Sunday, February 5, 2017
The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord
Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Exodus 34:29-35
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“...and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” That is how St. John recounted his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration: John confessed that he had beheld the Shekinah Glory of God in the person of Jesus, and he lived to tell about it. Surely that experience defined John’s apostolic ministry in a deep and profound way. Hence John began his Gospel, not with the familiar infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke concerning Joseph and Mary, angels, shepherds, wise men, and a Bethlehem manger, but with the eternal, primordial being, and with the creative work of the Holy Trinity, and with the Shekinah Glory of God becoming a man, living in our midst as one of us, as our brother.
This was the same Shekinah Glory of God beheld by Moses on Mount Sinai that caused his own face to shine so that it must be veiled before he spoke to the people of Israel. Moses beheld that glory first in the burning bush, before which he was commanded to remove his sandals, for he stood upon holy ground. And yet, the glory of the LORD could only be seen and experienced through means, and not directly, for sinful man may not see God and live. Thus, when Moses asked to see the full glory of God, he was given to see only God’s backside, and that only after the LORD first hid him in a cleft in the rock. The Patriarch Jacob wrestled with a man all through the night until that man put his hip out of socket. When daylight arose and he realized that man was God, Jacob exclaimed in fearful wonder, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Likewise Isaiah trembled in fear and despaired of his life when He beheld the Shekinah glory of God in a vision saying, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” The LORD absolved Isaiah, sending a Seraph with a burning coal taken from the altar of sacrifice to touch Isaiah’s lips to atone for his sin and to cleanse him of his guilt. What these men of faith each knew and confessed was expressed concisely by the Preacher to the Hebrews: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” “for our God is a consuming fire.”
And so, when Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain and was transfigured before them so that “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light,” and “there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him,” they were amazed. Peter, always quick to speak, excitedly suggested that they build three tabernacles for the holy trio and preserve that glorious mountaintop experience. But, when a bright cloud tabernacled over them and the LORD Himself spoke from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him,” “they fell on their faces and were terrified” before the presence of the Shekinah glory of the LORD. Shortly before His Transfiguration, Jesus had asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Then Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But, now, on the Mount of Transfiguration, God Himself answers the question and shows the disciples precisely who Jesus is as His Shekinah Glory shines from, in, and through Him, the express “image of the invisible God” as a man.
The presence of both Moses and Elijah with Jesus at His Transfiguration is pregnant with meaning. First, Moses, who brought the Ten Commandments of the LORD to the people of Israel, is symbolic of the entirety of the Law of God. Likewise, Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets is symbolic of all the prophets of the Holy Scriptures. Together, Moses and Elijah stand for the Law and the Prophets, that is, for the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, which, Jesus instructed the Emmaus disciples, all testify about Him. Second, both Moses and Elijah died, or were translated to heaven, in unusual ways: Moses died and was buried in a secret location by God Himself! Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind! Yet, on the Mount of Transfiguration both men are present, alive, and conversing with Jesus in the fullness of the Shekinah Glory of God, a preview of the promise of life beyond death fulfilled. Additionally, whereas because of his sin and the rebellion of the people of Israel, Moses was permitted to see, but not to enter, the Promised Land of Canaan, now he stands upon that promised ground in the presence of the LORD in His glory. Third, Moses and Elijah were not merely having a casual conversation with Jesus, but St. Luke tells us that they were discussing with Him “His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” The Greek word translated as departure is exodus. Thus, Moses, the leader of the Exodus out of captivity and slavery in Egypt is discussing with Jesus the exodus He is about to lead, through His death and resurrection in Jerusalem, out of captivity and slavery to sin, death, and Satan.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ stands at the end of Epiphanytide as a final manifestation of Jesus as both God and man in one person before we descend with Him down from the mountain and prepare to enter Jerusalem to die throughout Lent and Passiontide. Our Lord grants us this preview and foretaste of His glory, this mountaintop experience, that we may believe in Him and that our faith may be strengthened and persevere as we journey with Him through trial and tribulation in the Valley of the Shadow of Death in which we live our lives, that we might resist temptation and be comforted and persevere through Satan’s furious and hateful assaults. This purpose of His Transfiguration, too, follows upon Jesus’ question to His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” For, immediately following Peter’s bold confession, “You are 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.” This preview and foretaste of Jesus’ glory is offered to strengthen and encourage His disciples, to strengthen and encourage you, that, when the horrible and humiliating events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, scourging, crucifixion, death, and burial occur, and when trials and tribulations, heartaches, diseases, tragedies, and deaths occur in the lives of Jesus’ disciples, and in your own lives, you and they will remember and be comforted in the knowledge that Jesus foretold this and that “we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
As Moses lead the Israelites in the Exodus out of Egypt by the blood of the Passover Lamb, so now Jesus, the Passover Lamb of God leads His Israel, that is all of His Father’s children through faith in His Son, by the shedding of His own holy, innocent blood poured out upon the world from Calvary’s cross. And, as Elijah was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, so was Jesus taken up in a cloud forty days after His resurrection to be seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven where He now rules over heaven and earth and all things until He comes again in glory as Judge and King.
Nevertheless, Peter did not fully understand until the Holy Spirit was poured out upon him and the Church at Pentecost. Peter wanted to enshrine the glory, to preserve it, to bask in it now, to avoid the suffering and humiliation that must come before the glory. Because of our sinful concupiscence, we all desire the same; even Jesus experienced the temptation to avoid the cross according to His human nature as He prayed to His Father, “Take this cup from Me.” However, Jesus resisted and overcame even this temptation for you and for all saying, “Yet, not My will, but Your will be done.” Truly, among our greatest temptations is to seek glory now in our lives and in our faith and in our church, and to shrug off and reject the crosses our LORD has chosen for us to bear that His power might be made perfect in our weakness. Peter could not make a tabernacle for the LORD anymore than David could build Him a house. For, truly, Jesus’ flesh and blood body is the Tabernacle and Temple of the Shekinah Glory of the LORD of which He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Glory of the LORD does not reside in a house built by human hands, wisdom, and strength, but in the flesh and blood body and person of Jesus Christ, a tent and tabernacle made without human hands. Within the Tabernacle of Jesus stand Moses and Elijah, Peter, James, and John, the repentant thief on the cross, your mother, grandfather, daughter, and all the saints that have gone before us, all those who have come out of the great tribulation having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
And yet, life in the Tabernacle of Jesus’ flesh and blood are not only something yet to come, but it is a Tabernacle and life that you live in even now in the Valley of the Shadow of death, for you have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have, even now, one foot, so to speak, firmly planted in that heavenly Tabernacle, while having also one foot buried in the grave. But, we look forward to that day, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in the certainty of faith, when we will stand with both feet firmly planted in the tabernacle of Jesus in the full presence of the Shekinah Glory of God in heaven. Again, you have been provided this preview and foretaste of Jesus’ glory that your faith may be strengthened and that you may persevere through temptation and even death. Thus, St. Paul confesses that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Like Moses, Jacob, and Isaiah, Peter, James, and John were terrified by the presence of the Shekinah Glory of the LORD shining from, in, and through Jesus. However, whereas Isaiah had a seraph touch his lips with a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice, Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God Himself reached out and touched His disciples and raised them up, casting away all their fear. Jesus is what the burning coal on the altar foreshadowed for Isaiah. He is the one who take the guilt of our sin away, atoning for our sins.
“And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Jesus alone remains. Our trust is not in Moses or Elijah, our trust is not in works or even our faith, but our trust in in Jesus alone, crucified, risen, ascended, and returning. Behold, our Lord is coming, even as He is present with you now, tabernacled in bread and wine, that you may eat His flesh and drink His blood in the midst of our Satanic foes in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and be preserved, kept, strengthened, and protected in faith unto life everlasting, that you may be made partakers of His Divine Nature. To God alone be the glory, in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, through His Most Holy Spirit.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.