“Rocky Top”

Matthew 17:1-9

Preached by Dr. Robert F. Browning, Pastor

Calvary Baptist Church

Lexington, Kentucky

February 23, 2020

Printable Document Video Will Be Posted Here

I could not resist the title for today’s sermon. It has created quite a buzz, as you would expect in a church on the edge of the University of Kentucky’s campus and three blocks from Rupp Arena. Big Blue Nation is not happy with me.

As most of you know from reading the text, the title of the sermon is not a reference to a fan base that bleeds orange but the location of one of the most mysterious events that occurred in Jesus’ ministry. It happened on a mountain somewhere in Galilee.

The precise location is unknown. In the third century, Origen identified Mount Tabor near Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth as the location. Evidently, the case for Mount Tabor made by Origen and other historians was so compelling the Church of Transfiguration was built atop this almost two thousand foot mountain.

On the other hand, Mount Hermon, a few miles northeast of Caesarea Philippi, could have been the place where this event occurred. This is logical to many since Caesarea Philippi is the place in the previous passage where Peter made that bold confession of faith declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. In addition, Mount Hermon is almost ten thousand feet high, which fits the description Matthew gives in his version of this story.

If Peter had prevailed that day, we would know the exact location. The three shelters he wanted to erect would have remained long after they were gone, drawing pilgrims in every generation to this very site.

The location is not the important part of this story, is it? What occurred there, the message it conveys, and the function of this experience in the unfolding gospel story are. So, let’s examine what happened that day to see what lessons we can glean from it.

Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James and John to a mountain to pray. The other nine were left below to continue listening to people’s stories so they could help them with their struggles.

While Jesus was praying, his appearance dramatically changed. Matthew tells us, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as the light.” (17:2)

            Suddenly, Jesus was joined by two other men the disciples believed to be Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet. The three of them carried on a conversation, and while we do not know exactly what was said, Luke informed his readers they were discussing Jesus’ “departure,” a reference to his death on the cross. (Luke 9:31)

It appears Moses and Elijah agreed if Jesus headed to Jerusalem to speak truth to power and to confront the insincerity and hypocrisy of the religious leaders, he would meet with stiff resistance, be arrested and then crucified as a criminal. In other words, he would be treated no differently than many of the prophets who preceded him, including John the Baptist.

            At some point in this conversation about what Jesus should do, Peter blurted out what he thought was a brilliant idea. He offered to build three tents so Jesus, Moses and Elijah could stay there indefinitely and enjoy one another’s company.

            I almost feel sorry for Peter because of what happened next. A cloud overshadowed the mountain and a voice, assumed to be from heaven, spoke. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5b)

Even Peter got that message and quit talking. He and the other two disciples fell to the ground in fear and silence.

Knowing the disciples were traumatized, Jesus went to them, touched them and reassuringly said, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17:7) As they departed the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about this event until after the resurrection.

Obviously, they did share details of what they experienced on this rocky hillside. Three of the four gospels included this incident in their account of Jesus’ life and ministry.

This clearly indicates how important this divine encounter was to the spiritual development of the early believers and should be to us, too. Let’s take a few minutes this morning to begin figuring out why.

I have always been intrigued by this personal and powerful story. I suppose the mystery surrounding it has something to do with this.

To understand it, I have found it helpful to ask questions of the text. Let me voice them for us this morning.

Why did Jesus go to mountain that day? He was at a crossroads and needed guidance.

What was he trying to decide? Was it time for him to shift the focus of his ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem?

Up to this point in the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus’ entire ministry had been conducted around or near the Sea of Galilee, about seventy-five miles north of Jerusalem. For the most part, he was loved and appreciated in this region. His teaching and benevolent work were well received.

All of this would change if he chose to migrate south to Jerusalem. There he would encounter strong opposition from many of the scribes and Pharisees. Why?

They would not be receptive to his message or methodology. This is because Jesus would expose their insincerity and hypocrisy.

He would call them out for their addiction to power, prestige, attention, money and possessions. He would accuse them of caring more about their welfare than the needs of those who had been entrusted to their care. He would criticize them for neglecting those struggling to survive who needed their help most.

This perceived threat to the kingdom the corrupt religious leaders were building for themselves would be met with threats of their own. Anyone who ignored these threats and challenged their authority would be dealt with harshly. Imprisonment, torture and death would await someone this candid and bold, and Jesus knew it.

So, what should Jesus do? Play it safe and stay in Galilee or move toward the eye of the storm?

It appears most of the people around him, including his own disciples, wanted him to remain in Galilee where he would be safe. This is understandable. They loved Jesus and did not want his life to be threatened, as well as their own. 

Jesus felt this tension and knew what he must do before making a final decision. He took Peter, James and John and headed to the mountain to pray, and God met him on that sacred hillside.

What tough decision are you wrestling with today? What intimidating challenge is beckoning you?

Let me encourage you to carve out time this week to seek wisdom, guidance, courage and confidence from God. This is what Jesus did, and I assure you God will draw close to you just as he did Jesus when he went to the mountain to pray.

Why did Jesus take three disciples with him? Why not all twelve?

If you read beyond today’s text, you will discover the other nine were left at the foot of the mountain to continue the work Jesus had been doing. Apparently the needs were overwhelming, and Jesus chose not to suspend this vital ministry by taking all the disciples with him.

Why Peter, James and John? They are often mentioned as a part of Jesus’ inner circle, and it was not uncommon for Jesus to single them out for extra attention. He valued their companionship, sought their counsel and took advantage of opportunities to develop their leadership skills.

The weight of this decision merited their input and support. Much was at stake, and they needed to be brought into the loop. They needed to witness this divine encounter, whatever it would be.

Who is it you need to include in the decisions you are wrestling with right now? Who can become for you a much needed prayer partner and confidant?

Will you reach out to them this week? Will you let God work through them to help you make wise decisions?

What is the significance of Moses and Elijah showing up? For starters, they were two of the most courageous leaders in Israel’s storied past. The words they spoke and the work they did among their people provided the foundation for Jesus’ ministry.

Everything Jesus had done to this point in his ministry was consistent with what had been revealed to him through the Law and the prophets. Their values were now his. Their priorities were his. Their mission was his. Their purpose was his. Their hope dreams for a just and peaceful world were his.

In other words, Jesus’ ministry was an extension of theirs. He was standing on their shoulders and continuing their good work.

More than anyone from the past, Jesus needed to hear from Moses and Elijah. It was their opinion that would heavily influence and shape this decision.

So what did they tell Jesus? We don’t have the details of their conversation. I cannot imagine, though, Jesus going to Jerusalem as he did to confront and to challenge the religious leaders without Moses and Elijah’s support and blessing. I believe they were fully on board.

There is another reason I think they appeared. Like Jesus, they had been at numerous crossroads and understood what it was like to face tough decisions.  As a result, they knew Jesus needed wisdom, guidance, courage and confidence, and they came to offer him counsel and support.

Making wise decisions requires listening to wise people. When facing tough choices and intimidating challenges, it is always best to listen to those who have experience at making difficult decisions.

It wasn’t Peter’s voice Jesus needed to hear that day. He had nothing to offer other than easy, safe, simple, convenient and bad advice. This is why God scared the wits out of Peter by interrupting him when he offered to build those shelters. Peter’s voice had to be silenced quickly, and God did it.

Be careful whose counsel you seek and whose advice you follow. If this story teaches us anything, it reminds us every voice we hear does not carry the same weight and should not have the same appeal. Far too many people will try to talk you and me out of doing what is necessary because it will require much from us.

What do you think Matthew wanted his readers to take away from this intriguing story? I pondered this for some time last week and want to offer some ideas for you to consider.

Matthew wanted his readers to put their full faith and confidence in Jesus. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the early church had been in existence fifty to sixty years. The credibility of Jesus and the sustainability of the believers’ faith were under attack all the time.

People questioned why the early Christians would give their allegiance to a man who had been crucified as a common criminal. Many doubted the accounts of his resurrection. Others failed to see his connection to the Law and the prophets.

Surely these followers of Jesus were mistaken many believed.

Do you see how this story was a response to all of Jesus’ critics? Moses and Elijah appeared to encourage, bless and give Jesus advice. God endorsed Jesus in the clearest of terms and told not just Peter, James and John, but all of us who have come after them to “listen to Jesus!”

Let me encourage you this morning to trust Jesus with all your heart and your future. The best decision you will ever make is to listen to Jesus and to follow his advice and example. I am confident you will never regret it.

Throughout their lives, Matthew wanted his readers to know they would be confronted with tough decisions, just as Jesus was. They, too, would be tempted to avoid wrestling with difficult decisions or to walk away from intimidating challenges, choosing instead to play it safe.  

This, however, is not what Jesus did, and it is not what God would have them to do. Following Jesus meant they would need to adopt his values, priorities and passions, living them out daily to the best of their abilities.

And what was Jesus passionate about?

He was passionate about confronting evil, righting wrong, lifting up the lowly, finding the forgotten, liberating the oppressed, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, loving the unlovely, encouraging people to achieve their potential, forgiving people who make mistakes, giving people another chance and teaching people how to live peaceably with one another.

Everywhere he went, Jesus encouraged people to choose love over hate, kindness over cruelty, compassion over indifference, truth over deception, integrity over expediency, justice over injustice, inclusion over exclusion, generosity over greed, humility over arrogance, forgiveness over revenge, healing over hurting, discipline over irresponsibility, maturity over carelessness, sacrifice over self-indulgence and peace over violence.

I believe it is obvious that all who listen to and follow Jesus need to be bold and courageous. Reflecting the nature of God and living as Jesus did will demand that we embrace kingdom values over those drafted and promoted by the world. When being faithful to Jesus puts us at odds with the culture’s prevailing values, we must choose Jesus.

There is one other thing I believe Matthew wanted his readers to know. God has a special place in his heart for those who put the interests of others above their comfort and safety.

It was Matthew’s contention his readers would never be closer to God than when they were serving others in Christ’s name. The decisions they would make, the opportunities they would seize and the sacrifices they would make to heal their broken world would endear them to God and allow God to use them to save the lives of people who had been beaten and bruised by the harshness of life.

There are two times in Matthew’s gospel when God made it clear how he felt about Jesus. The first was at his baptism and the second is in today’s text.

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5b)

What do the two have in common? Both times, these affirming words were spoken when Jesus was at a crossroads facing difficult decisions. Each time, Jesus chose to accept an intimidating challenge that required making great sacrifices and significant changes.

At his baptism, Jesus made the decision to end his career as a carpenter in Nazareth, to leave home and to begin his public ministry as an itinerant preacher. In today’s text, Jesus made the decision to go to Jerusalem to expose the religious leaders’ insincerity, corruption and hypocrisy and to call on them to repent.

Both decisions meant Jesus was putting the interest of others above his own comfort, choosing to walk down the road less traveled, making great sacrifices on behalf of others and seizing opportunities to make the world better for all people.

And God could not have been prouder of his Son or more pleased with his decisions. So overcome was God with gratitude for Jesus’ integrity, compassion, strength and courage that he had to let Jesus and others know how he felt.

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

I pray you and I do something this week that inspires God and leads God to shout to everyone in heaven how proud he is of us.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!