Transfiguration C: Also check out the Gospel reading accompanied by handbells!
The glory of the LORD is a frightful glory. Few have seen it, and even they caught only a glimpse of it. Moses saw it, or at least the backside of it, and he had to be hidden in a cave to endure it. Elijah caught a glimpse of it, but he had to be hidden in the cave too. Isaiah saw it in a vision, but was convinced he was a dead man and confessed his sinfulness. The shepherds saw it over Bethlehem’s fields the night of Jesus’ birth, and they were filled with fear. As do most, in the midst of unholy people, the Holy Lord’s fulness and glory is a frightful glory, thus the first word is often, “fear not.”
No one may look on God and live, except when God in His mercy permits it. Three of the Twelve saw Jesus in His divine glory – Peter, James, and John. Jesus was changed in appearance before the three. 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, a carpenter from Nazareth. The healings and exorcisms He did were signs of something greater.
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.
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. Peter sought to preserve this moment forever by building three tents, then no doubt the world would believe.
The disciples didn’t understand why Jesus had to go to the cross when He stood before them unveiled in glory. We understand a little better, that Christ must go to the cross to suffer for sins. 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 the resurrection Jesus to the crucified Jesus. We prefer the glory of men dazzling in white robes to the pierced, bloody nakedness of the cross.
But faith doesn’t live on mountaintop experiences. What we believe is based on fact not subjective feelings or experiences, no matter how “spiritual” they might seem at the time. Our faith is lived here below, in the everyday.
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. But 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. 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, there where He saves us.
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 my beloved Son, my chosen One, my Servant who will suffer for the world to save it.” 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.
In Christ’s death, the love of God was revealed to the dark world – the darkness is gone, the light has come. On His cross, Christ accomplished what His Father sent Him to do – redeem you from sin, death, and Satan – and to restore you to His Father. The Son of God was pleasing to His Father at His Baptism and at His Transfiguration. Christ was pleasing as He goes about His work to 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. 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 your glory 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. Patience. 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.
To Him who by that cross brings us life, be all glory, now and forever. Amen.