The Last Sunday After the Epiphany - The Transfiguration of Our Lord
March 5-6, 2011
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Dear Friends in Christ,
The stories are quite common. Someone isn’t who they appear to be. The crown prince of England stumbles upon a boy who looks exactly like him. Then they trade places. They both have some wonderful adventures until the crown prince is caught up and carried off. Right at that moment the king dies. The crown prince is desperate to get back to the palace but only manages it in the nick of time with great difficulty. All the people he met in his adventures were shocked to learn that he really was the crown prince. Mark Twain wrote this improbable tale of the Prince and Pauper. A Scottish youth is kidnaped and put aboard a ship that is to take him to America. The ship is wrecked and the boy escapes. He discovers that his uncle was behind it. Unbeknownst even to the boy himself, he was the heir of a great estate, which is uncle currently held, illegally. He falls in with a Scottish revolutionary and they have many adventures on their way to confront the uncle. The story is told to us by Jonathon Swift and simply entitled Kidnaped. A more recent story of this type would be the movie True Lies where Jamie Lee Curtis discovers that her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a computer salesman, but really is a top secret agent. There is a great line in the movie when Curtis realizes her husband’s true identity: “Oh, my God, I’m married to Rambo.” There are many other such stories in the literary world.
In many ways the first such account is the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth was a poor, itinerant rabbi who gathered a group of disciples. He styled Himself the Son of Man. More literally, according to the Greek text, Son of Mankind. The significance of this is found in a vision in the book of Daniel. In the vision the Ancient of Days speaks to the Son of Man. It is clear that this the Father speaking to the Son. So Jesus is picking up on that vision and using that title for Himself. It is a claim of divinity, though a less than obvious one. Peter even expressed the idea that this Jesus was the Messiah or Christ - God’s Anointed One promised from ancient times. But even saying that, does not convey the reality. While some of the theologians understood that the Christ was God Himself, I think most of the common people assumed the Christ was a super prophet. So Peter was still not really clear that this was God.
Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, He took three of His disciples, Peter, and the brothers James and John up a high mountain in the north of Galilee. Some people think that perhaps it was Mount Hermon. We don’t know that for fact, but Mount Hermon would be one of the tallest mountains in the region. It certainly fits the descriptions in the Gospels. I don’t know what they expected, but they were about to get the shock of their life. While there, praying, according to Luke’s account, Christ was transfigured before them. He was no longer this poor, bedraggled figure. He shone with a magnificent light. His clothing was so bright it was unbearable to watch. He was suddenly the crown prince of heaven - God the Son. He was the beautiful Son of Man depicted in Daniel. The disciples rightly go into a panic. But even in their terror they see something else that is remarkable. Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus. As an aside people often ask how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. Moses of course is easy. He’s the one holding the stone tablets. Actually, we don’t know how they new this. They just knew. I suspect that for that moment it was like heaven where we will know everyone perfectly.
Peter than offers to built three tabernacles. Our translation has tents but that’s hardly adequate. Why tabernacles? What is a tabernacle? A place of worship. So what he’s proposing to set up, in essence, is temples for each of them. Peter is thinking in terms of worshiping these prophets. That of course is completely wrong headed and I’m sure Moses and Elijah would have told him that. They were not to be worshiped. They were sinful men. At that moment, a cloud covers them. This is like the cloud that covered Mount Sinai in the days Moses. It is a cloud that covers the glory of God so that sinful men are not destroyed by the Holy Presence. Now, the Father, the Ancient of Days from the book of Daniel, speaks. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
What was happening here? Why was it Moses and Elijah? Moses and Elijah are the greatest of the prophets. They both spoke with God on Mount Sinai. They represent the common division of the Old Testament into the Law and the Prophets. The Law is the five books of Moses. Elijah would represent all the others - the latter prophets. They were there to point to Christ. God the Father speak and tells to listen to Christ. Does this mean that we stop listening to what the prophets wrote. Not at all. But we understand what Moses and Elijah did, the Old Testament in there to point us to Christ. Christ is the final fulfillment of their ministries. If we listen to Christ, we will be listening to the Old Testament. We will be listening to the prophets. And they will be speaking about Christ to us. They will be pointing us to Christ.
This is the moment of revelation. This is the moment when the veil comes off. We see Christ for who He is - God the Son. There is no more doubt. Yet, for the three witnesses, I suspect that they did not fully understand until after the resurrection. Only then did they understand the full glory of God.
God gives us these little glimpses. But these are only to wet the appetite. We would finally see God fully revealed in the cross and the empty tomb. That’s where God wants us to be looking. And indeed, it is right after this that Christ begins His final journey to Jerusalem. These little glimpses are there to clue us in to what is happening when we get to the city. They remind us that this is no accident. This is God the Son, the Son of Man, enacting the will of God the Father, the Ancient of Days.
The mount of Transfiguration is a terrifying place. It is a place, we sinners cannot stand. We cannot stand before a Holy God. But this mount is there only to point us to a smaller, seemingly insignificant bit of rejected rock - Mount Calvary. This One who spoke with the great prophets of old, reveals Himself in another way. It is a way we can bear. He reveals Himself to us as our Savior - as the perfect Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. And so we look to both mountains, but we dwell with Christ on Mount Calvary, in the shadow of that cross that saves us and gives us eternal life.