Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:40 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Outside of the resurrection of Jesus, and perhaps one or two other miracles, this event on the mountain has to be one of the most spectacular events witnessed by Peter, James, and John. To be standing on a mountain, receive a glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory, to see Him talking to Moses and Elijah, who had not been seen on the earth for thousands of years—to see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on this mountain must have been incredible. Can you imagine?
It must have been impressive, but Matthew narrates it very matter-of-factly. He simply records the facts: this happened, then this happened, then this happened. He doesn’t include any extra comments, any explanations of anyone’s behavior, as Luke does, who says that they were heavy with sleep, and that Peter did not know what He was saying.
But Peter is impressed. He says, “It is good, Lord, for us to be here. We should make three tents, three tabernacles; one for You, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He sees Moses and Elijah and Jesus’ divine glory, and his mind starts to think about other mountains, where Elijah encountered God, or Moses encountered God. He knows the Scriptures, and what happened when the people of Israel were at Mount Sinai? There was the glory of God on the mountain. There was Moses, who would go into a tent and speak to God face to face. And, as it is about to happen, there is a cloud from which God speaks. That seems close enough for Peter. We should stay here, and we can hear from Jesus, and we can have a new Sinai.
Or maybe it is simply that Peter recognizes here another opportunity to stay far away from Jerusalem. Just before this, you may know, Peter had confessed Jesus to the be the Christ, which He confirms here on the mountain. But then Jesus told the disciples what it meant for him to be the Christ, which is to be betrayed, to suffer, to die, and to rise from the dead. Peter rebukes Jesus and says, “God forbid, Lord, that this should happen to You!” And Jesus tells Peter to stop standing in front of Him, trying to prevent Him from doing what He has come to do—like the devil did—but to get behind Him and follow; take up his own cross and follow after Jesus. If Peter can keep Jesus on the mountain, then He won’t be on His way to betrayal, suffering, and death.
If Peter follows the story all the way to the end, he will get closer to the truth. Peter may know what happened on Sinai, but the people of Israel were never meant to stay there. Moses stayed on the mountain for 40 days and nights, but not forever. They were on their way from slavery, through the wilderness, to the land of promise, which God had promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to their descendants forever. They could not stay at Sinai, with the cloud and the glory of God like a consuming fire, and the people terrified to hear from the mouth of God, so they asked that He not speak to them directly.
Likewise, Jesus did not appear on the earth in order to stay on a mountain in visible glory so that a few people would be able to come up and speak to Him. Neither can the disciples stay on the mountain, avoiding Jesus’ cross and their own. So God interrupts Peter while he’s still speaking, by surrounding them with the cloud of God’s presence. And the disciples are, as the people of Israel were, terrified. And the Father says, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him.” And the disciples fall on their faces, and Jesus comes and touches them and says, “Rise; stop being afraid.” And when they lift up their eyes from the dirt, they see no one except Jesus only. What began to be publicly revealed at His baptism by the voice of the Father saying “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased” is continued here, but it will be finished when Jesus’ glory is revealed in His suffering, death, and resurrection. That’s where they’re going.
But it is not like at Sinai, where the fiery-cloudy pillar of God’s presence accompanied and led them through the wilderness, fiery at night, cloudy during the day. Here the cloud disappears; Moses disappears; Elijah disappears; the divine glory of Jesus’ face disappears. Only Jesus. Listen to Him. He touches and heals them, like when He touches a leper. He touches and blesses them, as when He blessed the children. Rise, like dead people. Stop being afraid.
They are going down into the valley of the shadow of death, as Jesus goes to the cross. It is a fearful thing. They are going down, to bear their own crosses. It is a fearful thing. But the cross that Jesus bears, the death that Jesus dies, ends in resurrection. The cross that is laid on you because you bear the name of Jesus who was crucified, the death to which you were joined in baptism, that also will, just as certainly, end in resurrection. Do not tell people about this vision until after the Son of Man is raised from the dead. It will happen. Peter, James, and John have this vision, but no one else does, not even the other nine apostles.
So Peter says in his second letter: I was on the mountain; I heard the voice; I saw the vision of His glorious majesty. But we have the prophetic word made more certain, more firm, more reliable, by the resurrection of Jesus. Peter is talking about the vision; therefore Jesus must have been raised from the dead. But none of Peter’s hearers, none of us, have seen that vision. What do we have? What do we have in the midst of our fear and death? The prophetic word, confirmed and fulfilled in Jesus, who suffered, died, and rose again. To this, Peter says, you would do well to pay attention, as to a lamb shining in a dark place. Pay attention to the Word. Listen to Him. Hear His words. If we ignore that word, or hear it only superficially; if, as Luther puts it in the Large Catechism, we are present where the Word is proclaimed, but we know nothing more at the end of the year than at the beginning, then we are despising God’s Word.
We have the Father’s own command: hear Him. This world is fearful. Our continued sin is fearful. Our guilt and shame are fearful. But listen to Him. He comes to bless you. He comes to heal you. You are My own dear child! Whatever the devil, or the world, or your own sinful flesh says to you, listen to Me, Jesus says. I have called you by My Name. Listen to Him: I forgive you all your sins. Listen to Him: eat My body and drink My blood as you travel through the wilderness to the eternal Land of Promise. We don’t have the cloud, but we have the Voice. We don’t have the glory in the vision of Jesus’ face, but we have the glory in the crucified Lord. It is fitting that Transfiguration in the Church’s calendar comes just before the season of Lent, as we hear Jesus’ words along the way. Because we are in the dark valley of the shadow of death, but we have the Word that shines like a lamp in the darkness; the Word that is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. There is no other way than through the Scriptures which, in their entirety, testify of the Word made flesh. It is Him whom we follow, and His word shines the light on the way. We have not yet seen Jesus face to face in His resurrected and ascended glory, but we will. We were never meant to stay in this place, in this age, in this world; we are on our way to the new creation, the eternal land of promise. We have the prophetic word verified by Christ, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the Day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
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, 2/17/23