Transfiguration: Mark 9:2-9, 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Cor. 3:12-4:6
In the story of the ugly duckling, the true beauty of the swan is revealed in the end. Until the beautiful swan is recognized for whom he truly is, he is mocked and ridiculed by the ducks. He is considered unattractive and out of place. When you find a cocoon, you do not see the beauty of the butterfly. Until it emerges, its beauty and majesty are hidden within the cocoon.
In today’s Gospel, we have our Lord’s Transfiguration where Christ’s hidden glory is revealed.
Who was this Jesus? By many, he was mocked and ridiculed. His enemies saw Him as a disturber of Israel, a carpenter’s son, a person of questionable parentage. He was not numbered with the rich, the famous, or the powerful, but He was numbered among the poor, the ordinary, and the weak. He was numbered with sinners and transgressors.
On the mount of transfiguration something changed. The veil was drawn back. It was no longer the face of a servant which the disciples saw, but the face of God. No one may look on God and live, except when God in His mercy permits it. Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in Divine glory as He was changed in appearance, metamorphosized, transfigured. He glowed with an unearthly glow, shining with the radiance of heaven. His clothes were whiter than any white on earth.
Jesus’ transfiguration sets Him apart from all the others – from Moses and the prophets, from every religious teacher to come along. No one ever appeared this way. We need to remember this mountain and the transfiguration when we think of Jesus. There is so much more to Jesus than meets the eye. The shepherds in Bethlehem saw a tiny baby wrapped in cloths. The disciples saw a rabbi, an itinerant carpenter from Nazareth. The healings and exorcisms He did were signs of something greater, but there were other healers and exorcists besides Jesus.
What sets Jesus apart is His shining face and bright clothing, this unearthly brilliance that would blind you to look at Him. Here is no ordinary man, not even an extraordinary man, or a super holy man. He is more than Moses, more the Elijah, more than any holy man who ever left a footprint in history. Greater than John and all who came before and all who would come after. No one ever appeared in this world shining with divinity but this Jesus in whom the fulness of God dwells bodily.
On this mountain He pulled back the veil- just a little! God in the flesh is seen beaming like the sun – light bursting forth – dispelling darkness – stabbing eyes! He is seen in the presence of Moses – who died 1500 years before on Mount Nebo. He is seen in the presence of Elijah whose fiery departure from earth had occurred 900 years prior.
Yet, the fear which stirred up in Peter, James, and John also reveals their sin. Rather than a place of worship for Jesus alone, they include Moses and Elijah. The same happens to you and me. Our sinful flesh does not discern the things of God. We mix the holy with the common. Rather than placing our trust in Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus, we place our faith and confidence in the things of this world. We are enamored with power, money, and health. As we consider the economic turmoil in our community, state, country, and world, we find our solace and comfort in the leaders who promise that they will solve our problems.
As we stand on the edge of Lent, a season of penitence and preparation for Holy Week, it seems as though we have stood here in glory by this mount of Transfiguration and now we must pass through the shadow death. It seems as though the Transfiguration, though it momentarily showed Jesus in glory merely prepares for the darkness which He must soon endure. Why must we leave this radiant season?
Peter felt the same emotions. Here, on the holy mountain of Transfiguration, Peter sought to preserve the glory of Jesus with Moses and Elijah in three tents. Here the glory the Lord stood, shining forth in all its radiance. If Peter could but preserve this moment forever by building three tents, then no doubt the world would bow before such radiance.
In truth, we’d like to build a tabernacle and keep things the way they are when things seem to be going well, or in this case on this mountain better than ever imagined. Maybe our Lord knows that we may need to lose things like freedom, money, health, and power, so that in slavery, we know the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; so that in poverty, we learn to know the riches of God’s grace and mercy; so that in sickness, we learn to know healing and comfort in God’s precious Word of forgiveness of sins; so that in weakness, we learn to know God as our strength and tower.
The disciples didn’t understand why Jesus had to go to the cross when He stood before them unveiled in glory. Peter was looking for was glory. He was looking for Jesus to remain in glory without all that suffering business. Peter didn’t want to see Jesus suffer, as Jesus predicted He would have to do. Neither do you or I. In a sense, we naturally prefer to jump through and over the suffering of Jesus and go straight to His resurrection glory, as if they are not one event that goes together. That’s why we jump from Christmas over Epiphany and Lent and into Easter.
Peter saw this with his own eyes. He wasn’t making it up, and there were two others who saw the same thing, just to be sure. Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
He heard it, he saw it, he testifies to it. This is eyewitness attested fact, just as Jesus’ resurrection is an eyewitness attested fact. Remember that. The disciples knew they were reporting things never seen or heard before. They knew people would be skeptical. Who would believe them? And yet Peter insists that he and James and John were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ majesty. They heard the voice from the cloud proclaim Jesus as the beloved Son, just as at His Baptism. They were there.
This wasn’t simply a mountaintop experience. This was “religious but not spiritual,” what we believe is based on fact not subjective feelings or experiences, no matter how “spiritual” they might seem at the time. The disciples nor ourselves could live and dwell on the mountain, they had to come down and leave this high. Our faith is lived here below, not the mountaintop experiences.
What we believe and confess is not some clever myth, something in abstract. They saw Jesus glorified. They heard the Father speak. They saw Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus, talking with Him. Moses and Elijah – dead for long centuries, but alive and well in the presence of Jesus. This moment was to be witnessed, not preserved. It was a preparation and pointing toward a greater glory – Jesus death on a cross and His resurrection.
Luke records that’s what Jesus was conversing about with Moses and Elijah. His departure. His “exodus.” His death and resurrection that would bring to fulfillment all the Moses and the prophets had written. You see sin isn’t dealt with in visions of glory. Death isn’t defeated by an inspiring view of God’s glory on a mountain. If all Jesus did was come to earth to do a “shine Jesus shine” number, there would be no forgiveness, no life, no salvation, and all of us, including Moses and Elijah, would be lost forever.
Transfiguration Sunday bridges the sweet memories of Christmas and Epiphany to Lent, bridged with the proclamation from His baptism to today, that this Jesus is the beloved Son of God. The Father’s voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” The same voice that was heard at Jesus’ baptism as He was getting out of the water. This is the beloved Son, the chosen One, the Servant who will suffer for the world to save it.
For suffering comes before glory, haze before clarity and unbelief before faith. That’s why Jesus told the disciples not to say a thing about what they saw until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Before Jesus can be understood rightly in His glory, He needs to be seen hanging dead on a cross bearing your sin and my sin and the sin of the world. Before Jesus can be seen in His glory, we need to see Him broken, bleeding, dying, buried because that’s where He saves us. He is the One you are to hear, He alone has the words of eternal life. Not Moses. Not Elijah. They pointed to Jesus; they prepared the way for Him. But only Jesus has the words that save from sin and death.
Even as Christ’s appearance changed on the Mount of Transfiguration to a greater glory from that which was seen before, so also Christ’s appearance changed on the Mount of Crucifixion to a greater glory that even that of His transfiguration.
Amazing and terrifying as the Transfiguration was, it is not the miracle of God that saves these three men. Their salvation, and your salvation, comes from only one place. On the mount of Transfiguration, the light of Christ was revealed. But on Mount Calvary, darkness covered the land as the Light of the world was snuffed out. Jesus, the God who saves, was lifted up in glory to bear the full weight of the world’s sin. That’s why Jesus had to come down the mount of Transfiguration. The Light of the world must shed His blood on the cross. The Son of Man was born to die. The Son of God was pleasing to His Father at His Baptism and at His Transfiguration. And so also, Christ was pleasing to His Father in His death. For in His death and in the shedding of His blood, He has drawn you out of the dark pit of death into the light of Life, and restored you to His Father.
In His cross we understand that the message of the Transfiguration is a message for us. The Transfiguration is meant to be seen through the lens of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It is a sneak preview of what is to come. This glory will one day be ours with this Transfigured King.
And so we move to Lent this coming week. We move to the season of penitence, leaving behind our “Alleluia’s,” recalling how the Transfiguration glory both precedes and follows the crucifixion, the bearing of the cross. And so when the trials and struggles of this world plague us, we find comfort knowing that Jesus’ exaltation has occurred and our transfiguration awaits us on the other side of the cross of death. Christ has borne this cross already for us.
The transfiguration of Jesus, shining in His glory, is a sneak preview of the beauty and glory to be revealed in the resurrection, where with Moses and Elijah and the whole company of heaven you will see with your eyes that glorious, shining face of the One who is your Savior. But not yet. Now by faith, then by sight. Now hidden, then revealed. Now in weakness, then in glory. But always the same Jesus, there to save you, here to save you. All this Christ has done for you and to you. The darkness has passed away. Death has been vanquished. The light has come. Life in Christ is yours. And your sins are forgiven.
To Him who by that cross brings us life, be all glory, now and forever. Amen.