Download or listen to the Transfiguration of Our Lord, “Hear Him, Jesus Only” (Matthew 17:1-9)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Words, and more words; words everywhere. There are words all around us. Words in our ears, words in our mouths, words on the page. If you’re on the internet, on Facebook, or Twitter, there are so many words, it’s hard to know where to begin. Words of all sorts; words of one opinion or another, one agenda or another, one religion or politics or another. And with so many words, I can’t help but wonder what any of them are worth. How many of them will last beyond the moment they appear on the screen? They seem to be a dime-a-dozen, or cheaper. And then we come to this place, and we hear more words. Words from the Scriptures, words from a preacher, words in hymns and the liturgy. And what are these words worth? Will they last? Is the Word of God just one more opinion among many, one more agenda, one more religion, one more politics? Can the Word of God be heard in the tornado of words we hear each week, when we gather for such a short time once a week? Can the Word of God compete with all the other words? Can the Word of God get a word in edgewise?
Jesus takes Peter and James and John with Him up a high mountain. And there He is transfigured before them. Transformed. This is the word from which we get the English word “metamorphosis.” Jesus is transformed and He is as bright as the sun. His clothing is pure white, and the three disciples get the briefest glimpse of the glory that belongs to the eternal Son of God, when the Man, Jesus, is shown to them in the glory of God. And then they see Jesus sharing words with Moses and Elijah. Then a cloud overshadows them and they hear words from the cloud. Whenever a cloud appears in the Scriptures like this, it means God is there. Whether it’s in the tabernacle, or the temple, or in the wilderness or on Mount Sinai; when Jesus ascends or when He comes again in glory, the cloud means that God is present. And here God speaks from the cloud: “This is My beloved Son; in whom is My good pleasure; hear Him. Listen to Him.” God speaks and people are silent. As the prophet Habakkuk said, “Yahweh is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him” (2:20). God speaks and people are silent; or at least they ought to be! Peter can’t help himself: Lord, it is good for us to be here; maybe we should stay a little bit longer. I will build three tents, three tabernacles, three dwelling places: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But God interrupts Peter’s words with His own: This is My beloved Son. Hear Him. And that Word puts Peter, James, and John on their faces in the dirt. But Jesus goes and puts His hand on them, touches them, and says, “Don’t be afraid, rise up. Everywhere else in the Gospels, this word for “touch” means healing. Whether Jesus touches someone’s eyes, or hand, or ears; or someone touches Jesus’ cloak: every time, it is a touch of healing. Don’t be afraid; rise. And they are healed, and they look, and they see no one but Jesus only. No more Moses, no more Elijah. Their words are fulfilled in Jesus. Hear Him, Jesus only.
But what are they supposed to hear? Jesus had already spoken to them, just before they came up on the mountain. “From that time He began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed and on the third day be raised” (16:21). Peter interrupts the Word of God there, too: “No, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” But all human words must come to their end when God speaks: Get behind Me, satan. Get back in line and follow Me. You are not listening to the words of God, but to the words of sinful flesh and sinful reason. Hear Him, Jesus only. God’s Word is not one among many; not one among many opinions, agendas, religions, politics. Human words have power. They do things. They build up or they tear down. They kill or they heal. They promise or they lie. But human words always come to an end; their power always has a limit. People are like grass: here in the morning and then withers and fades; the Word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:6-8). Hear Him, Jesus only. Don’t hear the words of your own reason, your own logic, your own assumptions about what is possible; hear Him, Jesus only. Don’t hear the words of your own experience, which seems like the most real thing; hear Him, Jesus only. Don’t hear the words of your friends, or family, or the culture, or the world; hear Him, Jesus only. All of these other words must come to an end when God speaks.
This is a command: hear Him. But it also contains a promise fulfilled when the Word is made flesh. This one whom we are to hear is the perfect and trustworthy Word of God. It does what it says. It always accomplishes what God sends it forth to do. And what this Word is going to do is die and rise again. He prays to His Father: sanctify them—make them holy—by Your Word; Your Word is truth. And Jesus is that Word. Jesus says, I am the Truth. I am the Life. I am the Way to that Father who spoke on the mountain. He is the Word through whom everything was spoken into existence, but He is also the Word made flesh, who dwells, tabernacles, tents among us. It is the verb form of the thing Peter wanted to construct. That’s why there’s no need for making tabernacles or tents on the mountain. Jesus is the tabernacle of God. Where Jesus is, God is. You can hear Him with full confidence. The Word was made flesh and dwelled among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). We all, St. Paul says, with unveiled face are beholding the glory of the Lord. With faces unveiled by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we behold Him by faith, and we are being transformed, transfigured, into that same image. He is the image of God and we have been remade in His image. In Christ, you are a new creation. And now we are being transfigured into the same image, from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We have come here today, like Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, to the highest place on this earth: the place where God comes to meet with His people. They were sprinkled with the blood of the old covenant, so God did not lay His hand on them, but they saw God and ate and drank. So here God does not lay His hand on us for judgment or condemnation or in wrath, but as Jesus does on the mountain of transfiguration, for healing. Here we see Him by faith, and we eat and drink. Hear Him, Jesus only. When He says, I baptize you into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, hear Him, Jesus only. When He says, I forgive you all your sins in that same Name, hear Him, Jesus only. When He says, this is My body and My blood of the new covenant, for your forgiveness, hear Him, Jesus only.
Here you behold Him by faith, and again today you are being transfigured from the glory of faith to the glory of sight. But there is only one way from the glory of faith to the glory of sight, and that is the same way Jesus goes. From this mountain of transfiguration down in to the valley of the shadow of death—which is, in fact, where the Church spends its days on this earth, under the cross, under the sign of death, living by faith and not by sight. We are going down into the valley of Lent, to follow Jesus through His suffering, death, and resurrection. That’s the only way from faith to sight: through death to resurrection. But we are not afraid; we follow our Lord. From the cross to the empty tomb; from death to life; from “it is finished” to the “do not be afraid” of the angels. We follow our Lord, fed by His food, until that day when He comes again on the cloud. And then He will touch our dead, dry, dusty bones, and He will say the only words we need, “Don’t be afraid. You are healed. Rise up!” And we will.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/1/14