Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord
Isaiah 61:10-11 + 2 Peter 1:16-21 + Matthew 17:1-9
Happy Epiphany to you, one last time for this year! It’s been a short season, but we’ve considered together some of the important Epiphanies of Christ’s hidden divinity: the visit of the wise men, the boy Jesus in His Father’s house, the Baptism of our Lord. Today we reach the pinnacle of the Epiphany season as we climb up the holy mountain of transfiguration with Jesus, Peter, James, and John.
All three Gospel-writers, St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke, connect the Transfiguration Gospel to what occurred about one week earlier. Listen to some of the words Christ spoke to His disciples at that time, right after they had made a bold confession about Him being the Christ, the Son of the living God. If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me…For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.
Did you hear what Jesus’ disciples heard? If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself. The denial of self is the most unnatural, painful thing a sinful human being can do. The denial of self goes against everything our sinful nature—our old man—is programmed to do. Because our sinful flesh is all about self and views everything that happens in the world and everything that other people do from the perspective of how it benefits or how it harms the self. The self lives for the self and works for the good of the self and gets angry when the self perceives itself to be harmed in any way by our neighbor, or to be hindered in any way by God. That’s who every human being is at the very core of our being.
And here is Jesus, insisting that the only way to follow Him, the only way to be a Christian, is to deny the self. Not just a little bit, but entirely, even to take up one’s cross and hang the self on it, as St. Paul writes to the Romans, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Christ, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin… Put to death therefore the deeds of the body.
Jesus’ disciples had just confessed that Jesus was the Christ. So this is what it means to be a Christian? Self-denial, self-crucifixion? On a daily basis, as St. Luke adds in his Gospel? Who would ever want such a thing? Who could ever manage such a thing? Who would dare to follow the Christ, if this is what following Him means?
As usual, God doesn’t beg people to follow Jesus or try to sell Christianity to them. He simply speaks the truth, about our sin and about Jesus, who is the Christ, the true Son of the only true God, who came to save us from sin, death, and the devil. And, through that truth, His Spirit convicts the world of sin and works faith, where and when He it pleases Him.
So Jesus didn’t mince words with His disciples. He told them how it would be in this life. But He also told them what the hidden reality is in this life, and how it will be in the next life, and how He will indeed come at the end of the age in the glory of His Father, and how He will share that glory with His dear Christians. And now, in our Gospel, He gives us a brief glimpse, a visible—but temporary—manifestation of His hidden divinity, an Epiphany to confirm the truth He had spoken to His disciples, to assure us all of how it will be for Christians: Cross now. Glory later.
Jesus took three of His disciples—only three—up a high mountain. And there, it says, He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light. This is the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ. This is the reality about Jesus that was hidden throughout His earthly life, that this humble, meek, “ordinary” Man named Jesus was also the glorious, all-powerful, only-begotten Son of God. But He covered up His glory, took on human flesh, and lived the humble life of a servant—the humble life of love and compassion that we were supposed to live, but didn’t and don’t.
Moses and Elijah appeared next to the transfigured Lord Jesus and were talking with Him. These two prophets were representatives from the Old Testament, showing the disciples that the Scriptures really were all about Jesus, confirming what they themselves had confessed just one week before, and that all the prophecies—both about the cross and about the glory that would follow for Christ and for His Church—were true. As Peter says in his epistle when referring to the events of the Transfiguration, we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
But when he was in the moment, up there on the mountain, St. Peter wasn’t so much interested in heeding the word of the prophets as he was in just being wrapped up in the glorious worship experience there on the mountain. Peter wanted to stay. Lord, it’s good for us to be here. Let us make here three tabernacles. Peter knew that, down below in the world, Jesus had talked about suffering and dying, and about His disciples denying themselves and taking up their cross. But here on the mountain there is glory. Here there is peace. Here there is no disturbance or noise from the busy world to disturb our glory time.
But God the Father cut Peter off and interrupted him in mid-speech. Enough of this! A bright cloud overshadowed them and the Father spoke. This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him! The Father placed His seal of approval on Jesus, claimed Him as His Son, and reaffirmed Christ’s hidden divinity, both with words and with the transfiguration itself.
“Listen to Him! Believe what My Son tells you. Hear and heed His words.” That applies to everything Jesus said and did during His earthly ministry. It also applies to everything the holy apostles wrote in the New Testament, because it was the Spirit of Christ who was in them inspiring their words. It also applies to everything Jesus continues to say through His called and ordained ministers, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God…We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. When God’s Word is preached and applied to you, when the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are administered to you, you are to hear Jesus, the Son of God, speaking to you. (That’s also highlighted beautifully on the back of your service folder in that reading from our Lutheran Formula of Concord.)
What good news that is! It means that, even though God is unseen and hidden from your eyes, He makes Himself accessible to you through His Word. Even though Jesus has ascended into heaven and you can’t see Him now, He is still present in the preaching of His Word. Even though the Christian life is a life of self-denial and the cross and all the pain that comes along with it, Christ has not abandoned you. His words are still spoken for you to hear, and that is exactly what God the Father calls on you to do.
All the words of Christ matter, and they can be summarized in three phrases: repentance; the forgiveness of sins; and “love one another.”
Every person on earth needs to repent, needs to recognize how thoroughly corrupt he is by nature, how utterly selfish and self-centered his flesh is, and how utterly sin corrupts and taints our hearts and our thoughts. To repent is to acknowledge that we are miserable wretches and beggars before God, and that we have not feared and loved Him enough to keep His commandments or to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Those who acknowledge their sins are taught by Christ to flee in faith to Him for refuge, and He promises mercy and the forgiveness of sins to all who do. Because faith in Christ, together with Holy Baptism, binds a poor sinner to Christ, so that God the Father’s words to Jesus become God the Father’s words to the believer. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”
To His Christians, Christ says, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” But to love your fellow Christian is to deny yourself. To love your fellow Christian is to put him or her up on a pedestal, with you standing at their feet, ready to serve, ready to sacrifice, not just once, but every single day of your life. Only the Christian can do that, because only one who knows the love of Christ in His service to us, in His sacrifice on the cross and in the forgiveness of sins can show the love of Christ to others.
So we’re back to self-denial. Cross now. Glory later. It has to be that way for the Christian, because it was that way for Christ. But self-denial is still painful and hard for the Christian, and the cross is heavy. And we may not always understand the need for the cross, even as Jesus’ disciples didn’t always understand it and sometimes just plain didn’t want it. Today’s Gospel shows us the simple truth. The Jesus who calls on us to humble ourselves and take up the cross is the same Jesus who humbled Himself and took up the cross for us, even though He was the glorious and all-powerful Son of God. His sacrifice for us was intentional. His death for our sins was on purpose. And the glory He promises at the end of the road to all who trust in Him is very real. He is with you as you take up your cross and follow Him. He was victorious over the cross in His glorious resurrection. And through faith in Him, you will be victorious, too. Hear Him! Amen.