DMin Course - PW 813

NT Testament Exegesis & Sermon Design

Dr. John Alsup

Exegesis Notes - Matthew 17.1-9


SERMON: Allusions of death, glimpses of glory

A few years ago, a colleague and District Superintendent of our Central Texas Conference was diagnosed with cancer, and as a result went through several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She would attend church-related functions in the midst, at times with obvious hair loss, yet she remained cheerful. She was usually given an opportunity to address us all and give us updates of her condition. Each time she did this she would quote Jesus from John's story of the raising of Lazarus, "This sickness will not end in death, but it is for God's glory so that through it the Son of God may be glorified."

Two things would usually go through my mind each time she said this. First, I thought that she displayed incredible courage and strength in the midst of her illness. Second, I thought that it was a bit trite and even self-righteous to make such claims about her illness. Sadly enough, the cancer eventually took her life, but through it all she showed a great amount of maturity and dignity. After the immediate family had private services our Conference family was invited to a memorial service at our Conference encampment. There were close to five hundred people in attendance and the eulogy was given by a close friend and colleague. It was a powerful word to her life and battle with cancer.

After that service something dawned on me. I think I realized for the first time why she always quoted that verse from John, "This sickness will not end in death, but it is for God's glory so that through it the Son of God may be glorified." I realized that she wasn't being self-righteous or arrogant about her condition. I think she knew something that none of us knew. I think she knew that her sickness too - and eventually her death as well - was not an end in itself but an opportunity to give God the glory. I can't say I understand that fully, but I do in part.

This story in Matthew's gospel, I think, serves to remind us of such a thing. Here in the middle of these hints and foreshadows of Jesus' impending death is a story that's not about death but about the glorious Son of God. It's a story full of mystery and awe. The story is in the midst of allusions of Christ's death, but it gives us glimpses of God's glory. And it's not just a passing expression that moves us to say, "Praise God, ain't God good!" Matthew won't let us off so easily. What Matthew is telling us in this story is that, yes, this Jesus is going to die, and, yes, we are called to follow, but the good news is that it is in this very death, God's glory will be revealed. There's no arrogance, no catch phrases, just a glimpse of what is to come.

And for us in the church it comes at an appropriate time. This text comes just prior to the Lenten season - a time of reflection, meditation, and penance. It's a time of solemn awareness of the journey that leads to Calvary and a time when we sing most of our songs in a minor key. Sometimes we even stop short of saying that you're not supposed to be happy during Lent, woe is me, and please give me another dose self-martyrdom. But this story reminds us that in the midst of Lent, and in the midst of our lives, there is cause for joy. The journey that leads to death is a journey flanked with signs of resurrection and hope, and God's glory revealed in its fullness in Jesus the Christ.

Even in the midst of our ordinary, mundane existence God is revealed in miraculous ways, in ways we can't explain but only experience. Anyone who's ever witnessed a birth knows the mystery of God's presence in the giving of life. And yet we experience something so glorious that we can scarcely take it in. In these moments we too are transformed into new beings by God's presence and grace.

Or maybe the first time we administered the sacraments, touched an infant's head with life-giving water and seeing the sparkle of possibility in their eyes and in the eyes of the parents. Or reaching down and placing a piece of bread into outstretched hands and saying the words, "The body of Christ, broken for you." These are moments that move us and change us, inside and out. In times like these, we always go away knowing that we have been in the presence of the most holy God, and we're all the better for it.

And not just in the moments of joy do we experience this. We somehow see God's glory in the midst of our times of suffering and difficulty. Again, this is not in arrogance or with a martyr's mentality, but a deep, abiding assurance of God's presence. I'll never forget attending the surgery of one of my parishioners. She was about to have a tumor removed from her brain. It was a delicate procedure, and not her first kind of operation. As I stood there with her and her spouse, and as I was about to pray for her, she looked at me with a calmness and said, "I've never felt that I needed to worry. I know that no matter what happens, God will be with me and that will make it all right, and I'm okay with that." In her time of pain and struggle, she had an awareness of God's presence. It changed her entire outlook on life, and it changed me as well.

This is why I think Matthew included this story. As he gives us allusions of Christ's death and all that it means, he also gives us glimpses of God's glory. It's not something of our own doing, but an act of God in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. It is both cross and resurrection together.

Our colleague knew this well in the midst of her battle with cancer, and eventually in her own death. "This sickness will not end in death, but it is for God's glory so that through it the Son of God may be glorified." I didn't understand that at first, but I realized that in her passing, in her death, just what that meant for her, and for all those who loved her. It was for her, and for us, a transfiguring moment where we all were invited to see God's glory. I don't always understand these moments or know how to respond to the mystery, but I always know that I come away a different person. As the affirmation from the United Church of Canada reminds us, "in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen."

Sources for notes and sermon:

Anchor Bible Commentary: Matthew, 1971

Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV - Year A, 1995

Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, "Transfiguration."