Glory paves the way to the cross

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Sermon for Transfiguration of Our Lord

Exodus 3:1-14  +  2 Peter 1:16-21  +  Matthew 17:1-9

The Epiphany season is very short this year, just three weeks.  Two weeks ago it was the visit of the wise men.  Last week we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, and now already we’re at Transfiguration Sunday.  And having Jesus’ Baptism and transfiguration so close together really puts the spotlight on those similar words spoken from heaven on these two occasions when God the Father said about Jesus: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

In between these two events, Jesus had conducted the majority of His three year ministry.  He preached; He taught; He healed all kinds of sicknesses and diseases and performed striking signs and miracles.  Just before the Transfiguration—six days before, as our Gospel tells us—Jesus’ disciples had reached the climax of their faith as Peter boldly confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”  Then, Jesus began to explain how He, the Christ, the Son of God, would endure the cross and shame, and be mocked and put to death.  And in one moment, Jesus’ disciples went from the height of faith to the valley of despair and taking offense at the cross of Jesus.  They were ready to confess Him as the Son of God, but they were not ready to see Him crucified, to see Him treated, by man and by God, like a sinner.

And so Jesus chose to give three of His disciples—only three! —a vision of His glory, so that they could see—one time with their eyes—Jesus, looking like the Son of God, before they would be forced to see Jesus looking like a common thief, like the chief of sinners, hated, condemned, and hanging on a cross. 

God has determined that you and I need to see this vision, too, before going back out into the world and facing the cross of the Christian, the hostility of the devil and the world and our own sinful flesh, but to see this vision, not with the eyes in our heads, but with the eyes of faith, and as someone once put it, the eyes of faith are the ears.  So see (with your ears) again today the glory of Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration. The glory of the transfiguration paves the way to the cross.

What happened up on this mountain?  First, Jesus was glorified in His appearance.  His appearance changed.  He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.  Jesus went from looking like an average man to looking just like the Son of God.  And here for a moment, the disguise of humility was removed.  Not the disguise of humanity, because Jesus’ flesh and blood were no disguise.  He really took on human flesh and blood and still shares in our humanity even now.  But the disguise of His humility, the disguise of looking just like the rest of us sinful men—that was gone now, and Jesus’ true identity as the Creator God was manifest.  Notice that His face didn’t shine like the moon, which has no light of its own but merely reflects light from the sun.  No, Jesus’ face shone like the sun, as the source of light.  That’s also how the Apostle John spoke of Him in the first chapter of his Gospel, All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.  In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

No, the darkness didn’t recognize Jesus as the Light, because Jesus put on this disguise of humility and weakness, so that He could only be known by the eyes of faith, so that the darkness thought it could do whatever it wanted to Jesus. And it did.  This glorious Son of God was about to submit Himself to the darkness of rejection and shame and torture and death.  These brilliant white clothes would go back to looking normal, so normal, so average that the soldiers at the foot of Jesus’ cross didn’t think twice about ripping some of them to shreds and casting lots for the rest of Jesus’ garments. This glorious Son of God—this is He who is about to die.

Then there was the glorious conversation that took place on that mountain top.  Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and were talking with Him.  Both of the Old Testament prophets had been, in a lesser way, where Jesus now was. 

Moses stood on Mt. Horeb, as you heard in the Old Testament lesson today, before the glory of the burning bush, and there He spoke with God.  God had chosen Moses to rescue His people from slavery in Egypt and lead them into the Promised Land.  But in order to do it, Moses would have to go down from this mount of glory and face rejection, shame, and rebellion. Moses would doubt and disobey God along the way, and so he would have to die so that the children of Israel could enter the Promised Land. 

So Jesus, too, was chosen by God, sent by God to deliver sinners from slavery to sin and death and the devil. He would have to descend from this mount of glory and face rejection and shame and hard work in order to carry out God’s mission.  Unlike Moses, Jesus would never doubt, would never disobey God along the way, and yet still Jesus would die for the sins of sinful men so that sinful men could enter the Promised Land of heaven through faith in Him.  But God the Father would be with His Son every step of the way, as He was with Moses, and in the end, there would be glory waiting on the other side.

Elijah went up a mountain once, too, Mt. Carmel, where he defied the priests of the idol Baal, and in a blaze of glory, God sent fire down on Elijah’s sacrifice and showed His approval of it and of Elijah.  But then Elijah had to go down from that mountain and face rejection and the people of Israel trying to kill him, to the point that he despaired and gave up and wanted to die, until God Himself brought Elijah back up onto a mountain—Mt. Horeb, just like Moses—and revealed to Elijah that God’s plans were still being carried out, and His people were still being kept safe, in spite of how it looked.  Elijah is especially unique because Elijah never died, but was taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot.

So Jesus, too, on whom God placed His seal of approval on the Mt. of transfiguration, would have to go down to face the people of Israel trying to kill him.  But unlike Elijah, for as hard as it got Jesus never once despaired of God’s love and God’s plan, but put God’s love on display by allowing Himself to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. Like Moses, Jesus died. But like Elijah, Jesus ascended into heaven very much alive.

The glorious conversation with these Old Testament prophets paved the way to the cross, as both Moses and Elijah confirmed that this very Jesus was the Christ who was promised in the Old Testament, He who would come, live, die and rise again.  Peter refers back in his Epistle to these prophets and to all the prophets and reminds us that they didn’t speak on their own about the coming Christ.  The Holy Spirit moved them, inspired them to talk about Jesus ahead of time. And here at His transfiguration, Peter says 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.

Finally, the glory that paves the way to the cross is the glorious praise Jesus received from the Father.  This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him! By repeating the same words He spoke at Jesus’ Baptism, God the Father makes it absolutely certain for us that no man can please God by offering his own good works to God.  If you’re looking for God’s love, for God’s acceptance, for God’s forgiveness and God’s righteousness, you have it only through faith in Christ, the beloved Son of God who gives you full and free access to God’s grace through Him and only through Him.

Hear Him!, the Father says.  But what Jesus says doesn’t always—doesn’t ever!—make sense to our human reason.  If He is the glorious, beloved, well-pleasing Son of God, then He shouldn’t have to suffer; He shouldn’t have to die.  If we are God’s beloved children through faith in Jesus Christ, then we shouldn’t have to suffer; we shouldn’t have to die.  And yet Jesus says that He must, and so must we. Hear Him, the Father says.  Because your eyes will deceive you.  But Jesus’ words will never deceive you.  After death there is resurrection for Jesus and for all who hope in Him.  Behind the suffering and the shame there is a loving Father who is well-pleased with Jesus and with all who trust in Him, because the blood of Jesus covers your unpleasing sins and offenses and makes you righteous before God.

When the glorious vision had faded, the disciples were cowering in fear until Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” They lifted up their eyes and saw no one but Jesus only.  And that’s really the point of this transfiguration narrative.  When your sins threaten you, when your conscience accuses you, when fear seizes you, when the cross looms ominously on the horizon and you don’t understand why this Christian life can be so hard, don’t just sit there staring at your belly button.  Don’t turn to your pitiful human reason for the answers. Don’t cling to your sins, don’t look to your good works for help. Look up and see Jesus only—the glorious Son of God who, most of the time, looked like the biggest loser of all.  The glory of the transfiguration paves the way to the cross and makes it OK to suffer and die, because you know that there is glory on the other side.  See Jesus only.  Hear Jesus only.  And you will be safe.

After all, you’ve been baptized haven’t you?  And Baptism is tied to transfiguration, even your present transfiguration from sinner to saint, and your future transfiguration from this image of dying and death to the image of the glorified and risen Christ.  The washing away of sins in Baptism is tied to the future glory that will be ours, if we continue in this faith.  As Paul says to the Romans, Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.  Amen.

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