Topical Scripture: Matthew 17:1-8
I’ve been voting in presidential elections since 1976, and cannot ever remember one like this. A year ago, none of the candidates would have been expected to be here.
On the Democratic side we can vote for a man who was the offspring of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, raised by a single mother, now in his first term in the Senate. A year ago he trailed significantly in the polls. His running mate lost his wife in a tragic accident and nearly died of a brain aneurism, a year ago he dropped out of the presidential race.
On the Republican side we can vote for a man who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for nearly six years, suffering the effects of war wounds to this day. A year ago his campaign was nearly bankrupt and trailing in the polls. His running mate was unknown to national politics until ten days ago, and is a 44-year-old self-described “hockey mom.”
But if the candidates were speaking to us this morning, they would testify that their setbacks and challenges have molded and melded them, preparing them to lead our nation. On November 4 you will decide whose past has best prepared them for the future.
God has already cast his vote. He has made his choice, marked his ballot, and you won. He wants you to know that all you have experienced in your life to this day is but preparation for all he wants to do with your life now. On Summerset Sunday our congregation celebrates his blessings to our church family in recent months, and then we recommit ourselves to his call for the days ahead.
Now he wants you to do the same. He wants you to know that his call is worth your life, not just your Sunday mornings, that the biblical message is the true and only hope for our entire planet, the only way of salvation, the only answer to the deepest and most ultimate questions of life.
In addition, your Lord wants you to know that your past does not limit his future, that he has a plan to make your life more significant in his Kingdom than it has ever been. I can prove both assertions today from a single text. I can show you that God has cast his vote for you. Today you can return the favor.
How God prepared them
Travel with me to the Mount of Transfiguration, the most dramatic and shocking event in all of Jesus’ ministry prior to his resurrection. He walked on water, healed the sick, and raised the dead, but only here did he show his full heavenly glory to men. Only here, for this brief moment, did they see him as he truly was and is and ever shall be.
The text begins: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (v. 1).
These three would be the most significant leaders of Jesus’ movement. Peter would be the first to preach the gospel at Pentecost and open the church to the Gentiles; James will become the first martyr among the apostles; John would give the world the Fourth Gospel, his three letters, and the Revelation.
Jesus wants to equip them for their roles in the future of God’s Kingdom on earth, so he “led them up a high mountain by themselves.” This was most likely Mt. Hermon, the tallest mountain in the region. It stands north of Galilee, in Gentile territory, but can be seen from the Dead Sea, more than 100 miles to the south.
He led them here so they could be “by themselves.” Jesus knew what they needed to know and experience if they were to fulfill his purpose for their lives and future. He knows what you need to know and experience as you fulfill his purpose for your life.
They needed proof of his divinity and the fact that he came to fulfill God’s Messianic promises and plan. So “he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (vs. 2-3).
“Transfigured” translates a word which means that his appearance changed but not his essence. He was the fully-divine Son of God clothed in human flesh, but for a moment he pulled back that veil to show them his true and full heavenly glory.
Then Moses appeared before them. Imagine this scene—the giver of their Law, the liberator of their people, the greatest leader their nation had ever known appears again, some 14 centuries after his death, to Galilean fishermen. With his coming they know that Jesus fulfills the Law in its entirety.
And they see Elijah, the first and greatest of their prophets. He had been caught up to God in a whirlwind some eight centuries earlier; now he appears again on earth with the One who fulfills every word of every revelation of the prophets of God.
Peter wants to stay right here, to pitch their tents and remain on the mountain, far from the terrors and tumult waiting below. But God was having none of it: “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (v. 5).
Just as a cloud of divine glory covered Mt. Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments, and covered the completed Tabernacle and the completed Temple, so that cloud now overshadowed them. Through it God commanded these men, “Listen to him!” Literally in the Greek, “Hear you him!” He spoke it to Peter and to the others, and through them to us as well.
Understandably, “they fell facedown to the ground, terrified” (v. 6). But Jesus touched them and said literally, “Stop being afraid” (v. 7). And “when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (v. 8). Not Moses or Elijah. Not religious leaders, not rabbis or Pharisees or Sadducees or priests; not military conquerors or wealthy landowners or brilliant philosophers. Only Jesus.
How God prepares us
On their way down the mountain Jesus reminds them that “the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (v. 12). It won’t be long now to the cross. As soon as they return to the valley below they meet a boy possessed by a demon and representing the spiritual battle which awaits them. What they saw on the mountain with the glorified Christ would prepare them for all the valleys and enemies to come. Now we have studied this event so it might do the same for us.
Here we learn that Jesus is God. He is not merely a great teacher or religious leader—he was and is the God of the universe.
The Bible says that he made all that has been made (John 1:3), and that he now holds the entire universe together (Colossians 1:17). His miracles demonstrate his divinity. His transfiguration demonstrates his divinity. Most of all, his resurrection demonstrates his divinity.
The birth of the Church demonstrates his divinity, springing to life in the face of furious opposition from the mightiest Empire the world has ever seen. The growth of the Church across 20 centuries demonstrates his divinity. No other religious movement has ever prospered despite systematic and rigorous persecution as has Christianity. More Christians have died for their faith than martyrs in all other world religions combined. More died in the 20th century than the previous 19 combined.
And yet the Church is on the march and on the move around the world today; historians are calling this the Fifth Great Awakening in China, and sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin and South America, and South Korea, and places across the Pacific Rim. What Jesus proved on Mt. Hermon he continues to prove daily—he is God.
Here we learn that Jesus is the only God. It is blasphemy for a Muslim to claim that Muhammad is God; their central affirmation is, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Buddha denied the existence of a personal God. Hindus believe in thousands of individual gods but no all-powerful personal Lord. Jews would reject any rabbi or priest who claimed to be God.
But no other religious leader has ever been transfigured. None has ever been raised from the dead. None has ever sparked a movement like Christianity. Jesus is the only God.
And so this God was worth their lives, their worship, their service and their sacrifice. Peter would be crucified upside down; James would be stoned to death; John would be exiled on Patmos and suffer great persecution—all for claiming that Jesus is the only God.
This God is worth our lives, our worship, our service and our sacrifice. There is no greater privilege than following Jesus. There is no greater purpose than helping other people follow Jesus. Whatever it costs to be fully his is worth its price and more.
The good news is that the God who prepared his first disciples to love and serve him has prepared you to love and serve him. He has given you spiritual gifts which will glorify him and extend his Kingdom. He has put you in places of enormous influence in this community and culture. He has given you a mission field in your school and work and neighborhood and home. He has prepared you for all he now wants to do with you. The tragedy is that we limit God’s future by our past.
Many of us think that we cannot make a real difference for God, not beyond coming to church services and giving money and volunteering time and doing religious charity. Many of us don’t think we can really win our neighbors and colleagues and friends to Jesus. Many of us know our past failures and mistakes and question whether God can really use us to do something significant and eternal.
But that’s a lie from Satan himself.
If our church will be courageous enough to ask God to use us this fall, more than he has ever used us before, he will rejoice to hear and answer our prayer. He will rejoice to lead and empower and bless us as we assault the gates of hell and build the Kingdom of God in Dallas and around the world.
If you will be audacious enough to ask God to use your life this fall, more than he has ever used you before, he will rejoice to hear and answer your prayer. He will use you where you are as you stand for him and share his word and love and grace. He will guide you into future significance you cannot imagine today. What you have been is no measure of what you will be in the hands of the transfiguring God of the universe.
In these days we’re thinking about four national, now-famous leaders and choosing those whose past best prepares them for the future. I found myself thinking this week about four other national, now-famous leaders, four of the greatest presidents in our history.
If you’ve been to Mt. Rushmore, you’ve stood in awe before the likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. There was a time when none of them would have been expected to be elected president, much less be engraved on one of our national landmarks.
George Washington lost the first battle of the War for Independence, and so many thereafter that an effort was made in 1777 to oust him from his command. He lost a quarter of his army at Valley Forge that winter; many thought the war effort doomed before he was able to rally his forces and eventually win our freedom.
When Thomas Jefferson retired as Governor of Virginia in 1781, the legislature published a report highly critical of his performance. His wife died the next year and he retired from public life. He was persuaded to run for president in 1796 but lost to John Adams. No one then knew that he would become one of our greatest presidents.
Theodore Roosevelt was an asthmatic child, forced to sleep propped up by pillows or in a chair. When he graduated from college his doctor warned him that his weakened heart could not stand a strenuous life. When his first wife and mother died on the same day, he abandoned public life for ranching in the Dakotas. Only when a harsh winter wiped him out did he return to New York and eventually was elected Vice-President. Only when President McKinley was assassinated did he ascend to the nation’s highest office.
Abraham Lincoln lost more elections than he won. He suffered severe, incapacitating and occasionally suicidal depression. He may have suffered from Marfan’s syndrome with its accompanying long limbs, skeletal problems, and heart problems. Before he was elected president in 1860, who would have predicted that he would become perhaps our greatest president?
When three Galilean fishermen stood on Mt. Hermon that day, none of them knew that they would launch a movement which would change the world and reach us in Dallas today. The past was no limit to God’s future. It never is.