The Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 22, 2009)
“Voices on the Mountain” (Mark 9:2-9)
If you had to pick a character in the Bible that you would like to have been, who would that be? Think about that for a moment. Who would you like to have been of all the people in the Bible? What would you have seen? What would you have heard?
Perhaps you would like to have been Ruth, because of her dedication. Maybe you would like to have been David, because of the tremendous forgiveness he had experienced. I think I would like to have been one of Jesus’ disciples, being able to sit at His feet and learn from Him, “live and in-person.” Just think of all the things they saw and all the things they heard!
Just think how fortunate the three disciples were in today’s Gospel text! Imagine what they saw! [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.
Peter, James, and John truly had what we call “a mountaintop experience.” Mountains were the place of “high revelation” throughout the Bible. And here, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the divine glory of Jesus shined forth – and Peter, James, and John were eyewitnesses of this glory. John reminds us of this in his Gospel: “ we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Peter also reminds us of this in his second letter: “We were eyewitness of his majesty.” (2 Pet. 1:16)
Not only did they see a marvelous sight there on the mountain. They heard “Voices on the Mountain.” And Peter, not wanting to be left out of the conversation, added his voice, too. These “Voices on the Mountain” are what we want to consider today, as we seek to make some sense out of this glorious mountaintop experience.
The first voices on the mountain were those of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Mark doesn’t tell us what they were talking about, but Luke gives us an idea. He wrote that they were talking about his “departure.” (Luke 9:31) They were talking to him and probably encouraging him in the face of his impending death.
Just prior to this trip to the mountain, Peter had given his great confession of faith in Jesus, saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matt. 16:16) Immediately after that, Jesus began to teach the disciples that it would be necessary for him to suffer and die, and on the third day to rise again. This, as you can well imagine, did not sit well with the disciples. Peter, having just given a wonderful confession of faith, was then used as a tool of Satan to keep Jesus from going to the cross, yet Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33)
Then came the trip to the mountain. The disciples saw the glory of Jesus’ divine nature shining forth. Having just heard the prediction that he would soon be taken to suffer and die, this must have encouraged them. And here are Moses and Elijah to encourage Jesus. These two prophets of God had their share of suffering and rejection. But they, too, had their own mountaintop experiences. At Sinai, Moses received the Law of God and his face became radiant after being in the presence of God. At Carmel, Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal and restored the true worship of God to Israel. And now, on the Mount of Transfiguration, here is Jesus. Here he is speaking with two representatives of the Law and the Prophets. And he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He is being prepared for a mountaintop experience of a different sort … his crucifixion on Mt. Calvary, where he will die for the sins of all people.
There’s one more thing to note when we talk about Jesus’ “departure” which Moses and Elijah were discussing. The Greek word for “departure” is “exodus.” Moses led the people of Israel on their “exodus” out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus’ “exodus” led him to the cross to rescue us from slavery to the guilt and power and punishment of sin. Through faith in Jesus, we are forgiven and given new life, and when we look at Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, we see a foreshadowing of our eternal life with Him in heaven.
The next voice that was heard on the mountain was Peter’s. He said, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Peter’s intentions were good. It was good for them to be there. But the text tells us that Peter really didn’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t quite understand what was going on. He was frightened, yet he wanted to hang on to the moment. He wanted to set up three “tents” or “tabernacles” to worship Moses and Elijah and Jesus. His question at this mountaintop experience would have been, “Why can’t it always be like this?”
Don’t we feel that way sometimes? When things are going great, we ask “Why can’t it always be like this?” When we have our own mountaintop experiences, when we feel especially close to God, we ask “Why can’t it always be like this?” Our intentions are good. But really it’s rather selfish of us to ask that question. We want to see the glory all the time. We want to feel the glory all the time. We want to feel goooood! This is one aspect of what is called the “Theology of Glory!” And so we ask, “Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be wonderful? What happened to that ‘abundant life’ that Jesus promised me?”
Instead, we see that life is not wonderful all the time. But when it is not, dear friends, don’t ever think that it’s because of any lack of faith on your part. Life is hard in this world of sin, and there are many of you who already know this too well. Pain, sadness, sickness, strife in the home, loss of job, a sagging economy, confusion, depression, anxiety, and whatever . . . all have invaded your lives. We don’t get to see the glory all the time. We get to see the cross, the moments of suffering. But God is still present there, and this is what we call the “Theology of the Cross.” It was at the cross where Christ also showed His glory, although it was certainly a hidden glory, a glory quite different from that on the Mount of Transfiguration. It was at the cross where He showed His great love for us by willingly giving His life to save our life. And Because Christ was at work for you on the cross, you can know that it is at those moments of suffering where God is at work in your life. The abundant life does not consist of things being hunky-dory all the time, but rather in the peace and forgiveness that is given to us in Christ. Even though things seem dark and gloomy, we still have the light of Christ.
There was certainly a lot of glory there on the Mount of Transfiguration. But it wasn’t supposed to last. The glory could not be contained in a “tent.” We know that because the glory of God appeared in the cloud. At the same time, the glory was seen in Jesus. He is the Word made Flesh, who “tented” among us. And Jesus knew that he had to go down the mountain and face the cross.
This brings us to the last voice we hear on the mountain. It is the voice coming from the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
Familiar words. We first heard them at Jesus’ baptism, where he was anointed with the Holy Spirit without measure and His public ministry as the Messiah began. And then the words “Listen to Him!” Listen to Jesus. He is the Messiah. He is the Savior. He is the Prophet like Moses, who teaches with authority.
And, as St. Paul wrote in today’s Epistle, He is the One in whose likeness we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This is being accomplished by the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It began at our Baptism. It continues as we hear the Word of God and receive the Lord's Supper. We are being “transfigured” so that we may be more like Christ and so we may reflect the love of Christ to each other and to our friends and neighbors. We have been freed from our selfish slavery to sin to do just that.
It’s a work, though, that won’t be quite finished in this earthly life. We’re all unfinished products, just like an unfinished statue. In Law and Gospel, the Holy Spirit, the “heavenly sculptor,” works on us. He chips away at us and shapes us so that we more fully resemble the image of Christ. He may have to cut or chisel deeply at times to achieve the desired results. Lumps of pride may have to be hacked away until God-pleasing humility reveals itself. He may have to sandpaper our sinful rough edges at times. This may prove painful, but it will produce a more polished image of Christ in us, an image that will be completely perfect when we reach our heavenly home.
At Christmas, we saw the glory of God hidden in the humble birth of the Babe in the manger.
At Epiphany, that glory was revealed to the Gentiles as “the Light of the World.” And in the Epiphany Gospels we heard about that glory being shown in the great teachings and miraculous signs of Jesus.
Today, at the Transfiguration, that glory is revealed on the mountain. The fullness of Jesus’ blazing glory and divine power is shown. And God the Father confirms that glory with His voice from the cloud.
The Transfiguration was meant to remind the disciples – and it reminds us – that Jesus was and ever is the eternal Son of God. It was good for them to be there, to see the glory and to hear the voices. It was good for them to be there, to give them strength and encouragement to go down the mountain and to face the road ahead, the road to the cross, the road to forgiveness.
It is good for us to be here, to hear the Word that tells us that Jesus was and ever is the eternal Son of God. It is good for us to be here, to give us strength and encouragement to go out those doors, and face our road ahead, as we bear the crosses in our life. This Wednesday the season of Lent begins, and we begin our journey with Jesus to His cross, the road to our forgiveness.
We live out our lives in the valley, living with the “Theology of the Cross” … confident that God is present in the midst of suffering. But we have seen the sights of glory and we have heard the voices on the mountain. And those sights and sounds point us beyond Lent, beyond the cross, to an empty tomb, and to the Risen Lord.