“You Don’t Need a Magic Eye” (Luke 9:28-36)
I have a folded up bill in my hand. What kind is it? Well, I see a one. Is it a one dollar bill? Maybe there are a few more zeroes hiding there. Maybe it’s a ten dollar bill. Or a hundred dollar bill. Maybe it’s a thousand dollar bill! Not likely. Those haven’t been printed since 1947 and are pretty much out of circulation today. But you never know!
If you want to know what kind of a bill this is, you’d have to have a magic eye … or x-ray vision like Superman … so you could look through the folded up paper and see what it really is. Then again, a non-superhero way of doing it would be to simply unfold the bill and examine it at each stage of the process.
When the disciples looked at Jesus, they didn’t fully realize who he really was. They didn’t have a magic eye to look beyond his human flesh and see that he is also God. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus “unfolded” his identity for them. This is part of what the Gospel readings in the Epiphany season are all about. Jesus unfolds his identity at his Baptism, through miraculous signs (changing water into wine, healing diseases, casting out demons), and through his authoritative teaching.
On the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “unfolds” his identity even further. He gives three of his disciples a glimpse of his divine glory shining through his human nature.
Peter, James, and John were a bit drowsy after their climb up the mountain. When they rubbed the sleep from their eyes, they were surprised and delighted to see Jesus shining brightly. What’s more, they saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest departed saints of the Old Covenant. Luke says they were talking about his “departure.” Unfortunately, we don’t get to eavesdrop on that conversation. Perhaps Moses and Elijah were reflecting on the part they each played in God’s plan. Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt. He received the Law on Mount Sinai. When he went down the mountain, he found that the people were in utter rebellion. Later he ascended Mount Nebo where the Lord prepared Moses for his own “departure” from this life. Elijah boldly preached God’s Word. But when Queen Jezebel was seeking to kill him, Elijah fled to Mount Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai. There, the Lord assured Elijah of his gracious presence even though he was bitterly opposed and felt like he was the only faithful servant of God left. But he still had to go down the mountain and finish his work of anointing two new kings and Elisha as his successor. Perhaps they spoke with Jesus to encourage him in his task ahead. Jesus will also go down the mountain. He will face opposition. He will fulfill the Law. He will fulfill the Father’s promise of a Savior. He will finish his work of dying for the sins of the world.
Peter got so excited about all this that he wanted to stay on the mountain. And wouldn’t you? Would you want this amazing experience to end? Peter wanted to pitch three tents up there and stay awhile. Enjoy this heavenly camping trip. But Luke writes that Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. After all, just eight days before this heavenly hiking trip, Jesus had told the disciples that “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Perhaps Peter did remember this, but he didn’t want to think about it. Maybe he thought, “If we just stay up here, we’ll be safe. Then those awful things that Jesus told us about won’t have to happen.”
What would have happened if they had indeed stayed there? They would have enjoyed each other’s company. They would have enjoyed wonderful fellowship there on the mountain. But Jesus would not have come down the mountain. Jesus would not have gone to the cross to die and take away their sins … or ours!
It wasn’t God’s plan for Jesus and the disciples to lounge around on the mountain. The disciples did not have magic eyes to see who Jesus really was. But Jesus’ identity had been unfolded to them. He was not an ordinary person. He was True God and True Man, God’s own Son, chosen to save sinners, sent to go down the mountain into the valley of the shadow of death and face the cross.
When we have a meaningful spiritual experience, we sometimes call it a “mountaintop experience” … even if it didn’t happen on a mountain. It could be at a retreat. It could be a special time of Bible study and prayer with other Christians. It could be at a youth gathering. But those experiences never last. Eventually, we have to “go back down the mountain” … back to the dull routines of daily life. The consequences of sin strike us once again. Suffering enters our life. Conflict. Temptation. Falling to temptation because we have failed to “listen to” God's “Chosen One,” his beloved Son. And each one of us will, at one time or another, pass through the valley of the shadow of death … the death of someone close to us or our own impending death.
But because Jesus went down the mountain and faced suffering and death for you, he walks with you as you walk down your mountains. He walks with you in your suffering. He walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death. And you do not need to fear that valley because in his dying and rising again, Jesus conquered your enemy death once and for all.
Think about how it would have been for you on that mountain. What would you have said when you saw Jesus’ appearance change before your very eyes … and without needing any magic eyes to see his glory? What you have felt when you heard the Father’s voice telling you, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” Would this have been a life-changing experience? I imagine it would have been. It would have been a true “mountaintop experience.”
But you don’t need to go up on a mountain. You don’t need any magic eyes to see something spectacular. You had a life-changing experience in the waters of Holy Baptism. You didn’t have any magic eyes to see what was going on there. But God was truly at work there. He washed away your sins. He gave you the Holy Spirit. And you will have another life-changing experience this morning as you receive Christ’s body and blood. Again, no magic eyes to see what’s going on there. But Jesus has promised you in his Word that his body and blood are truly present there and given to you for the forgiveness of all your sins.
And you have heard God’s voice today … not from a cloud, but from that lectern, from this pulpit, from this book in the liturgy and the hymns. You have heard God’s voice that tells you he loves you, you are forgiven in Christ, and that your Lord Jesus walks with you in your suffering, sustains you when you face trials and temptations, and carries you through the valley of the shadow of death.
When you go to a movie theater, you first have to sit through all the previews. You get a sneak peek at some of the exciting scenes of movies that will soon be in the theater. Based on those scenes, you decide if you want to fork over a few bucks and see that movie on the big screen when it comes out.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is a bit like one of those movie previews. There we get a sneak peek at the glory of Jesus, the glory of heaven, the glory of the resurrection. We don’t need any books about near-death experiences to tell us that “heaven is for real.” We already have that assurance in the Book of Books. We already have that assurance in the Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah standing there with Jesus. We already have that assurance in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. But we don’t get to see the entire “theatrical release” just yet. We still have to remain here for a while. We still have to go down the mountain and enter once again the season of Lent where we will walk with Jesus to the cross. It’s there where he paid your admission price to heaven with his own blood. And then, when our last hour has come and we enter into eternity, we will stand on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John, and all the departed saints in Christ. We will see the glory of Jesus … and without any magic eyes.