3 Conversations with God: When the sky is silent, we must speak

Matthew 17:1–13

The event which took place during the so-called Transfiguration is one of the most monumental in the gospel narrative. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain and then “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” This is a picture of Jesus that we also see in Daniel 7—as “the son of man”—and Revelation 1.  

The three disciples soon discover that Jesus isn’t alone; he’s talking to Moses and Elijah—both men who went up onto mountains themselves to speak to God and delivered that message to God’s people. These are larger than life figures known to every child in their communities as the writings and the legends had been passed down for centuries. Now they’re standing here. Moses and Elijah represent all that God had communicated to his people taking them back to the beginning of time itself. They were respected and their words were revered. There was no higher authority than what came from Moses and Elijah.

Listen to Him

While they’re all up there, Peter begins to make a suggestion, but he’s interrupted. Matthew writes, “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” Peter, James, and John—along with the great prophets of old—are now directed to listen to Jesus. He is the one who embodies all that God has to say to his creation.

Matthew writes that when Jesus’ disciples heard the voice they fell down in terror. “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Not Moses, not Elijah, only Jesus. As they came down from the top of the mountain, Jesus told these disciples that they could only tell people what had happened after he rose from the dead. He would first have to face death himself. And then they ask him, why do the scribes say that Elijah has to come first? And Jesus tells them, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I’m telling you that Elijah has already come, and they didn’t recognize him; they treated him like dirt. And the Son of Man is also going to suffer at their hands.” Matthew writes that that’s when they realized that all this talk about Elijah was really about John the Baptist.

Going Back to the Start

That’s important, because this isn’t the first time that we hear God speaking form the sky. In fact, it happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry offering confirmation that Jesus was the long awaited anointed one—the messiah. It happened when he was baptized by John. John was there! Earlier in his Gospel account—chapter 3—Matthew writes, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” At the Transfiguration, God adds: “listen to him.”

The Final Hour

The Transfiguration also isn’t the last time that the audience of Matthew’s Gospel would be directed to behold the sky in such dramatic fashion. In Matthew 17, at the crucifixion of Jesus, we see that from the sixth to the ninth hour there was darkness everywhere. And then, at the ninth hour, Jesus loudly cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (viz. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) Matthew writes that those around him thought he was crying out to Elijah, and someone tried to give him something to drink. Jesus cried out again and then yielded up his spirit—he died. Then the great curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. There was a great earthquake and tombs were opened so that many of the dead were brought back to life. Then Matthew writes, “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” When Jesus cried out in agony, this time he got no confirmatory voice from the sky. Instead, it was the Roman soldier overseeing his crucifixion—his murder—that confessed who he really was.

Why doesn’t God speak from the sky? In our own darkest of hours, when we ourselves cry out, “O God! Where have you gone? Why have you left me here?” That’s when we need Jesus to come to us, to take us by the hand—as he did with Peter, James, and John—and pick us up and to tell us “have no fear.” When we lift up our own eyes in such desperate times, we don’t need to see the prophets of old. We don’t need to see modern performers and celebrities. The only person that we need to see is Jesus. We need Christ proclaimed to us.

When the sky is silent…

We’re not the only ones. We’re not the only ones who face hardship and despair, sadness and loss. The whole world faces those things. And what do they have? Who do they have? Do they know that that the Creator of the universe gave his only Son for them? Do they know that Jesus himself cried out? Felt their pain? Their sorrow? When all is lost, when all is consumed in doubt and the silence is deadening, when the sky has gone black, that’s when the world needs us to proclaim Christ. As we ourselves behold the cross of Christ, like the centurion, we tell the world, “truly, he is the Son of God.” Those around us need to see Christ just as we do. God is not going to just write his name in the sky. He’s already done that, and now he sends real human beings out into the world to share his love to be his witnesses. When the sky is silent, we must speak.

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