The Last Sunday After the Epiphany - the Transfiguration of Christ
February 21-22, 2009
Text: Mark 9:2-9
Dear Friends in Christ,
Years ago they had various game shows. Some of them featured options to trade for whatever was behind the curtain. I remember this on both “Truth or Consequences” and “Let’s Make a Deal”. The problem was that you didn’t know what was behind the curtain. It might be a fabulous prize, like a new car or a trip to a fabulous location. But it might be a booby prize, like a can of Spam or a kazoo. And you were never quite certain until you made your decision and got to see what was there. So it was always a mystery. In the temple in Jerusalem there was also a curtain. What was behind it? That was a big question because on the high priest was allowed behind the curtain - and he only went in there once a year on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. It was a dark and fearful place. In fact it was so feared that they tied a rope around the ankle of the high priest so that if he should die while he was in there, they could pull his dead body out. One man dare to go behind the curtain. He was the Roman general Pompey. When he took control of Jerusalem, Pompey was determined to see the image of the Jewish God. He assumed that behind that curtain would be an idle. It was rumored to be in the form of a donkey - which would then explain why the Jewish people were so stubborn. It is said that Pompey came out from behind the curtain, white as a sheet. So what was behind the curtain? God. It was that simple. Pompey understood this. That was why, when he saw no idol, he became terrified. It meant that the Jewish God could not be rendered as an idol. He had no image. Pompey also understood that this meant that this was a God greater than Roman gods. It was something Pompey could not accept, but he was confronted with the reality of what was behind the curtain.
Americans have a hard time with the true concept of holiness. We don’t grasp in any real practical sense what it means for God to holy. Holiness is a dangerous thing. We are not holy. We are sinner, lost and damned by our own power. We have no means of making ourselves holy. We are unholy people, from an unholy nation, who speak with unholy lips. Yet, God is holy. Part of being holy is hating sin and those who do it. We see this in our world. Only it takes something really bad to get us to hate. Do you hate child molesters? Sure we do. Is that wrong? No. They do evil things. Do we hate Nazis. Sure we do. We remember the evil that they did, how they murdered Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and those Christians who dared to stand up against their evil. And so we rightly hate Nazis. Do we hate Communists? We see how they crushed people’s spirits. We see how they attacked the Church. We see the Gulag Archipelago - their brutal concentration camps where twenty million or more people died. And so we rightly hate these things. The problem is that we, corrupted as we are, see the gross sins. We must see that God hates all sin. That’s what it means to be holy.
Holiness is a dangerous thing. Through the trek from Egypt, we see time and time again how God lashed out at Israelites. Fire exploded from the altar and killed some. The ground opened up and swallowed some. Some were plagued by poisonous snakes. Now, here’s the kicker. Which person of the Trinity did these things? God the Son. It is God the Son who is present with man. It is God the Son deals with us. It is God the Son who spoke from Mount Sinai. It was God the Son who took up residence in the tabernacle and later the temple. So who was behind the curtain? God the Son - that is Jesus Christ. And why the curtain? Because God is holy and we are not. If God is present among us without the curtain, we unholy sinners are directly exposed to the holiness of God. Bad things happen to sinners in the presence of God. This is why we are to fear God.
On the mount of Transfiguration, Christ, for a brief moment, pulled back the curtain. He let three of His disciples see what was being enclosed in the curtain of His flesh. He let them see into the Holy of Holies. What is their reaction? About the same reaction we’d have if we suddenly founding ourselves standing in the middle of an unshielded nuclear reactor. They were terrified. They didn’t know what to do. Nor were these men theologically trained. Isaiah, trained as a priest, understood the implications of seeing Christ. He cried out I am undone. But these fishermen, they didn’t have a clue. Peter, finally says that they should build three tabernacles. That is the word we should use here. Not three tents, not three shelters. Three tabernacles. Why? Because a tabernacle is a house for God. Peter understood that they could not remain as they were. A shield had to be set up so that they didn’t have to continue to endure the holy presence of God. Indeed, at the time of Moses, that’s what they did. But blundering Peter, still doesn’t get it right. St. Jerome explains: “Do not set up tents equally for the Lord and servants. ‘This is My beloved Son, not Moses or Elijah. They are servants; this is the Son, of My nature, of My substance, abiding in Me, and He is all that I am. This is My beloved Son. They too, indeed are dear to Me, but He is my beloved; hear Him, therefore. He is the Lord and master, they are companions in service. Moses and Elijah speak of Christ; they are your fellow servants. He is the Lord; hear Him.” Peter does not yet understand, at the core of His being, the difference between the great prophets of old, and the Christ. He would give divine honor to the servants.
In the end of course, Peter could not build such tabernacle. Christ was already enclosed in the tabernacle which God the Father had made Him - human flesh. This becomes important to us because Christ, came in the flesh, came to be God among us. He came to be our substitute - to pay the price of our sins. Indeed we know from Luke’s gospel that Christ was discussing with Moses and Elijah how He was about to go to Jerusalem, die for the sins of the world, rise from the dead, and ascend back to heaven. This glimpse behind the curtain marks the time when Christ now turns to His final task. Soon an even great glory would be revealed in the cross. For in the end it is the cross that is the greatest glory of all. It is so incredible that even the angels are stunned at what our holy God did for us poor miserable sinners.
On the mount of Transfiguration Christ gives a glimpse behind the temple curtain. He shows what it really means to be the presence of God. It is a terrifying thing. We are all much happier not seeing the full glory and holiness of God revealed. Yet, Christ remains among us, still veiled and curtained in His flesh. For the New Testament Church the Holy of Holies is now found the Lord’s Supper. Here is where we now go into the temple and go behind the curtain. The Supper is a most holy thing. It is healthy to have a fear of the supper. But we must also understand that He comes to in the mask of his of His flesh precisely because this the mask under which He paid for our sins. So holy yes, but also given to us to make us holy. For apart from the action of God, we are sinners. In Christ we become holy and sinless. But we also know the that the day will come when we will see Christ as the three disciples did. That will be in the resurrection of all flesh at the end of time. It will be a terrifying thing. But we know, even in our terror, that we can stand there in Christ’s holiness. We have been made holy by His body and blood. For us who have been made holy, Christ needs no tabernacle. He has made us His brothers. We can stand before Him forever. Amen!