Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Date: Transfiguration + 1/28/07
When Jesus was transfigured before three of his disciples on the holy mountain they were aware that they were on holy ground, in a sacred space. When they heard the voice from the cloud, they fell on their faces and were terrified. That ought to be the first reaction any time sinners are confronted with the holy God. Recall Adam after the fall into sin hiding in the bushes when he heard the voice of God (Gen. 3:8), Moses hiding his face in fear before the burning bush (Ex. 3:6), Aaron and the people afraid to approach Moses when they saw his face shining after his conversation with God (Ex. 34:30), Isaiah’s cringing for fear in a corner of the temple when he saw God and heard the angel chorus (Is. 6:5), and Peter prostrating himself before Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish saying, “Depart from me [Lord], for I am a sinful man” [Luke 5:8]. This fear of God is good and right. It is the first word in Luther’s Small Catechism explaining the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” “What does this mean?” “We should fear…God above all things.” For without the fear of God, first, you cannot then proceed to the next words, namely, not only to fear but also to “love and trust in God above all things.”
The fear of God, a spiritual “shaking in your boots,” is the first step toward conversion and true repentance—contrition and sorrowful confession of sin. For without true fear of God one will continue failingly to try to relate to this God—if at all!—by pursuing the impossible, namely, trying to appease him by doing enough good works. But how many is “enough”? And how good is “good enough”?
Furthermore, without true fear of God there is no true worship of God as the letter to the Hebrews says it, “Therefore…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” [Hebrews 12:28-29 (ESV)]. When Peter suggested capturing that moment of the Transfiguration by setting up three tents, “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” he put into words the misguided enthusiasm that so infects many in the church today that turns the “reverence and awe” of true worship into nothing more than a side show designed only to entertain, or, to use Luther’s terms, pursuing a theology of glory without the theology of the cross.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Ever since the Reformation the first evangelicals, the Lutherans, saw this event as the most appropriate way to mark the transition between the glad account of the Nativity, Christmas and Epiphany, and the heart of the church year, the Passion, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. As such this Sunday occupies a holy space on our calendar and in our life. The Christmas crib lay now some 34 days behind us, some thirty years ago by now for our Lord as he stood on that holy mountain. The Good Friday cross stands 68 days before us, but only a short while ahead for Jesus as He comes down from that mountain with his face set resolutely to his destiny in the holy city of Jerusalem. As this spectacular event served to prepare Peter, James and John for the crucial and climactic event of the Cross with a brief glimpse of the glory of Jesus’ divine nature, so this festival serves to remind us that the true holy space our Lord wishes to occupy is in your heart, marked in your holy baptism by the holy cross both upon your forehead and upon your breast.
The glory of God has been proclaimed since Christmas, beginning with the song of the angels at his birth, the star that drew the Magi, through our Lord’s preaching, teaching and healing ministry, and now as radiant light shining in His Person. This light of life, Jesus, dwells in his disciples by faith as the Apostle Paul said, that by the power of “his Spirit in your inner being…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” [Eph. 3:16-17]. And, of course, this happens solely through the Word of the Gospel preached and taught and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, as we heard the Apostle Peter say today, “we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” [2 Peter 1:19 (ESV)].
This faith is in Jesus because of who He is and what He has done. When he was transfigured before the three disciples “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Ever since his birth, his circumcision on the 8th day and his presentation in the temple on the 40th day as Holy Church will celebrate this coming Friday; ever since his baptism by John in the Jordan River, his calling of disciples to follow him, his preaching, teaching and healing ministry throughout Galilee, these were the beginning days of his state of humiliation. He was born and submitted to God’s Law and lived as any man. Unlike any man since Adam, however, he fulfilled God’s Law perfectly, without sin. He never used his divine nature, his status as The Eternal Word, as the Son of God except to help people and as signs for faith. After this brief incident the three disciples were ordered to “tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” For His state of humiliation was not yet complete. He was yet to be delivered into the hands of men, be killed and on the third day be raised (Matthew 17:22-23).
Saving faith is in Jesus because of who He is, God and Man; and also because of what He has done. In that glorious light appeared also Moses and Elijah, representatives of all the Law and the prophets of the scriptures, two men of God who left no grave or bones behind after their days. Matthew says they were talking with Jesus. St. Luke tells us that they were talking about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31 (ESV)], that is, his exodus, his death by crucifixion. This was his purpose, his goal, his destiny: to release the world of the grip of sin, death and the devil by coming as the Suffering Servant and offering his very life as the Lamb of God, the one and only perfect sacrifice that alone could atone for the sin of the world for the life of the world.
On the Cross He took all sin into himself and was broken by the jaws of death according to both his human and divine natures. But because He is God the grave could not hold him. And on the third day he rose from the dead, both his human and divine natures in tact. Now in his state of exultation, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” [Ephesians 4:10 (ESV)]. By faith he fills you, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” [Ephesians 1:18 (ESV)].
When the bright cloud overshadowed the scene, a voice from the cloud said the same words as at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” with the addition, “listen to him.” And so it is for all who would be saved, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” [2 Cor. 5:7 (ESV)]. We do not see his glory but we hear his voice and listen to him. “When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.” The fear of God is the beginning. “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
“Rise, and have no fear.” These are the blessed words each of us needs to hear this morning, the blessing we need to hear also as Zion congregation: “Rise, and have no fear.” It is only at the touch of Jesus and the hearing of his voice that we can proceed from fear to faith, that we may fear, love and trust in God above all things, that we can enter into his presence and offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. In faith, then, we come back down from this mountain, our hearts aglow, through the time of sincere repentance, that our hearts may also be enlightened and warmed and made alive by the bright and glorious promise of the resurrection. Jesus says to you today, “rise, and have no fear.” He has come and touched you in Holy Baptism giving the gift of faith and the hope of eternal life. He continues to touch you as he gives you his very body and blood in the Holy Communion saying, as the angel said to Isaiah, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” [Isaiah 6:7 (ESV)]. By faith he creates in you a clean heart, a sacred space so that he may be with you always, living in you to give you light and life.
As the glow of our Christmas alleluias fades, then, and the time of Lenten disciplined repentance approaches, our Lord touches us today and says, “Rise, have no fear.” In that faith let us ever walk with Jesus, bear our cross with patience, daily die to sin and also arise and live with Jesus, “full of faith and hope and love” [LSB 685].