The Beginning of the End

Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Date: Transfiguration + 3/6/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Today we celebrate the mystery of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Six days before this, when our Lord Jesus Christ asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am,” and “Who do you say that I am,” He was not suffering from an identity crisis or running an opinion poll to see if His marketing techniques were proving effective. He knew very well what people were saying about Him. And to this day it is so that, apart from the divine gift of faith, no one can come up with the right answer, namely, to discover and see and believe, as the apostle Peter rightly confessed, that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God. The apostle Paul wrote, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit’” (1 Cor 12:3). For it is by the Holy Spirit alone, working through the Word and sacraments, that faith is born in the heart. I always remind people not to miss the miracle, the miracle of faith in you when you say, “I believe.” Apart from faith, at best people say Jesus was a good man, an enlightened teacher, an amazing miracle worker. At worst they said and say today that He is a false teacher, even in league with the devil. It’s not enough even that we get the doctrine right on a confirmation exam, or in repeating the Creed, for even Peter, in the very next breath, at the mention of Jesus’ coming death by crucifixion—resurrection promise or not—gives the devil voice saying, “No way! This will not happen to you, Lord!” The challenge that calls forth faith is that the glorious deliverance of the world from the grip of sin, Satan and death comes only, solely and alone by way of the cross of Christ. So also Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” This is at least one reason why, six days later, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.” Why? First, to confirm His glory as the Christ, the Son of God, and, secondly, to confirm the truth that the only way to glory, for Himself and for His disciples, is through the cross.

The transfiguration confirmed His glory as the Christ, the Son of God. “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.” The glory of God appears in the scriptures as light and fire. When Moses spoke with God his face took on a shining brightness (Ex 34:29-30). Daniel described his vision of God saying, “his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames” (Dan 7:9). The psalm says the Lord is “clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment” (Ps 104:1-2). St. John calls Him “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). Words can only approximate what St. Paul heard when he was caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2) and St. John saw in the Revelation (Rev 1:12-16). Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, who spoke of old to Moses, whom Isaiah saw with his eyes in the temple, now clothed, hidden (if you will) in human flesh.

Why do Moses and Elijah appear? The tradition is to speak of them as representing the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. And, indeed, the Law and the Prophets all point to Jesus Christ. But it seems that God is transgressing His own Law here in bringing these two back from the dead as it were. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, at the rich man’s request in hell to send Lazarus either to help him or to send him back to earth to warn his brothers, God said, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26). Those who die in faith and are gathered to Christ in heaven do not have awareness of happenings on earth nor any other communication as it says in Isaiah 63, “though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us” (Is 63:16).

One thing Moses and Elijah have in common is the mysterious end of their lives on earth. Moses died and the Lord “buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (Dt 34:5-6). And of course Elijah didn’t die but was taken up to heaven by a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1, 11). Besides that, here they weren’t brought back from the dead to communicate with any mere human beings, though their conversation with Jesus was overheard by the three eyewitnesses (2 Pet 1:16) as they were speaking with the Lord about His “exodus,” his coming death and resurrection.

Why Peter felt it necessary to insert himself into the scene by flapping his tongue and advertising his ignorance who can say? His suggestion of building three tents revealed that he was ready to put Jesus only on a par with the other two heavenly figures. Therefore God interrupted him not with merely a bank of fog or regular clouds but with a bright cloud, a shining cloud and a voice from the cloud saying the same words that were recorded for us at our Lord’s baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But now Moses and Elijah join the chorus telling you to listen, now, only to Jesus. All the Law and the prophets point to Jesus. All theology is Christology. Every Christian sermon is about Jesus. All Christian worship is about Jesus. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

With shining face and bright array
Christ deigns to manifest today
What glory shall be theirs above
Who joy in God with perfect love. (LSB 413:3)

Only now, we are told, the disciples were terrified. But blessèd are the terrified! For “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’” Now, in the fear of God, the beginning of wisdom sees no one else but Jesus only.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord took place, first, to confirm His glory as the Christ, the Son of God and give a glimpse of the glory that shall be ours. Secondly, it happened to confirm the truth that the only way to glory for Himself and for His disciples, is through the cross.

Six days earlier, after Peter under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, 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” (Mt 16:21)—the Way of the Cross. This was the part that offended Peter that Peter didn’t understand. Well, maybe now he would begin to understand.

And that’s where we’re going now after our celebration of the Transfiguration; back down the mountain to journey in the way of the cross; to begin to understand what it means when Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). The only way to glory—the glory of our deliverance and salvation and destination of heaven—is through the cross, that is, the self-denial, the weight and the journey of faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

This, of course, is what is so deceptive of any preaching of glory without the cross. It was the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness to gain followers by stunts of glory instead of by way of the cross. Even at the end the satanic voice shrieked and pleaded, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40).

Jesus did not come down from the cross. As a result, His death became the one-and-only, perfect atonement for the sins of the whole world, for your sin and mine. But, as His glory shone through His flesh and His clothing at the Transfiguration, so He is so powerful that even death cannot hold or destroy Him. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. And His resurrection means our forgiveness, our life, our victory, our resurrection, our life eternal! In that sort of confidence we face today, tomorrow and all our days with a joy beyond all gladness, a conviction of faith that empowers and motivates us to the glory of faith; faith in Christ crucified, faith to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow Him!