I remember visiting a parishioner in the hospital. She had undergone a procedure of interventional radiology for cancer in her liver. The operation had damaged some of the bile ducts, which was followed by an infection, which meant long nights with high fevers and long days with nausea where eating was difficult. She was weak and tired.
As I sat next to her bed, she was staring straight ahead, not really seeing anything, just staring, and lost in a world of thought. Then I touched her hand.
When I touched her hand, she was softly startled. “Oh,” she said, and she turned and looked me in the eyes. I smiled and said a prayer.
As I was reading Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus, I remembered that moment. Matthew’s account is filled with wonderful and amazing things. Jesus has taken three of His disciples up a high mountain and there He is transfigured before them. His face shines like the sun. His clothing is dazzling white. Figures from the past, Moses and Elijah, suddenly fill the present. A cloud descends and covers the disciples as they hear the very voice of God.
Matthew knows he is sharing an event which is remarkable. Again and again, he says, “Behold!” “Behold Moses and Elijah” (17:3). “Behold a bright cloud” (17:5). “Behold a voice from the cloud” (17:5). There is so much here to lead us away from this world into everlasting wonder at the mystery and the majesty of God.
But then, at the very end of the account, Jesus does something. He touches His disciples. As Matthew says, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear’” (17:8).
At the end of all of the glory of the transfiguration, we have a moment of physical touch. Jesus could have just spoken to the disciples. He could have snapped His fingers, clapped His hands, or stomped His feet, but instead, He took the time to touch them.
Like my parishioner who was lost in thought, the experience of touch established contact and renewed a relationship where God was present with His disciples, in person and in word. This experience of touch brought them back into the present moment.
For me, the moment of Jesus touching His disciples is filled with remarkable grace. The almighty Father did not send His Son into the world to overwhelm us with His majesty. He did not send His Son to use His mighty power to force the world to worship Him in silence and in awe.
The almighty Father did not send His Son into the world to overwhelm us with His majesty.
That is how people approach God, sometimes. They want God to display Himself in mighty wonders. They would like Him to shock a son who is slowly walking away from the faith and to bring him back to believing, or to intervene in a marriage and shatter the years of bickering with a blessing too big to be ignored. Sometimes, we can want this God of power and might who shock’s us into believing with mighty wonders.
Yet, Jesus came not to overwhelm us with His majesty but to touch us with God’s love. He is Lord in the flesh, and He has come to do what only God can do. He has come to touch all of our suffering and to take all of our sin, that we might become children of God, reconciled to His Father, and able to live in love with one another.
By touching His disciples, Jesus brings them back into a relationship with Him, a relationship where they need not have any fear. His touch is just one moment in a much larger mission.
Earlier in his gospel, Matthew invited us to see it. Peter’s mother-in-law was ill. Jesus came into the house and healed her. He did not do this with a word or a wave of His hand. Instead, we are told He came and touched her hand (8:15). As Matthew reflects on that moment, he says, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’” (8:17). Jesus does not just get rid of sickness; He takes it upon Himself. And He does not stop at sickness. He does the same thing with the punishment of our sin.
Jesus came to take upon Himself our punishment. He arrived to bear in one moment that eternal separation from His Father which we deserved, so He might open for us an eternal fellowship with His Father that we do not deserve. This fellowship comes by grace. It is experienced throughout our lives. It leads us to rise and follow Jesus without fear. We follow a Savior who has come to touch us and awaken us to life.
I remember watching the news as our country was waking up from the COVID lockdowns. For months, people had been locked out of nursing homes. Loved ones had been looked at through windows and talked to on phones. But after the lockdown was over, the television cameras followed relatives as they entered into nursing homes and held one another in an embrace of love. The ability to touch was a gift we appreciated anew. I can still see them, grandfather and granddaughter holding one another in a treasured embrace.
Today, we thank God for His grace. He sent His Son to enter into our suffering and to take from us our sin that we might rise and serve in His Kingdom, and yet all the while rest in God’s loving embrace.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 17:1-9.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 17:1-9.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 17:1-9.
Lectionary Podcast-Ryan Tietz of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 17:1-9.