Matthew 16:21 – 17:8
INTRO: The other day my wife was reminiscing about her teaching days. She taught high school science and many of the memories that stand out in her mind go back to lab days, when the kids would attempt to learn science by doing science – a great idea, in theory. For one thing she remembers the questions the kids asked like “How long is a meter stick?” or “Do you have any longer meter sticks?” And she recalls their listening skills or lack thereof. Some of the students’ results on their lab work were way off - to the point of being kind of funny - because they didn’t know what they were doing. They hadn’t listened to the instructions and were too proud to admit it, so they’d just do what made sense to them or try to imitate their neighbor’s work.
But it’s not just the young who have trouble listening. I recently ran across a self-assessment for spouses to evaluate their listening skills. You had to rate yourself from 1 to 5 on how often you do these things:
- I make assumptions about my partner’s feelings or thoughts.
- I interrupt my partner’s conversation.
- I use sarcasm or jokes to respond when my partner talks
- I see only my point of view.
- I respond to my partner with phrases like, "That’s ridiculous."
A lack of careful listening can damage any sort of relationship, including one’s relationship with God. When we don’t listen closely to what he says, our lives show it.
P1 In Matthew 16 and 17 we see that Peter had some trouble with listening. I don’t know about you but Peter fascinates me. I am glad that Matthew records so much of what Peter said and did. The good, the bad, and the ugly – it’s all in there. Peter is shown to have such gifts of leadership and speaking. He’s got a warm heart. He’s a real go-getter sort of person. I would dare say, though, that his listening ability wasn’t one of his top 10 traits. Follower-types tend to be better at listening than leader-types like Peter.
A couple of weeks ago we saw Peter’s heart and his assertiveness. In response to the question, “Who do you say I am?” he stepped forward and spoke for the rest of the disciples: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This monumental confession serves as a climax to the book of Matthew.
In what we read this morning, though, we see that Peter didn’t fully understand what he was saying. He had the right answer but he was misguided as to what it meant. Jesus goes on to explain what being the Christ will entail, but Peter has his own ideas. Jesus says that being the Christ means being humiliated. He tells his disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…and that he must be killed.” To Peter this is absurd. It sounds like a mother telling her children that she’s going to go jump off a cliff because it’s the best thing for them.
Matthew tells us that Peter took Jesus aside and “began to rebuke him.” “No way, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Then Jesus responds with those strong words: “Get behind me, Satan.”
Peter didn’t like the picture of the Christ that Jesus was painting. What he had in mind surely didn’t involve the Christ being tortured and killed. What about this new kingdom? Peter’s heart for the kingdom and the King is on display here, but he’s not listening…because listening to Jesus involves submission. Peter thinks he knows better. But while Peter thinks he’s stepping forward in defense of Jesus, he’s actually stepping out in front of Jesus. He’s getting in Jesus’ way, trying to divert Jesus from the path of suffering. And Jesus names this for what it is: a work of Satan. “Get out of the way, Peter,” Jesus says. “I’m in the driver’s seat here…not you.”
If you were here two Sundays ago you may remember that this is all taking place up near the northernmost border of Israel where Jesus is on a retreat with his disciples. The disciples are learning a lot during this crucial time away with Jesus. He explained to them about the coming suffering that he would endure and the suffering that his followers must endure as they “deny themselves” and “take up their crosses.” The talk so far on this retreat has been about the human, suffering side of being the Christ. A few days later, though, in the transfiguration they are confronted with Christ’s heavenly glory.
Here again in the story of the transfiguration Matthew records for us Peter’s words. And again we see Peter rushing ahead of Jesus, failing to really listen. When he sees Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain with Jesus, he is overwhelmed - excited and fearful both – and his wheels right away start turnin’. And then, without much delay, his mouth opens. “This is great!” Peter says. “Lord, if it’s your will, I will put up three shelters here – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” //Now we’ve got to give Peter some credit. After what happened a few days ago he’s probably been praying that he will be more careful the next time he talks. And, we see here, that he is more careful. Before he simply and emphatically said “No” to what Jesus was saying. Now he is careful to say, “If it is your will.” But once more, instead of waiting to follow Jesus’ word, Peter in his eagerness speaks up (Churchbook 169). He’s wants to do something good for Jesus – and he’s to be commended for that – but he doesn’t wait on the Lord. A glorious event is unfolding through which God is speaking to the disciples and Peter basically interrupts him. What’s kind of funny is how God goes right ahead and interrupts Peter right back. Verse 5 says that “while [Peter] was still speaking” a cloud enveloped them and God began to speak. And what does God say? “This is my Son…Listen to him!”
P2 This morning we are installing the new office-bearers and commissioning them for their leadership roles in this congregation. I see a strong message here for these new leaders and for all leaders in the church. Leadership in the church is not first of all a matter of doing things for Jesus; it is first of all about letting Jesus speak. It’s about listening, first, then doing what he says we are to do (ibid 169).
And this message is not just for church leaders. It’s a message for each one of us in the stewardship of our gifts in the body of Christ and for the managing of our own lives from day to day. Listening to Christ must come first. Only by really listening can we expect to stay on track in doing the Lord’s will.
We see in our text a couple of things that get in the way of true listening. One is simply impatience. Many of us are like Peter: we’re doers. We’re like the kid on his birthday who after unwrapping his very first fishing pole took off for the pond right away, so quickly, in fact, that his parents didn’t have a chance to give him his other gift – a fully-stocked tackle box. He was down at the pond for 2 hours before he came back and said that he thought the fishing pole was broken, he couldn’t catch a thing. Only then did his dad have time to show him how to prepare his line. //We have a hard time waiting, too. We like to go, go, go. We don’t think there’s enough time to wait for instructions and we step out in front of Jesus.
Another thing that gets in the way of truly listening to Christ is our own minds. We have creative minds that reflect the creativity of our Creator. We can create ideas to improve this or that and solutions to complex problems. It’s actually amazing what the mind can do. But our Creator’s intent wasn’t for each of us to be ruggedly independent thinkers but submissive thinkers, active – yes – but submissive. Our minds are to be submissive to the mind of Christ. Peter had quite a head on his shoulders but his ideas about preventing the need for Jesus’ death were just that…his ideas. This was independent thinking, not submissive thinking.
Later, his idea to put up three shelters seems like a good one. He wants to do something to hold on to the glory of the moment. Yet, in reality, that meant putting off going down the mountain and into a hurting world. We as Christians can come up with hundreds of great ideas but if we’re not denying ourselves and entering into the suffering of others, then we aren’t following Jesus. If our plans have more to do with staying on the mountain than being salt and light in the world, then we aren’t listening to Jesus. Peter thought his idea about the shelters was a good one. We all think we’ve got some pretty good ideas too. But as the example of Peter shows, our notions of what’s good, can be way off. That’s why the voice from heaven says, “Listen to him!”
P3/4 Jesus Christ is our Teacher. He guides. He directs. It’s his will that ultimately matters. He wants us to use our wills and our minds in an active way for his kingdom but only in submission to his will and his mind.
Let’s take a closer look at what the story of the transfiguration says about Christ. This is one of the most dramatic stories in Scripture. For a moment this teacher from Nazareth is seen for who he really is. He is transfigured before the eyes of his disciples. One minute Jesus is a fellow hiker, breathing kind of heavy from the steep climb up the mountain; the next minute he is glowing. What’s going on here? //Well, what’s happening is that God chooses this opportunity to give the disciples a taste of Jesus’ glory. They don’t see Jesus in his full glory – no one in this life can – but they get a taste, they see the divinity of their fellow hiker.
The big thing today in schools is experiential learning. The more involved students are with the subject matter, the more visual it is, the better they remember it. Well, the transfiguration would certainly qualify as an experiential lesson. God draws Peter, James, and John into an experience of Jesus that they will never forget. They come away from this experience with – more than anything else – a sense of Jesus’ authority. If they had doubted it before, they don’t anymore. Jesus is the One before whom every knee must bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
But this wasn’t only a visual lesson. What the disciples sensed as they gazed upon their glowing Lord was confirmed by a voice, the voice of God the Father. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Jesus is the authority. He is loved by the Father and the primary means by which God shows his love to the world. He is one with the Father and the primary channel for conveying the Father’s will to his creation. God has set Jesus up as the authority, the supreme teacher for the inhabitants of planet earth.
Conversing with Jesus on the mountain were two of the primary teachers in Israel’s history. God sent Moses and Elijah there on this momentous occasion for a very important reason. You see, Moses represents the law. God gave the 10 commandments and the rest of the law to his people through Moses at Sinai. Elijah represents the great prophets of Israel, God’s mouthpieces to declare his will to the people. Both of these men were contenders in the minds of the Jews for the title “Supreme Teacher of God’s People.” But God makes it clear that it’s not Moses or Elijah. It’s not the law or the prophets that is the final authority. It’s Jesus. The Father didn’t say, “These are my servants with whom I’m pleased. Listen to them!” No. The Father says, “Listen to him – my Son.”
One of the things that jumps out at you when you read through Matthew’s account of the transfiguration is the brightness of it all. The text says that Jesus’ face shone like the sun,” “his clothes became white as light,” and a bright cloud enveloped them. Each of these points to the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World. As the Supreme Teacher, Jesus sheds light on all of reality. He is the Way, illuminating the path to eternity. He is the Truth, revealing the will of the Father. And he is the Life, whose example and teaching show us what it means to truly be alive. With a heart of compassion, the Father says to each one of us: “Listen to him!”
A week and a half ago on a Thursday evening, you may remember, a storm came through the area. For awhile the power was out here in town. Well, I hadn’t experienced a power outage for awhile and had forgotten how very dark it gets. My eyes were useless. I couldn’t even find the bowl of popcorn sitting on the coffee table in front of me. There were a few minutes during the storm, too, that we had partial power. There was light but not much. I could find my bowl of popcorn then but it was kind of hard to read or find things in the kitchen or do the things I wanted to do. Well, I bring this up as a simple illustration of God’s revelation. Without it things would be pitch black. We’d be like the people in Nineveh who, God said, could not “tell their right hand from their left.” We would know nothing of God or his plan for life. We can be thankful that’s not the case. God reveals himself in various ways. Some light comes from his creation and from the use of our God-given minds. More light comes through the law and the prophets – what we find in the Old Testament. All of these together, though, still only amount to partial power, a dim light by which we can only see the outline of our Creator and his plan for us. Only in Christ do we have full illumination. Only in Christ do we see God in the flesh, his will embodied for the world. Only in Christ do we find a source of light bright enough to see the path marked out for us, the path to eternity. This means that we read the Old Testament by the light that Christ gives. This means that we live our lives and lead our churches by Christ’s light. In listening to him we find ourselves in the center of God’s will.
Upon hearing God’s voice from the cloud Peter, James, and John, verse 6 says, “fell facedown to the ground, terrified.” In the brightness of the cloud and the thunder of God’s voice the disciples are made acutely aware of their unworthiness and their sin and they become afraid. In the light of God’s glory we see our faults clearly. Next to the Lord of hosts we are brought to our knees. But just as he did to Peter, James, and John, God incarnate in Jesus Christ reaches down and touches us. He takes us by the hand and lifts us up, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The Father had just commanded the disciples to listen to his Son, Jesus, and now the very first words they hear are: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” Jesus removes our fears. He helps us to our feet. As the Light of the World he illuminates for us the path of righteousness, providing life-giving guidance for today, tomorrow, and for eternity.
The church throughout the ages has recognized that the two main ways that this happens is through the ministry of the word and the sacraments. We meet Christ as Teacher primarily through the preaching of the word. Through Christ-centered preaching we discover the heart of our heavenly Father and his will for our lives. In the sacraments we experience Christ’s touch. As our senses experience the water, the bread, and the wine, Christ by his Spirit lifts us into communion with our triune God where we find renewal and nourishment for our souls.//
The story of the transfiguration concludes in verse 8. Peter, James, and John look up and see only Jesus. Jesus is the one that should dominate the horizon of our vision. We are called to listen to him. This is not always easy. There are many voices competing for our attention. But in Christ alone our hope is found. He is the authority. Some day every knee will bow and every tongue confess and every ear will listen to him. Let’s make today that day for us. Let’s make this year the year that we really listen to Jesus. It won’t be easy. There will be suffering. But Jesus’ touch is still felt today and his Spirit is with us reminding us of all the good things he said.
Let me conclude with Jesus’ words from John 14:
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”