Transfiguration of our Lord
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” [Matthew 17:2]
Throughout the Epiphany season, week after week, we grow ever more enlightened as to who this Jesus of Nazareth is. What is more, this enlightening does not come from flesh and blood, by the wisdom of sages or by a perceptive and inquisitive humanity, but by the Father who is heaven, [Matthew 16:17] who says of the Son, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” [Matthew 17:5]. And so we listen. We listen knowing that, in the words of St. Peter, “we have something more sure, the prophetic word…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” [2 Peter 1:19-21]. It is this very Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit that calls to your remembrance the words and work of Jesus. This is the office, the work of the Holy Spirit. He is, so to speak, the shy member of the Trinity, for He only speaks that which He has been given to speak by the Son [John 14:25].
And so we listen as the Holy Spirit brings to our remembrance the activity of Jesus, the Son of God made flesh, who called unto Himself fishers of men who would bear in their body and words His life, death, and resurrection so as to incorporate into the net of the church His redeemed sons and daughters. We remember that He spoke from a mountain top concerning the blessedness of the weak, the lowly, the pure in heart, and the persecuted. We remember that He cleansed all manner of infirmities; fed thousands with a meager amount of food, and brought life to the dead. We remember that He spoke eternal truths in mysterious parables, and was faithful unto His Father’s will that He suffer bitter persecution, even death upon a cross by the hands of His own to and to rescue a world steeped in sin and groaning for redemption. Sheepishly, we remember it all, for He lived and died not for Himself, but for us, His broken and lost people. We are cut to the heart by such a reality, brought to repentance and renewed in the recreating waters of Holy Baptism as His under-shepherds preach and proclaim this Jesus whom sinful-humanity crucified with both its original and actual sin, whom God made both Lord and Christ, [Acts 2:36] the One whose blood brings peace forever between creature and Creator, between God and man.
We listen, we remember and take refuge in Jesus the God-man who “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Corinthians 5:21]. That God became man yet remaining God, that He became our substitute and did we could not do, nor wanted to do, is the sum total of the Christians’ faith and life, his hope and joy in a hopeless and joyless world. And so, we listen, we take heed and remember the Son’s saving Word and receive in our ears, mouth, and heart the visible and tangible promises of God which have as their culmination the transfigured Lord, the picture of heavenly glory that we in faith receive this very day, and in eternity will possess forever by sight.
The season of Epiphany, the season of remembering that the God who became flesh in the manger at Bethlehem is now manifested before the world to be God of God, light of Light, very God of very God, culminates in the feast of Our Lord’s Transfiguration. Undeniably, the Transfiguration of our Lord is the epiphany of all epiphanies as the Son of God is beheld by mortal men in all His glory and heavenly splendor. Certainly such external radiance had a meaning. It was not just a light show, a flash in the pan mountain top experience to tease mortal sinful men. It was not as if, as the rationalist argue, that the rays of the sun had lit up the face and clothes of Jesus because He was standing on a higher elevation than the disciples, as if to conclude that Peter, James, and John were blinded by the sun which happened to be reflected off of Jesus’ body. To the contrary, when the three disciples looked at the face of Jesus they saw a shining that was as brilliant as the sun itself. This brilliance, this glory extended to Jesus’ entire body, for His very garments had the translucent whiteness of pure light. Peter, James, and John did not demand such a sign from heaven; they believed in the Christ, the Son of the living God, on the basis of the revelation which the Father gave them. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” [Matthew 17:5]. To them, and to us, the signs, the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness of sins that comes down from heaven in human vesture, all of it is freely given. Peter, James, and John, are given a gift, they are privileged to behold the Son of the living God in His heavenly majesty, to see Christ whom His own people do not recognize nor consider the witness of the Law and the Prophets, of Moses and Elijah, and to hear the voice from bright cloud attesting to the beloved Son and Suffering Servant.
This beholding of Jesus’ divine glory overwhelmed the three disciples. Two were speechless. The third had not the gift of silence; and wishing to say something when he had nothing to say, he made a foolish, indeed human remark. But before we inquire about the remark we need to go back six days to ascertain some important history, some context. The Lord had asked the disciples what they thought of Him. Peter had said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” [Matthew 16:16]. Yet when Jesus began to speak of His impending suffering and death, His cross that is, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you. But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” [Matthew 16:22-23]. With this in mind, we scale the mountain top once again opening our eyes to the magnificent picture of Peter, James and John, beholding the glorified and transfigured Christ, along with Moses and Elijah. Notice the words of Peter, when Moses, Elijah and Jesus begin to speak about the Lord’s exodus, His suffering, death, and resurrection, he slipped yet again into His desire to spare the Lord His necessary suffering. Peter thought to tell the Lord what was good and advise Him on how to proceed. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” [Matthew 17:4].
At one end of the spectrum we can sympathize with Peter. It was good to be on the mount with Christ, Moses and Elijah. It was good to be in this heaven-like atmosphere wherein a foretaste of heavenly glory was granted them. In this momentary glance at the unveiled glory of the Only Begotten, all struggle and strife disappeared; the tensions, conflicts, and grieving hearts; the unexciting eight to five job, the pain of estranged or failed relationships, the suffering of mental collapses, depression, heart attacks, strokes, cancers and the separation and grief that death brings as it rips apart the one flesh union of husband and wife; all this drudgery of life had receded into the background with all its pain, failure, and death, only to be exchanged for the radiance and bliss of the glory of Christ and the peace, comfort, and eternal rest that He brings.
Yet, at the other end of the spectrum we must realize that suffering must precede glory, cross must come before crown. For when our eyes are blinded by the splendor of this world, by its treasures and momentary gratifications, the servant of God, the bearer and preacher of Christ steps in mid sentence and says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him [Matthew 17:5]. And then, Peter, James, and John were afraid. “They fell on their faces and were terrified” [Matthew 17:6]. It was crystal clear in the voice of the Father that the Son’s exodus, His path of life leading and ultimately coming to completion as He stumbled through the blood thirsty streets of Jerusalem carrying a cross which encompassed the sin, corruption, and death of all of humanity, was the reason the Father loved the Son, and the fulfillment of His becoming flesh for us. St. John writes, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” [John 10:17-18]. And so “listen to him” was a rebuke. Listen to Jesus, for He has told you what must happen. He has the desire to redeem the entire world and satisfy the Law’s demands. Listen, watch, and receive the benefit, for Jesus is working out your salvation. They were afraid because they saw yet again that their ways were not God’s ways, and that their thoughts are not God’s thoughts. Who cannot look at Jesus and plead with Him to go about it another way? Does it have to be so gruesome, so painful, and so bloody? Can’t there be a more gentle, more crowd pleasing and winsome way to bring to completion the Father’s desire that all “be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4].
Simply put, no. The salvation of mankind through the cross and passion of Jesus Christ will always be a stumbling block, it will never square with human wisdom or feelings. The cross is the only way to everlasting life. The cross, that is, the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ is the life of the world. The conversation therefore of God to man, in the stead of Christ, is now one of forgiveness, of promise. “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise and have no fear. When they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus” [Matthew 17:7-8]. Jesus, and only Jesus, speaks to you. Listen as He says to you, “my body is given into death for you.” My blood is shed for the remission of your sins. I give my body and shed my blood to set you free from the guilt and punishment of sin. Yes, and even more. I here, at the cross and in the gifts that flow from it, give you myself with all I am and have, and it is enough. I am now bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh.
Yes, the Law and the prophets, the earth and all that is in it will pass away, but Jesus Christ, His Word, and His forgiven people abide forever. Earthly hopes and ambitions fade away, tossed into the sea of unfinished plans and broken promises, but Jesus Christ is for you a promise that will never fade, fail to meet its burden, or secretly have His fingers crossed. He, and He alone can and does say to you, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” [John 14:27]. Mindful of this grace-filled peace you may in all certainty take comfort that what you have received here upon earth by faith you will posses by sight in heaven for all eternity. What is more, you will remain forever with the transfigured and victorious Lamb, Jesus Christ, who through such suffering and death gives you when your last hour shall come, a blessed end and gracious take you from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven. Amen
In the Name of the Father and of the Son+ and of the Holy Spirit.