When the Heavens Had to Shout

Sunday Morning and Beyond

Matthew 17:1-9

Preached on Feb. 3, 2008 at First Baptist Church of Gaithersburg, MD

After preaching for the third consecutive year on Transfiguration Sunday, I found myself amazed that I had something new to say on the same passage.

After my father’s second year of seminary, my parents got joyous news that changed everything for them. My mom unexpectedly discovered that she was pregnant. Without the funds to support this new addition to their family, which would be me—my dad knew he needed to find another job, even if it meant quitting school temporarily. With my dad’s new family responsibilities, it took him until my third birthday to complete his MDiv. I don’t recall this but the following story has been told to me so many times that I feel like I could actually remember it myself.

It was a hot May afternoon at the local congregation where the ceremony was held. The air was thick as people were packed in this small space like sardines. My family and I were up in the balcony of the church, trying to keep me occupied from what would be a long graduation afternoon. In an effort to do this and keep me quiet, my mother and grandmother explained to me the order of the program, when the graduates would be introduced, what it meant for the graduates to walk across the stage, as long as the possibly could. After more than an hour, everyone was relived to hear my father’s class called. When the name “Joe L. Evans” was read, I leaped from my seat running to the balcony’s edge before my mother could catch me. I could hardly contain my excitement and shouted: “That’s my Daddy!” Apparently, my voice was so loud that my personal message of acknowledgment of my father made its way down to the ears of the master of ceremonies that everything stopped for just a second as I was waved to by the President of the seminary.

More than my mom being totally embarrassed that day and my dad having his ego stroked just a little—it was a moment in time when a young girl just couldn’t help herself. Without the constrains that most of us now as adults have on our speech and address to others, on that particular occasion, I had to shout and let everyone know how proud I was of my father and most of all that through our family, he belonged to me. He was my dad and there wasn’t anyone who saw or heard me that day who wouldn’t know it!

I think a similar situation is going on with our Gospel lesson for this morning. We find the inner circle of Jesus- Peter, James and John taking a trip up the mountain with Jesus, only to find that heavens could not contain their praise about Jesus any longer. They had to shout!

Many of you have heard the story before- it goes like this—as soon as Jesus and the three get to the top of the mountain alone, Jesus’ appearance completely changed. It is hard to really put into human words what it means to be “transfigured” but in Greek the word literally means: “metamorphosed.” As if you were seeing a cocoon open and become a beautiful butterfly, so the disciples where seeing such a marked change in Jesus’ appearance that it was hard to even recognize him as the same guy. In particular, verse two of our text tells us that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.” And if all of this wasn’t enough, “suddenly” our text states that Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking to Jesus. Two of the most renowned, spiritual heroes of the prophetic tradition are RIGHT there in front of the disciples’ eyes! Wow!

Yet, what in the world was going on?

When I first began reading this story again, I was quick to think that this passage was about the true identity of Jesus shining forth. Jesus had had enough—he was God incarnate after all. He could transfigure himself without any trouble at all. Maybe by this time in his ministry, he was done with the hardheaded disciples and fickle crowds, and he couldn’t take it anymore. A heavenly light show sounded like a good idea, didn’t it?

But as I read more closely, I saw that the transfiguration of Christ was not about that at all. The main actions in our text from this morning do not come from Jesus. In fact Jesus really does nothing at all.

Instead, the text leads us to hear this Voice—a voice which could wait to be heard so that it even interrupted Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah. A voice coming down from the heavens which had previously only spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai and at Jesus’ baptism. A voice that had to shout—for there was no other way to exclaim its important truthful message!

It speaks loud and clear, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Our friends in the historical African American churches could help us here to know how important “shouting” can be to show God’s favor on an individual. A colleague of mine recently told me of why her congregation is known as a “shouting church.” For the pastor or another leader to “shout” in church means they lay favor or blessing on an individual for whom God’s presence is especially seen. Shouting becomes a way of expressing the inexpressible about God’s work in an individual life. And it directs the attention of the congregation on places within the church where God’s favor rests.

In our text, it was God who had shouting to do! He was at this important moment of the life of his Son, and God could not contain the word of who he was anymore, just as I couldn’t about my dad on graduation day. The truth had to be known. God was the Father of this wonderful Son.

This why I think Jesus told his disciples while coming down the mountain in verse nine not to tell anyone about it until after his resurrection. Only after the prophecies about him dying and being raised on the third day came true, would the world be ready for this message of Jesus’ true identity.

The Divinity of Christ was so important to who Christ was that not only did the Heavens have to shout about it—it became the hallmark of the resurrection story. It became the message of hope that would define the growth of the Early Church.

Maybe this is why Jesus, the Divine Son of God gives us his voice on the night of his betrayal. Maybe Jesus knew how hard it would be to share this earth shattering truth with the world. Maybe Jesus knew that we would need a practice to keep hearing his voice, year after year after year, so that we would be in the business of shouting, of proclaiming his name too. Maybe this is why he is reclining himself in an unassuming way beside the table and took such an ordinary element—bread and broke it saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” Jesus knew we would need to be reminded of God’s love and care for us. Jesus knew we would need to be drawn back together again, time after time in a meal which would recite for us the story of how the Divine came to earth and showed us a new way to live.

Otherwise we’d forget that we had that Divine presence with us all the time— we’d forget we have lots of shouting to do ourselves for the One in whom we adore today.

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