Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I wonder if Peter ever felt like he was lost in a house of mirrors, if he felt like he was looking around at a thousand reflections of Jesus. And, every time he’d get near to one, thinking it was the real Jesus, it would be smashed in front of him. So Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Christ.” Finally, Peter has seen the real Jesus; he confesses Him as Christ and believes—at least until Jesus starts explaining what it means for Him to be the Christ. “He began to teach them that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and to be killed and after three days to rise” (Mark 8:31). But Peter is still holding on to his own image of the Christ: “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him” (8:32). And so Jesus has to shatter that image: “Go behind Me, satan, because you are not thinking the things of God but the things of men” (8:33).
Then Jesus leads them further up, into the house of mirrors. He takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain, and while they are there Jesus is transfigured before them; He is changed, His clothing shines brighter than anything else on earth. There He is in all His glory as the eternal Son, and Moses and Elijah are talking with Him. And Peter says, “Finally! Now I see the real Jesus. The King has come to reign. He has fulfilled His promise that ‘some who are standing here will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has already come in power’ [9:1]. It is good for us disciples to be here; let us build three booths, one for You, Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. From here the King will reign over His eternal Kingdom.”
But Peter doesn’t know what he’s saying. This image, too, has to be shattered, this time by a cloud, which is always the sign of God’s Presence in the Old Testament. The Cloud hides Moses and Elijah from their eyes, and a Voice speaks from the cloud: “This is My Son, the Beloved, listen to Him” (9:7). Stop looking at images and deciding for yourself what they mean; listen to His Word as He tells you why He is here. And then the Cloud is gone, and they look around, but they only see Jesus, looking exactly as He did before they went up on the mountain.
So Jesus leads them on, down the mountain, with the Voice of God echoing in their ears: “Listen to Him.” And He continues to teach them what He has begun: “The Son of Man will be handed over into the hands of men, they will kill Him, and after three days He will rise” (9:31). But they do not understand and they’re afraid to ask Him. The image is obscured for them, like a fun-house mirror.
Sometimes it is this way for us. Maybe you’ve seen similar reflections of Jesus. Maybe you’ve had an experience where you felt like you’d finally understood who Jesus is, finally knew who He really is. Maybe you’ve had a time where you felt particularly close to God. You thought you’d return to that experience again and again in tough times. Or maybe you have certain Scripture verses that seem to strike you as more significant than others. Certain phrases that you use again and again as shorthand for faith. But then life happens. The experiences are obscured, the feelings fade. You forget the depth behind the shorthand, or you use your favorite verse to trump everything else. You no longer realize or care to understand what all of this means. And so the images need to be shattered in order for you to actually believe again. Just as for Peter. Peter’s confession wasn’t wrong; Jesus’ glory on the mountain actually was His glory. And your experiences, your favorite verses, your shorthand for the Faith: none of those are wrong, unless they take the place of what Jesus actually says.
Slowly, slowly, Jesus leads His disciples down the mountain; the alleluias cease; and He leads them into Jerusalem. And there, at the end of that particular hallway of mirrors, they finally see the true image of God which had been reflected in everything Jesus had done or said. There they see His true glory in the midst of this world. It is exactly the same glory that they had seen on the mountain, but from the other side of the mirror, so to speak. There, on the cross, is the glory of God’s grace for sinners; there is the beating heart of God’s love for you. There, where a man hangs dead, and where, finally, a Roman soldier is brought to confess: “Surely, this was the Son of God!” This is the Word of God: listen to Him as He speaks without a word; listen to His mercy in a broken body and shed blood; listen to the depth of His compassion for sinners. The last place we’d look for the true image of God if it were left to us; but there it is, the Word of God in flesh. Every other reflection of Jesus that we see in this creation is false, unless it is reflected from this Image.
But listen again: listen to the sound of a silent and empty tomb. After He has walked away from death, after He has ascended into heaven, after He has sent His Spirit, then Peter finally hears, as if for the first time. He writes in his second letter about this experience on the mountain (2 Peter 1:16-21). He says that He was an eyewitness of Jesus’ majesty; he saw His glory; he heard the voice from heaven. But then Peter says something completely unexpected. We might expect him to say that after seeing Jesus in His glory on the mountain, he never doubted again. Who could waver after seeing such a thing? Who could deny Jesus after—oh, wait. Peter doesn’t say any of that. He says that we have something more reliable, more sure, than that experience on the mountain; something more reliable and certain than what he saw and felt. We have the prophetic word, he says. We have Moses, and Elijah, and David, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And we have all of that word fulfilled in Jesus only. That Word, come down from heaven and made flesh in our midst, is more reliable than anything we see or experience or feel. And that is good, because vision, experience, and feelings fade. We misinterpret, misunderstand, misuse them. As we stumble through our own houses of mirrors, as our experiences—once so certain—now end with question marks; as God’s own face seems to be obscured from our sight: Peter says to us what God said to him: Listen to Jesus.
We see now in a mirror darkly; now our vision of God’s full glory is clouded; but there is a place where you can see clearly and without a doubt who God is for you: at the cross, on which hangs your Christ. He gives you His own death, His own resurrection in His absolutely sufficient, absolutely certain means: in His Baptism, in His Word, in His Absolution, in His Supper. Listen to Him there, cling to Him there, hear Him there—until all mirrors are shattered and the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; until you see the full glory of Jesus, crucified and resurrected, for you; until you never have to leave the place of His glory.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “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, 2/5/18