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Sunday 8 March 2020: Lent 2

Divine interruption

Matthew 17:1-9

By R David Muir

Co-Chair of the National Church Leaders’ Forum, and Senior lecturer in Public Theology, Roehampton University

Context: a local New Testament Church of God in south east London with a growing number of professional millennials

Aim: to encourage the congregation to find time and space to listen to God as he speaks through Christ

I remember taking my youngest daughter to see ‘Dreamgirls’ for her thirteenth birthday. In this musical, Jennifer Hudson (the winner of America’s Got Talent) captivates the audience with her evocative and powerful voice. However, it’s Beyonce’s ‘Listen’ that does it for me. In this song an emotionally abused woman finally finds her voice, and the courage, to tell her abusive husband (played by Jamie Fox) that it’s time for him to ‘listen to the song’ in her heart, her pain and secret dreams.

The text before us of the Transfiguration unites Jesus with the Law and the Prophets and God the Father authenticates his life, ministry with pleasing words of affirmation.

It is these words that I want to focus on.

We know the story well; there is lots of symbolism in it. As part of the ‘inner circle’, the Synoptic Gospels create a link between Peter’s confession and the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Son of God when Jesus asks the question: ‘Who do you say I am?’ On that occasion Peter is, paradoxically, commended and rebuked in equal measure.

Matthew is at pains to draw out parallels between Moses and Jesus: Moses goes up into the mountain to receive the Law; Jesus goes up into the mountain to dispense a ‘new commandment’ (Matthew 5-7); Moses’ countenance glows after he talked with God (Exodus 34:30); Jesus is transfigured, ‘his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’.

Matthew tells us that Peter’s confession in the preceding chapter happened at Caesarea Philippi, but we are not sure where this drama took place. Scholars dispute whether the Transfiguration happened on Mount Tabor or on Mount Herman. It is likely that the event took place on Mount Hermon, which is close to Caesarea Philippi where Peter made that inspired confession (Matthew 16:16). Wherever the Transfiguration took place, it was an extraordinary event with profound truths we don’t fully understand.

What is clear is that in the midst of all the excitement and extraordinary manifestations, Peter gets carried away with ecstatic excitement. John Calvin says Peter was ‘carried away by frenzy and spoke like a man who had lost his senses.’ In the parallel passage, Mark says that Peter didn’t know what he was talking about (9:6). In any case, God interrupts him in full flow as he talks about building shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah!

There are lessons here for all of us.

Sometimes God wants to (and will) interrupt our plans, our fine schemes and good ideas. When it happens, we must take note. It’s strange how people sometimes just go about their business as though nothing has happened until God interrupts.

The Bible is full of examples of divine interruptions.

We recall Adam and Eve going about their business as if nothing happened until the voice of God interrupted them in the garden; we see God interrupting the grand design of the builders at the Tower of Babel; we see King David carrying on business as usual until God interrupts him through the prophet Nathan; and we see Ananias and Sapphira pretending that their pact to dissimulate would not be discovered until God interrupts (actually, we know their fate is more than a mere interruption) through Peter’s confrontation with them.

But in our text we are confronted with a narrative of profound and paradoxical implications: In a moment of divine revelation when the senses are bombarded with things out of this world, sights and sounds that would induce fear and trembling and cause us to act – and even say crazy things – God speaks! And of all the things he could have said he utters a divine one-liner: ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.’

God interrupts Peter’s speech in mid-flow, ‘while he was still speaking’. I wonder what else Peter was thinking of before this interruption, before what sounded like a good idea.

During this period of Lent, we can all listen to Jesus the Word of God anew. God sometimes wants us to talk less and listen more. To listen to Christ may mean taking time out to pray, read the Scriptures, meditate and drown out the noise of our fast-moving and distracting culture. In Peter’s context, God spectacularly interrupted him. For us it may be more mundane, but no less meaningful. God’s interruption may cause us to stop in our tracks and ask serious questions about our lives, our faith and commitment to him, the church and our community. It may even cause us to give up some of our plans. Lent is a perfect time to reflect upon this as we hear the final word in the Transfiguration drama: ‘Listen to him.’

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