By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 23, 2020
Matthew 17:1–9 (ESV)
1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
Last week we listened to part of Jesus’s most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. That sermon was basically the full introduction to Jesus’s ministry. Prior to that he walked around the villages surrounding Capernaum, he performed a few healings, and spoke a bit. But it was not until after the Sermon on the Mount that the people really began to respond to his teachings. Prior to this sermon, Jesus was still a simple handy man from Nazareth that moved to Galilee. The people enjoyed his company, but they had not fully embraced the idea that Jesus might be the Messiah they had been waiting for.
This Sunday we move from the season of Epiphany and have a week to look forward to the season of Lent. During the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the revealing of Jesus as Messiah. This is celebrated in three ways: the visit of the magi where they honor him as king, the baptism in the Jordan where he is revealed as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and his presentation at the temple where the prophets Anna and Simeon proclaimed him as the consolation or comfort of Israel. He was revealed as prophet, priest, and king. But he was not what people expected. He was a baby, he was a child, a teenager, and a simple construction worker. All the words and gifts, and we are left waiting for something more. We ask now what?
We live in those areas in our lives. We have knowledge of God; we even know how this salvation thing is supposed to work. We confess our belief. We earnestly seek his face and his favor, but we still have to live our lives, we are not immediately transported to our heavenly reward. We look forward and we say, “now what?”
Jesus during this Epiphany season answers that question. He called his disciples during this, “Now what?” season. He had not really done anything of great importance in the eyes of the world, yet people followed him. They followed because of his cousin John. John told his disciples to go to Jesus, he told them that Jesus must increase, and John must decrease, yet Jesus did not fully engage ministry until after John’s arrest. The disciples slowly made their way to Jesus. He met them on the shores of the sea and called them to follow him. He said to them if you follow me I will make you fishers of men, which basically means that you will participate in the unveiling of a new way of life, that is so foreign to the people right now that it would be like a fish out of water.
The disciples are intrigued. They each listen to conversations. They each respond personally to either a direct invitation from Jesus, or an invitation from a mutual friend. They each respond, because they listen to his teachings and they watch what he does, and they realize that his life and lifestyle is different. He loves God with everything he has, and he loves the people around him. They watch him do this naturally. He does not make a great show of his righteousness like the religious leaders at the synagogues and in the temple. He just lives his life, and when he does something spectacular, he encourages those involved to keep it quiet. It is as if Jesus does everything he can, not attract attention to himself, yet the attention make its way to him all the more.
The disciples respond to Jesus’s call, and even they are caught like us in an era of now what. The initial excitement is beginning to wane, and the pressures of life begin to creep back into their lives. “Now what?”
The disciples follow Jesus. They follow him from town to town. They follow him as he enters the synagogues, they follow him to the temple. They follow him across the sea, and they follow him to the very gates of hell and back. They find themselves face to face with evil incarnate, and they also follow him to places where the only response that can be made is joyful praises, because he raised a daughter who had died back to life. They listen and they participate, the are confused and excited, but now what?
When Jesus called the disciples, he did not simply ask them to participate in a small group bible study. He was literally calling them to follow him, to imitate him, to take on his lifestyle. This is what discipleship is. To become a disciple of a rabbi, you devote every waking and sleeping moment of your life to their leading. You eat what they eat, you sleep when they sleep, you listen to their teachings and as you learn you help in the rabbi’s ministry. When Jesus calls us to himself, he is calling us to turn from our desires, our dreams, our ideas and wisdom. He is calling us to let all that go, so that we can fill our lives with his life. His greatest desire is that our lifestyle will become his lifestyle. And his lifestyle was a cycle of worship, prayer, and service to others. We at Willow Creek have grasped onto that idea in our statement of who we are: We want to be a people Loving God (Worship), embracing the Holy Spirit (Prayer), and living the Love of Christ with others (Service or ministry).
We want to become that type of person. We want to become that type of church. We want to become that type of people. Imagine what would happen if we were to truly be defined and regarded as a people that loved God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and lived the love of Christ with others. Imagine what your own life would be like if whenever someone saw and spoke about you the only thing, they could say is they love God, embrace the holy spirit and live the love of Jesus with others. Imagine.
That is the life we have said we want. It is the goal that we have placed in front of us. It is the very lifestyle we strive to achieve. Now What? How do we get there?
Jesus and his disciples had been traveling around the lands of Israel. And for six days they had been the district of Caesarea Philippi. This is an interesting area of the nation. The city is dedicated by name to the Emperor of Rome, so it is a town devoted to the worship of the Emperor as a living God. There is a temple dedicated to the Emperor’s honor and celebrations devoted to him. This is not a Jewish city and for six days this is where Jesus and his disciples have been ministering. The region has a darker cloud surrounding it as well. This area has caves in the mountains. And from these systems of caves the waters of the Jordan emerge. The uniqueness of this area caused people that embraced pagan practices to deem this area the dwelling place of Pan, or Baal Gad. If you are aware of Greek mythology you would know that this figure was regarded as the god of fields, groves, wooded glens, since he is often depicted as half goat he is associated with fertility and the herds. The figure was celebrated in nature and worshiped with music and lustful satisfactions. But this is not exactly what makes the place dark. The word panic is derived from Pan. When this Greek god became upset his screeching caused even the Titans to scatter in fear. This was a god that people did not want to upset, because when you displeased Pan, your luck ran out, and panic is all that remains. This god of fertility became a god of darkness and fear, and the caves from which they revered him were often regarded as the very gates of hell. Jesus took his disciples to these gates, and asked them “Who do they say that I am?” And he followed that question with, “Who do you say that I am?”
For six days the disciples lodged at the gates of hell, and then Jesus withdrew to a mountain to pray. The disciples had seen this happen often. Jesus would often withdraw to isolated places to pray; it was just part of his rhythm of life. This personal communion with God is the second part of his holy rhythm or lifestyle. The first was that he made it his custom to worship in the synagogues. This withdraw, or retreat, came after the disciples, declared that they believed him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus said that upon the foundation of that statement even the gate of hell will not prevail. Even the shrieks of Pan will not cause fear. They rest in that knowledge, but now what?
He retreated to the mountains, and he took Peter, James, and John upon a high mountain, while the others remained at lower elevations. And upon that mountain Jesus prayed. While he was there upon the mountain praying his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. As he prayed, he was transformed, transfigured. They were able to see a glimpse of the light of God that filled his very being. If that was not amazing enough, he was joined by Moses and Elijah.
I do not think we are capable to imagine the brilliance of this scene. We cannot grasp importance of what is happening. When scripture is spoken about in the New Testament, they do not refer to it as the Old Testament, but the books of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is on the mountain glowing, and there with him is the Law giver, the author of the books of the Law, along with Elijah, the leader of the Prophets that did not taste death. On that mountain, they saw the word of God revealed in the flesh of Christ.
Moses the law giver, the one from whom the Jewish people trace their culture and society is speaking not to God the Father, but to Jesus the word made flesh. And Elijah, the prophet that spoke with such power that he could call fire down from heaven to consume a sacrifice before the priest of Baal, is there conversing with Jesus. In this space of prayer where time does not exist because it is in the realm of God, Peter, James, and John see before them their entire faith. All the law, every oracle uttered by the “sons of the Prophet Elijah, everything they have devoted their religious life too. Is right there before them speaking to Jesus.
On that mountain, Jesus shows himself to be who they say he is. He is the Son of God; he is the word of God made flesh. He is the wisdom of God lived before them. He is the light of God’s knowledge dwelling with them. And Peter thinks that he finally has the answer to the “Now what?” question. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Now what? Let’s build a new temple on this mountain. A temple that will overshadow the emperor of Rome, a temple from which the waters that cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem originate. Peter wants to stay and establish that mountain as the capital joining the priest, prophets, and the king together as one. And as he says this a cloud surrounds them. And a voice emanates from within the cloud says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And the proud disciples fall on their faces, terrified.
On that mountain, Jesus showed them a glimpse of his ultimate glory. He gave them a taste of what was, is and is to come. He opened a window to the kingdom now and the kingdom not yet here. He revealed to them in that time of prayer that all the law and the prophets revolves around and is found in him. This is why John wrote in his Gospel that the word became flesh and dwelled among us. When those disciples heard the voice in the cloud, they realized that they were done. They were standing the very presence of God, and they were not fit. It was as if they stood in that most holy section of the temple, and they were not worthy.
When we pray, we enter a dimension that is not bound by our understanding of the laws of physics. There is not time or space, only the presence of God. In that space if we listen with our hearts and minds, we can hear God’s voice. It is in prayer that the scripture we read, and our present struggles come together and enlighten us. It is in prayer that scripture is illumined in such a way that we can see before us a ministry to embrace. In prayer a light shine on a path in the distance, and we sense our destination and purpose in life. It is there that our worship becomes intimate and personal, where God becomes our God, and we become His bride. And it should strike fear in us.
I came to Willow Creek not knowing exactly why I would be the one called to this place. Because when I think of Kansas City, I see the vast potential. I came here with John Harkness, and we both said that the first thing we need to do is pray. And we prayed, we encouraged that at least one of you would open these doors and sit in the pew every night to pray. And we did pray. As I prayed, I sensed that God was going to do something with this Meeting. I would look at a map and I would see places within this city where there is not a Friends Church and I saw need. That first year of prayer, I felt that we need to train disciples, encourage disciples, and send disciples to plant five worship centers within this metropolitan area. And I looked at our Meeting and I though how? And those thoughts still come to mind.
I firmly believe that this Meeting will be involved in the expansion of God’s kingdom here in the Kansas City area, but I am often griped with fear because I do not know how God will bring it about. I see the glory of God shining, I hear his voice calling and I struggle to walk because I know who I am. “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’”
We enjoy the mountain tops, where we can clearly see God. We love the retreats, but we cannot stay there. We would love to remain on the mountain, but Jesus told his disciples even before he walked up that mountain that, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We cannot stay on the mountain because God has work for us to do. And that work requires us to walk down the mountain through the clouds back into the world.
They lifted their eyes and saw no one, but Jesus. And Jesus led them back down the mountain, back to the gates of hell, and back into the life he had called them into, to be light in a land of shadows. The period of “Now What” is over. Jesus is revealed for who he truly is, and the answer to our question is to follow him. He has shown himself to each of us in some way. Maybe you came because a friend of yours encouraged you, maybe you are here because it feels like home, maybe you do not really know why you are here but you just thought it was where you should be. Whatever brought you here today is the spirit of God calling. And we must respond. That response is to turn away from the life we want and to embrace life with him. That life is denying ourselves and embracing Him. We give ourselves to him, and he gives our lives back to us redeemed and fit to do his will. He empowers us to participate in the ministry he has set before us. And though we are afraid of what that might be, he is telling us “Rise, and have no fear.” Lift your eyes and see Jesus only. And become a person loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Because if that is our only focus, He will give us all we need.
As we enter this time of Open worship and communion in the manner of Friends. Let us imagine the vision of Christ glowing in all his glory, speaking to the saints of old, as he speaks to us. And let us look from that mountain top to see where he will lead us, as we walk back down through the clouds of unknowing in the faith that God will guide us to our destination.