“Jesus Only” (Matthew 17:1-9)
Every year, the season of Epiphany flies under our liturgical radar. The seasons of Advent and Christmas, on the other hand, make pretty bright blips on our radar screens. In fact, they flash brightly at us, with all the lights hung on trees and homes, with all the smells of freshly cut evergreens and freshly baked cookies, with all the familiar hymns and carols sung by candlelight.
But then, January 6 rolls around, the day of Epiphany, and the radar screen goes blank. The trees come down. The lights are switched off. The hymns of Epiphany are vaguely familiar. But it’s not as easy to sing “O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair” with the same gusto as “Joy to the World.”
Maybe that’s one reason why the season of Epiphany doesn’t get much attention. We’re a bit spent after a busy Christmas season. The New Year begins. Some of us focus on what we’re going to change about ourselves or how we are going to do better over the next twelve months. And then, just when the Epiphany season gets rolling, Lent comes along. This is especially true when Easter happens to come earlier in certain years. It’s a fairly late one this year.
Epiphany should be a bigger deal for us. In fact, in Eastern Orthodox churches, it is a bigger deal than in those churches with roots in the Western Catholic tradition, like us Lutherans. It should be a bigger deal because most of us here are Gentiles, and one of the themes of Epiphany is giving thanks to God that the light of Christ has also come to those of us who are not Jews … like the Magi who bowed their knees to the Christ Child.
Epiphany should also be a bigger deal for us because of the ongoing themes throughout the entire season. All the Gospel readings during Epiphany reveal to us that Jesus truly is the Son of God, God in the Flesh. This manifestation of Christ’s identity began on the First Sunday after the Epiphany when we heard the account of Christ’s Baptism. There, God the Father’s voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today, we have one more chance to make a big deal out of Epiphany. We have before us a big deal in the Gospel reading today: the Transfiguration. And echoing what we heard at the Baptism of Jesus, we hear the Father’s voice one more time, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Once again, God the Father puts his stamp of approval on his perfect, sinless Son, who stepped in line with us sinners at the waters of the Jordan, and whose divine glory was manifested on that high mountain, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
Peter, James, and John were privileged to see some spectacular sights on the mountaintop. The Lord of Glory gloriously shining. Two departed saints conferring with Christ. Afterwards, St. Matthew writes, “when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” That’s all they needed. That’s all that mattered. They had seen a marvelous vision, that’s for sure. But the only thing they needed at that moment and for the days ahead was Jesus only. And that goes for us, too. That’s all we need for our life and for our salvation … Jesus only.
Sometimes, however, there are things that crowd Jesus out of our life. What crowds Jesus out of your life? Your daily struggles? Your daily temptations? Your time constraints that don’t leave you enough time for daily devotions, daily time in God’s Word and prayer? All that competes for your attention during a typical day? Jesus gets crowded out of your life. When that happens, you cannot be strengthened by God’s Word in the midst of your struggles nor can you fight against temptation, because you have removed yourself from the source of your strength.
There was quite a crowd there on the mountain. There was such a crowd there that it could be easy to lose sight of what was really going on. Let’s take a closer look at that crowd for a few moments.
There were the three disciples: Peter, James, and John, whom Jesus specifically chose to be “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).
There was Jesus, of course, whose glory as God Almighty was now briefly shining through his human nature. Jesus in his state of humiliation did not always use nor reveal his nature as God. Here, for a time, he did.
There was Moses, the bearer of God’s Law, which our Lord Jesus kept perfectly in our place. Today’s Old Testament lesson prefigures the Transfiguration. Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and 70 elders of Israel went up on the mountain and “saw the God of Israel” just as the disciples were now seeing the God of Israel on the Mount of Transfiguration. Later, Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to receive the second set of tablets of the Law, because he broke the first set during the whole Golden Calf fiasco. When Moses came back down, Exodus 34 tells us that “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Moses’ face reflected God’s glory. Now here he was on a mountain once again, seeing Jesus, who was shining not with a reflected glory, but with a divine glory that was rightly his own.
There was Elijah, representing the prophets of the Old Testament who preached about the coming of the
Elijah had also spent some time on Mt. Sinai. In 1 Kings 19, he flees from Queen Jezebel,
who threatens to have him killed.
Climbing Mt. Sinai, or Mt. Horeb as it was also called, Elijah received
a revelation from God. Now, the
disciples get to see a revelation from God.
They get to see Jesus revealing his divine glory to them, along with a
glimpse of what it will be like in the resurrection of the dead on the Last
Not long before this event, Jesus had told his disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter lost sight of this. He let this vision of glory crowd out Christ’s mission to the cross. He wanted all this to last, and so he said, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Or in other words, “Come on, Jesus, let’s stay here a while. We don’t want to think about all that stuff you said a few days ago about suffering and dying.”
Jesus knew that his mission was not to keep shining there on the mountain. He didn’t come to be permanently installed as an illuminated monument, like the famous 100-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Jesus knew that this vision of glory couldn’t last. He knew that the disciples could not keep on looking at his glory. The glory would distract them from his real mission … his mission of giving his life for the life of the world.
How easy our desire for glory distracts us from our life with Christ. When we suffer, we wonder where God is. When things are tough, we doubt God’s love for us. You and I are a lot like Peter. We want to feel glorious and see glorious things, thinking that would finally confirm our faith. But listen to what Peter said in today’s Epistle. He states that “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty … we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven … we were with him on the holy mountain.” But then notice, after talking about all that glory, he says this: “But we have something more sure, the prophetic word.” (2 Pet. 2)
It’s not the glory that counts. It’s the Word of God. God’s Word is more sure for you than any vision of glory. God’s Word is more sure for you because even though you may suffer, even though things are tough, even though you may feel guilty over something you have done in your life … all you need is Jesus only, and he is graciously present for you through the promises of his Word.
The disciples cowered in fear, hearing the Father’s voice. Jesus touched them and said, “Rise, and have no fear.” “And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Moses was gone, because Jesus came to fulfill the Law. Elijah was gone, because the words of the prophets about the
Messiah were coming true in Jesus. All they saw … all they needed … was Jesus
only. All you need is Jesus only. Rise up.
Have no fear. Jesus is with you.
In the Lenten days to come, we will begin to contemplate our Lord’s journey to the cross. Jesus set aside his glory for a time. He humbled himself and allowed himself to be beaten, mocked, and executed. He bore your sins at the cross.
Hanging there on the cross was Jesus only. But hold on a minute! Wasn’t there was a bigger crowd around the cross than there was on the Mount of Transfiguration? Wasn’t he crucified between two criminals? Wasn’t there a group of Roman soldiers there, gambling for his clothes? Weren’t the chief priests and the scribes there, mocking him? And wasn’t his Mother Mary and his disciple John there?
Yes, they were all there. But let me ask you something. Have you ever felt lonely in a crowd? Surely that’s how Jesus felt. Even with the crowd around him, Jesus was more alone than any human being ever was. It was Jesus only who was suffering for your sins. It was Jesus only who was forsaken by his Father because of his wrath over the sin of the world, now laid upon his Son. It brings us pain to see the Son of God deserted by God the Father. But we recognize that this desertion was the price for our salvation.
Lift up your eyes … to the cross … and see Jesus only, suffering and dying for your salvation.
Lift up your eyes … one last time this Epiphany season … to the Mount of Transfiguration … and see Jesus only. See there a preview of what is to come. A preview of Easter morning. A preview of the Last Day, when we will see Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and all the other saints who have gone before us … alive, in the presence of the Risen Jesus … shining in glory for eternity.