The Transfiguration of Our Lord (B)
February 11, 2018
Text: Mark 9:2-9
In the Transfiguration of our Lord, heaven meets earth. Jesus takes His disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a high mountain, just as Moses met with YHWH on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah on Carmel. And it is there, on that mountain… we don’t know which mountain, and it really doesn’t matter, and it is probably better that we don’t know, because we would be tempted, like Peter, to go and stay forever on that mountain, waiting for heaven to come to us… it is there that Jesus is transfigured before the three. A transfiguration is simply a change in appearance or form. But what a change! Jesus’ glory, His God-ness, is shining through His skin and His clothing. He is intensely white, white with His own holiness. It is not that there is a change in Jesus. He has always been this. He is always God. But up to this point, He has hidden His divinity under His manhood… much as He hides Himself now for us under words and water and bread and wine. But here His divinity is shining through, and that is when it happens. Heaven meets earth. Heaven comes down. There is Moses, and there is Elijah, the great saints of the Old Testament, the author of the Law and the Greatest of the Prophets. Their whole ministry was about this, about Jesus, and what He is doing to save the world, save us from our sins. And there is the cloud, the cloud that accompanied the children of Israel in the wilderness, the cloud that descended on Sinai and on the Tent of Meeting to speak with Moses, the cloud that descended on the Temple at Solomon’s dedication. And from the cloud, a voice. The voice of the Father, who spoke the same words at our Lord’s Baptism, and speaks them eternally of Jesus: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7; ESV).
Heaven descends to earth there on the mountain, and note this very carefully. Jesus is the heart and center of the whole thing, the focal point, the hub around which all of this circulates. And that teaches us what heaven is. It is not a location 50 trillion miles up in space, a location far removed from us. Heaven is where Jesus is. Heaven is where the saints are gathered around the Lamb, who is at the Father’s side. Heaven is that gathering of the Church of all times and places, Old Testament and New Testament, around Jesus, God made flesh for us. Everyone is consumed with Jesus in heaven. All the talk is about Jesus. And what Jesus does when He comes into the flesh, is that He brings heaven down, that He may bring us in.
Of course, we talk about heaven mostly as the place of repose for the souls of those who have died in the faith and are awaiting the resurrection. That is true. We don’t know much about that. It’s an interim state of the soul where the person who has died is with Jesus and enjoys seeing Him face to face. They are comforted, those in heaven. Revelation 7 is such a key text here, those coming out of the great tribulation, clothed in white robes that were washed in Jesus’ blood, holding palm branches of victory, gathered around Jesus (there He is as the hub again!), singing of His salvation, God having wiped away every tear from their eyes. That much we know about them, and we should always read that text when we need to be comforted about where are loved ones are now who have died in the faith. But there is more to come. There is the resurrection of the body. There is the new heavens and the new earth. And frankly, we know more about that than we do about the interim state we normally call heaven. Most of what we read in the Bible about the afterlife is about the resurrection.
But, in fact, we learn a few things about heaven here, in the account of the Transfiguration. We learn that we see Jesus as He is, in His glory. We learn that we can hear the Father, maybe even see Him in some sense that we can’t now comprehend, as He appears in the cloud. And for all of you who have worried whether you’ll know your loved ones in heaven, let not your heart be troubled. The disciples recognize Moses and Elijah. Now, how do they know who these men are? If they’re wearing nametags, there is no mention of it in the text. And, of course, the disciples hadn’t seen photographs of Moses or Elijah. Christian artists make icons and paintings and sculptures of the men, but those are only their best guess. No, here’s the point: In heaven, we know one another. Why has any pastor ever suggested we’re not going to recognize each other? That’s ridiculous. It’s not in the Bible. Shame on him, whoever started that rumor. We don’t become less united in heaven. We become more united, perfectly united, the perfect union of the body of Christ. And we’ll be happy. We’ll never get bored or want to leave. Peter says that it is good to be here, and he wants to make three tents, one of Jesus and one for each of the dignitaries. He wants to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. And he’s right. It is good. This is what Tabernacles is all about, that we are pilgrims striking camp here in this life, but when we’re with Jesus, we’re at home. We wouldn’t want to leave, either.
But beloved, we cannot stay on the mountain. This is just a glimpse, just a little foretaste, to strengthen Jesus and His disciples and us for what must be borne below: The cross. We are always looking for heaven on earth, for the mountain top experience, for God to do something spectacular for us, show us a sign, speak to us in our hearts or in our guts, instead of looking where He tells us to look, listening where He tells us to listen. “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him!” And what does He say? We cannot stay here on the mountain. Heaven is ours now, but it is not for us to see yet. There is suffering to be endured. Beginning with our Lord’s own suffering and death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. There is no bypassing the cross on the way to heaven. There is no Easter without Lent and Good Friday. There is no resurrection without a death. And so the disciples must descend the mountain with a once again ordinary looking Jesus, and they must continue on to the Holy City for the great sacrifice of the Lamb of God upon the cross. That is why Transfiguration happens here, on the cusp of Lent. A little glimpse, a brief moment of glory, to show us who Jesus really is, God in the flesh, and so to strengthen us for the events that lie ahead.
All at once, when the event is over, the cloud and Moses and Elijah have disappeared, and there is no longer the majestic voice, the disciples no longer see anyone but Jesus only (v. 8). Jesus only, in His regular raiment, His ordinary appearance. And it is to Him they are to listen. And so us. It is to Him we are to listen. And where does that happen? Not in the mountain top experiences, as glorious as those may be. Not in the spectacular sunsets, as wonderful as they are, or the times we pray to find our keys and they immediately appear to us, as much as that relief is a blessing. You should not listen to voices in your head. If you have them, you may need medical treatment, and you certainly need pastoral care. Do not think that the feeling in your heart or in your guts is God talking to you. It may be a delusion. It may be a demon. Or as Pastor Lassman loves to say, it may just be a bad can of chili. Jesus speaks in one place only, where He has promised you can always hear Him and know that it’s Him. In His Word. In the Scriptures. In the preaching of the Scriptures. In the Absolution that the Scriptures command pastors to announce. In the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. In the Supper Jesus instituted for you, for the forgiveness of sins, saying of the bread: “This is my body,” and of the wine, “This is my blood.” And so it is, for we know He cannot lie.
And so, that is Jesus there on the altar, under the bread and the wine once He speaks His Word over it and promises He is there in it, with it, and hidden under it. And what does that mean? What have we learned from the Transfiguration Gospel? Where Jesus is, there is heaven. Heaven has come down! Heaven has come down to you in the true body and the true blood of Jesus, the very body given into death, the very blood shed for you, the very body and blood risen and living and reigning at the right hand of the Father, that will come again to judge the living and the dead. There is heaven. It is on the altar. There you are with your loved ones who have died in Christ. There you are with Moses and Elijah. There you are with the whole host of heaven, gathered around the Lamb, and singing His praise. There you are comforted. There God wipes away your tears. It doesn’t look like much. A wafer and a sip. Jesus didn’t look like much either. Until He showed His disciples who He is in the Transfiguration. And now we know who He is here for us. There is the center, there is the focal point, there on the altar is the hub around which our whole life in Christ circulates. We return to the altar every week, for the altar is the center of our existence. For Christ is the center of our existence. And there we have a little foretaste of the never ending Feast, the joy of eternal life.
But now it is time to come back down the mountain. Now it is time for Lent. We put away our alleluias for a time, knowing we will take them up again. Some of us will fast. Some will give something up. We will discipline our bodies. And we will fail, which is all a part of Lent, to know the limits of our ability, that we can’t even give up chocolate for a few weeks, much less work off our sins or make ourselves worthy of eternal life. Lent shows us how much we need Christ. And Lent is a time for laser-like focus on Christ and His gifts. If you give something up for Lent, that’s great. You don’t have to, but it’s probably a good exercise. But I’d encourage you to add a few things this Lententide. Add the Wednesday evening Divine Service. That is most important. Come receive Jesus in the Supper a few extra times the next few weeks. That includes the special services of Holy Week. That is how you prepare for Easter. Pick up the devotion book that goes along with our midweek meditations, and actually read it. It’s helpful. Read more Scripture. Pray more. Pray for your Church. Pray for your pastor, please. Pray for those who don’t know Christ. Especially those you know who don’t know Him. And know this: Easter is coming. You saw a glimpse of it this morning. It will peek out from behind the Lenten purple every Sunday. You will sing your alleluias again, with added gusto. For everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven (Eccl. 3:1). Now is the time to rend our hearts in repentance, confess our sins, and return to the Lord our God. Now is the time for Good Friday and the cross. But the Day is coming. Just you wait. Wait upon the Lord. And above all else, listen to Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.