“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. 3Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4Peter 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.”
5While 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.” 8When 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 niv84)
One of the benefits of getting up early in the morning is getting to watch the sun rise. Some might prefer to stay in bed and sleep a little longer, but for those who are up at an early hour by choice or necessity, watching the sun rise is one of the rewards. To watch the sky gradually growing light, and then to witness the glorious moment when the very edge of the fiery sun peeks over the horizon and floods the landscape with its piercing rays – many think that that’s the way to start a day. Seeing the sun rise is one of the daily pleasures for me living here in Morgan, and I’m always appreciative when I get to see it.
Multiply the best sunrise you’ve ever seen by a thousand, and it still won’t touch what the disciples saw that day on the Mount of Transfiguration. They didn’t start out thinking they’d see such a glorious sight. True, Jesus had said a few days before this, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom,” but Jesus frequently said things that they didn’t understand. In fact, it seemed like Jesus said more things they didn’t understand than things they did understand. At any rate, they follow Jesus up the mountain. He often asked them to come away with Him while He prayed, and they were expecting that this was one of those times.
They weren’t expecting what happened next. Jesus began to be transfigured before them. His face and body shone from the inside out. He wasn’t reflecting light, as Moses did after he came down from Mt. Sinai; Jesus was shining with light from within. To the disciples it seemed like the light was shining through their eyes. The light was so bright that even His clothes seemed like they were shining.
Jesus revealed His glory to His disciples there on the sacred mountain. He always had this glory, even before the world began. It was His personal possession, His right as the Son of God, only He didn’t use it very much or very often in the days of His flesh on earth. Jesus usually hid His glory. More often He looked like just a man. He ate, He drank, He walked around, He got tired, He slept. Shortly after this He was arrested and tied up and beaten. He bled, He stumbled under the cross, and eventually He died. He wasn’t going to seem very divine or very powerful when that happened – so before He comes down from the mountain and starts toward Jerusalem for the last time, He pulls back the curtain for just a moment and dazzles His followers with who He really is.
He’s not alone – Moses and Elijah are there with Him. We’re not told how it worked for Moses and Elijah to be there, since Moses had died centuries before and Elijah had been taken to heaven in a whirlwind. Nor are we told how the disciples could tell who they were. Suffice it to say, they’re there and Jesus made it happen. Moses is there because the Law was given through him. Elijah is there because he was the foremost prophet of the Old Testament. Together Moses and Elijah represent all of Scripture, and they’re standing next to Scripture’s fulfillment – Jesus. They’re talking with Jesus about how Jesus was going to fulfill all the prophecies they’d made about Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection. Everything Moses, Elijah, and the other prophets wrote, said, and did in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. By their lives, their words and actions, they pointed ahead to Christ, and now Christ was here, ready to provide salvation for the whole world.
The disciples had been dozing off right before this. They’d been working hard and they’d been upset by Jesus’ telling them that He was going to suffer and die, and they were worn out. Imagine waking up from a nap, and you’re literally in God’s presence — not just in the everyday way where we mean that God is everywhere, but face to face with the God who dwells in unapproachable light. That’s the meaning of the bright cloud that envelops them. This isn’t a dark, threatening cloud, like the one over Mt. Sinai when God gave His people a law He knew they couldn’t keep. It’s a bright cloud, full of light – awe-inspiring but not threatening.
In the Old Testament such a cloud showed up when God was coming to save His people or deliver them. Think about in the Exodus, when the pillar of fire and cloud went in front of the children of Israel. The cloud of God’s glory filled the temple in Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6 of his book. It visibly settled on the Tabernacle as a sign to God’s people that He was with them. God’s glory filled Solomon’s temple when that temple was dedicated. This cloud overshadows them, just like it overshadowed the tabernacle, and later the temple. Interestingly enough, the Virgin Mary is also described as being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit when Jesus was conceived. Those three things – the tabernacle, the temple, and the Virgin Mary – all have something in common. They’re where God chose to dwell among His people. Whenever and wherever God’s glory overshadowed someone or something, that’s where God was moving in, to be with His people – to be close to them so He can save them. And that’s the cloud that rolls in around Peter, James, and John on the mountain.
Peter is the first one to speak up. Maybe his head is still a little fuzzy from sleep. It’s not just post-nap grogginess that comes out of his mouth, though – Luke and Mark tell us that he was so scared by what he was seeing that he didn’t know what he was saying. So he just blurts out the first thing he can think of: “Lord, good it is for us to be here. If you want, I’ll put up three tents – one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Just a few days before this, Jesus had told His disciples about His upcoming suffering and death in Jerusalem, and Peter tried to take Him aside and talk Him out of it. Jesus had rebuked Peter – “Get behind Me, Satan!” Both that time and right now Peter was thinking the same thing. He didn’t want Jesus to suffer and die. He didn’t see any good reason why Jesus should let bad men kill Him when He could bypass all that and take His reign and rule right now. Why go through that whole painful, humiliating business with the cross? Why die? Why not just skip the suffering and go straight to the glory? Let’s just stay up here on the mountain, Peter is thinking; I can build us three shelters, and nobody will know we’re up here. We’ll be safe and then Jesus can come down in His glory and rule over God’s people.
We often want the same thing Peter does here. We want to avoid the suffering and the pain that God lets us go through. We’d just as soon skip the hard parts and go straight to the good parts. Peter’s attitude here is the root of all human sin. You see it all the time. People want love and the physical pleasures that God reserves for marriage without having to commit to the hard work of actually being married to someone, so they turn to promiscuity. People want to enjoy the material benefits and leisure that come with honest hard work, but they don’t want to do the hard work, so they scheme and cheat and steal – and work ten times harder at it than if they’d worked at an honest job. We want rest and relief from our problems and our cares, but we don’t want to listen to Jesus when He says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” We won’t look for God’s peace where He promises to give it – in His Word and His Supper – so we look for cheap shortcuts like alcohol or drugs or food or hobbies, or whatever it is for you. We crave the honor or respect that comes with leadership, but we don’t want the responsibility, so we bite and devour and pass the buck and complain at one another. We want to act like we’re in charge when God hasn’t put us in charge. If God has put us in charge, we want to be respected and honored without having to do too much for it – which never happens, then we resent it. We want to enjoy all of God’s good gifts without doing things God’s way.
The thing Peter didn’t understand was that Jesus had to leave the mountain in order to save us. He couldn’t stay up there indefinitely, because otherwise who else would pay for the sins of the world? Who else would rise from the dead? It had to be Jesus and He had to go to the cross before He could rise triumphant and take His seat at God’s right hand in glory. We always have to suffer before we can experience God’s grace – or what we find isn’t from God.
In order to direct Peter, the other apostles, and us back to the right track, God the Father Himself speaks from heaven! Those three disciples were privileged to hear God’s voice from heaven, and it’s recorded for us here. And what does the Father say? “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” It’s the exact same thing He said at Jesus’ baptism – but with a twist. There the Father also announced that this is His Son; here He adds, “Listen to Him!” The Father doesn’t want us just to revel in this sight, think about how wonderful it is, and then go away and live like He never spoke to us. That’s what people do who say they’re “spiritual but not religious,” or they love Jesus but they’re “not into organized religion.” If you hear Jesus’ words in the gospel and you really believe them, you really believe who He is, you’ll do what He says – because of who’s telling you! It’s no mere human teacher, this is the Son of God who speaks to you in the Scriptures and God wants you to listen to Him! That’s why in our second lesson for today Peter connects his eyewitness of the transfiguration of Christ, and the word of the prophets, made more certain by Jesus who fulfilled them, because both came from God and truly bring us to God. We might not have seen Jesus transfigured but we have heard His words to us in the holy gospel, and we’re doing God’s will when we listen to Him and live by what He says.
All this is too much for the disciples. They throw themselves on the ground on their faces, because what else can sinners do in the presence of the holy God? Jesus forgives them and reassures their consciences by what He does next. Still shining in all His glory, He comes near to them, and He touches them. He reaches out His hand and lays it on their shoulders – “Get up, stop being afraid.” Jesus speaks so kindly and reassuringly to them that even though their eyes are squeezed tight shut and their faces are in the dirt, they dare to pick their heads up and look at Him – and He’s the only one they see. They saw no one except Him – Jesus, alone. Moses and Elijah were gone, the cloud full of light was gone, the Father’s voice – all gone. Jesus stood before them as He always did, alone with them on a cold and dark mountaintop. They didn’t see His glory any more because He had hidden it again. But Jesus Himself was still with them.
That’s how it is with us too. When you look at the problems and the trials in your life, they can seem insurmountable. Your problems and your misery can grow and grow and grow in your mind until they block out everything else. Our pain and our burdens can seem overwhelming when that’s all we look at. But when we look at Jesus instead – when Jesus is all that we see – then the hardships don’t seem so big. The problems shrink down and the pain gets easier to bear when we fill our eyes with Jesus, instead of staring at our problems. Then we see Jesus only, and we are filled with joy.
That’s why Jesus has given us His holy Sacrament. He hid His glory for most of the time He was here on earth. Only here on the Mount of Transfiguration does He pull back the curtain and let it shine out for just a moment – only to hide it again under weakness and death and shame on the cross. Jesus still shows His glory to us here today, but it’s hidden. It’s hidden in, with, and under the bread and wine you receive when you come to His Table. Jesus’ glory isn’t just white shining light – it’s His forgiving your sins. It’s His resurrection from the dead and His blood shed to pay for your sins, which you get when you come to His Altar. Jesus’ glory is still hidden, but for those with eyes to see, we rejoice to share in His glory at His Table, where we see Jesus, who with the Father and the Spirit is worshipped and praised forever and ever, amen.