Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Peter 1:16-21 + Matthew 17:1-9
We have a very special miracle before us today in the Transfiguration, the climax of the Epiphanies of our Lord. All of Jesus’ miracles pointed to His divinity. You see Him calm the wind and the waves, and you have to conclude, this man is God. You see Him drive out demons, and you have to conclude, this man is God. You see Him change water into wine, heal sickness and blindness and deafness and paralysis and leprosy and you have to conclude, this man is God. In all those miracles, the evidence of Jesus’ true identity was there, but in all those miracles, Jesus still looked like Jesus. He still looked like any other man.
Not today. Not at the Transfiguration. For that brief moment on top of the mountain, Jesus looked like no other man. He looked like God. He allowed His disciples to see the visible manifestation of His divine glory, and to hear the Father’s voice, giving His seal of approval to His Son, to the work He had done and to the work He was about to do.
Why now? Why at this point in His ministry, some six months before His crucifixion? Because of what happened six days earlier.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the transfiguration, and they all begin by connecting it with what happened about a week earlier. Jesus had asked His disciples who the people said He was: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, some other prophet, some other mere human being. But you, Jesus asked, who do you say that I am? That’s when Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” And Jesus praised His answer and praised His Father for revealing that hidden truth to His disciples. He promised to build His Church, and the gates of hades will not overcome it. Then He proceeded to explain to His disciples that He must suffer and die and rise again from the dead. That made no sense. The Son of the living God should not have to suffer and die. Peter tried to tell Jesus He was wrong, to which Jesus replied, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Then followed even more confusing teachings, that they and all who would consider themselves disciples of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, would have to suffer, too, would have to deny themselves, take up their own crosses, and follow Jesus. Finally, He told them, after all is done, the Son of Man will come in His Father’s glory to reward each one according to his works.
That’s a lot to take in, a lot of seemingly contradictory things all said at once. The all-powerful Son of God is powerless to stop His own death? The beloved followers of Jesus must suffer and turn their backs on their earthly life in order to gain a heavenly one? We have to go through our whole life on earth in humility, in shame, in self-denial, and then face death before we get to join Jesus in glory? Is that what you’re telling us, Jesus? They needed to see what was awaiting them at the end of the road, that the hard life of suffering and self-denial to which they were being called for the sake of Jesus would be worth it in the end.
So up the mountain they go, just Peter, James, John and Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Here, for a moment, the curtain is pulled back—the curtain that veiled Jesus’ divine glory during His entire life on earth. Remember, Jesus had told His disciples six days earlier that one day He would come in His Father’s glory to reward them according to their works. Here is glimpse of that glory that awaits at the end of the age. For a moment, three disciples—only three! —get to see it with their own eyes.
And then Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Two Old Testament prophets who were great prophets in their own right, but also mere shadows, pointing to the great Prophet Himself. Each of them had performed great miracles. Each of them had been mostly alone in leading God’s people, a great burden of loneliness placed on them both. They had both been, at times, rejected by God’s people. At the end of his service, Moses had died without entering the promised land. At the end of his service, Elijah was taken up alive into heaven. You can see Jesus prefigured in them both.
But now they are talking with Jesus in the glory of the mountain. They suffered for the sake of Christ, too, and were now living in glory. They had been weak and confused at times and almost willing to throw in the towel. But they had persevered, and now they understood what it had all been about.
Peter thinks they should all stay here together on the mountain. Let’s put up shelters!, he suggested. He still didn’t understand. The glory of the mountain wasn’t supposed to last, yet. Neither Jesus nor His disciples had finished their earthly mission, as Moses and Elijah had. They had not yet completed the days of their suffering in humility and shame. This vision on the mountain was to assure them of what awaited. It was to show them that it would all be worth it in the end. As St. Paul once wrote to the Romans, I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
God the Father interrupted Peter. While Peter was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” All of Jesus’ talk about suffering and dying and rising again, all His admonitions to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus, all the promises about glory and rewards at the end…All of it was confirmed by God the Father Himself. This was the way. Jesus Himself is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him.
Hear Him! Those words thundered down from heaven. And what important words they are! You can’t see Jesus’ glory yet, but you can hear what Jesus says. Believe what He says, about the cross and about the resurrection. It’s hearing the words of Jesus that will sustain you through this earthly life into the next life. Which words? The ones you pick and choose? The ones you like? The ones your reason can grasp? Well, obviously, all of them. Hear everything Jesus says. Honestly, there aren’t even many “Christian” churches around these days where they are willing to hear Jesus in everything.
But as for you, hear Him! His words will never pass away. His words about His own suffering and death—you know the purpose behind it all. It was to bear the sins of the world and to receive the punishment for them, so that all sinners might be saved through faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. His words about His own resurrection—you know that it’s true, as all those eyewitnesses testified. His words about your self-denial, your cross, losing your earthly life in order to gain life—He says it all for your good. Because the path of the Christian cannot be different than the path of the Christ. As Jesus said elsewhere, A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.
Do not fear them. Do not be afraid. That’s what Jesus told His disciples after the vision of the transfiguration was over. That’s what He tells you, too, as you go down the mountain, as you face a world that is still hostile and rabid against Christ and against anyone who speaks His truth in the world. Now is not the time to experience the glory of being God’s children, to experience peace and safety and comfort and to be loved by the people of this world. Now is the time to hear Him, to hear Jesus. Now is the time to receive His Sacrament and the strength it provides. Now is the time to be bold in living lives of service, lives of love, lives in which we are not afraid to speak the truth of Christ, no matter what cross it may bring. All this is done in great humility and weakness. But the Gospel assures us that Jesus Christ is still God, that the glory is real, and that it surely awaits all those who remain faithful till the end. Amen.