In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
The scene on top of the mountain was similar to the scene in the tabernacle in Exodus chapter 40. The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses is there, and so is Elijah. Peter, James, and John are there as well. This time, though, the tent of meeting has bones, blood, and skin. The glory of the Lord fills the mountaintop. The glory concealed is now revealed. The glory that once filled tabernacle and temple, the glory that departed from Israel is now seen in Jesus.
Moses and Elijah weren’t looking on with the other men. They were in conversation with Christ. It is fitting that these two men are speaking with the Son of God. Moses is the Law, for to him was given the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. Elijah is the Prophets, for to them were given the burden of the Lord to proclaim His coming favor on His chosen people. Saint Luke says that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking about Christ’s coming exodus, His journey to the cross and through the tomb. Today’s Gospel gives us a picture of the resurrection, when we too will stand in the glory of Jesus, raised from our death. This is a little sneak preview of what lies ahead for the disciples and for you, dearly beloved.
The first thing that perhaps pops into your head is, “Wow! I wish I’d been there.” Wouldn’t that sight have been something? Moses wanted to see God’s glory but instead was hidden in a cave as the glory of God passed by. Elijah wanted to see God’s glory but was hidden in the same cave as an earthquake and wind and fire came before God revealed Himself in a whisper. They could not see God’s glory. A sinner may not look on God and live. He’d be toast. But glorious Jesus, that’s different. You can look at Him. With Jesus, you can see and live to tell about it.
However, there’s something about shining Jesus with Moses and Elijah that’s a bit too much to handle. Peter gets this idea to build three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. He wants to do what religious man always does –Box it up. There are shrines all over the world, usually shrines to visions of Mary like Lourdes or Međugorje. There’s an Orthodox monastery built on Mt. Tabor, the purported site of the Transfiguration. Whether it’s true or not, Christianity is not about holy sites. We don’t do holy sites. We don’t do pilgrimages. For that matter, we’re not even one hundred percent certain where the cross of Jesus was planted.
The power of God to save does not reside in places you visit. You don’t go to God. God comes to you. You don’t need to go on some pilgrimage to some faraway place to draw close to God. God has drawn close to you in Jesus, who manifests Himself for you personally in the water of your Baptism, in the bread and wine of the Supper, in the spoken Word of forgiveness, the gathering of even as few as two or three gathered in His name. That’s your mountain. That’s the place where Jesus meets you.
Saint Peter in today’s Epistle points us to the Word as something more sure than this great vision. It is more sure to hear the word of forgiveness spoken by your pastor than to see shining Jesus on a mountaintop. It is more sure to remember your Baptism than to see Moses and Elijah standing next to Jesus in His glory. It is more sure to eat His Body as bread and drink His blood as wine than to see His face shining like the sun and His clothes brighter than anything on earth. It is more sure to read of Christ in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures than to stand on the mountain where this happened.
Before Peter could begin his shrine building, a thick cloud covered the mountain. The same cloud covered Sinai and filled the tabernacle and temple. The pillar of cloud that guided Israel. And from the cloud there came the voice of the Father, echoing Jesus’ baptism. This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.
Hear His words. His are the words of eternal life. Moses can’t save you, but he can point you to the One who can. Elijah can’t save you, but he can point you to the One who can. Only Jesus can save you. Only Jesus bears your sin, your death, and the punishments of the Law. Only Jesus can mediate between God and Man because He is both God and Man. Moses and Elijah reflected the glory of God, but only Jesus shines with the glory of God. Moses and Elijah were like the moon reflecting the sun. Only Jesus shines like the sun with His own light. Moses and Elijah reflected the light; only Jesus is the Light of the world.
The three disciples saw Jesus only. He came and picked them up off the ground, raised them up out of their fear. He’s all they need. He’s all you need too. Then a curious thing happens. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone about this vision until He had been raised from the dead. Not even the other nine disciples. Don’t tell anyone. How do you not tell everyone when you’ve seen something like that? But shining Jesus without crucified Jesus leaves all the wrong impressions.
Which would you rather have witnessed? Jesus’ transfiguration or Jesus’ crucifixion? Which would you want to see with your own eyes – shining Jesus or dead Jesus? I don’t think I need to take a poll. Shining Jesus wins hands down, doesn’t He? We prefer the glory to the cross, not only with Jesus but also in our own lives. We prefer the stories of miraculous healings to the stories of heroic suffering. We prefer the power and the majesty of a Jesus who shines with unearthly glory than a beaten and bloodied Jesus who hangs dead and defeated. But here’s the rub: Only dead Jesus can save you. Only crucified Jesus can bear your sin. If all that Jesus ever did was appear shining and radiant on a mountain to three of His disciples, you’d still be stewing in your Sin and Death. You’d still be condemned by the Law.
The Transfiguration tells you who Jesus is – true God and true Man. Divinity in human flesh. It tells you that even though His divinity may be buried deeply in His humanity, nevertheless the fullness of deity dwells bodily in Jesus without attenuation. He is fully God and fully Man. But His death and resurrection tell you who He is for you – your Lord, your Redeemer, your Savior, God’s sacrificial Lamb who dies for the sin of the world.
You will see shining Jesus one day, soon enough. He’s promised to appear again in glory and to raise you from the dead and give you eternal life. You will see Moses, Elijah, and all the saints. And there won’t be any need to build a shrine to preserve the moment, because the moment will be an eternity. And the sight will be glorious. But for now, the mountain of glory gives way to the mountain of the cross. And shining Jesus gives way to crucified Jesus. And the Sunday of Transfiguration gives way to Ash Wednesday and the somber season of Lent. But it’s always the same Jesus – shining, dead, risen, reigning. It’s always the same Jesus – true God and Man – who comes to save you.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit