Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 27:25 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Maybe this has happened to you: something you do so regularly and commonly that you take it for granted; maybe it is something that you did growing up, something that your family did, something that you do mostly without thinking about it. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even have noticed that you do it until you had a conversation with a friend or a spouse who wonders why you do that thing. It isn’t until you have a conversation with someone else about their family that you find out that what your family did isn’t as normal or as common as you thought it was.
The Scriptures are sort of like our family. We know them and they seem regular and common to us, but perhaps we miss out on the strangeness of some of it because it is so familiar to us. It might be helpful once in a while to take a step back and see things in a new light.
We’re probably familiar with the account of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, with Peter and James and John seeing this vision, with Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus, and then God talking to the disciples. But take a moment and think about how strange this account is; if we can, we might be able to see better what is happening.
Of course, it’s not strange that Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray; He does that fairly often. It’s not strange that He takes along Peter, James, and John. That’s pretty normal. It’s not strange that the disciples are weighed down by sleep; that happens, actually, on another mountain, the Mountain of Olives, later in the Gospel, also while Jesus is praying. But take in the strangeness of this vision: Moses and Elijah (whom Peter apparently recognizes), who haven’t been seen on the earth for hundreds of years, at least, are standing here, on this mountain, talking to Jesus. And they’re talking to Him about “His departure.” You’ve probably heard the Greek word here: “exodus.” It is not only the title of the second book of the Bible, but it is what happens to Israel when they “depart” from Egypt and go through the Red Sea on the way to the Land of Promise. In his second letter, Peter says that he is writing all these things down so that after his exodus, his departure, his death, they can remember them. But here, they’re not talking to Jesus about His departure from life to death, but His departure through life into the resurrection life, as He opens that way into the eternal land of promise for all people. This conversation on the mountain seems strange, because of its collapsing of human time, but talking to God on a mountain isn’t strange in the Scriptures. Moses, especially, meets God on mountains. First, on a mountain when God speaks to Him from a bush that was burning, but was not consumed. Then, in a cloud, with thunder and lightning, on the mountain of Sinai. And then he would go down and speak to the people, and his face would be shining! And Elijah went to the mountain of God, Horeb, and God spoke to him there.
They talk to Jesus about His exodus, His departure, which was about to be fulfilled at Jerusalem. He is going to complete the deliverance of His people, not out of slavery in Egypt to a physical land of promise, but out of all slavery to every kind of sin and subjection to death, into the eternal land of promise, when the whole earth is the renewed creation. Here He gives to His disciples a glimpse of His glory. Certainly His divinity and humanity cannot be separated, but is He showing them His divine glory, sort of shining through the dull humanity? Maybe. Or maybe what He is showing them and us is the glory of the resurrection body. Because Paul says that when we see Jesus, the Son of Man, coming with power and great glory in the clouds, then He will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body. That is, that we will be like He is here on the mountain. This is His resurrection glory, shining ahead of time.
And though I don’t know what Peter was thinking, it’s possible that He was caught up in that moment, thinking that this is the conclusion of Jesus’ life on earth. Here is the place from where Jesus will reign, and Moses and Elijah can stay as well, and Peter and James and John will go down and tell the people what Jesus had said, like Moses used to do. But this is not the conclusion of Jesus’ work. They are not staying on this mountain. Jesus had in fact already told His disciples, eight days before this event and then right after as well, that He is going to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. This is not the land of promise, anymore than Moses was in the land when God showed it to him on that mountain in Deuteronomy 34 before his death.
This is a glimpse of the conclusion of the exodus, but it is not the fullness of it. Jesus is going to go down from the mountain to lead His people out of slavery, give them the salvation from their enemies by water and His word, and lead them to the land that He had promised to give them, that they would inherit the earth. But it is not going to be at the cost of the firstborn of God’s enemies; it is going to be at the cost of the firstborn son of Mary, who is also the eternal Son of God. It is what the angel promised Mary: the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and you will conceive and give birth to a son, who will be called holy and the Son of God. This Son is the Lamb who will be slain, of whose living flesh we will eat on our way out of this age and this creation. He is the firstborn Son, the Lamb, and He is also the God who goes ahead of us, the pillar of fiery cloud that lead the people through the wilderness.
Listen to Him, the voice of the Father says from the cloud. This is My Son, the chosen one. And there is no one else speaking: not Moses, not Elijah, not even the voice of God from the cloud. Only Jesus, only His word. No voice of God that we think we hear, no voice in our hearts. Just the voice of Jesus. Listen to Him. And the disciples are silent, probably because they didn’t fully understand until after the resurrection. But silence is the only posture when God is speaking. Listen to Him. And that is what they did. They listened to Him, and then after His ascension, they did speak the living words of Jesus to the people, even down to us.
And that is what we are doing when we leave the mountain of transfiguration and go down into the valley of Lent, on the way to the resurrection. That is where we live now, anyway, as we wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ work to become visible to us and to the whole creation. We are still in the wilderness, still on the way, still eating the bread from heaven in the body of Christ. And He is going to bring us to that day when we will finally see Him in this glory; more than that, we will share this glory, with Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and the rest of the disciples; when God gathers His whole family, all the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and that glory that is foreign and strange in this creation will become the most astounding, the most normal, the most incredible existence, in the presence of this Jesus forever.
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, 2/26/22