In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ might be seen as the “grand finale” of the Epiphany Season. The word epiphany means “manifestation, a revelation, a showing forth.” Epiphany Day itself, January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, is of course the celebration of the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi. How was that divine nature manifested to the Magi? How did they come to know that Jesus was God in the flesh? They were led to seek out “the one born King of the Jews” by the appearance of a star, some sort of astronomical phenomenon in the night sky. Yet they could not follow the star directly to Jesus; but they went to Jerusalem, where they inquired of the whereabouts of this king. They had to be directed to Bethlehem by the Sacred Scriptures, the written revelation of God. Herod the Great inquired of the chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born, and they told him, “In Bethlehem,” based on the Prophet Micah, as they quote him: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Mt 2:6). While the Evangelist St. Matthew records this much of their citation of Micah 5:2, the whole verse says: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose comings forth [origins] are from of old, from ancient days.” That particular phrase means that the Ruler who is to come out of Bethlehem is of Divine origin. He is of God, and He is God. The Magi, rather than being wise men, were foolish at first, seeking the God-King by a star, a sign of ambiguous meaning in the sky. On the other hand, the Scripture, the Voice and Word of God, gave them sure and certain direction to the Christ Child.
The Epiphany Season is traditionally a time when several miracles and wonders of Jesus are highlighted, such as the boy Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple showing His wisdom and understanding to the teachers of the Law, and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, when Jesus turned water into wine. We should pay careful attention to how the Evangelists, the Gospel writers, describe these things. John concludes his account of the wedding feast at Cana saying, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him” (Jn 2:11). (If you’re planning a wedding, you won’t be able to use this sign as a cost-saving measure.) What does a sign do? What is its purpose? A sign does not exist for its own sake, but is meant to give direction, to point you to what you actually seek. Street signs help us get to our destination. The signs Jesus did point to who He is, yet so often people misunderstood those signs, and they still misunderstand—we still misunderstand them.
Like many of those who sought signs from Jesus, and like many who witnessed His signs, we often seek signs for their own sake—or rather, we seek signs for our own sake, to give us confidence, to bolster our trust in the Lord. What’s wrong with that? After all, John did say that that Jesus’ disciples believed in Him after He manifested His glory with His first sign. Problems come when we trust in the signs more than the Word of God, or instead of the Word of God. Before doing His second sign in Galilee, Jesus said to the one who sought it, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (Jn 4:48). If “signs and wonders” are the center of your Christian life and faith, then you are a true theologian of glory, just like Simon Peter at the Transfiguration.
On the mountain, the appearance Jesus’ face was “different”—that’s the actual word Luke uses. How it was different we’re not told, just that it was different. His clothing radiated as bright as lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glory alongside Jesus, talking with Him about “His departure,” literally His exodus, “which He was about to accomplish, to fulfill, at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). This reminds us of the Exodus, the great salvific event in Israel’s history. Now here is a greater saving event. Peter’s response at the sight is classic theology of glory: “‘Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said” (Jn 4:33). His attitude is well expressed in stanza four of our Hymn of Invocation, “’Tis Good, Lord, to Be Here”: Before we taste of death, We see Thy kingdom come; We long to hold the vision bright / And make this hill our home (LSB 414.4). If we were one of the disciples Jesus had taken up on the mountain, would we have acted any differently? We too would “long to hold the vision bright / And make this hill our home.” Peter wanted to make the experience last, make it permanent if at all possible. Presumably, James and John were of the same mind as Peter at the time. How many disciples had Jesus called to follow Him? Out of the full company of His disciples, He chose twelve as apostles (Lk 6:13), those men in particular who were to be His eyewitnesses and the foundation-stones of His Church. Twelve apostles. How many did Jesus take on the mountain to see His glory in the Transfiguration? Three. What of the other nine? Why didn’t He take them, too, if beholding His glory and hanging on to that vision were so important? In fact, Luke says that the three “kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen” (9:36). Matthew and Mark both record that Jesus commanded them to tell no one what they had seen (Mt 17:9; Mk 9:9). Indeed, John, one of the eyewitnesses, doesn’t even record the event in his own Gospel account.
The Transfiguration of Jesus “on the mountain” is His preparation for His Passion, His suffering and death, “on the mountain,” Golgotha, Calvary. He is preparing these three disciples for the other revelation of His glory, His glory in the darkness of Good Friday. When you hear the word glory, what first comes to mind? For most of us, glory means light, bright, dazzling, even blinding light. Indeed, it is how Jesus’ glory was shown in the Transfiguration, by the brightness of His clothes and the change of His face’s appearance. Go to the Old Testament, though, and the Hebrew word for glory is kavod, heft, weightiness, what physicists call ‘mass.’ In those six hours of total darkness on Good Friday, was Jesus’ glory visible as He hung on the cross? No, but it was there nonetheless. Consider the weight of the sin of the whole world, every sin of every human being throughout time. How should we calculate that weight? It’s the amount of debt we owe to God for our sin. How much is that? Can you imagine the weight of just your own debt to Him? Multiply that by the billions of sinners who have ever lived, now living, or who will ever live. It staggers the mind, doesn’t it?
Gold and silver and other precious metals, diamonds and rubies and other precious gems, they sparkle and shine. Their radiance is part of their beauty and appeal, their glory. Far more precious and costly than all those treasures, the body of Jesus shone with the brightness of white-hot lightning, brighter than the sun. Even one drop of His holy, precious blood is worth more than all the precious metals and jewels of the whole earth, of the whole cosmos. That body was beaten, whipped, and nailed to a cross, His blood being shed from every wound. Go back to the night before, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He went to pray, taking along Peter and James and John—the same three who had witnessed His Transfiguration now witness His agony, as in great distress bloody sweat seeps from every pore! That night He had instituted His Holy Supper. Here on this holy mountain, Jesus again gives His body and His blood for you, the same as on that night, the body and blood given and shed on the cross. Here is the glory of God in Christ, for you! His kavod, His glory, far outweighs your sin. Your debt is paid in full, as He said, “It is finished.” Do you see it? Do you see His glory? No, you don’t, and neither do I. Yet His Word says it was there on the cross, and it is here for you now. So we believe it and confess it. Amen, amen, He has said unto us. It is true, for He is the Truth. In Holy Baptism in the name of this True Triune God, you were baptized into this Christ and into this glory: His crucifixion, death, and burial, then His resurrection and ascension.
The Evangelist St. Luke gives us many clues that the point and purpose of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is about His Passion, and the eyewitnesses agree. He begins, “Now about eight days after these sayings.” Eight days is Luke’s time-marker for the new creation, which Jesus inaugurates with His resurrection from the dead, “on the first day of the week.” With His death on Good Friday, darkness fell in the middle of the day; the old creation with its seven-day week was being disrupted. Now a new, eighth day is come, the Day of Resurrection, the day of new life, of life restored! Luke also refers to “these sayings.” What sayings? The first followed Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. Jesus tells the disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). In the second,
He said to all, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:23–27).
Suffering comes before glory. That is the way of the cross, the way of Christ, the way of the kingdom of God on earth. Ask Moses and Elijah. Each of those men was called by the LORD God to show signs and wonders, to proclaim His Word, and to call His people to come to Him, to worship Him in truth and purity. The people of Israel complained against Moses and against the LORD, even after the Exodus, being brought out of bondage in Egypt, even after He fed them manna and quail. Moses wanted God to let him die. Elijah had to flee for his life, even after the demonstration that showed YHWH, the LORD, to be the true God and Baal to be a false god. Jezebel breathed out murderous threats against Elijah, and the prophet wanted God to let him die. Peter, James, and John each suffered. James was the first apostle martyred. John was exiled to the island of Patmos. In his Second Epistle, Peter writes of witnessing the Lord’s glory “on the holy mountain” and of his own impending exodus in death, which Jesus made clear to him. But Peter, as faithful witness, faithful apostle, directs us not to visions or signs, or his personal experiences, but to the sure Source in which he trusts:
And we have the prophetic Word more fully confirmed, 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, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pe 1:19–21)
So cling to the Word, the Scripture, of the Father, the Voice, and of the Son, the Man, and of the Holy Spirit, the Cloud.
And the Peace of God, which passes all understanding,
will keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.