Sunday, March 6, 2011
Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (March 6, 2011)
“It is Good That We are Here” (Matthew 17:1-9)
Let's go for a hike. You might want to bring along some sunglasses, too. You're going to need them when you get to the top of the mountain. You won't believe the sight you'll see.
Well, of course we're not really going on a hike. Let's imagine, though, we're going on a hike with Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John. We're going on the same hike that they took in our Gospel lesson. Jesus led them up a high mountain. There he was “transfigured.” Jesus still looked like Jesus. But now something was different. For a time His appearance changed from a mere earthly figure into a supernatural figure. His divine glory was beaming forth from His human body. Matthew tells us that “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” What's more, two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament appeared with Jesus – Moses and Elijah.
Imagine we are right there with Peter, James, and John, and with them we peer at this matchless sight. With Peter we say to Jesus on the mountaintop, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” It's good that we are here to witness Your glory. It's good that we are here to hear Your Father. And it's good that we are here to preview Your heaven.
Lord, it's good that we are here to witness Your glory. Six days earlier Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. But the disciples still had a different idea about what kind of Messiah He was going to be. They thought that He was going to be a conquering Messiah. Jesus had to set the record straight. He explained to them that it was necessary for Him to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
This was a hard pill for the disciples to swallow. They still didn't quite understand. Would you and I have understood any better than they? We, too, would have missed the part about Jesus being raised to life. None of us would have wanted to see Jesus suffer. Maybe some of us would have protested like Peter, saying, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
Now, at the top of the mountain, we witness the divine glory of Jesus. For the three disciples, it was an encouraging sight. Seeing His glory was meant to strengthen their faith in Him, especially after having just heard about His impending suffering and death.
For us, seeing His divine glory on the top of the mountain here in His Word is also an encouraging sight. This glorious sight helps us in our times of guilt, despair, sorrow, or doubt. Seeing His divine glory reminds us that He is the One who has the power to forgive the guilt of our sins through His suffering and death. Seeing His divine glory reminds us that He is the One who has the power to uplift, sustain, and comfort us when we are discouraged, despairing, or depressed. Seeing His divine glory reminds us that He is the One who has the power to create faith even when we cannot believe and to strengthen faith when we are struggling to believe.
And He is the Lord whose glory is still present but hidden. His glory was hidden under His humanity. His glory was hidden as He suffered and died for us on the cross. And His glory is present with us today, but still hidden under the forms of water, bread and wine, and the spoken Word.
Lord, it's good that we are here to hear Your Father. When Moses was on Mount Sinai, and when God the Father led the children of Israel through the wilderness, God showed His glorious presence in a cloud. Here on the mount of Transfiguration, He comes again in a cloud. Jesus was about to face a horrible execution. The weight of the world’s sins would be upon Him. How encouraging this must have been for Jesus to know that His Father goes with Him and loves Him.
Out of that cloud comes the Father's voice: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” We heard these same words at the beginning of Epiphany at our Lord’s baptism by John. When Jesus was baptized He began His ministry and mission as the Messiah, the Anointed One. Here, at the end of Epiphany, as we prepare for Lent, we hear those words again on the mount of Transfiguration as Jesus is about to conclude His earthly mission and ministry. “This is my beloved Son” reminds us of His divine mission as the sinless Son of God, the Savior of the world.
The Father also reminds us to “listen to Him.” Listen to and obey all His words. Listen even to those words which might make us a little uncomfortable, words which tell us that each one of us is a sinful person who deserves the death which Christ endured for our sake. When we hear those words, we must act like Peter, James, and John in the face of divine glory. We must fall on our faces, because as sinful human beings, we cannot stand in God’s holy presence. But then, just as quickly, Jesus comes to us with words of absolution. Like the Good Shepherd that He is, Jesus tenderly touches the disciples, and tells them to “Rise, and have no fear.” And through Holy Absolution and in the Holy Supper, Jesus comes to us here today and touches us with His tenderness and forgiveness.
Lord, it's good that we are here to preview Your heaven. Look and see Moses and Elijah speaking with Him. Moses comes as the representative of the Law. Elijah comes as the representative of the prophets. Jesus fulfilled the Law and all that the Prophets had to say about Him, and by His death He redeemed those who were born under the Law. What's more, these men of old do not appear as ghostly apparitions. They are immediately recognizable. They appear as living people. They are not dead. What Jesus said about the Father is certainly true, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt. 22:32) This sight on the mountain is just a glimpse, a foretaste of the feast to come, the heavenly banquet promised in Scripture. We will be reunited with all the saints who have gone before us – those who like Moses and Elijah looked forward to coming of the Savior, and those of us who have already seen His coming and trust in Him. We will walk and talk with them, and enjoy living forever in God’s presence.
Peter wanted to build three tabernacles – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. To us, that sounds kind of silly. Jesus didn't take them on this hike up on this high mountain just to go camping. Peter might have been thinking that it would be better to stay up there on the mountain and bask in God's glory rather than go down the mountain, especially after all that talk about suffering and death. More likely, Peter has in mind the Feast of Tabernacles, the feast during which people lived in tents and looked forward to the future Sabbath rest which the Messiah would bring. Peter may think that here on the mountaintop the promised rest had arrived. But that rest was and is still to come. Jesus still had to go down the mountain to face the cross where through his suffering, death and resurrection he would earn that future heavenly rest for us.
So, it's time to go back down the mountain and journey towards Jerusalem, towards the cross. Look at the faces of Peter, James, and John. Can't you just see the excitement in their faces. They can't wait to get back to the rest of the disciples and say, “You won't believe what we just saw!!!” Wouldn’t you want to tell someone, too? Yet Jesus tells them “mum's the word” … “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” It’s as if Jesus was saying, “You have seen my glory here. But I have an even more glorious work to do. That will be accomplished at the cross. Only then will you fully understand the meaning of this vision on the mountain. My glory will be most apparent when you see me giving my life for the sins of the world.”
After they saw the Risen Jesus, you couldn’t keep them quiet about what happened! “Carried along by the Holy Spirit,” they went out and proclaimed Jesus as the Savior of the world. Peter later wrote: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but 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 Pet. 1:16-18)
But as glorious as the vision on the mountain was, it was not the subject of their Spirit-inspired preaching. Their central message was what we will hear about in the weeks ahead. Now that we have been on the mountain with Jesus, we are encouraged to face our Lenten journey. As we walk with Jesus, we’ll see him arrested, crucified, forsaken, and resolved to die because of his great love for us. For a time we will set aside our Alleluias. We will hear the familiar Lenten readings. We will sing the familiar Lenten hymns. It’s important for us to rehearse this story every year because our faith rests on these events. But we have also been with Jesus on the mountain, so we know that a glorious Easter awaits us ... our Lord’s Easter, and our own Easter on that day of the resurrection of all flesh.