Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is not the only time that Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray. Later in the Gospel, Jesus goes up on the Mount of Olives to pray, and He takes His disciples with Him. But the other Gospels tell us that Jesus takes Peter, James, and John further up the mountain. He tells them to watch and pray, so that they will not fall into temptation. And He prays to His Father to take the cup of suffering and death from Him.
Here, He goes up on a mountain to pray and He takes Peter, James, and John. While He is praying, His face is “other,” and His clothing flashes like lightning. Peter, James, and John are weighed down by sleep, but when they wake up fully, they see Jesus with Moses and Elijah in His glory.
Which mountain would you choose? I don’t think any of us are going to choose the mountain where He prays in sorrow and struggle, sweating drops of blood. We would choose, like Peter, the mountain where it is good to be. The glorious mountain. And that’s not bad or wrong. But the question is, how do we get there? Peter thought he had arrived. It is good to be here, so we should just stay here. He confused that glimpse of Jesus’ glory with the completion of the glory.
But Moses and Elijah aren’t there with Jesus on the mountain talking about that glorious mountain. They’re talking about His departure, which is “exodus” in Greek; to go out. In other words, they are not in the promised land. So maybe it’s fitting that the disciples were sleeping, because this is almost like dreaming you’ve made it, but then you wake up to find out that you’re not there yet. On either side of the transfiguration mountain we have the clues that this is not the end. Right before this—eight days before this, Luke says—Jesus had told His disciples that He was going to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. He said that if they tried to keep their lives in this world, they would lose them. If they lose their lives for His sake, they will keep them forever.
And now He speaks with Moses and Elijah about His exodus from this life, which is about to be accomplished in Jerusalem. And in the same chapter, after they go down from the mountain, people do not receive Jesus, because His face is other: it is toward Jerusalem, where He is going. This is the glory that the Son shared with the Father from eternity, but that doesn’t mean we get to share it. There is something preventing us from seeing that glory. Moses did not get to see God’s full glory. God told him that he could not see His face and live. And you don’t get to the Land of Promise automatically. Israel doesn’t get out of slavery without the exodus.
And that exodus requires the shedding of blood. So they don’t get to stay up on the mountain. The glory cannot remain like that. The other mountain is necessary, but it’s actually the same glory. The Son is the glorious one from eternity, but the glory of the Man who is God doesn’t look like that in this world. There is another mountain of prayer and sweating drops of blood, that leads to the mountain of crucifixion. And apart from that mountain, there is no glory. Who has seen the glory of Jesus apart from those few disciples? Who has seen resurrection? We haven’t. We only see the glory of the cross.
But that’s not another glory, or a lack of glory. We think the transfiguration is glory, but the cross is some unfortunate bump in the road. No: they are the two sides of the same glory. Jesus says to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Didn’t you know that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer all these things and enter into His glory?” One is the glory of God as it is in heaven, and the other is the glory of God as it is on earth. One day, the earth will be as it is in heaven. But for now, we cannot and will not see any glory but that of the crucified one, who has accomplished our exodus from sin and death. For now we wander in the wilderness, but the Land of Promise is ahead of us, as surely as the crucified is also the resurrected one.
In fact, that’s the vision John has in the Revelation. He sees one Lamb, but it is a living Lamb who was crucified. Jesus is forever both the crucified and the resurrected one, a single glory of our Lord. We have a sacrificed Lamb, whose blood marks our doors, so that death passes over us. And it is only in the flesh and blood of this Lamb, which we eat and drink, that we will find our eternal life.
We will see and share that glory that the disciples saw, but not until the other side of death, when we see the resurrection that Christ has given us. We will find our eternal home in that glorious Land of Promise that He has prepared for us, and to which He is leading us. He has accomplished the exodus, and He has given us a share in it. We have been baptized into Christ, as Israel was baptized in the sea. We eat heavenly food on the way to the promised land. We have one Rock, who is Christ.
Though we cannot see the glory now, Peter himself says that while we are in the wilderness, we have something far more sure even than that vision: we have the prophetic Word, which is the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 19:10). We have Jesus now in His word, flesh and blood, and therefore His death and resurrection. That is the full assurance that what Jesus has accomplished will be seen by us, with Moses and Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and all the holy ones of God.
It is no coincidence that Lent falls between Transfiguration and the Resurrection, because that is where we find ourselves. All we have is the promise and the hope, but Easter always follows Lent. So it will be for us, not only in the Church year, but in our lives.
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, 3/1/19