Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfiguration of Our Lord
Exodus 24:8-16
Psalm 2:6-12
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.

We have reached the end of the Epiphany season, although we do so with one great flash of light. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been enlightened with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, giving us instruction on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It hasn’t been easy to hear, since Jesus put before us expectations that at times seem impossible. The Beatitudes demand living upside down in the world. We are salt and light. Avoid anger and lust. Do not divorce, make oaths or retaliate. Love your enemies. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Perfect? Impossible.

We’ve heard Paul warn us, as he warned the Corinthians, against division in the church. Our focus is now and ever shall be Jesus Christ, for it is through Him and His work on the cross that we have received grace and salvation. God’s temple is holy and we are that temple.

Holy? Impossible.

The Epiphany epistle lessons end with Paul saying, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He has taken the wise in their craftiness.’ And again, ‘The Lord knows the reasoning of the wise, that it is worthless.’ Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23)

You are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. The rest doesn’t seem so impossible now, does it?

Our Gospel text occurs quite awhile after the Sermon on the Mount. It seems like Jesus has just been born, circumcised, baptized and begun His ministry and we jump quickly to the end when we follow the church year calendar. Jesus spent several years ministering to the people, healing the sick, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God alongside His disciples. He showed Himself to be exactly who He claimed to be. Now that Epiphany is over, we are about to set out on another long journey, that of Lent. Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday. The time has come to move in a new direction: toward the cross. First, however, we will see Jesus in a new light.

Matthew writes, “After six days...” as he begins the story of the Transfiguration. The event that came previously is the confession of Peter. Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus blessed Peter, but told him that he did not speak those words on his own. Six days later Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain and there they saw the truth of Peter’s confession. He was transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him would know that He is all that He has said that He is. Things changed on that mountaintop, as we begin to see the world reacting to God’s grace with confusion and hatred.

I think it is interesting that Jesus began and ended His ministry with a mountaintop experience. In Matthew 4, Satan took Jesus to a high mountain and offered Him the kingdoms of the world. In that temptation, Jesus was given the opportunity to avoid all the messiness of obeying God’s plans. Satan gave Him the chance to rule without the cross. It would be easy for any of us to take the easy way out, to accept our own ideas and take control of our own destiny. But Jesus knew that God’s way was the right way. He had to go through the cross to complete what God began in the beginning. God’s justice demanded a price and Jesus was willing to be the sacrificial lamb. On the mountain of transfiguration, God commended Jesus for His obedience and called Him the beloved Son. With Him, God was well-pleased.

There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. First of all, Moses waited on the side of the mountain for six days before he was invited into the presence of God and Jesus climbed the mountain six days after predicting His death. In the case of Moses, the people thought that he would die. Jesus knew he would. Both trusted in God’s Word and obeyed God’s command, knowing that He would do what was necessary for the sake of His people. Both Moses and Jesus entered into the glory of God. Both were totally covered by His Light. Both heard the voice of God and experienced His presence. In the Old Testament story of Moses and the Gospel story about Jesus, we see the place where heaven meets earth, where God mingles with His people.

Peter, James and John received a glimpse of heaven that day on the top of a mountain. They witnessed a miraculous event as Jesus was transfigured into a divinely shining being, the Light shined with glorious light. He was standing among the great men of their faith. Moses, the father of the Law and Elijah the father of the prophets, stood for everything on which their faith was built. Peter wanted to capture the moment, to build a temple on the spot to honor Jesus and hold on to the glory. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came over the scene and a voice commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus. Peter’s sense of assurance was overpowered by a sense of fear. All three fell on their faces when they heard the voice.

Peter reacted to the transfiguration as we all might have done. Peter was trying to seat Jesus as king over an earthly kingdom. God interrupted, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” God commanded them to listen to Jesus, the Word incarnate. He is the culmination of what was started on Mount Sinai. He is the Word made real and sent to dwell among God’s people. Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet.

Peter wanted to capture the moment, but Jesus said “No.” He told them to keep it a secret. He told them to hide their experience away until the future day when “the Son of man be risen from the dead.” Then Jesus went back into the valley and headed toward the cross to die for our sake. The transfiguration, as glorious as that moment must have been, was a mountaintop experience that had no lasting value like the real glory to come. It seems backwards to us. It seems upside down. Didn’t Jesus deserve to be honored on that mountaintop? Of course He did, but He knew the real glory would come on the cross, where the word and work of God would be complete. He did not become King on the mountaintop; He became King when the world crowned Him with thorns. Peter, James and John would not know that until later. They would not see the truth until after the resurrection. That is why Peter wanted to make a lasting tribute on the top of that mountain.

How hard must it have been to go back down into the valley after seeing that glory and not be able to tell anyone! I would have wanted to share it with others, to let that glory linger, to act as a witness to the truth of Peter’s confession. “See, I told you He was the Christ!” Who would believe their story days, weeks, months or years after the event?

This is, of course, the problem we continue to have today as we act as witnesses for the Lord in this world. How many people reject the Gospel as nothing but myth? They explain it away, ignoring the reality of our sinfulness and our need for redemption. They reject God’s wrath and redefine Christ’s work to fit their own understanding, just like those Israelites waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Jews who rejected Jesus in those final days of His life. It didn’t help that Jesus did not return immediately. Even today many claim that two thousand years is too long. “He’s not coming back. Stop living in a fairy tale.”

Peter writes, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Peter was there on the mountaintop when Jesus was transfigured, but he was also there when Jesus died. Then he saw the risen Lord and he anticipated the future coming of the King in glory with the other believers. It would be easy for those who did not have such extraordinary personal experiences with Jesus to doubt the stories of those who did. Then, when Jesus did not return immediately, it was easy for them to reject the words of the Apostles. Yet Peter had something else besides his experiences.

The psalmist asked why the nations wanted to revolt against the Lord God Almighty. The question is not a cry of arrogance against the other nations, but a question of surprise. When we sit down with a person with a different point of view, we think to ourselves, “I just don’t understand how he or she can think like that.” We see the world from entirely different perspectives and we can’t grasp their way of seeing. The atheist makes no sense to us just as we make no sense to the atheist. We aren’t really even willing to listen because their point of view seems foolish to those of us who believe. Yet, have you ever really thought about the foolishness of the cross? The psalmist knows the loving grace of God and simply can’t understand a perspective that can’t see that grace. Any revolt against the LORD is fruitless; why don’t they believe?

Peter writes, “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” Peter understood this better than anyone. Remember: his grand confession of faith was not something that he came up with on his own. He answered Jesus’ question, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but even then he didn’t truly understand what Jesus was about to accomplish. He, like the rest of the world, thought Jesus was being ridiculous when He prophesied His suffering and death. “Far be it from you, Lord! This will never be done to you.” He confessed his faith by the power of God, but just moments later he was rebuking Jesus for revealing a plan that didn’t make any sense. And then six days later he was trying to control God’s plan again by building tabernacles to hang on to the glory.

We have something that even Peter didn’t have when Jesus was with him. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts. We have the faith that came after the cross, the Spirit that came at Pentecost, the faith that now leads to eternal life. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ by the power of God’s Spirit and we can do the same, but not everyone has that advantage. They haven’t seen the glory of the cross, only the foolishness. The rest of the story is nothing but myth to them.

It was no good for Jesus, Peter, James and John to stay on the mountaintop. Jesus had to move forward. He had to get to the cross. The Law and the Prophets said many things about Jesus, but here’s the most important thing: Jesus, the beloved Son was sent by the Father to fulfill all righteous by suffering for the sake of God’s people. It might seem out of character, it might seem like foolishness, but it was the plan all along. Christ died so that we can live. In the end Peter finally understood what it was all about: Jesus was doing His Father’s will. He was one of the witnesses and we have seen God’s glory through his words. Now that we have been given a glimpse of His glory, we are sent out into the world in faith to reveal to others the true character of God, so that they too might see His glory and be transformed by His grace.

We might be surprised that the Israelites turned from God during those days at the foot of the mountain, but we are no different. We might be surprised that Peter wanted to build tabernacles at the top of the mountain, but we are no different. We still try to carve our own path, to establish our own power, to set the agenda for God’s kingdom on earth. The things God demands are impossible to us.

We shouldn’t be surprised because we are the same as all those who have come before us. But Jesus was different, and we are touched and transformed by His grace. God heals us and grants us a new life. He calls us to serve with fear with trembling, to kneel at the foot of His throne and to kiss His feet. He invites us to take refuge in Him, to dwell in the very place where heaven and earth meet: Jesus. With Him, nothing is impossible.

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