Sermon for Transfiguration of Our Lord
Matthew 17:1-9 + Exodus 34:29-35 + 2 Peter 1:16-21
Last week we learned about faith and the pattern it follows. The Word of Christ awakens faith, the kind of faith that keeps seeking and clinging to the Word of Christ. The Christian life isn’t about seeing. It’s about a continual pattern of hearing and believing.
But one day it will be about seeing. One day faith will come to an end and be replaced by sight –the sight of Christ, the Son of God in all his glory, the seeing of God face to face.
Now you heard in the First Lesson today how Moses did see some of the glory of God while he was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God. Moses had asked to see God’s glory, and God gave him a partial view. Even that left Moses’ face glowing for a little while afterwards. But the Lord told him plainly, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
1500 years later, long after Moses had died, he did see God’s face. He was there on the Mt. of Transfiguration, together with the Prophet Elijah who had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, accompanied by a flaming chariot. Moses and Elijah, together with Peter, James and John, beheld the glory of God in the face of Christ – not just metaphorically, but literally! And so will you! The Transfiguration of our Lord is God’s promise to you, the promise of seeing God’s glory at the end.
Now let’s back up a little bit, about a week before the transfiguration. You remember what happened? Peter confessed about Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” And Jesus said, “Yes, Peter. And you are blessed, for this was revealed to you by my Father in heaven.” How was it revealed? Through the Word of Christ. Through the Word of Christ, Peter was enabled to know Jesus by faith as the Son of God, even though by sight, he appeared to be nothing more than a man. That faith made Peter and the other disciples ready to follow Jesus wherever he might lead, ready to march into battle with Jesus and fight with him against the devil and all his dark forces. They were ready to follow him anywhere – except to the cross, which is exactly where Jesus needed to go. This is when Jesus first began to explain to his disciples that the Son of Man had to be betrayed, and suffer, and die. And then, on the third day, he had to rise from the dead.
Peter refused to believe it – that the Christ had to suffer and die. He rebuked Jesus, and then Jesus rebuked him and explained that anyone who wanted to follow him had to walk the road of the cross, too.
It was just a week later that Jesus took three of his confused disciples aside – Peter, James and John – and took them up that mountain with him. There, for just a moment, they got to see with their eyes what their faith had already told them was true, but was now struggling to hold on to: the face of God in a Jesus who had to suffer and die. And they did see it – Jesus’ face, shining like the sun, his clothes changed to dazzling white like the light itself. They got to hear him conversing with the saints – Moses and Elijah, safe from all harm and danger, a little slice of heaven on earth.
But, what was he talking about with Moses and Elijah? Luke tells us. He was talking about his departure at Jerusalem. He was talking about going back down the mountain, back to Jerusalem, back to his enemies so that they could kill him. Moses and Elijah started walking away. It looked like this taste of heaven was coming to an end.
No, Lord! It’s good for us to be here! Let me put up some tents for you and Moses and Elijah! You can understand Peter’s desire to stay, can’t you? Who would ever want to leave? Who would ever want to go back down the mountain to face suffering and to return to the way of the cross and death?
But Jesus didn’t have to say a word. It was the God the Father himself who interrupted Peter and spoke from the cloud of glory that enveloped them and overshadowed them. This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.
And then, like a light switch being turned off, it was all over. The prophets were gone. The cloud of glory was gone. The voice of the Father, the bright shining light – it was all gone. And they were afraid – afraid of the glory and afraid to lose the glory and return to the way of the cross.
But Jesus touched them and said, “Rise and have no fear.” And when they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus only.
And that was the point all along.
OK, so you don’t understand how the Son of God has to suffer and die and rise from the dead? That’s fine. You don’t have to understand it. Just keep your eyes on Jesus only.
You can’t fathom why God would want a wretch like you in his kingdom? That’s OK. Just keep your eyes on Jesus only.
You can’t imagine how you can actually keep following Jesus to the cross, how you can deny yourself and take up your own cross daily and follow him? You can’t imagine how you can face another day on this sin-filled planet, much less many more years of it? That’s OK. You don’t have to imagine it, or even find the strength to do it. Just keep your eyes on Jesus only.
Or, more accurately, don’t keep your eyes on Jesus. Keep your ears on him only. What did the Father say? “Listen to him!” Whether you see him shining with divine glory, or whether you see him hanging on a cross, even if you don’t see him at all, listen to him!
You see, Jesus explains it all in his Word, if we’re listening, if we’re paying attention. He explains why he, the Son of God, had to suffer and go to the cross – to make payment for your sins. And he explains how this payment is applied to your account – by hearing the Gospel and believing in Him who bore the cross for you. And he even explains – a little bit – why the Christian life is so hard here on earth – because you have been made like Jesus through Baptism. You are even now considered by God to be Jesus through your Baptism, and you’re also being molded into Jesus by the Holy Spirit, which includes a heart that’s being renewed in love like his, and which also includes suffering like his.
Do you know how much this beautiful vision on the Mt. of Transfiguration helped Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James and John as Jesus walked slowly toward Jerusalem to be crucified? Not a lick. At the time, they didn’t understand it at all, nor did they think too much about it. For that matter, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about it until after he rose from the dead. But then, then it became clear to them. The transfiguration was God’s promise to them, that it would all turn out perfectly, that they and the rest of Christ’s Church would be victorious in the end, that no matter how much suffering there would be, no matter how much the Church seemed to be falling to pieces around them, behind it all was Jesus, the beloved Son of God, the glorious King, the victorious Savior.
I wonder how it will turn out for you… Oh, wait. I don’t have to wonder. Because God has shown it to me, and to you. It turns out like the Mountain of Transfiguration. It turns out in glory on the heavenly mountain, in life and light, in peace and safety for all who trust in Jesus. It turns out in the Father’s voice of full approval of you, His son (whether you’re a man or woman, boy or girl), because by faith you have been covered with the image of Christ, God’s beloved Son. It turns out in seeing God face to face, just like Peter, James and John.
But if you think about it, Peter, James and John didn’t just see God’s face up on the mountain. They saw God’s face all the time, because they had Jesus with them all the time. His face was always God’s face. The only difference was that on the Mt. of Transfiguration, their eyes told them it was God’s face. The rest of the time, it was Jesus’ Word showing them the glory of God in the face of Christ.
That’s the same Word that reveals Jesus to you. Peter makes that connection in today’s Epistle, from the glory he saw in Jesus as an eyewitness up on the mountain, to the glory of Christ that is revealed by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Word of Christ. In the Word, God has given you all you need for a lifetime of faith and of cross-bearing right here in His Word and Sacrament. Here, in Word and Sacrament, you see your Lord face to face by faith.
You have the Word of all the prophets who spoke about the Christ who was coming to make atonement for the world’s sin and you have the Word of the apostles announcing that the kingdom of Christ has now come, even upon us who believe in His name. You have the body and blood of Jesus hidden in bread and wine. The forgiveness of sins is announced to you here. Heaven is opened to you now. Here is the light of Christ shining on you today, revealing his glory on the Mt. of Transfiguration, God’s own guarantee of the glory that awaits you who remain believing until death, the promise of seeing God’s glory at the end. You will stand in God’s presence on the heavenly mountain, and you will never have to go back down the mountain again.
Here on earth, the Christian life is not about seeing, but about hearing and believing. But there on the heavenly mountain, you will see God’s face unhidden, and faith will be forever transfigured into sight. Amen.