The time for miracles was over. The time of Jesus’ popularity was coming to its end. It’s the midpoint of the Gospel, and Jesus turns His attention to the business of dying and rising. He began to teach His disciples that He must suffer many things, and be rejected by the religious leaders, and be killed, and in three days rise again. He began to tell the crowds that followed Him looking for miracles that the only way to live is to drop dead with Him. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it.” Death and resurrection is the only way. Drop dead and trust Jesus.
Tough talk. Peter didn’t want to hear it. He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. This isn’t how a proper Messiah conducts his campaign. Let’s get back on track here. We don’t like death and resurrection talk either. We prefer miracles and mountaintops. Visions, “a closer walk with Thee.” But Jesus is walking His way to Calvary and a cross. And His disciples are shaken. This isn’t what they bargained for when they left their fishing boats. Where’s the power? The glory? The muscle? What’s this talk of suffering, death, and resurrection?
Jesus looks at His disciples – doubting, shaky, uncertain men – and He assures them that everything is on track. You want power? “Some of you will not taste death until you see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” And then He lets a week go by, and says nothing more. You can imagine that the disciples talked about it among themselves? What did He mean, “some of you would not taste death?” Who would that be? What would they see? But nobody dared ask Jesus anything.
And then a week later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a little retreat, up to a high mountain by themselves. Not all the disciples. Not the crowds. Not even Peter’s brother Andrew. Just Peter, James, and John. They were the ones who would not taste death until they saw the kingdom of God come with power. Why not the others? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? This vision isn’t for everyone, but for those three. And they weren’t even supposed to tell the other disciples until after Jesus had risen from the dead. Like miracles, visions are not the stuff of faith. Only crucified and risen Jesus is.
Jesus is transfigured before them. The Greek word is “metamorphosized,” changed in appearance. We might say “morphed.” Jesus was morphed before them. Here was a Jesus they hadn’t seen before. Shining, glorious, radiant, glowing. Brighter than the brightest light. His clothing an unearthly white. God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, shining through His humanity. Every cell of His human flesh glowed with the brilliance of God. The fullness of God in the human flesh of Jesus, the God-man. Fully God and fully man. What a sight it must have been! The second Person of the Undivided Trinity shining with all the glory of God.
And if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah were standing there next to Him talking with Him! The two greatest figures of the Old Testament. Mr. Torah and Mr. Prophecy. The Torah and Prophets personified, standing on a mountain, talking with Jesus. You’ll recall that Moses died in the wilderness on some unnamed mountain and was buried by God. And Elijah didn’t die but was whisked off to heaven with the flaming chariots and horsemen of Israel. And now here they are, alive and well.
In their lives they had been types, sacramental signs of Christ. Moses was the covenant mediator, the go-between between God and man, who talked with God on Mt. Sinai, whose faced glowed with the glory of God. Elijah was the proclaimer of the Word, whose fiery ascension into heaven was a picture of Christ’s ascension. Their lives pointed prophetically to Jesus. And now they stand with Him on His mountain. And they are recognizable for who they are. No one asks, “Hey, who are these guys?” They are known.
It was little preview of coming attraction, a sneak peak at the resurrection, when all the dead will rise in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and we will be known for who you are. And you will recognize the saints – Peter, Paul, James, John, Moses, Elijah, David. Augustine, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Luther. You’ll recognize people you never met, and they’ll recognize you. Now that’s what I call a reunion! No name tags! And we’ll all look our absolute best! No need for a makeover in the resurrection!
Peter got caught up in the moment. “Rabbi, it’s a good thing we’re here,” he says. “Let’s build three tents – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now Mark explains that Peter was so afraid, he didn’t know what he was talking about. But the urge is always there, isn’t it? To enshrine the moment. If you can’t get it on video, or at least a couple of Poloroids. Memorialize it, make a holy site out of it. You can just imagine what would have happened if Peter had succeeded in his little building project. It would have become a tourist attraction. A theme park. “Morph Mountain.” A shrine where people would come to pray or to be healed of their demons or their dandruff. There would be Morph Mtn. web site and t-shirts and posters and testimonials of the miraculous healing. There would be little vials of dirt or pieces of rock from the top of the mountain, with claims of miraculous powers. Bus loads of church groups would make their pilgrimmages there, so that ordinary people like you and me could set their feet on the place where Moses and Elijah stood with Jesus, and we’d somehow feel closer to God.
I think that’s why God buried Moses on some unknown mountain, and why Elijah was whisked off to heaven in a fiery chariot. So that their graves wouldn’t become holy shrines. Or their bones holy relics. That’s why this mountain is not named. Jesus doesn’t want us to know what mountain it was, because the location doesn’t matter.
But just like miracles, we’re hooked on religious visions. Ecstasies. Visions in the sky. In the clouds. The bright light in a near-death experience. (I don’t know what that light is, but for lack of anything evidence to the contrary, I’ll just assume it’s Jesus, the Light of the world.) Weeping pictures of Mary. Images of Jesus on walls, tree bark, tortillas, wet concrete. They give us something concrete, something to hang on to, something “real” to believe in.
But that’s not where God wants the focus of our faith. Faith that is born of visions needs visions to keep it going. God threw a blanket over it. A thick cloud covered the mountain, just as it did on Mt. Sinai. And the voice of the Father came from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” We hear an echo of Jesus’ Baptism. In the Jordan river, the Father spoke and the Spirit descended. And again here, on the mountain. “This is my beloved Son.” This Jesus is the One, you needn’t look for another. No matter where He leads you, even to death, follow Him. He’s my chosen and elect Son, and in Him, you are chosen and elect. “Listen to Him.” Hear Him. Hearken to His words. He has the words of eternal life. His words are Spirit and life. Listen to Him. His words are what you need.
And when the cloud lifted, they saw no one “but Jesus only.” That’s what the Father wants you to see. That’s where He wants the eye of your faith to be focused. On no one but Jesus only. It’s great to see Moses on the mountain, but Moses can’t save you. And his commandments can’t save you. They can’t even make you a better person. They can’t change you. And Elijah can’t save you. Even the great vision of the horsemen and chariots of heaven didn’t save Elijah. It was just a sign of greater things to come. A greater One to come. Jesus.
Only Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Only Jesus is the Word through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. Only Jesus dies and rises and takes the whole world with Him. Only Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin. Only Jesus is the Redeemer of the world. And only in Jesus are you reconciled to the Father, redeemed, renewed. Only in Jesus are you forgiven. Only in Jesus are your sins washed away. Only in Jesus do you have life.
And then they came down from the mountain with Jesus – Peter, James, and John. And like so many times before, Jesus tells them, “Don’t tell anyone,” which must have been a tall order. How could you not tell everyone? But, “don’t tell anyone what you saw until the Son of Man rises from the dead.” Then you can tell everyone. When Jesus rises from the dead, the broadcast it to the world. But not a moment before, because the world’s hooked on this kind of stuff. “First let me hang dead on a cross, be buried, and rise from the dead. First let me do what I came to do – die and draw all into my death, and rise from the dead – and then you can tell everyone what you saw today.
And they did. John wrote: “We beheld his glory, the glory of the one and only Son of God, full of grace and truth.” And Peter wrote, “We didn’t follow clever myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father and teh Voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borned from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
But Peter goes on to say that you and I have the prophetic word made more sure. We have the word of Jesus, the word that comes with the authority of His death and resurrection, and shines like a lamp shining into the darkness of our hearts, the word is more certain than any vision or miracle. And that’s what we hang on to. Jesus’ words. “Listen to Him.”
The transfiguration of Jesus was a sacramental sign for the three disciples – Peter, James, and John. It made visible Jesus’ hidden glory as the Son of God. Soon they would see Him on a cross, rejected by the religious, defeated, dead. The same glorious Jesus, only now the glory hidden under weakness. And that’s our experience too. The glory of Jesus is hidden under weakness. What you see is water, bread, wine. What you hear are words spoken by a fellow sinner. But what is there, present though hidden, is the power and majesty and glory of God, every bit as glorious as the bright Jesus on top of the mountain. Every bit as glorious but much more accessible. A glorious Jesus who comes and meets us in our weakness, who doesn’t overwhelm us with displays of power, but who comes gently and humbly and graciously.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a sneak peak at the resurrection, on the Day when Jesus appears gloriously not just to three select disciples but to the world. When His light will flash like lightnening filling the sky from east to west. When all the dead everywhere will rise in the power of His resurrection, and we will be changed, transfigured, to be like Him in His glory. Peter, James, and John did not taste death before they saw that the kingdom of God has come with power. And then Jesus died. And they too died. And in their death, they joined Moses and Elijah in the glory of Jesus.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a glimpse of the glory that is ours in Jesus. St. Paul says that even now by faith we reflect His glory and are being transfigured, “morphed,” changed into the likeness of Jesus, from glory to glory. You can’t see it. There is no mirror to look into that will show what your life looks like that’s hidden in Christ. First you too must die and rise, just as Jesus died and rose. And then Jesus will show you what He’s been up to with you, and you will see what this glory of Jesus looks like on you. For now you must believe, trust, that when God looks at you, He sees you through His Son. And the sight is glorious.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.