You Are Part of the Great Story
A sermon on Matthew 17:1-9
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.]
In the last month or so, my son, Maddox, has discovered the books and movies of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
It has been delightful to watch him discover a world of characters and stories that I have loved since I was about his age…. Although, I have to admit that it’s not always the same elements of this magical world that most draw our respective interest. So far, Maddox has been most captivated by the epic battle at Helm’s Deep. Whereas, for me, the best part of the story is always lovable, faithful Sam Gamgee.
If you’re not familiar with Tolkien’s tale, Sam is a simple gardener from a simple country, who never expected anything exciting to happen to him, unless it were, perhaps, someday summoning the courage to ask Rosie Cotton for a dance. But, there is a depth and wisdom hidden deep in Sam’s character, and it is revealed when his master, Frodo, gets pulled into a desperate quest to literally save the world against all hope, and Sam refuses to abandon him.
Sam is an unexpected hero. He’s not especially smart, or strong, or important by any of the typical standards. And he certainly never indulged in dreams of glory, but he gets pulled into the great story of his world even so. And there is this beautiful moment in the books where Sam realizes that he and Frodo are part of the continuation of the same world-shaping story that they used to listen to as fireside tales. He exclaims “Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still. It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”
Perhaps it’s just because our household has been all-things-Tolkien in recent weeks, but I heard an echo of Sam’s insight as I studied our gospel text this week. In a way, the meeting of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the mountain top is a way of capturing – in one frame – several key mountaintop moments in the one great story of God’s salvation work in our world.
God met Moses on a mountaintop, shrouded in fire and cloud, to reveal to him the law and promise of God, before the people entered the land of the covenant. (Exodus 24:12-18)
And later, after the people had settled in the land, and instituted a monarchy that led them away from God, God met Elijah on a mountaintop, to reassure the prophet that God’s salvation work was not finished yet, and to instruct him to commission others for their part in the on-going work. (1 Kings 19:8-18)
And so, those earlier parts of God’s salvation story get pulled into focus for the disciples, when Moses and Elijah meet Jesus on yet another mountaintop. This is the disciples’ epiphany moment when they realize, like Sam, that “we’re in the same tale still. It’s going on.”
I expect that was a rather overwhelming thing to realize – even without the shocking transformation of their master and teacher shining like the sun. Imagine suddenly realizing that You have a part in in the same world-shaping story that you’ve been hearing since you were a child. Imagine having the veil drawn back to see – if only for a moment – the nearness of God; To realize that you are witnessing God’s on-going work of reaching out to heal the brokenness of humanity. Imagine experiencing this revelation NOT just as a story about God, but as your own personal experience.
If Peter’s reaction is anything to go by, it’s kind of hard to know what to do in that situation. He knows he is experiencing something amazing… something GOOD. But he’s not quite sure what to do with that. Where does he fit it? “Uhhh…Maybe we can build some huts for you… great… shiny people. Would you like that?”
I thinks we’re meant to laugh… but not AT Peter so much as WITH him… in solidarity with him because we can relate to his awkwardness. No one expects to be landed in “the great tales” as Sam Gamgee would say.
But, if we know the stories of Moses and Elijah, no one would have expected them to be part of God’s great tale either. Moses was stutterer, not to mention a murderer. Elijah suffered a suicidal depression. Personal greatness is not what God requires to take part in the great tale of salvation history.
So then, what God does require? What does this revelation moment on the mountaintop reveal to the disciples about their part in the great story? I see the answer to that question in the three statements addressed directly to the disciples.
First: They are instructed to listen.
While Peter is speaking, trying, in his fumbling way to define a role for himself in this mountaintop moment, the voice of God, interrupts him… “The is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5).
The thing about participating in the great story, is that you are NOT the author. You aren’t in charge of how everything is supposed to go, and you don’t have an advance copy of the script.
But in this story – in God’s salvation story – the author has a habit of breaking in. It’s not always as obvious as a voice speaking out of the clouds, but you don’t need that. Because you have the whole life and ministry of Jesus… and you are supposed to listen to him. Jesus leads the way in God’s great story.
The second instruction comes from Jesus: “Get up and do not be afraid” (Matt. 17:7).
This is such important guidance. Because the disciples ARE afraid – of course they are!
And I don’t think that fear was only because a voice from heaven spoke to them, and they saw Jesus in the glory of his true nature. Even without all of that, it can be scary to be confronted with significance, to recognize that you are called to take part in the great re-shaping work that God is doing in the world. It’s enough to make anyone fall to the ground, overcome by fear.
Jesus does not rebuke the disciples for their fear, but neither does he abandon them to it. He touches them. He reminds them that he is there, with them, the same Jesus they recognize, without the dazzling robe. And he tells them not to be afraid. They are on this journey together.
The final instruction, the final revelation about participating in God’s great story, is a little more complicated. Jesus tells the disciples to tell no one about what has happened… YET.
The disciples had just received a stunning revelation. But they didn’t really understand it. They didn’t have the perspective to tell their story. That’s clear from the stories that come before and after the transfiguration in the gospel, when twice Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection and the disciples don’t understand. All they can hear in these predictions is the death part… the way that Jesus is telling a story they don’t want to be part of. They can’t seem to comprehend the resurrection. They don’t see the hope. And so, Jesus tells them not to share what they have experienced until after the resurrection…until they understand what God is doing in the saving story.
The point of the one Great Story – the story that Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus, and the disciples are all part of – is the revelation of the God who saves. God is a God who sees what is broken in the world and in humanity, and God reaches out, again and again to heal the world: to give instruction for how to do better, and to anoint leaders to guide the people, and to bring a hope of victory even over death, a hope that is accessible to all.
And that means that WE are also all part of this same great story. We may not have a mountaintop experience to point to as our one shining moment of revelation. But, after all, the mountaintop is not the point. The mountaintop is just a way to point out the connection, a moment of clarity when we see how each of the great moments in the story are all connected, all part of the same great tale.
And our moments of revelation are part of that same story too. Every experience of God’s saving activity in our lives is part of the same light of transfiguration that reveals the work of God in the world.
And so, I want to invite you into an exercise of telling your own part of the one great story. In your bulletins you should find a half-sheet for sermon notes, with 3 questions, drawn from today’s gospel:
What helps you listen to Jesus?
What helps you not to be afraid?
What is your story of hope?
I’m going to sit down now and I want you to take the next couple of minutes (in silence) to answer those questions for yourself. Maybe even write them down.
You may never have had a mountaintop experience, but you have these few minutes. And you have this revelation: that You are part of God’s one great story. Let the light of transfiguration shine into your life and reveal your part, as witness to that story.
Because I want you tell it. Today – over coffee during fellowship time, or else at home`– I want you to practice telling your story.
Listen to Jesus. Don’t be afraid. Recognize your hope.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers.