Sermon: “Do Not Cling to the Moment” (Matthew 17:1-9) on February 19, 2023

Date: February 19, 2023

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

Scripture Reader: Betsey Driscoll

Sermon Title: “Do Not Cling to the Moment”

You can also listen on Podcast from iTunes and Spotify. Search for “Podcasting from Rev. Bob Jon.”

Have you been to the Grand Canyon? I have been to the Grand Canyon several times. The first I went there was in February 2002. Since I did not speak English then, I joined a group of Korean tourists in Los Angeles with a Korean tour guide. After a day-long journey, we finally arrived, and everyone just dropped their jaws, looking at the majestic view. As I stood there, another person standing next to me, probably a Christian, started singing “How Great Thou Art.” It is like standing before the divine who created heaven and earth. As I was immersed in the moment of awe and amazement, the tour guide ruined it by saying, “Picture time, people. Please stand together and give me your cameras.” Suddenly, everyone was trying to capture the moment with the cameras or record the video with camcorders, trying to keep their memories forever. 

I think that Peter had similar thoughts to the tourists who have cameras around their necks. Why not capture this moment? More than that. Why not cling to the moment and keep it forever? When Jesus told Peter, James, and John, that they were going to a high mountain, they probably thought that Jesus was going there to withdraw from the crowd. He was healing the sick, teaching the crowd, and performing miracles. It was a time for vacation, time for rest. Or maybe it was a time for prayer. I can imagine Peter, James, and John being proud of themselves, being distinguished as favored ones over others. As they went up the mountain, they saw something more majestic and shocking than the Grand Canyon. Jesus was transfigured with his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white. Furthermore, Moses and Elijah, the greatest leader and prophet of Israel, appeared and talked with Jesus.

If we were there, we would have pulled out our iPhones trying to take pictures with them so that we could tell others we saw Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. And we probably upload them on Facebook so our friends can hit “like” and leave comments such as “Is he really Moses? Cool, man.” Although Peter had no smartphones, it seems obvious that he wanted to keep the moment as it was forever. So, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you allow me, I will build three houses right here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He could not let the precious and sacred moment slip away. And we do that all the time. When Daniel was born in Providence, RI, a photographer wanted to take pictures of Daniel, charging us expensively. But I wanted to capture the moment, so we agreed to it. Now, looking at the pictures of Daniel with his eyes closed, we say, “What were we thinking?” 

But that’s what we do. We want to cherish and even cling to the moment. If you had baby in your womb, you carried the baby for nine months when you went to bed, work, shopping, and hospital. After several hours of pain, you hold your baby and say “hi” for the first time in your life. That precious moment, the cry of the baby, the smell in the hospital, tears of the mother, and joy of the father, they are the moments that we carry forever in our lives until we die. We may try to take some pictures of that sacred moment so that we can remember forever. But those memories are not confined to our pictures or even videos. We embrace those moments with all our hearts and minds and keep them forever. Cameras cannot capture the whole emotions, tears, and joys of the moment. At St. Paul Ministry this past week, Wendy insightfully told me, “We should interact with one another, not just take pictures.” 

And Peter told Jesus that he wanted to build three dwellings for him, Moses, and Elijah because he did not want Jesus to go down the mountain. Unlike the Gospel of Mark that describes Peter as a stupid, stubborn one, the Gospel of Matthew is in favor of Matthew as one who recognized the divinity of Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” When Jesus asked, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) Jesus told him, “Blessed are you, Peter. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Then Jesus explained to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer a lot, be killed, and be raised on the third day. Peter took Jesus aside away from other disciples and rebuked him, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (16:22) And this is why he probably wanted to build a dwelling place or tabernacle for Jesus. “Jesus, please stay here.” 

His message is clear, “I cannot let you go.” In the summer of 2008 when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I visited a room where an elderly lady was lying on the bed supported by breathing tube. Sitting next to her was her daughter who was looking at her mother with anxiously and worried. The mother at the end of her life would stay unconscious most of the times. But whenever she woke up from sleep, she would write some message on the notepad for her daughter. That morning, the message that her mother left for her was only two words: “Let go.” As I looked at the words on the notepad, I became silent for a while and asked her, “Can you let her go?” The daughter said with tears in her eyes, “I do not know if I am ready.” If possible, if only possible, we may want to capture the moment when our families and friends are in a great shape with smiles and good health and stay forever. 

Wanting to live more, staying healthy, and staying longer with those whom we love, these are also same wishes for Jesus. We confess that Jesus came to this world to die for us as in John 3:16. But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus in Gethsemane prayed to God in this way, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He does not pray to God, “I am so ready to die for your will. Let me die so I can be resurrected.” Instead, Jesus did not want to die. He wanted to live. But Jesus ultimately obeyed the will of God by praying, “Yet not what I want but what you want.” What was Jesus discussing with Moses and Elijah on the high mountain? If they were talking with one another what the will of God was for Jesus, the transfiguration of Jesus is not just the changes in his face and clothes. It is also his surrendering to the will of God to follow and obey the will of God for him.

As Peter told Jesus that he wanted to build three tents for him, Moses, and Elijah, a voice out of a bright cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It is the same words that God said when Jesus was baptized in the river. Upon hearing the words of God, the disciples fell to the ground in fear and could not even lift their heads. When we hear the scripture reading on Sunday morning with the reader saying, “This is the word of God for the people of God,” we respond saying, “Thanks be to God.” But imagine that God is actually speaking to us through the scripture, would we always feel comfortable, peaceful, and affirmed in our heart? Or would we feel fearful and vulnerable? Isn’t this why when Jesus ordered Peter to draw the nets in the deep water, Peter caught so many fish and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am not worthy of you”? (Luke 5:8).

I wonder if some of you have heard that there has been something strange happening at Asbury University this past week. Wednesday is the day that students are required to attend a certain number of chapel service each semester. The students pour into the auditorium 10 minutes before the chapel and rush out as soon as they are done. On February 8, however, after the gospel choir began to sing a final chorus, something strange happened. Students did not leave. They stayed, some singing hymns, some praying in groups, some reading the Bible, some kneeling at the altar rail, and some beating their hearts repenting their sins, and praying for healing, peace, and justice in the world. Tom McCall is a professor there and writes that while he is aware that people often call this a revival associating with Christian nationalism, he says no one has such agenda.[1] The students witnessed and experienced the presence of God. And they are staying there to worship even today, even joined by students from other schools. 

As Jesus saw Peter, James, and John fell to the ground in fear, he gently touches them and said, “What are you doing? Get up and do not be afraid.” It could have been easier for everyone if Jesus stayed on the high mountain, no more struggles, no more tears, and no more deaths. How many of us fall into despair and depression, as we are intimidated by the struggles and pains on our roads? How many of us become afraid of going that road as we imagine the humiliation, ridicule from others? How many of us give up and stop going there? As we are seized by fear and fell to the ground, however, Jesus touches our shoulders so gently and say, “What are you doing here? Get up and do not be afraid.” Rather than trying to cling to the moment and keeping it forever, we learn to let go and come down the mountain because it is Jesus who walks with us to the mountain and comes down the mountain with us. 

As Jesus comes down the mountain, he sets the course to Jerusalem where he surely knows that he would be crucified. We call this story the Transfiguration of Jesus. But it is also a story about the transformation of Jesus’ disciples who learn to let the moment go but become ready to face new challenges awaiting them down the mountain. It is our transformation because we learn to trust in Christ and surrender our wills to his. It is our transformation because we are being transformed to God’s children as we gather, worship, pray, serve, and break the bread and drink the cup together. When we are in despair and fear, do you feel the touch of Jesus on your shoulders and hear his voice, “Get up and do not be afraid.” It is Christ our Lord with whom we go up the mountain. When we go down the mountain where we would face challenges, perils, and struggles, we know that it is Christ who is going there with us. 

And I pray this morning that the words of Jesus linger on in our ears as we enter the season of Lent, “Get up and do not be afraid, for I am with you.” 


[1] Tom McCall, “Asbury Professor: We’re Witnessing a ‘Surprising Work of God’” on February 17, 2023)

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