The Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 18, 2007)
“The View From the Mountain” (Luke 9:28-36)
I have never been to the top of Mt. Rainier, and I doubt if I will ever make it there at this point in my life. I’m sure that those who have been up there feel as if they are on top of the world. A little over 20 years ago, I had the chance to have a taste of what that must be like. I was a camp counselor at a summer camp in California, and one week each summer we took some junior-high campers on a week-long backpacking trip. One of those days, we hiked to the summit of the highest peak in Southern California...Mt. San Gorgonio, at 11, 499 feet. I can still remember the sensation of standing on top of the tallest rock I could find, leaning into the wind, and looking out over the entire valley and beyond to the Pacific Ocean, some 120 miles away. I will never forget “The View From the Mountain” that I had on top of Mt. San Gorgonio.
The OT reading assigned for today recounts the end of the ministry of Moses leading the Israelites, and how God richly blessed the people through him. It also tells us about Moses’ “view from the mountain.” From his vantage point, the Lord showed him the whole land that was promised to the people of Israel.
The Gospel reading, which is also our sermon text, recounts how Jesus was transfigured on top of a high mountain. Moses and Elijah appeared with him in heavenly glory, and the disciples Peter, James, and John were eyewitnesses of all of this. God the Father revealed himself in the voice from the cloud, too. Each had a different “View From the Mountain.” We might say that from where He stood, (I.) Jesus looked up and then looked down. From where they stood, (II.) Peter and the other two disciples looked up. And from His viewpoint, (III.) God the Father looked down.
The text says that Jesus “took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” This happened about eight days after Peter had made his great confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. Immediately after that, Jesus began to explain to the disciples something he had not told them before. He began to explain that He must suffer and die, and that those who want to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross daily.
With that in mind, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray. He needed a heavenward “view from the mountain” in order to be strengthened for his journey ahead, his journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. It is significant that we hear this account today, as this Wednesday we enter into another Lenten season and follow Jesus in His journey to the cross.
As he was praying, He became “transfigured.” Luke describes it like this: “The appearance of his face was altered, and his clothes became dazzling white”...or more literally translated, “as white as a flash of lightning.” Christ’s divine glory, his utter holiness and righteousness, temporarily shined through his humanity at that moment.
Appearing with him in heavenly glory were also Moses and Elijah. Moses was the one through whom God revealed His Law to the people. Elijah the prophet stood there as a representative of all the prophets of the Old Testament. And now, these two great representatives of the Law and the Prophets were speaking with the one who would fulfill the Law and the Prophets, the entire OT Scriptures which pointed to Christ. They were talking with him about his departure, that is, his death. The Greek text calls it his “exodus.” Just as Moses led the people in their exodus out of their slavery in Egypt, so Jesus in His death leads those who receive the new life He offers in their own exodus...an exodus out of slavery to sin and eternal death.
And so, Jesus looked up and received encouragement from his heavenly Father and from Moses and Elijah. This prepared him to look down for a different view from the mountain. It’s not for certain what mountain Jesus may have been on. It could have been Mt. Hermon, which rises 9,100 feet into the Palestine skyline. Whichever mountain it was, Jesus looked down like Moses did on Mount Nebo and saw the land and the people in which he lived. In his mind’s eye, Jesus must have also looked down and saw the entire world for whose sins He was about to die. I imagine that He even looked down and saw you and me in our sinful separation from God, and He was made ready to go down the mountain to pay for your sins and mine at the cross.
Peter and the disciples had a different “view from the mountain.” They stirred from their sleepiness, looked up, and saw a glorious sight. Peter recounts this in his second epistle, where he writes, “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18) John, too, in the prologue of his gospel, writes, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
As Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter was the first to speak. He said, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He wanted this view from the mountain to last, and I’m sure the other disciples did, too. He wanted to stay there, basking in the bright, heavenly glory.
However, as Luke explains that Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Peter, and the other disciples as well, still did not get it. They had heard Jesus explain to them that he must suffer and die in Jerusalem just days before this. And Matthew records the fact that after Peter heard this, he declared, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22) And then here on the Mount of Transfiguration, they did not understand that the glory of that moment was only temporary. The suffering and death of Jesus had to precede the glory of his resurrection and his ascension into heaven. They did not want to do as Jesus did, and also look down from the mountain, to see what was ahead.
You and I may sometimes be tempted to be like Peter. It’s natural for us to want to hang on to the glory...to stay on the mountain, so to speak...not wanting to go back down into the valley of the shadow of death, to go in the way of the cross. When suffering comes our way, we don’t know what we are talking about when we cry out, “Why me? I don’t deserve this! I thought God was supposed to always bless me with a good life because I am a Christian.”
God never promised that he would keep us from suffering. Instead, God promises to be with us in the midst of our suffering. He uses troubles to cause us to rely on him, as the Lord said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Then Paul continues, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
An English officer told the story of a Hindu who had been converted to Christianity. He said, “In Belgium I met a converted [Hindu], whose confession of Christ, as I knew, had cost him everything. No sooner had he been baptized than his possessions were taken from him, and his friends deserted him. ‘Are you able to bear you troubles?’ I asked him. ‘Many ask me that,’ he answered, ‘but they never ask me whether I am able to bear my joys; for I enjoy a happiness in my heart since I know that Christ has forgiven me that nobody has been able to take from me.’ “
That man understood that although in this life we do suffer, we nevertheless have the hope of eternal life. Through Baptism we are God’s children, and we have been given his Spirit. Then, as one modern translation puts it, “God’s Spirit makes us sure that we are His children. His Spirit lets us know that together with Christ, we will be given what God has promised. We will also share in the glory of Christ, because we have suffered with him.” (Romans 8:16-17)
Even for Christians, suffering must precede glory. But it is not our suffering that wins for us glory. It is Christ’s suffering that has done this for us.
You see, Christ did not hang on to His glory. He gave it up when He was conceived as a man and born in poverty. And He didn’t hang on to it there on the mountain. Instead, He went down the mountain into the “valley of the shadow of death,” where He suffered and died for you and for me, to win for us the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. The glory of his transfiguration was a foretaste of the glory of his rising to life again and his ascension into heaven. Moreover, His resurrection and ascension are foretastes of the glory of that has been promised to us. In the meantime, you and I live here, walking in the way of the cross, and that means suffering and struggling against sin and temptation and all that is opposed to God, relying on God’s strength, while all the while having the sure hope of forgiveness and eternal life through the cross of Christ.
There is one final view from the mountain to speak of. That’s the view that the Father had. He looked down from above the mountain, out of the cloud of his presence, and said of Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” For Jesus, He would have remembered similar words from his Father when he was baptized at the beginning of his ministry. Now, these words at the end of his earthly ministry would have reassured him that He was the one to carry out God’s plan of salvation.
For the disciples, the words “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to Him!” are a reassurance that this man from Galilee whom they have been following for three years really is the Messiah, even though things didn’t turn out the way they might have expected. They are to listen to Him and to remember His words.
The words “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to Him!” are a reassurance for us, too. The suffering that Jesus endured does not mean that He was a failure, nor that the Father had rejected Him. In the same way, the sufferings we endure in our lives are not a sign that we are a failure, or that God has rejected us. At the beginning of your spiritual life in Christ, at your Baptism, God declared of you, “This is my son...this is my daughter...my chosen one.” That declaration stands sure and firm forever, despite what this world may take away from you or put in your way. As Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27 NIV)
Our view today is from the base of the mountain. As we enter the season of Lent, we look up and see Jesus coming down the mountain to suffer and die for us. We look up, knowing that Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us in heaven. And we look to His table where we receive the glory of His Holy Body and Blood which forgives and refreshes and strengthens us as we listen to the voice of Jesus and follow Him.