Text: Matthew 17:1-9 (Exodus 24:8-18)†††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††† ††††††††††† ††††††††††† ††††† W Transfiguration
Eyewitnesses of His Glory
††††††††††† In the name of the beloved Son of God in whom the Father is well pleased, dear friends in Christ:† As you look through the Scriptures it isnít long before you notice a recurrent theme which has to with mountains; namely that the Lord chooses to reveal himself to people Ė or perhaps more of himself Ė on mountaintops.† We see one such instance in todayís Old Testament lesson in which the Lord shows himself to his people Israel on Mount Sinai.† Here he comes down in such a way that he can be seen visibly by them, and yet at the same time he veils himself in a cloud because no sinful person can look upon the fullness of Godís glory and live.† And even then, with the Lord shielding them from the full force of his glorious presence, his appearance is still fearsome.† The cloud is full of lightening and roaring thunder.† It covers the top of the mountain, burning it with fire so that smoke and the glow of the flame add a threatening aspect to the cloud that conceals Godís holy presence.† We read in earlier chapters how the people stood quaking before him at the base of the mountain.† And when the Lord began to speak to them to issue his laws and decrees, they begged to hear no more of his words for fear that they would all be destroyed in an instant.
And so it should be with all of us when hear the Law of God.† This is the image we should keep in our minds.† When we are subjected to even a little of the searing light of Godís perfect standards, our sins and evil inclinations are exposed, and we see clearly how we really are as we stand before him:† wretched sinners, naked, ashamed, unclean.† And so when he comes to us speaking his holy Law, we should be mortified Ė literally terrified to death, because that is the penalty for sin:† death and eternal separation from God.† Thatís what we learn from the Lordís frightening appearance on Mount Sinai.
††††††††††† But then, on a more heartening note, in the Gospel lessons for the past several weeks weíve been getting an altogether different revelation of God on a mountain: †the Lord Jesus sitting with his disciples preaching the Sermon on the Mount.† Here again, the awesome, holy God is fully present but largely veiled from sight Ė this time not in a cloud, but rather in a humbler, less intimidating form:† concealed in the body of a man; a very ordinary looking man named Jesus.† And in the body of Jesus the holy God becomes approachable; he becomes accessible Ö thereís no fear or terror experienced by those who sit listening to the words of grace from his lips.† Instead, the message is pleasant, encouraging Ö itís inspiring to hear.† It heals broken hearts and gives hope and life to his hearers.† And it seems that somehow we are now dealing with a kinder, gentler God.
††††††††††† And today, on the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus brings these two very different mountaintop disclosures of God together, and in a sense he blends Mount Sinai and the Sermon Mount for us.† You might say that he brings the two peaks together.† We see, on one hand, some of Godís bright glory.† We see it first in way that is not so much frightening as it is spectacular and awe-inspiring, as the body of Jesus undergoes a metamorphosis and begins to emit bright rays of light.† He who is the Light of the world begins to shine as he did on that first day of creation when the Father spoke, ďLet there be light.Ē† And then we see the glory increase to terrifying levels when a bright cloud like that which covered Sinai suddenly appears and envelops the mountain.† And just as he did that first day of creation when he saw that the Light was good, the Father now again expresses his approval of the Light of the World.† Speaking from the cloud he says, ďThis is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.† Listen to him.Ē
This increase in the appearance of Godís majesty is overwhelming to the three disciples who are with Jesus.† Like the Israelites at Sinai, they fall on their faces in abject fear, trembling at the voice of God.† But then we see the Sermon Mount experience again as Jesus reaches down to touch his disciples.† They feel the physical contact with the body of Jesus and hear his gentle words, ďGet up; donít be afraid.Ē† And their fear vanishes.† And we know that the reason for this is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Peacemaker.† In his body he bridges the sin-gap that separates God and man.† Just as he brings the two peaks together, so on the mount of Transfiguration we see him bring the opposite poles of Godís glory and fallen man together.† Peter, James, and John become eyewitnesses of Godís glory Ė and the remarkable thing about it is that because of Jesus, because he is with them, they live to tell about it.
And whatís interesting is that also appearing on the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus are the other two men who during their earthly lives actually saw Godís glory (or at least some of it) and lived to tell about it.† Not coincidentally, they both saw it on Mount Sinai.† One, of course, is Moses.† As we heard this morning, he spent forty days on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God Ė not just the Ten Commandments, but also all the laws covering every aspect of life and worship for the Israelites.† Anyway, it happened when Moses was about to go back down the mountain that he said to the Lord, ďYou know, youíve asked me to lead these people of yours, but you havenít shown me who you are.† I want to see your face.Ē† And the Lord said to Moses (and Iím paraphrasing here), ďAll right, Iíll tell you what Iíll do:† you stand over here in this cleft in the rock.† And Iíll put my hand over you while my glory passes by, and then as Iím leaving Iíll take my hand away, and you can peek out and get a quick look at my backside Ė because you cannot see my face and live.Ē
So thatís what happened.† Moses got his brief glimpse of divine glory Ė albeit, not the Lordís face like he hoped for, but rather (and youíre going to have to excuse me here) he saw the Lordís seat, his hindquartersóthatís what the word used there means.† Jokingly Iíve said itís as if Moses asked to see the sun and the Lord showed him the moon instead.† But the thing to see is that Moses saw part of the Lord that we would consider shameful and embarrassing.† Thatís how God revealed his glory to Moses.† Itís not what he was expecting, Iím sure.
The other Old Testament eyewitness of Godís glory who reappears on the Mount of Transfiguration is Elijah.† There was a time in his earthly life when he too wanted a glimpse of God.† He was suffering a severe bout of spiritual depression and so he fled to Mount Sinai with the hope of seeing God.† His enemies were trying to kill him and his once strong faith was nearly shattered.† He wanted to give up.† So, upon arriving at Sinai, he found a cave on the mountain and hid in it.† And there the Lord spoke to him:† ďWhat are you doing here, Elijah?Ē† Elijah poured forth his tale of woe.† And in response, apparently to give him the spiritual boost he needed, the Lord said, ďGo stand near the mouth of the cave, for I am about to pass by.Ē
Perhaps you remember this story:† how first there was a powerful windstorm that uprooted trees and broke great rocks to pieces; but the Lord wasnít in the storm.† And then there was a tremendous earthquake that shook the foundations of the mountain; but the Lord wasnít in the earthquake.† And then there was a raging fire that swept across the mountain; but the Lord wasnít in the fire.† And then Elijah heard a soft voice whispering words Ė and he hid his face in his cloak, because he knew that now he was in the presence of Godís glory.† Just a quiet voice:† thatís how God revealed his glory to Elijah. †Iím pretty sure thatís not what he was expecting.
Nor were Peter, James, and John expecting what they saw on the Mount of Transfiguration Ė but in their case, I think itís safe to say that they got much more than they were expecting.† They were quite used to the humble, relatively unimpressive presentation of Godís glory that they saw every day.† And thatís remarkable.† They called Jesus their Lord.† They had seen him do spectacular miracles.† They confessed that he was the Son of God.† But the glory of God?† No.† He looked just like them.† He was a man of flesh and blood, same as they were.† He ate, drank, slept, sweated, got dirty Ö he put on his tunic just like everyone else:† two legs at a time.† He needed to take care of all the basic necessities of life.† Though the fullness of Godís glorious presence was with them all the time, I doubt that they ever really thought about it.
And so they are amazed when Christ is transfigured before them.† They begin to realize whom it is that theyíre dealing with.† Their understanding begins to catch up with the words they confess about him when they say, ďYou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.Ē† And in reverential awe they want to preserve the moment.† ďThis is wonderfulĒ, they think, ďLetís keep it going.Ē† Peter suggests setting up some shelters so that Christ and his heavenly visitors can remain here.† Why, it could become a shrine site.† People could come and bask in the glorious light of Christ and the Old Testament saints.† Or so they think.
††††††††††† But the sudden appearance of the bright cloud of Godís glory demonstrates how futile that would be.† Their naked terror proves to them that they are not ready for a full disclosure of God.† They still cannot see his face and live.† And so, for the time being, they are only allowed a peek, just a glimpse of his glory.† And when the vision passes and they head down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to speak of what theyíve seen until after he has been raised from the dead.
††††††††††† And so we might ask, if they are not allowed to speak of it until later, whatís the purpose in showing them this vision of Christís glory now?† Let me suggest that itís important that they know in advance exactly who it is that will die and be raised from the dead.† Now, remember, they are not expecting whatís going to happen.† Just as they werenít expecting to see Christís glory, they are even less expecting to see his humiliation and death.† Though he will tell them repeatedly that heís going to Jerusalem to be crucified, the message will not sink in.† And after this vision of glory, the very thought of it becomes even more unfathomable.† The Lord of Glory crucified?† Unthinkable.† And so Jesus wants there to be witnesses of his glory now so that when the time comes, the full scandal of the cross will be apparent to at least some Ė who will then be his witnesses to others.
††††††††††† Because it is on the cross that Jesus will display the absolute vision of Godís glory.† But it will be revealed in a way that no one expects to see.† It will be the backside of God.† It will be his humiliation and shame.† It will be something no one would care to look at.† Theyíll avert their eyes and look down not in reverent awe but in gut-wrenching disgust.† And yet the Lord will be revealing his glory in the great love he displays there in the shame and disgrace he bears for us.† His glory will also be revealed in his still, soft voice: a voice asking forgiveness for those who are crucifying him; a gentle voice encouraging and rescuing a dying thief from hell; a voice abandoned and alone, calling out in the darkness to God who refuses to answer; a faint voice pleading for a drop of water; a subdued voice Ė barely a whisper Ė commending his Spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father.† And Peter, James, and John will be eyewitnesses of this glory too.
††††††††††† This is the vision of Godís glory he would have us see even today.† The great evangelist Paul said as much when he declared, ďI am resolved to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.Ē† And we can indeed be witnesses of this glory when by faith we see and understand the glory of the cross.† Itís in the body of Christ crucified that he really brings together the opposing sides:† Godís holy presence and fallen man.† On the cross is where the peace was made between God and man when Jesus suffered and died for our sins.
††††††††††† And today he continues to display this glory to us.† He does it in his still, small voice that we hear speaking through his holy Word when it is read or recited in our worship.† By it he causes us to tremble at the holy Law of God; and by it he removes our fear when he tells us, ďFear not, I am with you.† Your sins are forgiven.Ē† And he stands among us and reaches down to physically touch us with this glory.† It happened to each of us when we were baptized into his death and resurrection.† Through the water, Jesus touched you with the glory displayed on the cross.† And again, in the Sacrament of the Altar he touches us over and over with his very body and blood given up for our salvation.† In these ways we are eyewitnesses of Christís glory.
††††††††††† But it doesnít end there.† In fact, itís only the beginning of how we see the glory of the Lord.† We know that this glory is revealed in the body of Christ Ė but by revealing it to you, he also incorporates you into his body.† Youíve become a part of him.† So now his glory is revealed in you Ė but not like you might expect.† Itís not in bright light and spectacular visions; but rather in weakness, suffering, and humiliation Ė just like he showed it.† We naturally want to seek the highpoints and prolong the mountaintop experiences; but Christ would have us see his glory in the valleys and plains.† Thatís where you can see it the best:† when you make a sacrifice of yourself for the benefit of someone else, when you forgive someone who has hurt you terribly, when you pray for an enemy, and when you serve someone with humility and longsuffering.† Christís glory is revealed in you when you comfort a person in mourning, when you reach out to the needy and outcast, and most especially when you speak the words of his still, small voice.
††††††††††† † This is how we are to be eyewitnesses of Christís glory Ė at least for the time being.† Because we believe that there will come a day when we will see the Lord face to face in all of his heavenly splendor.† Then we who have seen his glory already through the cross and shame will be able stand.† We will have no fear in Godís presence.† But those who have not been eyewitnesses of the glory of the cross will be unable to bear the sight.† They will be swept away to regions of eternal darkness.† And thatís why itís so important for us to make use of the time we have now to bear witness of what we have seen with our own eyes.† To this end, may God grant us the grace to continue to see Christís glory in the cross, and now that he has risen from the dead, to tell everyone what weíve seen.† In Jesusí name.† Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!