1-21-24 Transfiguration

Bible Text: Matthew 17:1-9 | Preacher: Pastor Christian Preus

On the Mount of Transfiguration stand six men, Peter, James, John, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Peter and James and John are Jesus’ closest disciples. They will end up preaching Jesus all over the world after His death and resurrection. James is the first of the apostles to die – martyred by Herod in the early years, no doubt comforted in his last hours remembering the shining face of his Savior and knowing that he would soon see the same face in glory. John and Peter lived much longer lives. Peter died by crucifixion some thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection. And John died an old man. John and Peter wrote large portions of the New Testament and their seeing Jesus transfigured on that mountain, His face shining like the sun, made deep impressions on them. John says, We beheld His glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. He calls Him the light, and this is not simply a metaphor, that as light shines on darkness, so Jesus reveals the truth. It is also that John can’t get out of his mind the light of God shining from Jesus’ face. It is so wonderful and one look on that sacred face shows what John spends His entire Gospel writing, that God is love and that love is found in Jesus Christ. And Peter too goes back to the Transfiguration, to what He saw and heard there, to assure us that He is not relating myths and fables to us, but as Peter says, “we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” They understood already then on the Mount who they were dealing with in Jesus. Peter is still a bumbling fool, still doesn’t understand that Jesus has to suffer many things, has to be handed over to the high priests and to Pilate, be scourged and mocked and tortured and crucified and killed and the third day rise again. But Peter does know on that mountain that he is staring at the face of God in the flesh, and yet is not consumed. He is staring on mercy and grace and pity and love, and he’s full of joy. And John doesn’t understand either what Jesus must suffer. But he sees the same thing – the face of God smiling on him, accompanied by no fear or dread, no “woe is me,” for my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts, no eyes turned down in shame.

In all of the Bible, when men see angels, who only reflect God’s glory, they cower in fear. “And the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid,” the Christmas Gospel preaches. Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me,” when he sees only a vision of God. Moses and Elijah, the other two on that mountain, are there because they above all other people exemplify the horror of the sinner confronted by the glory of God. Some 1500 years before Moses stood with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, He stood before God on Mount Sinai. And Sinai shook, and thunder sounded, and lightning flashed, and Moses came down from that mountain with His face shining. And the shining made it so that the people of Israel were afraid to look at him. He had to veil his face because they couldn’t look at it. And even with Moses, God refused to show him His face, “For no one shall look on My face and live,” God said, and so He only shows Moses His backside, only a shadow of His glory, and that’s enough to put the fear of God into everyone.

The same goes for Elijah, who some five hundred years after Moses, goes to the same mountain to speak with God. And the mountain quakes, and fire burns on it, and the wind crushes the rocks all around him, and Elijah is terrified, and takes his mantel and covers his face with it. Because God is terrifying.

But now all five men, Moses and Elijah, Peter, James, and John, all look God in the face, and they are not afraid.

This is the great distinction between Law and Gospel. The reason no one can see God’s face and it terrifies Moses and the people of Israel only to see a glimpse of His glory, is because no one can answer to God’s Law. It says love and we have hated. It says do and we cannot do it. It demands perfection, be holy as God made you to be holy, and you have not been. You have soiled yourself with sin, with petty and selfish concerns. You have joined Eve in eating of the fruit that God commanded you not to eat, and with Adam in shirking your responsibility. And the Law of God is relentlessly, brutally true – the day you eat of it you will surely die, the soul that sins will die, if you keep the whole law and yet fail in one point, you are guilty of it all. Sinners cannot stare into the face of God’s justice. For your God is a consuming fire. That is the Law.

But in Jesus’ face is grace and truth. Here is the Gospel. Here you look God in the face and you see no judgment, no anger, but pure mercy and kindness. They looked God straight in the face, His face shone like the sun. You are not supposed to be able to look straight into the sun. It is supposed to blind you. You are not supposed to be able to look straight at God. He is supposed to consume you. But in Jesus He doesn’t. Because God has become one of us, our Brother, to live for us and suffer for us and bear for us our death and our punishment, to give us life. So Moses who could not look God in the face on Sinai, Elijah who could not look God in the face on Horeb, Peter, James, and John who will soon cower in fear at the voice of God the Father, all of them, look straight into God’s face and are filled with confidence, joy, peace, happiness. That is the Gospel.

And the Gospel makes you comfortable with God. Peter is at home. He’s a little too at home. What he speaks is nonsense, but look at him still, look at his courage to approach Jesus, to interrupt God as he talks very seriously with Elijah and Moses, and offer to build them three tents. It’s adorable, it’s a beautiful scene. He’s like a child who feels comfortable interrupting his dad’s business meeting, because he knows dad loves him. This is what the Gospel does for us. It makes us feel and act like children in our Father’s house, unafraid to approach him even though we are so often ridiculous with our concerns and our worries and our weakness.

The Gospel doesn’t do away with the Law. Jesus preaches the Law more harshly than Moses ever could. He insists that not one jot or tittle will fall from it. He condemns not just the outward act of adultery, but even the lust in your heart. He says if you hate your brother you’re a murderer. He tells you to reconcile with those you have some grudge against and that if you don’t you’ll be thrown into hell where you’ll never stop paying for your sin. Jesus does not relax the Law one iota.

Instead He fulfills it, obeys it, subjects Himself to it, lives its every demand with pure heart and soul and perfect love for us and for His Father. The law says do, and He does it and more. He the only innocent One who has ever lived dies for the guilty. He for whom all things exist, becomes a servant to those who failed to serve Him. That is why when Peter and James and John stared into His face they saw the light of God that could not harm them but only fill them with eternal joy. This is the beatific vision, what we look forward to seeing when we pass from this valley of sorrow to our Lord Jesus in heaven.

Peter is ridiculous and in being ridiculous he teaches us about our own weakness and failure. He interrupts Jesus and proposes to do something. Let’s stay here, he says. I’ll build three tents. And it is when Peter proposes to do something, that the Law again comes in. A cloud overshadows them. The Father speaks from heaven. And they are terrified. It isn’t you doing anything that will keep Jesus smiling at you. It is what Jesus has done and will do for you. There is the arrogance that rises in us, because we know that we should give back to God, because He has so loved us, and the face of His mercy draws good works from us, but then we become prideful and begin thinking of our goodness instead of the goodness that shines from His precious face, and when we become prideful we fall and we sink, and this is when the Law comes down and shows us again how weak and sinful and ridiculous we are and that we must rely entirely on Jesus and claim only His righteousness and listen only to Him.

When Peter interrupted Jesus with talk of his own works, Jesus was talking to Elijah and Moses about His coming death. That’s what St. Luke tells us. Peter interrupted that with talk about his works. And the Father said NO. No, you want to see a face full of grace and truth, don’t talk about yourself and what you will do for Jesus, Listen to Jesus and hear what He has come to do for you.

Because the reason that face shines so beautifully that Peter and James and John can look at God and live and be happy and even be ridiculous, is not because the face sees something so good in you. It doesn’t. Your goodness is not what makes Jesus smile. But He does smile on you, because He loves you, and by that Love He has counted you worthy – only God knows why – worthy of His blood and His suffering and His death, and so of His life. You are baptized into His glory and His life, because you are baptized into His sufferings and His death. God calls you His beloved child, because His beloved Son obeyed His Father’s will in His agonies on the cross.

The Gospel does not do away with the Law. The Father rejects Peter’s works. He wants nothing of them – you don’t mix your work with Jesus’ work as if your work could earn you that smiling face of God. But when we listen to Jesus we hear His voice that says, Take up your cross and follow me. That’s what He said six days before the Transfiguration to Peter and James and John. And they followed Him and they saw glory beyond compare and the certainty of their salvation and their eternal life with God. They saw it in Jesus’ face. And when you follow Jesus and bear your cross, He will lead you to the same glory. You are seeing pure kindness shining from Jesus’ face when He gives you His body and His blood. You are peering into the uncreated Light of pity and mercy when you listen to His words. You are receiving the Life of God when His name is pronounced on you and He speaks His peace to you.

Listen to Him, the Father says. That is the resolution of it all. You listen to Jesus, that is your light shining in a dark place. It is a dark place full of sin and enticements away from our Lord. Did God really say is the devil’s constant, daily refrain. And Jesus, the Light of the world, shines on all the darkness of sin and reveals its ugliness and shows you its misery and makes you to take up arms against it and pray to your Father in heaven to keep you unstained, like a pure virgin for her Husband. And then His Word shines and shows you the beauty of God’s creation, redeemed by the blood of Christ, the beauty of children created in God’s image and redeemed by their Savior and hearing and singing His praises, the beauty of life reconciled to God and neighbor, and the beauty of the everlasting life we live in God’s presence. O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see, may what we thirst for soon our portion be, to gaze on thee unveiled, and see thy face, the vision of thy glory and thy grace.

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