The Transfiguration of Our Lord (A)
February 23, 2020
Text: Matt. 17:1-9
“And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (Matt. 17:8; ESV). Our eyes hunger to see all the sights, the power, the glory, the majesty of it all. We long to see the Church bursting at the seams with more and more people taken captive by the Gospel. A new building, a splendid edifice, the bigger the better. Ecstatic worship experiences. Inspiring, engaging, practical sermons that go right to the heart and are easily applied to the life. Moral transformation in the minds and hearts and lives of the people. Nobody sinning against anybody else. Everybody getting better and better every day, better and better in every way. Isn’t that what the Gospel is supposed to do? Heaven on earth? The Kingdom of God here and now? Shine, Jesus, shine! Fill our hearts with the Father’s glory! Justification, yes. Fine. But sanctification, where the rubber meets the road! And glorification! Glory, glory, halleluiah! That is what our eyes want to see.
But here we are, and what are we left with? Look around you. This isn’t quite that. Or it doesn’t appear to be. No, what do we have? Not even our own building (though we’re very thankful for the use of this one). But really, sinners to the right, sinners to the left. A really big sinner for a preacher. If we’re honest, our worship isn’t all that ecstatic, we don’t usually leave all that inspired, and Pastor won’t even let us sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” Not much glory. Today we bid goodbye to the alleluia for a time. Always justification talk, and nobody behaves all that sanctified. Lots of words. A little water. A little bread and wine. Yet when we look upon these things, there is, nevertheless, a great surprise. In these very things, and only in these things, there is Jesus. Jesus only. And Jesus is enough. Jesus, is all we need.
Peter, James, and John ascend the mountain with Jesus, and their eyes take in a veritable feast! Suddenly, the Lord is transfigured before them, His divine nature shining through His humanity, His very clothing radiantly white with His holiness and glory. Like the burning bush, radiating fire but not consumed, the human body of Jesus radiating the fulness of the Godhead, but not consumed. And speaking of Moses… there he is! With Elijah. The great Law-giver, the writer of God’s Torah, and the great Prophet, Elijah, who was taken up into heaven in the whirlwind, the Law and the Prophets bearing witness. All the Scriptures are about Jesus, this Man who is God, shining up on the mountain.
Peter doesn’t want to come down. He wants to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here. He wants to build three tents, one for Moses, one for Elijah, one for Jesus, so that they never have to leave. And why would he want to? This is a little picture of heaven! Jesus in all His glory. The saints who have gone before! (And notice, by the way, that there is no doubt this is Moses and Elijah, even though the disciples had never met them, and there were no Polaroid pictures to know what they looked like. We will certainly know one another in heaven, and even those we did not know on earth!).
In any case, Peter goes on yapping as though he has any idea what is going on. As we are wont to do, especially when it comes to God. And all at once, the bright cloud. This is the cloud that separated Israel from Egypt at the Red Sea, that led the Children of Israel through the wilderness, that descended upon the Tent of Meeting as Moses met with God face to face as with a familiar friend. This is the cloud that filled the Temple at Solomon’s dedication. This cloud is the presence of the glory of God. And from it, the Father speaks, words we’ve heard before, at Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (v. 5).
It was too much for the disciples to take. They fell on their faces, terrified. Like dead men. Like you would be, too, if you were there. See, we cannot handle the glory. We think we want it, but sinners cannot stand in the presence of the glory of God and live. Apart from Jesus. But Jesus came and touched them. Just as He touched the bier of the widow’s only son in Nain. Just as He took the hand of Jairus’ little girl, saying to her, “Talitha cumi… Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41). So He touches His disciples and says to them, “Rise, and have no fear” (Matt. 17:7). Rise. Be alive. Resurrected. And no longer be afraid. That is what this is all about. That we rise and have no fear. And lifting their eyes, they see all they need to see. They have all they need to have. Not the brightness and the glory and the mountain top experience. Jesus. Jesus only.
Why the Transfiguration? It is a momentary lifting of the veil. This is where we’re headed. This is where all of this leads. Resurrection! Easter! There will be glory. There will be the visible presence of God. There will be reunion with the saints. Because Jesus is who He says He is and He’s come to do what He says He’s come to do. He is God in the flesh, and He has come to save us. The whole Scripture bears witness. The Father Himself declares it from heaven.
But before all of this becomes the visible reality, Jesus and the disciples must descend the mountain. There is a cross to be borne. Jesus must suffer and die for the sins of the world. Good Friday must come before Easter. And the disciples, too, must suffer. As part of their bearing witness. They will be insulted, persecuted, martyred for the Name of Jesus and for His Gospel. The Transfiguration is given as encouragement and confirmation. To Jesus, as He goes the way of Golgotha. To the disciples, as they face the events of Holy Week. To you and me as we struggle with sin and temptation, doubt and despair, opposition from the world and the weakness of the Church in this vale of tears. There is a reason the Church celebrates Transfiguration on the cusp of Lent. We are about to walk the road of repentance and deep mediation on the suffering and death of Jesus. That must come before Easter. But here we have a glimpse, a foretaste. It is worth it. Glory is coming. In God’s way. In God’s time. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
We want power and glory, and we want it now. But it is not to be. Repent of that. Once St. Paul was caught up to the third heaven (whatever that means!) and heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. It was like his own little experience of the Transfiguration. But he could not stay there. And to keep him from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, there was given to him a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass him. Three times he pleaded with the Lord, that it should leave him, but the Lord answered Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul, you need Jesus only. And that is what you have. Suffering is necessary now. Glory will come later. In the meantime, Jesus. Only Jesus. He is enough.
And so you. You must suffer now. You must bear your fallen flesh and the aches and pains and illnesses that go with that. You must suffer reproach from the world and the temptations of the devil. You must bear the consequences of sin and the mistakes that you’ve made. But always in faith. We’ve had here a glimpse. Jesus is the Son of God. He is God in the flesh. He has come to save us. He died, but He is not dead. He is risen and lives and reigns. Listen to Him. Set your eyes on Him. Rise and have no fear. Go with Him to the cross and know that Easter is on the other side. And it is enough that He comes to you in words and water and bread and wine, in the mutual conversation and consolation of sinners to your left and to your right, and the really big sinner preaching from the pulpit. Jesus is in that. Jesus only. Jesus is all you need.
And in this way, heaven does come to earth. The Kingdom of God is here and now. Not in the filling of this land with the Father’s glory, but in the filling of your ears and your mouth with the Father’s glory, which is Jesus Himself in His Word and Sacrament. It doesn’t look like much. But it is everything. And it is all for you. Jesus only. Jesus for you. Listen to Jesus. Come and eat Jesus. You have Jesus. Rise, and have no fear. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.