The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Series C (February 7, 2016)
“It’s Good for Us to Be Here” (Luke 9:28-36)
“It is good for us to be here,” Peter said to his Master Jesus. Peter was right, but for the wrong reasons. He saw the glory of God there … the bright glory of Jesus’ divine nature shining through his human nature. Peter saw the glory of God, and wanted to hang on to it as long as possible … maybe even forever.
“Let’s build three tents,” he said. “One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Those tents he wanted to build were not mere shelters from the elements. He wanted to build “tabernacles” … places of worship, like the tabernacle God told the Israelites to build and where the ark of the covenant was placed.
In all of the excitement, Peter sort of lost his head. St. Luke writes that he didn’t know what he was saying. Worship is reserved for Christ alone. That’s why in the end, that’s all they saw. Jesus stood alone. But first, as Moses and Elijah were leaving to go back to their place in heaven, “a cloud came and overshadowed them.” This is the sign of the presence of God, the glory of God on the mountain. This cloud brings to mind the other clouds of God’s presence … at Sinai, in the tabernacle, in the wilderness, and later when Jesus ascended into heaven. And the Father’s voice comes from the cloud, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” “And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” It’s as if the Father was making the point that Moses and Elijah indeed were great prophets. But they and all the other prophets were preparatory to the coming of the Son of God.
Why Moses and Elijah? Of all the Old Testament saints, why were they chosen to appear with Jesus? Did they all line up to volunteer? Did they all raise their hands, trying to get the Lord’s attention, crying out, “Pick me! Pick me!” I mean, Abraham would have been a fine choice. Why not Adam? Or what about David? Why these two?
These two men were two of the greatest prophets in the history of Israel, yet eventually they had to hand the reins over to their successors. And the names of their successors point us to Jesus. Moses, the one through whom God’s Holy Law was given was succeeded by Joshua (or Yeshua as it is in Hebrew), whose name means “Yahweh saves.” Elijah, who ascended into heaven in a whirlwind, was succeeded by Elisha, whose name means “God saves.” And here they stand with the great and final successor of all the kings and priests and prophets of the Old Covenant … the one who fulfills all the promises and plans of the Old Testament … Jesus, the greater Joshua, the greater Elisha. Jesus is the Incarnate God who comes to save us from our sins. His name is also Yeshua, which (as you already heard) means “The Lord saves.”
And the Father says, “Listen to him! Listen to his words!” After all, the words of the prophets were nothing other than the words of the Son of God. The Son’s words are nothing other than the Father’s words. Jesus only speaks what was given to him to speak from his Father, as St. John records for us, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment – what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).
So, it’s good for us to be here. And why are we here? Some of us may also be here for the wrong reasons. If we’re here to prove to others – maybe even to prove to God – how good we are by going to church, then we’re here for the wrong reason. If we’re here because we think that this is another thing to check off on our “Ways to Get to Heaven” list, then we’re here for the wrong reason.
If you’re here to confess your sins, then you’re here for the right reason. If you’re here to listen to the words of the Son of God – especially his word that he forgives your sins – then you’re here for the right reason. If you’re here to see God show up in a blaze of glory, you’ll be disappointed. But if you know that Christ’s glory is here, but hidden, then by faith you can rejoice. Before and after our Lord’s face was altered and his clothes dazzled in whiteness, his divine glory was hidden under human flesh there on the mountain … and wherever he walked. Now, here at the altar, Jesus is once again present with his disciples. The glory of his body and blood are hidden under bread and wine and given for you to eat and drink.
This gathering on the mountain is also a preview of things to come. It’s a preview of the resurrection, this tableaux of Jesus and two departed saints. “Fulfiller of the past, And hope of things to be, We hail Thy body glorified And our redemption see” (LSB 414.3). One day we will see Jesus forever shining in glory, surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Reflect back on what we heard last week from 1 Corinthians 13, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”
It’s good for us to be here to prepare for the cross. The Transfiguration prepared Jesus and the disciples for the cross and all that led up to it. Denial and betrayal. Suffering and death. Glory hidden under nakedness and bloody agony. Salvation and forgiveness earned by the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God. God loving us to the uttermost: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The atoning sacrifice. The shed blood that covers our sins and declares us righteous … holy … not guilty … forgiven.
But before all this, Moses and Elijah prepared Jesus by speaking of his “departure.” In the Greek, the word is “exodus.” Once again, we are pointed back to Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt into a new life as God’s people. We are pointed back to Joshua, who led the Israelites through the waters of the Jordan and into the Promised Land. And Jesus is our New Testament Joshua, succeeding and far surpassing all the prophets. He is “counted worthy of more glory than Moses” not as a servant, but as a Son, as God in the flesh, the builder of the house of God (Heb. 3:1-6). Jesus passed through the Jordan for us in his Baptism, carried out his earthly ministry, and entered into his glory through his cross and Passion. And now, Jesus leads us through the waters of our Baptism and into the Promised Land of eternal life.
But first, the cross of suffering awaits us. “Tis good Lord to be here! Yet we may not remain; But since Thou bidst us leave the mount, Come with us to the plain” (LSB 414.5). Jesus had to go down the mountain to face the cross. He could not stay there, shining in glory. He had to finish his work. In the same way, we are not permitted to stay and bask in the glory. There are crosses that we must still bear in this world full of sinful brokenness and opposition to God and his Word and his Church. But as we sang, the risen and ascended Jesus is not absent from us as he rules and reigns from his heavenly throne. He comes with us to the plain. He is with us in our pain. He is right beside us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Imagine the thoughts of the disciples as they endured suffering after Jesus ascended into heaven. Their memories of Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration – and later seeing Jesus risen from the tomb – certainly sustained them in their times of trial. In his second epistle, Peter 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 Peter 1:16-18). And then, in his first epistle, he writes to Christians who are facing persecution, and says this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3-7).
Jesus transfigured. Jesus risen from the dead. These are memories that Peter and the other disciples could remember and hang on to and be sustained by. These are truths that you and I can remember and hang on to and be sustained by … no matter what troubled times come our way.
The Transfiguration means that the season of Epiphany comes to a close. Lent begins this week. We say goodbye to Alleluia for a while. “Alleluia cannot always Be our song while here below; Alleluia, our transgressions Make us for a while forego; For the solemn time is coming When our tears for sins must flow” (LSB 417.3). Our worship is somewhat subdued during Lent. Although we certainly confess our sins often, both corporately and individually, during Lent we spend some extra time contemplating our sinfulness and the awesome price our Savior gave for our forgiveness. Then, in 40 days (plus the Sundays), we will be prepared for a proper Easter celebration. So even though Lent is a concentrated time of penitence, we look back with Peter and the other disciples to the Mount of Transfiguration … we look back with them to the day of Christ’s resurrection … and we look forward to the day of our own resurrection. “Therefore in our hymns we pray Thee, Grant us, blessed Trinity, At the last to keep Thine Easter With Thy faithful saints on high; There to Thee forever singing Alleluia joyfully” (LSB 417.4).