants to take us. Good disciples are led on a journey that might be inconvenient or difficult, but they continue walking. Good disciples arrive at beautiful mountain-top moments where God’s identity, love, and power are revealed. Good disciples get to witness what God is showing us in Christ. Our next step in those moments is not to interrupt God with our idea of keeping what we have, building systems and structures to preserve something for ourselves. Good disciples know arriving at a mountain-top moment is not the point of the journey. It's just a point along the journey. Good disciples enjoy those moments and listen for the invitation to risk something else and start another journey. Good disciples stay ready to follow and risk again and again.
The same God who invites us to drop everything and follow up a mountain, right now, and gives us beautiful mountain top experiences, is the same God who will now, if we listen, invite us on another journey, to another amazing experience. We can’t keep and hold the ones before us, but we can continue risking and following toward the next one in front of us. That’s who this God is, not one who leads us to a promised destination so we can build something and stay there, but one who promises to lead us and give us front row seats to holy moments of life along our risky faithful journey together.
If we find ourselves taking a risk, saying yes, following God in a direction we don’t necessarily want to go, but walking with God up a hard path, remember, a God moment is just ahead. Then, when the God moment comes, let’s enjoy it, soak it all in, and hold our tongues, not dare suggest we should build something to preserve it for ourselves. But instead, say thank you, and listen for God’s invitation to follow again, to walk us off in some new direction again, and to try something else risky again, trusting another mountain top moment with God is on the path before us.
To God be all the glory and honor, now and forevermore. Amen.
This is our last Sunday before Lent. My prayer for us this Lent is that we have the courage to follow where Jesus is leading us, that we share a few mountain top experiences with one another, and that we don’t try to build things to have and hold what we already enjoy, but gladly listen and follow again, even if God leads us in a new direction.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown