Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, AD 2021

Matthew 17:1-9

After six days, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a high mountain by themselves. Like the six days which led to the culmination of creation, this sixth day leads to the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This is the peak, the highest he will go in glory in his ministry. After this, he heads to Jerusalem to suffer and die for our sins. As it was in Jesus’ life, so this Sunday celebrating the Transfiguration comes at the perfect time at the end of Epiphany and before Lent. We have heard of Jesus’ birth, the glorious angel hosts announcing. The arrival of the wise men bowing before the king. The baptism of Jesus, revealing the glory of the Trinity with a voice from heaven and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. Jesus miracle of new creation – turning water into wine. Finally the Transfiguration – Jesus showing His full divine glory in the presence of Moses, Elijah and the three apostles! Certainly as Peter says “Lord, it is good that we are here.” And then we head to Lent.
Often the gospels seem like a tragedy in this way. We know that Jesus is going to rise from the dead, but we also don’t want the story to end. We read about Jesus’ parables, miracles, arguments with the pharisees, love for his disciples, and we don’t want it to end. The gospels seem so short, like we are just getting to know Jesus and He has to go. Jesus is like the friend we always wanted to get to know better but never got the chance.
If this is how you feel, you’re not alone. This is how the disciples felt. Six days before the transfiguration, Jesus was speaking to his disciples about who people said He was. They answered, “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, maybe another prophet.” People had all sorts of opinions about Jesus. It’s easy to do so when you don’t have the whole story. Just like then, people now have poorly-formed views about Jesus. They say He is just a good teacher, or He was all about tolerance and kindness, or He was a socialist revolutionary. Usually it’s anything where Jesus is the stepping stone to something else that the person finds to be more valuable.
But the disciples have been with Jesus this whole time, and the Holy Spirit is working on them through Jesus’ words and works. Just as He does when He enlightens us through the preaching of the gospel. When Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies for the whole group, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-17). Peter nails it! Jesus is not a stepping stone, not leading us to a greater reality or a greater knowledge of ourselves. Jesus is that greatest thing. He is the Son of God and He is the Christ. He is the God-man who has come to save His people. This can only be known through the Holy Spirit, and Peter knows it!
How will Jesus save His people? From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21). We have that tragic end to the story again. Peter and the disciples get who Jesus is, and now all Jesus talks about is how He will die…and be raised. Peter seems to ignore the last part, focusing on the negative he says, Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you. Jesus 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). After being blessed by God with the revelation of who Jesus is, Peter takes the place of Satan, trying to prevent Jesus from His mission. This is reflected in the scene of transfiguration itself.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.  And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  And Peter said to Jesus, “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.” Peter knows Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and was rebuked for saying Jesus will not suffer. Now at the mount of transfiguration Jesus pulls back the curtain a little bit, and shows His divinity. Already believing Jesus is the Son of God, the disciples are allowed to see Jesus in His glory, with Moses and Elijah testifying that Jesus is the one to whom the law and prophets bear witness. In this glorious sight, Peter, not knowing what he is saying, suggests they build shelters and remain there. Maybe Jesus changed His mind, and this is how the kingdom will come!
Even as Christians, we may think in this way. It is not only unbelievers who do not understand Jesus, but Christians in their sinful flesh who think that the kingdom of God can be built in a different way than by Jesus, through his suffering and death. Or that the life of the Christian will be anything different than taking up our crosses and following Jesus. We built shelters in our own sins, comfortable where we are, assuming Jesus will remain with us as well. But sinful man cannot stand the glory of God, or remain in His holiness. He is too good. His law is too perfect and we cannot keep it. If we choose to cling to our sin, the terror of the holiness of God will overshadow us. He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.
Listen to Him! This is the fundamental lesson of the Transfiguration. Do you need a more clear answer? A literal voice from heaven in a cloud of glory declares about Jesus, Listen to Him! The Father calls from heave regarding His dear son and all who preach His eternal law and gospel. There is no other true teacher than Jesus. Abandon all other ways of thinking. We cannot protect Christ from the need to suffer and die. Our sin created that need. And if we wish to see His glory, we must accept that He has suffered and die for us, on our account.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. The one we must listen to says, “Rise, have no fear.” For He died and rose from the dead. He has made peace between a holy God and sinful man. We cannot come to the glory of God on our own, but must do so through Jesus’ blood and merit. In baptism we are brought into His death and resurrection. We are made new. We continually live lives of repentance where we drown our sins and sinful self, and let the new resurrection life rise within us. By heeding the Father, Listen to Him! We hear the Son’s words “your sins are forgiven” and “have no fear.”
When we die, we must leave everything, abandon whatever else we hold as precious, and take hold of our Savior and Mediator, Jesus only, if we desire to have any share with Him. For when this life ends, trusting in Him, He will lift up our heads and we will raise up our eyes to see Jesus only. That will be at the end. Now we see the light of Jesus upon the law of God, knowing that Jesus has accomplished it for us. It is no longer a dark and gloomy demand, but bright, delightful, clear and luminous. It is the way of our Savior. It is who Jesus is making us to be.
So as we enter pre-Lent and Lent, a time of preparation, fasting, and repentance, let us cling also to that vision of Jesus on the mountain, shining like the sun. For repentance and suffering lead to that vision. As we trust in Jesus death and resurrection for forgiveness of our sins, we will see Him. We shall behold Christ, but in far greater brightness. For in our resurrection in Him we will be pure as well and able to bear all His glory. Then we shall see that the story was never a tragedy, but the truest happy ending that can never be undone. Amen.

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