The Transfiguration of Our Lord
“Epiphany’s Brightest Light”
St. Matthew 17.1-9
10 February 2019
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and 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. (Matt. 17:2–3; ESV)
Jesus is transfigured with the brightest and whitest heavenly light, and we have the eyewitness account of the blessed apostles. St. Peter says that his witness along with James and John is no myth, no carefully contrived story. So what did they see, and what does God teach us?
First, Jesus was transfigured before them… The radiant appearance of Jesus’ body foretells the resurrection of the dead and the future glory or radiance of our own bodies. Christ openly displays the radiance of immortality in His own body, while yet in this state of mortality that we share with Him now. He had not yet died His self-offering death to sin once for all, according to His humanity He was like us in every way – and subject to dying like us. Now, of course, death has no dominion over Jesus. Yet, that day on the mountain, He gives a glimpse of what the future holds. On this point, Dr. Luther asks, “What will happen when, once death has been swallowed up [at the Last Day], there will be nothing except immortality and glory?” (LW AE 67:308) Well, Jesus, the bright and Morningstar, allowed a precious peek around the heavenly corner of eternity.
Then, Behold, there appeared… Moses and Elijah. Moses died, but God kept his burial a secret, and Elijah was carried up to heaven in the chariot of fire and the whirlwind – yet by appearing with the transfigured Jesus, they show that they are not dead, but that they have been transferred into another kind of life. Their appearance marks a life beyond this mortal one. They have been taken from this life, and yet, they live. They appear and speak with Jesus.
Therefore, their presence tells us that the dead in Christ have not died, and that “those who die only pass on from this miserable and calamitous life into another, better one. For if Moses and Elijah had simply died and been reduced to nothing, they would not appear” on the Transfiguration mountain with Jesus. (Luther, ibid.)
So be encouraged and comforted by this Epiphany light today: despise the grave, and consider death to this life as a passing from this prison to the radiance of a better life, a life immeasurably and unimaginably well beyond what we can describe, a life just glimpsed that day by Peter, James, and John that will come to all who died to this world in Christ.
O Lord, our hearts awaken to know and love You more,
In faith to stand unshaken, in Spirit to adore,
That we, through this world moving, each glimpse of heaven proving,
May reap its fullness there. (LSB #402; stanza 3; public domain)
And so, Moses and Elijah… [were] talking with Him… says the Evangelist. What is this heaven-on-earth conversation? What did Peter, James, and John overhear Moses, Elijah, and the Christ discuss on the Mount?
We learn from St. Luke’s Gospel that the three were discussing Jesus’ departure, His exodus from this world, the laying down of His life in perfect obedience to the Law to appease His Father’s wrath. That in perfect love for His neighbor, in order to welcome believers into heaven to be with Him and His Father forever, Jesus would be the Passover Lamb, whose blood would paint our door that death passes over.
This laying down of Jesus’ life is a scandal to the world. The cross is a scandal. Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree, says the Law of Moses. The three disciples are given to see and hear this conversation to arm them against this coming scandal. Yet, Peter himself will yet chafe at and rebuke the idea of Jesus’ crucifixion when predicted by Jesus, and at the hour of temptation Peter denied his Lord as He was being tried.
But this heavenly conversation is necessary and the cross is not a scandal. This is the will of God, to love the world so much by offering once for all His only begotten Son as atoning sacrifice to defeat sin, death, and devil. Heaven loves this, devotes itself to this, talks of nothing else. The angels do not “look on with sad and wondering eyes” (as one Palm Sunday hymn says) at the approaching sacrifice of God’s Son. They are not scandalized. They rejoice over one sinner who repents. The thought of God’s sacrifice does not fill them with sadness. It fills heaven with joy for they love the holy works of God, they love God keeping His Word. And nothing is more holy, nothing is more essential to who God is, than God in the Flesh lifted up from the earth on the cursed cross in order to draw all men unto Himself.
The angels sang about this in Bethlehem, for along with all of creation, they had been waiting for God to act. Moses or Elijah were not shy about this during their time on earth either. They certainly weren’t shy about it in heaven. For there in heaven, having come to faith’s reward, they love the works of God as much as the angels do. They love the Messiah they foretold. They love God keeping His promise, to pour forth innocent blood to make men clean. It is what the Prophets and Patriarchs all waited for while on earth, what they hoped and prayed for, why they praised God in this life, and now in heaven they love it more than anything, more than they thought possible.
Meanwhile, we see but dimly, as in a mirror, not yet fully comprehending this love God has for us, this heavenly Transfiguration conversation that is preached into the world. For we are caught up in our own tragedies, enduring secret battles, suffering under temptation and the evil that is all around us. The world continues in its wickedness and seems only to keep piling on, as we’ve seen in the scandalous abortion and infanticide laws proposed in New York, Illinois, and Virginia in the last few weeks. The devil, the world, and our sinful nature do not want us to hallow God’s Name or let His kingdom come. They would deceive and mislead you and many from this heavenly work and will of God.
From the perspective of all that, from inside the skin of a sinful man, from the pain, frustration, and sorrow that besets us on every side, it is easy to see why Peter offered the Lord to stay up on the mountain with Moses and Elijah in shrines. The cursed death of our Lord’s crucifixion seems like more injustice and sorrow, seems hard to see the good that can come of it.
But our Lord suffered what He suffered of His own will. He does not regret it. He is not ashamed of it, as a matter of fact, He gladly turned to Jerusalem and scorned the shame and curse of the cross. He was a victim, a Sacrifice, but He was also the Priest. No one took His life from Him. He laid it down of His own accord.
What this cost Him we can scarcely imagine, for Life Himself to endure death, for the truly Righteous Man to become sin, to suffer the agony in His soul for the guilt of betraying Himself, of misusing His own Name, of caving in to peer pressure or being seduced by the depraved pleasures of the flesh, to be guilty, truly guilty for our sins, and to be forsaken by His Father because of them, this is pain far beyond our imaginations or abilities to comprehend.
But He did not flinch. He did not turn away. He did not complain. He took it upon Himself to be the Messiah, the One foretold by Moses and Elijah, who remembers His people and calls them by Name, the One in whom the Father is well-pleased, the One who saves and redeems you and every sinner from death and the power of the devil. Jesus desires nothing so much as the salvation of your soul, and nothing pleases Him so much as the thought of spending eternity with you in perfect bliss, in the blessed glory of the heavenly home He has prepared for you. That is what held Him to the cross. He hung there in agony and sorrow, with jaunts in His ears and bloody sweat in His eyes, and He thought: “It is worth it.” He was glad to do it for you.
That was the heavenly conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mountain of Transfiguration.
Today, we stand within sight of Lent. For 70 days the Church will catechize us in the way of the cross. We put away and fast from our alleluias beginning today, and perhaps other things too as Lent commences, especially those things which bring sin into our lives, and those things by which we sin against others – time to put away bearing grudges against our neighbor, of being unforgiving, uncaring. We can and should add to our prayer and devotional life, including being here for Lenten midweek and Holy Week services. We will prepare ourselves, body and soul, to celebrate the victory on Good Friday and the opening of the earth’s womb on Easter Sunday.
Let this be Epiphany’s bright light for you today: be encouraged and strengthened by the appearance of Jesus in heavenly glory with Moses and Elijah and the conversation of heaven they held there. For we know that the glory of heaven is ready and rejoices for you even now. There are no regrets there, no tears. For those in heaven, and for you in His Kingdom, the cross of Jesus Christ is nothing to be ashamed of. This is how God so loved you, and your crosses will soon be lifted as well.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +