This was the first time I’ve been privileged to preach on the Transfiguration of Our Lord before, and it turned out to be a lot of fun. At first blush one might easily think, “What’s the point? Why does this matter? Jesus glowed with light — so what?” Answering that “so what”, as I noted in a post the other day, is the burden and the privilege of the preacher. Once I got into studying and pondering for this sermon, I realized that there was a lot more than meets the eye (so to speak.) This text gave me a lot with which to work. Jesus’ transfiguration shows who He really is — the Son of God — and what we will be like in the kingdom of heaven. He allows us to glimpse His true glory, and in so doing He gives us a promise, visual and unspoken (here anyway) concerning what we will be like.
Passages where God reveals Himself or discloses Himself to sinful people are always fascinating to me. I love studying what happens when the Holy One of Israel pulls back the curtain (if that phrase can be used without offense here) and lets us see Him — and seeing how the people God reveals Himself to react. We studied Psalm 40 today in Bible class and dwelt at length on the wonderfulness of God’s works and how we wouldn’t be able to know Him had He not revealed Himself to us first. The flip side of that, or the Biblically necessary corollary, is that God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ:
+ The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful Word. (hebr. 1.3)
+ He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (col 1.15-20)
References could be multiplied to that effect, but I think you see what I mean.
Another fascinating aspect of this text involves the glory of the Lord. You may or may not be aware that when Scripture talks about the glory of the Lord, oftentimes it’s not just God’s excellence or the honor that is due Him in an abstract sense. Scripture calls the glory of the Lord that particular outward manifestation He gave His people which looked like fire inside a cloud. In the sermon I mention a few times that it appears. These are by no means all of them; the diligent student of Scripture can supply others. I once heard a Christmas Eve sermon where the preacher noted that the shepherds watching their sheep were surrounded by the glory of the Lord when the angelic messengers appeared in the sky; then he proceeded to trace the glory of the Lord through almost the entire Scripture. It was very illuminating, pun not intended. I borrowed a little of his approach for this sermon. (Pastor Wildauer, if you’re reading this, thank you.)
I ended up having more in my written sermon, and more to talk about, than what I preached. As I was beginning to memorize, I realized that the sermon was almost twice as long as I usually preach — which isn’t necessarily bad, but I wanted to delve into some issues raised by the text and that were not as much in keeping with the aim of the sermon (to preach the glory of Christ and to comfort sinners.) As I’m typing this I realize I could have talked about those other issues during Bible class…oh well. Maybe next time I’ll keep that in mind for when a text fills me with more than I can reasonably share from the pulpit. The mind can only take in what the rear end can endure.
May the risen and ascended Jesus give you peace and freedom from fear through His Word, and one day grace you with the light of His heavenly glory. Amen.
“After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”” (matt 17.1-9 niv)
Have you ever wondered about the kind of a life the child of a celebrity must have? Everybody knows who your mom or your dad is, even if they’ve never met them personally. Total strangers feel like they know and love your parents, just from the movies they’ve been in or the music they’ve recorded or the TV shows they’ve starred in. This person who is loved by millions is the one who tucks you in at night or takes you to the park or sings you Happy Birthday. When you’re the child of a celebrity, your mom or dad might be famous, but to you, they’re just Mom or Dad. That’s got to be a very strange way to live. It’s especially strange if your celebrity parents have addictions or marital problems or other troubles of their own. Just ask Britney Spears’ kids, or Charlie Sheen’s.
There are probably times for kids like those when they’re suddenly reminded who their parents are. They might be out to eat at a restaurant or walking down the street, and someone will point and say something or their famous parents will draw attention, and all of a sudden they see Mom or Dad as the public sees them – someone famous and fascinating. I wouldn’t be surprised if children of celebrities sometimes forget how famous their parents really are. Three of the disciples, Peter, James, and John, are going to have a similar experience in our gospel for today. It’s not that they’re reminded that Jesus was famous – although He was a high-profile public figure during His ministry. Rather, they will be reminded once again that Jesus is no ordinary man – He’s the Son of God. For a brief moment Jesus will allow the full light of His glory to shine through the veil of His human flesh, and in communion with the Father and the Spirit He will let the disciples see His full glory. Jesus didn’t do this just to show off or for no purpose. He does this to reassure us, and to prepare us for what is to come: His suffering and death, and our eventual adoption as sons at the end of time. Come with me and see why we have No More Fear in the Light of His Glory.
We’re not told exactly what mountain Jesus was transfigured on. Some people say Mt. Tabor in the north, in Galilee. Other people say Mt. Hermon, more to the west, closer to the Mediterranean. Neither of those really fits the context of the history around it, and besides, none of the inspired writers who record this miracle — Matthew, Mark, and Luke – say where they were. Perhaps that’s just as well. If we knew where it was, somebody would have built a big church on top of it a long time ago and started charging people $50 to get in. People would come, too – they’d want to get a glimpse of Jesus’ glory. It’s foolish to go looking for the spot on earth where the Transfiguration happened, because the place isn’t important. What’s important is what happened there, and what it means for us.
What did happen was miraculous. Jesus, Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain to pray, and as they’re there on the mountain, Jesus, their Teacher and their friend, begins to shine. He glows and shines from the inside out. Looking at His face is like staring directly at the noonday sun. Heavenly light floods out of Him. Even His clothes begin to shine. The light is so bright that the disciples have to squint. They almost want to turn their heads, the light’s so bright. It hurts their eyes just to look at it. And Jesus isn’t alone! Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus. The disciples can hear what they’re talking about. They’re talking about Jesus’ impending suffering and death – what was going to happen to Him at Jerusalem.
Right away, this sight raises questions for us. Our response is different than Peter, James, & John’s. They’re dumbfounded at what they’re seeing. All they can do is look. For us who are removed from that situation, we think of questions first, questions like these: How do the disciples know that these are really Moses and Elijah, without ever having met them? Good question. It seems that God revealed it to them specially. They just know who they are. In I Corinthians 13 St. Paul compares our imperfect life we have now with the perfect life we’ll have in heaven, and he says that “now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Could he be thinking of something like the way Moses and Elijah were known to the disciples here? It’s possible.
How come Moses and Elijah have their bodies? When a person dies, their soul goes to either heaven or hell, and their body stays here on earth until the Judgment, which hasn’t happened yet. Yet Moses and Elijah are there on the mountain with Jesus in their bodies. How does that work? We know that Elijah was taken to heaven bodily in a whirlwind. He’s one of the few people in heaven right now who has his body. But what about Moses? Deuteronomy 34 tells us that Moses died at the edge of the Promised Land and the Lord buried him. So how does he have his body here? In the book of Jude there’s a passing reference to the archangel Michael disputing with the devil about the body of Moses. There’s at least two possible explanations for why Michael and the devil were disputing over the body of Moses. This could have happened when Moses was buried, because God could have used angels for the task and the devil could have tried to interfere. Or it could be possible that God sent Michael to recover Moses’ body and the devil tried to prevent him from doing what God wanted. Then Michael could have brought Moses’ body to be reunited with his soul before the Transfiguration. You’ll notice there are a lot of coulds in both of those explanations. The plain fact is, we aren’t told how Moses has his body here, but it’s clear that he does. He and Elijah are really with Christ on the mountaintop.
Why Moses and Elijah? Why not somebody else? It seems that Moses and Elijah are there because they represent all of God’s revelation to this point. The Jews often referred to the Old Testament as the Law and the Prophets, because that was its two main divisions. Jesus Himself used that term from time to time. The law was given through Moses. Elijah was the foremost prophet of the Old Testament, after Moses. So here we have the Law, in the person of Moses, the Prophets, in the person of Elijah, and the gospel, in the person of Jesus Christ. Moses and Elijah are the prophecy or foretelling, and Jesus is the fulfillment. God’s plan is coming together in time. Soon Jesus would leave this hill and go up onto another hill, that one shaped like a skull. He would go to Jerusalem for the last time and die for the sins of the world and rise again. That’s what they’re discussing.
Peter, James, and John’s eyes had to have been bugging out of their heads by this point. They’re seeing the full light of Jesus’ heavenly glory. They’re literally getting a glimpse of what heaven will be like, right then and there. The sight is too wonderful, too amazing, to describe. All they can do is stare. Peter, of course, is the first to open his mouth. You’d think that if he saw God’s glory in all its fullness he’d keep his mouth shut, but not Peter. He always had something to say. So he opens his mouth and says, “Lord, this is good. This is really good. Let’s just stay here – if it’s okay with you. I’ll put up some tents and we’ll just stay here in the light of Your presence for all eternity. I never want this moment to end.”
All people, somewhere in their hearts, whether they can name it or not, have that same yearning Peter had. All people want to dwell in the light of God’s presence and never leave, just to gaze on His beauty and majesty for ever and ever. God has set eternity in the hearts of men, Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes, yet we cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. We want to be with God, we want to be near Him and enjoy His company, but we don’t know how on our own or the only way to get there. That impulse to know and be with God gets horribly distorted, and people can end up following false gods like those of Hinduism or Islam, or themselves, or things like money, power, success or pleasure. We’re not immune to that, either, just because we’re Christians or because we’re Lutherans. The urge to know God is blinded and perverted by the sin that lives in all of us. We’re all like Peter, confronted with the fact of God’s glory that we know in our hearts to be true, but babbling on in our ignorance of how to get there.
For Peter, James, and John, it gets even better. A cloud full of light rolls in around them. They know that this is the cloud of God’s glory. This is the way God showed Himself to His people throughout the Old Testament. If you wanted to, you could start in Genesis 15, where Abraham first seems God’s glory showing itself as a fire in a cloud, and you could trace God’s glory through the entire Bible. God’s glory shows itself in this way to Moses and the children of Israel in the desert, during the Exodus and after. When Solomon dedicated the temple, the cloud of the Lord’s glory filled it and the priests weren’t able to minister because it was so thick. The prophet Ezekiel has a vision of the Lord’s glory, and he sees it leaving the temple and then coming back, showing God’s judgment on Israel and His favor returning to them. It shows up in other places as well, until at last in Revelation St. John describes Christ much as He is here, shining with eternal glory. He is the Lamb who is the lamp of the city of God in heaven. There are no streetlights in heaven, because they’re not needed – God’s glory gives it light. That’s the glory that surrounded the disciples here.
Not only that, but they hear the voice of God Himself speaking. He says, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” It’s the exact same thing He says at Jesus’ baptism too. It’s significant that this is what the Father says. He wants us to know two main things. First, Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son. He’s not just a good teacher or a visionary or a crackpot; He’s the real deal. He is God’s Son. The Transfiguration proves it. No ordinary person could be changed the way Jesus was, all on his own. This is no mere human. He has to be God. And the disciples didn’t make this up. Peter anticipates that people will imply that or try to say that, so he makes a point of saying in our second lesson for today that they saw these things with their own eyes. Even if they hallucinated this, why would they hallucinate Jesus shining with light? Light comforts and cheers and guides. It’s good. The disciples had nothing to gain by making this up, and they run the risk of looking crazy for telling people about it. That’s why Peter insists so strongly that the Transfiguration agrees with the Scriptures, and that the Scriptures came straight from God.
Second, we’re supposed to listen to Jesus. The Father couldn’t make it any clearer: “This man right here, this one who stands before you, is My Son. Pay attention to what He tells you! This is important!” A lot of times we wish for a voice from heaven to tell us what to do if we have a hard choice to make or we feel like we’re in an impossible situation. We wish God would just speak from heaven and tell us what to do. Here, He actually does! It doesn’t get any clearer than this. Listen to Him!
So the disciples are confronted with God’s glory, they’re surrounded by it, they’re overwhelmed by it – and what do they do? They fall on their faces. They cower on the ground and press their faces into the dirt. They huddle on the ground before God’s presence, terrified out of their wits. They understand very well at that moment that they are sinners. They are unworthy in God’s sight. Their very thoughts and feelings are polluted. They do not deserve to be here with the glorified Jesus and to hear the Father’s voice. Their stomachs are doing flip-flops like yours did when you were a little kid and you got caught doing something that you knew would make your parents really mad. Maybe you broke something really valuable or precious. Maybe you took something or handled something you weren’t supposed to play with. Whatever it was, you realized they were going to find out, and you were going to be in trou-ble. You were done for. So you stood there for what seems like days with your insides heaving, dreading what was about to happen to you.
Haven’t you ever felt like that before God? Maybe you’re trying to pray and all of a sudden you think, “Why should God listen to me? I’m not worthy to pray to Him.” Maybe you’ve witnessed how easily and how strongly sin can grab ahold of you and start controlling your life, and you know you’re not stronger than your sin and that scares you. Maybe something you’ve done recently bothers you, and no matter how many times you pray for forgiveness, you still feel guilty. You can’t erase from your mind or your heart what’s happened, and you dearly wish you could. So you press your face into the dirt, wishing you could get away from God but knowing that you can’t, and fearing what He’ll say.
Jesus does the same thing with you that He does with His disciples on the mountaintop. Still in all His heavenly glory, He comes near to you. He draws near you, but not to judge you or condemn you. He crouches down and He grips your shoulder with His nail-scarred hand, and He says, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” He speaks kindly and gently, not at all like you’d expect someone so powerful and glorious to speak. He’s even smiling. He bids you stand up, straighten up, lift up your head, and don’t be afraid.
There’s nothing to be afraid of now! Jesus has conquered sin – all of sin, your sin, the sin that threatens to drag you down to hell. He covers all your sins with His holy blood, and He has risen from death and lives and rules eternally. He has taken away every reason for God to be angry with you. Despite all your mistakes and your faults, Jesus has made you perfect and holy through faith in Him. You are ready to stand in God’s presence whenever He calls you home, whether it’s today or tomorrow or a dozen years from now — and you won’t have to crawl. He has taken away your sin and your shame. You have seen the face of God, and it’s Jesus’ smiling face of forgiveness and love.You can now spend eternity in the light of God’s perfect presence. That’s Jesus’ gift to you. He tells you about it all over again when you hear His Word. He promises it to you again whenever you come to His table and receive His same body and blood that were glorified on the holy mountain and given for you on Calvary. His glory is present in His Supper, too. It may not be as visible as it was on the Mount of Transfiguration, but it’s there and it’s real. You hear it in this words, “This is My body, given for you — this is My blood, shed for you. Do not be afraid! Your sins are all gone. They can trouble you no more. Go in peace.”
When the disciples look up, they saw no one but Jesus. Everything was normal again. They were alone there with their Lord, and He looked just like any other man again. But they were different. We, too, see only Jesus. When you look only to Jesus and fix your eyes on Him, you don’t get discouraged or dismayed when you look at the smallness of your faith or the coldness of your heart. Look to Jesus in faith now and throughout this life, and one day you will see what Peter, James, and John saw – and better. Look to Jesus now for forgiveness and guidance and strength, and you will see His glory. One day we will behold Him as He is, if we hold fast to the faith He has given us. Then, and now, there will be no more fear in the light of His glory. Amen.