Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 7:55 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After Peter sees everything that happens on that mountain; after he sees Jesus transformed, transfigured; after he sees a glimpse of Jesus’ true glory, the glory of the divine and eternal Son; after he sees Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus on the mountain—Moses and Elijah, who hadn’t been seen on the earth for hundreds of years; after all that, Peter responds by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.”
Even though Peter doesn’t really know what he’s saying; even though he doesn’t see the full significance of what’s happening on that mountain, or why Jesus brings them up there; whatever Peter thinks about why it’s happening: whether he’s thinking of Moses speaking to God in a tent, or the Feast of Booths, or something else; whatever it is, and however he misunderstands, he’s not wrong about what he says. It is good for them to be there.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine seeing Jesus in His glory from eternity, and speaking to two of the most important people included in the Scriptures? Can you imagine being on that mountain, being surrounded by the cloud that appeared on Sinai, and hearing the very voice of God audibly? No, Peter’s not wrong. It was good for them to be there, and what happened there was good.
Recall a vacation that you had—not the sort of vacation where you get home and you say, “Now I need a vacation!” Not the sort of vacation that causes you to need a vacation. But the sort of vacation where you actually get to rest; where you actually get to relax. The sort of vacation where you come home actually refreshed and renewed and ready to get back into your daily routine. You’re ready to get back to the regular work that God has given you, whatever that is.
Or recall some spiritual experience. Recall an experience where you glimpsed a spiritual reality of what God has done, and what God has done for you; where you heard something new and striking and revealing in the Word of God; where you were drawn closer to Jesus and the joy of God’s salvation was restored to you. That’s what any true spiritual experience ought to do: push you toward Jesus so that you cling to Him above all things in this world, because that’s what the Holy Spirit is doing.
To any of those sorts of things you might say, it is good to be here. You might even say, I want to stay here forever. We should move here. I want to stay on this spiritual high, on this “mountain-top.” But how would that be? What if Peter and James and John build booths or tents for Jesus and Moses and Elijah on that mountain? Whatever they think would happen, that would not change the way the world is. Staying there would not fix the things that Jesus has come to fix.
They’re going to go down the mountain, and they’re going to find the devil at work. They’re going to find a young man possessed by a demon, whom the demon throws into the fire and the water. And they’re going to find that the disciples are not able to cast it out. The world is still full of sin and death, whatever happens on that mountain. And before they go up on the mountain, Jesus says two things to them: that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things, to be rejected by the chief priests and the elders, to die, and to be raised on the third day. And then He says that whoever wants to follow Him must deny himself and take up his cross and follow after Jesus.
We can’t stay on vacation forever, or else it ceases to be vacation. Now it’s just your every-day life, and you have to figure out how you’re going to survive and make a living. If you try to keep whatever spiritual experience it was, it will cease to be extraordinary, and it will simply turn to the mundane and common experience of life. We all know that we can’t stay in those places forever. The nature of the world will not let us.
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says that there is a “curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world… . The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God… . Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home” (103). Our Father refreshes on the journey with some pleasant inns—some waystations, some rest areas—but He will not encourage us to mistake them for home. That’s precisely the problem: we are always tempted to make into final and ultimate goods the small happinesses and the minor goods we have in this world. We are craving and seeking a “settled happiness and security,” and we will never find it. We know that everything in this world passes away, decays, disappears, dies. If we try to find our happiness and our home here, we will never find it, because it cannot be had outside of the God who is joy and peace and home. And it cannot be had in this world, because true happiness and home and rest needs an end of sin and death.
So Jesus goes down the mountain to finish His work in order to fix all of this once and for all, and to bring us home. But He gives Peter and James and John a glimpse of the reality that He is creating and that they will see one day. This is, in fact, a glimpse of the resurrection. There are similarities between what happens on this mountain, and what happens in Mark 16 when the women go to the tomb. There is someone clothed in white, there is fear and trembling and terror, and there is someone who says something about Jesus.
At the empty tomb, the women encounter a young man dressed in white. He tells them something about Jesus: that He is not there because He is risen from the dead. And they leave in fear and joy. Here there is Jesus dressed in white—brighter than it could possibly be made on earth. There is no bleach, no detergent, no dry cleaner, who can make any cloth like this. And here are the disciples terrified on their faces. And here is a cloud, and God the Father Himself speaks about Jesus: this is My beloved Son; listen to Him.
And when they look up, Moses and Elijah are no longer talking with Jesus. Listen to Jesus, the Voice says. Listen to Him when He tells you what is divinely necessary for Him. Listen to Him when He tells you about this world. Listen to Him and follow His voice. So they follow Him through this world because they know what is coming. And John, who was on that mountain, he had another vision, of that day. He had a vision of home. He saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. There is home, and there is happiness: when God finally dwells with His people face to face as our God and we as His people. Then He will wipe away every tear from every eye. Then there will be no sin and death. Then there will be the eternal rest in God. Behold, He says, I am making all things new. There John saw a multitude that cannot be counted, all clothed in white; and they had washed those robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb—white as nothing in this world could make them.
He gives us brief refreshment here, but He will not encourage us to think of any of this as home. Though we have never seen what Peter, James, and John saw, Peter wrote a letter to some Christians about that. Peter, who was on that mountain, said, even though I saw all of that and heard all of that, there is something more certain and more sure, something even better than that: the prophetic Word. Listen to Jesus, Peter says. Listen to Him as He speaks in His own prophetic and apostolic Word. Listen to Him as He tells you, I forgive you all your sins. Listen to Him as He says, Here is My living Body and Blood to sustain and refresh and renew you here. Like how Israel was refreshed in the wilderness by manna and quail and water from the rock. They had refreshment but they were never supposed to stay in the wilderness. They were bound for the Land of Promise. But even then, they weren’t supposed to mistake that for home. Even there, things were never quite right, never quite what they were supposed to be.
So we are waiting for a better land, a better place, a better home. And when Jesus appears and He lifts us up from the ground, and He makes our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body; when He wipes away our tears and sin and death are no more; then, finally, we will know what to say and how to praise Him. Then we will say, finally, here is our happiness. Finally, we are home.
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).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/13/21