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Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Peter 1:16-21 + Matthew 17:1-9
In our Gospel, we see the same brilliant light that the shepherds saw on the night of Jesus’ birth. Only this time, it isn’t in the sky filled with angels. It’s in Jesus’ own face. For a few moments, His face shone like the sun in the presence of Peter, James and John. And then the vision was over. What does it mean?
It means, there’s hope, for you, for me, for all who trust in Christ Jesus. There’s the hope of glory on the mountain.
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.
Every year I remind you what happened “six days” before the Transfiguration took place, since Matthew, Mark and Luke all take the time to tell us. It’s important. Do you remember? Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus had promised to build His Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Then Jesus began to predict His suffering and death, and it caused the disciples to stumble. But Jesus called on them to deny themselves, take up their own cross, and follow Him. And He promised great glory to all who are found following Him when He, the Son of Man, comes in glory.
But is Jesus really the Son of Man and the Son of God? Will He really come in glory? Will He really rise again after He suffers? Will it really be worth it for those who follow Him to live a life a self-denial here on earth, to suffer for His name’s sake? Is there really a good reason to hope for this glory?
There is. It will. Because He is and He will. Peter, James and John saw the glory that was there, masked by self-chosen humility and apparent weakness. And Peter has testified to what he saw: We were eyewitnesses of His majesty, Peter wrote in today’s Epistle. They saw with their eyes what they had already heard from Jesus’ own mouth and what they themselves had already confessed by faith. But they were weak and frail, and our enemies here—the devil, the world, and the flesh—are powerful and convincing. So Jesus gave them a visible reason to hope by revealing His divine glory to them, and through them, to us. This is the glory in which Jesus now lives. This is the glory that He promises to share with us who follow Him.
But it wasn’t only Jesus’ glorious appearance on the mountain that gives us hope.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
There are many reasons we could explore for these two particular Old Testament prophets to appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. The simplest meaning is that they appeared with Jesus to show that they agreed with Jesus—with the plan He revealed to His disciples that He should suffer and die and rise again from the dead, that He should be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. Moses and Elijah also reveal that all their Old Testament preaching pointed to Jesus as the Christ, and that, for all that they suffered here on earth for following God faithfully, it was worth it. Here they are with Jesus in glory, not dead, but very much alive.
I do like to point to one special occurrence in the life of Elijah which pre-figured the Transfiguration, in a way. Up on Mt. Carmel, Elijah had stood all alone against the prophets of the idol called Baal, and he had won. The LORD had revealed Himself as the true God by setting ablaze the altar Elijah had made, and the prophets of Baal were put to shame. But then the glory faded and Elijah found himself on the run again, being chased and hunted down by wicked Queen Jezebel. He felt alone. He felt abandoned. He wanted to see the Church prospering and evil being wiped out—to see a glorious Church on earth. But he didn’t see it. His personal situation and the situation of God’s Church on earth at that point looked absolutely hopeless. He was ready to give up, ready to die. But God led him up onto another mountain—Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, the same mountain where God had revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush and in the giving of the Law. And there God revealed Himself again to Elijah. There was a roaring wind, but God wasn’t in the wind. There was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. There was a blazing fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. Then there was a still small voice. And that’s where God was. That’s where God revealed Himself to Elijah, in that still small voice. And He revealed that things weren’t as they seemed. Elijah wasn’t alone. God had reserved 7,000 in Israel who hadn’t turned away to false gods. God was in control all along. And God would preserve the ministry of the Word, too, by sending another prophet, now that Elijah’s time of service was coming to an end. God’s truth would prevail. His Church would survive.
The lesson God had taught Elijah long ago on a mountain was being retaught to Jesus’ disciples as Elijah nods his head in agreement. God was right. I couldn’t see it at the time. But He was right. There was every reason to hope. And there’s every reason for you, too, to hope in this Jesus, who is the very Son of God.
But Peter wasn’t getting any lesson that was being taught at that moment. The glorious vision filled his heart with gladness, and he wanted so much to hold onto it.
Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But the Mount of Transfiguration wasn’t the final destination. It was a stopping point along the way, provided to sustain the hope of Jesus’ disciples so that they could face the hardships that lay ahead.
It was God the Father Himself who broke off Peter’s speech. While he 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!”
Jesus hadn’t brought these disciples to the mountain to end their earthly struggles or to begin His reign of glory on earth. He had brought them there to have their faith confirmed by His Father. This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. The Father first spoke those words over Jesus at His Baptism some 2-1/2 years earlier. Now He reminds Peter, James and John that Jesus remains His beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased. So even though He is about to suffer many things and be rejected by the “people of God” and be crucified and put to death, He remains the beloved Son of the Father, in whom the Father is well pleased. And the adoption and sonship of those who believe and are baptized is confirmed. And God’s well-pleasing verdict upon all who believe in Christ is confirmed. And the glory Jesus has promised to those who follow Him is likewise confirmed by God the Father Himself. There is hope there on the mountain.
But notice where the real hope lies: not in seeing Jesus transfigured and glorious. But where? Where does the Father point Jesus’ disciples now? “Hear Him!” Listen to Jesus. Even after the vision of glory is gone, the word of Jesus remains forever. The disciples had it all along, even in the midst of the worst suffering and deepest shame, and so do you. It turns out, it’s not a vision of glory that produces hope. It’s the word of Jesus, which you’re hearing right now.
Jesus says many things, of course. Hear them all! Hear especially His continual call to repent, to trust in Him for the forgiveness of sins, to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him. And hear His promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His Church. Hear His assurance that, even in the midst of hardships, when the future looks bleak, behind it all He remains the Son of God and the Son of Man, and has it all under His mighty control. Hear His promise that glory awaits His people on another mountain, the one that awaits at the end of this earthly pilgrimage, of which Isaiah writes: And in this mountain The LORD of hosts will make for all people A feast of choice pieces, A feast of wines on the lees, Of fat things full of marrow, Of well-refined wines on the lees. And He will destroy on this mountain The surface of the covering cast over all people, And the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever, And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces; The rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken. And it will be said in that day: “Behold, this is our God; We have waited for Him, and He will save us. This is the LORD; We have waited for Him; We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”
May the hope that is set before you in today’s Gospel renew your strength and your zeal to follow Jesus, wherever His word and His governance lead you. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.