Transfiguration Sunday February 26, 2017
2 Peter 1:16-21
10, 360, 135, 36
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters— one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
I lived in northern California for fifteen years. During that time I always marveled at how a three-hour drive could whisk me away from the masses, messes, and twelve-lane freeways to the pristine slopes of the Sierra Mountains. Fresh, cold air. Endless green tree-lines. Majestic landscapes. Spectacular views from various mountaintops, which invigorated me and remained with me long after I had returned to my everyday realities.
Have you ever driven through mountains? Have you ever stopped at a scenic view to admire the dizzying heights and distant landscapes? The view from a mountaintop gives one a different perspective. The view which Peter, James, and John had from the Mount of Transfiguration was meant to give them a different perspective—not a better view of the landscape, but a better view of the one they called Savior and Lord.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, let’s approach this familiar text, Matthew 17:1-9, and this familiar mountain, the Mount of Transfiguration, as we would approach any mountain climb: the ascent, the summit, and the descent.
“The ascent,” that is, the circumstances that led to the transfiguration. Nothing about the transfiguration of Jesus was accidental or inconsequential. According to Matthew 17:1, “After six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” We’re not told which mountain this was and in the final analysis, the precise mountain doesn’t matter. What does matter is that everything about the transfiguration was determined by Jesus. Jesus chose the place. Jesus chose the disciples. Jesus led the disciples up the mountain and subsequently Jesus led disciples back down the mountain. And Jesus chose the timing.
Indeed, the timing of the transfiguration is important to understanding its purpose. By the time Peter, James, and John climbed the Mount of Transfiguration, they had followed Jesus for nearly three and a half years. Imagine the countless miracles they’d seen. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus restored the crippled. Jesus released the demon-possessed. Jesus controlled the weather. Jesus fed thousands from scraps. And Jesus even raised the dead.
As time wore on, a ‘typical’ day in the lives of these disciples was undoubtedly like the day described in Matthew 15:30-31. “Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when the saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.” Growing popularity. Undeniable success. Exciting times. Amazing possibilities.
Not only had Peter, James, John, and the other original disciples witnessed the miracles of Jesus, they were empowered by Jesus to perform miracles of their own. As stated in Matthew 10:1, “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.”
Then, only six days before the transfiguration, the disciples had accompanied Jesus to Caesarea Philippi. And there Jesus had asked the searching question: “Who do you say I am?” And speaking for all the others, Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yes, the disciples had confessed their faith in Jesus before, but never so clearly and so convincingly as on that day in Caesarea Philippi.
And it was precisely when things were going so well, that, from the perspective of the disciples, things began to go so wrong. Sounds like real life, doesn’t it? Sounds like our lives, doesn’t it? We read in the same chapter of Matthew, on the heels of that great confession: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day raised to life,” (Matthew 16:21). Notice the word MUST. The Greek word is more literally NECESSARY. It was absolutely necessary for Jesus to go to Jerusalem; absolutely necessary for Jesus to suffer, die, and be raised to life. You and I know the reason why. It was necessary for Jesus to do these things in order to save us from our sins.
From this time on, from Matthew 16 — a type of “mountaintop” in the Gospel of Matthew, in the ministry of Jesus, and in the lives of his disciples — that Jesus focused determinedly on going to the cross. As explained in Luke 9:51, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” “Resolutely.” Nothing forced Jesus to the cross. Nothing dissuaded him from the cross. It was because of the cross and because the disciples were about to experience the worst, most devastating darkness and disappointments of their lives, that Jesus led Peter, James and John up the mountain to give them a close-up view of his glory.
What did Peter, James, and John view on the Mount of Transfiguration? Certainly you know the details as well as I do. We’ve been opening our Bibles and climbing this same mountain every Transfiguration Sunday of our Christian lives. On that mountaintop, Jesus “was transfigured before them.” The Greek word, here, is the source of our English word metamorphosis. It literally means “to change form,” hence to transform or transfigure. And when that transfiguration occurred, according to Matthew 17:2, the face of Jesus “shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
Mark wrote: “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them,” Mark 9:3. And Luke wrote: “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” Consider all these descriptions: sun; white; bleach; bright; lightning. Even imagining the brilliance of what the disciples saw leaves our retinas glowing with after-images.
Next, Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with Jesus—talking with Jesus, as Luke explains, “about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:31). Why Moses and Elijah? Moses was representative of God’s Law. Elijah was representative of God’s prophetic word. Throughout the Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets announced the coming of Jesus Christ and his atoning death for the sins of the world. Now that Savior was here and was about to fulfill all God’s promises of salvation. Now that Savior was about to accomplish a greater exodus, a greater deliverance from slavery, than the one led by Moses in Egypt.
Remember what the risen Jesus told those two disciples who were shuffling along the Road to Emmaus on the first Easter, sadly lamenting, ‘We thought Jesus was the one.’ According to Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
And then, reminiscent of the bright cloud that once covered Mount Sinai, a bright cloud enveloped Jesus, Peter, James, and John. From out of that cloud the voice of God the Father declared: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Matthew 17:5. At this, the disciples fell face-down in terror until Jesus touched them and said “Get up” and “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus was no longer enveloped in the blinding glory of his deity, but the warmth and humility of his humanity.
What are the lessons of the transfiguration? What view from the mountaintop did Jesus want his disciples to carry with them to the reality of the plain, into the darkness and seeming chaos of his passion and crucifixion? Said differently, what view did Jesus want his disciples to have of him as they moved from Epiphany into Lent? What lessons did Jesus intend for us to carry down from the mountaintop and into our own daily grinds and nightly worries?
The transfiguration of Jesus was for our sakes too. This is why God the Holy Spirit caused this event to be recorded in three of the four Gospels: Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. This is why the Holy Spirit moved Peter to mention the transfiguration in his second epistle. This may be why the apostle John wrote in the Prologue of his Gospel: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” (John 1:14).
Each time I preach on the transfiguration I worry that listeners will find the message too doctrinal or ethereal, too far up in the clouds—like a mountaintop—to be of any practical value on earth. Yes, we all find the transfiguration interesting. Yes, we all ask ourselves intriguing questions like, “How did the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah, when Jesus made no introductions?” “Was the transfiguration of Jesus visible only on the mountaintop or did it illuminate the night sky?” and, “What did the voice of God the Father sound like? Thunder? Waterfalls? A deep resonant bass like the voice of James Earl Jones?” Silly, I know. But you have asked yourself these things, haven’t you? Yet, as we close our Bibles and descend the mountain, perhaps the most nagging question is this one, “Does the transfiguration of Jesus have anything to do with me at all?”
The answer, of course, is a resounding “Yes.” When Jesus led his disciples up the mountain and later led them back down again, he was moving the lessons of the transfiguration from the theoretical to the practical, from the cloudy mountaintop to the harsh realities of the plain. You and I may prefer to live on that mountaintop, basking in the heavenly glory of our Savior far above the headaches and heartbreaks, masses and messes and twelve-lane freeways of life.
Peter wanted the same. “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” (Matthew 17:4). But the mountaintop is not our home. Our home is in the plain. Our home is where bills are due, relationships fail, accidents happen, people get sick and die, and things seem totally out of control.
The reality is, we have all been on that sacred mountain. We were at the transfiguration of Jesus just this morning, where we saw his glory and heard the testimony of God the Father. How? This Bible. According to Simon Peter, who was an eyewitness of the transfiguration, the Bible is a more certain witness than even that which he saw with his own two eyes.
The Bible is always here for us to read and reread; to answer our questions and chase away our doubts. Because the Bible is not, as even some churches claim, a collection of cleverly invented stories, but the inerrant writings of eyewitnesses who wrote by inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. As Peter stated in 2 Peter 1:21, “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
What if we carried the lessons of the transfiguration into the harsh realities of our lives? What lessons? The lesson that Jesus Christ is the One. Jesus is the Answer, no matter what the problem, from daily bread to eternal life, from a chaotic world to a troubled marriage. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he said in John 14:6. Isn’t that why he allowed his true glory to shine forth on the mountaintop? Isn’t that glory like a mega-watt beacon blazing forth the message: JESUS SAVES? Isn’t that why Moses and Elijah were talking with him? Isn’t that why God the Father said of him, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him?”
And what of the lesson of Christ’s deity and humanity? We witnessed both on that mountaintop. “God is light,” John wrote in 1 John 1:5. The momentary glimpse of Christ’s glory, when his face shone like the sun and his clothes radiated light, revealed the deity otherwise veiled by his humanity. We confess this very thing in the Nicene Creed, “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
When that Light of Light was again hidden, who remained? The same gentle, loving Jesus telling you to “get up” and to “not be afraid?” So tell me, then, what if you carried these lessons of the transfiguration down the mountain and into your daily life, as Jesus meant for you to do? What if you left church today saying, “My Jesus is true God; and there is nothing he cannot do. My Jesus is true Man; and there is nothing he cannot understand?” How would these lessons from the mountaintop change your view of life?
When Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus, they were not only indicating that Jesus Christ is the sum and substance of all Scripture. They were also saying that “God keeps all of his promises.” This was evidenced not only by the presence of Christ on that mountaintop, but by the determination and love with which Christ left the mountaintop for the harsh reality of the cross. Why? Because God promised that he would. Yes, God keeps all his promises. Yes, what God tells me in the Bible is always true and utterly reliable. If you marched down the mountainside with this type of confidence today, how would it change your view of life tomorrow?
Yes, the view from an ordinary mountaintop can change your perspective. But today, let the view from the Mount of Transfiguration—the view of the eternal Son of God, who nevertheless chose to become our Servant and Savior—change your view of your life.
‘Tis good, Lord, to be here,
Thy glory fills the night;
Thy face and garments like the sun,
Shine with unborrowed light.
‘Tis good, Lord, to be here.
Yet we may not remain;
But since Thou bidst us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain. AMEN. (TLH #135:1 & 5)
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.