Matthew 17:1-9
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 26, 2017

To live with faith is to hold on to what we’ve seen in the light even in the night.

When I was about to marry Adele, a long- and happily-married man told me, “You’ll go through tough times and be tempted to give up. Remember then what you saw in her in the first place and how your being together blesses you again and again. Hold on to what you’ve seen in the light even in the night.”

Every follower of Jesus needs to practice that. Even Jesus Himself needed to practice that.

God brought about that flash of glory we call the transfiguration in order to give Jesus and His followers light enough for the night of suffering ahead of them.

Here’s the story: Just before the transfiguration the disciple Peter finally gets it right about who Jesus is, declaring, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” – though Peter is at that moment saying more than he understands completely or consistently. Immediately “from that time on” Jesus begins to drill into Peter’s and the other disciples’ heads that their Teacher must suffer greatly and die.

In response Peter, though he has just proclaimed Jesus’ divinity, pulls His Lord aside to straighten Him out and prevent Him from pursuing what Peter views as a foolish and needlessly dangerous course.

Now, because Jesus is in fact free to turn from that course, because the avoidance of the pain of the cross must feel like an attractive option, because His crucifixion will happen only if He lets it happen, Jesus experiences Peter’s suggestion as a real temptation and rebukes the disciple for enticing Him to go back on His commitment just as Satan is always trying to get Him to do. Then straightway Jesus starts teaching Peter and the rest that they must, if they are going to remain with Him, take up their own cross and follow His example – making their own painful sacrifices to fulfill the purposes of love.

Yet, in the ensuing days Jesus surely cannot forget He could choose to avoid Calvary—and that choice must continue to tempt Him.

In light of that temptation, it is significant that Jesus’ transfiguration comes within a week of His starting to focus on His approaching suffering. I see the transfiguration as an effort of God the Father to give Jesus and the disciples the assurance and encouragement they need to stay the course in doing whatever love demands, even if it plunge Jesus into the dark night of hell and the disciples into dark nightmares of their own.

Luke’s account of the transfiguration is helpful at this point because Luke tells us things Matthew does not: that Jesus has gone up the mountain in order to pray, and that His transfiguration comes about while He is praying.

What else but a struggle with accepting the horrors before Him would drive Jesus so urgently to prayer? And why else would He, when He talks with Moses the greatest giver of God’s law and Elijah the model prophet for God, talk with them about His death, as Luke tells us He does?

By the transfiguration God gives Jesus strength and encouragement. He pronounces over Jesus the exact same words of affirmation and confirmation He pronounced over Him at His baptism when Jesus first chose to stand with sinners by lining up with them for baptism by John (who saw Jesus as the sacrificial lamb taking away the sin of the world) and thereby took His initial, intentional step toward His death on the cross – which He later called His “baptism”.

The flash of glory Jesus sees and the strengthening word from God He hears enables Him to emerge from them more determined than ever to walk the path of suffering and sacrifice for love’s sake. Right after His transfiguration, Luke tells us, Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem”, in order to undergo His crucifixion, a crucifixion which He will absorb into Himself all human evil and pay by Himself the full penalty for our sins against each other and God. God’s assurance in the transfiguration enables Jesus to resist the temptation to take the easy way out and to renew the commitment to do whatever it takes to save sinners.

And it enables His disciples to do the same.

Dark times will soon hit them as well – fairly quickly in the seeming defeat of Good Friday and the felt despair of Holy Saturday as Jesus’ corpse grows cold in the tomb – and later in their costly efforts to share the good news of Easter throughout the world. What will sustain them through the nights of their suffering and martyrdom will be the light of such revelations as they received at His transfiguration.

To this day, every disciple of Christ faces the challenge of holding on to what they’ve seen in the light even in the night.

Joni Eareckson Tada has lived five decades in the night of her quadriplegia, a paralysis that not only has disabled her but afflicted her with unrelenting pain. But Joni has also lingered long in the light of God’s word.

A while ago, she came across some long-lost home movies of herself as a teenager before she broke her neck in the diving accident. She watched herself walk around with strong and sure steps, jump into the saddle to ride her horse and wave to the cameras with hands she hasn’t been able to move like that in 50 years.

You might have thought that seeing herself do things she no longer can would have depressed her, refreshing her old, painful feelings of loss. Instead, it caused her to praise God in joyful hope.

For, immersed in scripture as she is, she thought of how Christ’s body had been broken and then raised in glory, and of how the Bible promises that those who believe will be raised in a resurrection like His.

She looked at her old strong, healthy body and thought, “I was wonderfully fit and able back then. But that is nothing compared to what I have to look forward to. One day I will be more beautiful than I ever have and be able to jump higher than I ever could.”

Of course, Joni endures her dark nights of dejection. But in the end she conquers her dejection and radiates joy because she holds on to the bright promises of God’s word.

Let us in in our dark nights hold on to what God has shown us in the light of the Bible, and triumph over our challenges and struggles with faith, hope and love. Let us pray.

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