[Jesus] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one, but Jesus only. (Matthew 17:5-8)
For all the fame and popularity Jesus enjoyed for most of His earthly ministry, and for all the crowds which gathered around Him to hear Him preach and to witness His miracles, there was still quite a bit of private time for Jesus and the disciples. They often ate their meals as a small group, and there were plenty of times when Jesus pulled them aside for a quiet moment of teaching or explanation.
Jesus came to preach the Gospel, certainly, but He also knew that these disciples—these “learners”—had an important future task ahead of them. As apostles, they would be sent forth to carry that Gospel to the far-flung reaches of the world. They needed what in modern lingo we call “quality time” with their rabbi, so that they would have a clear understanding of just what sort of Messiah He was. They had to be taught that He wasn’t just the salvation of Israel from their earthly bondage under the Roman Empire, for which many of their countrymen hoped. He wasn’t even just the salvation of the nation of Israel alone.
Yet, apart from the “quality time” that all twelve of the disciples got with Jesus, there were several instances in which Jesus took a smaller group aside, and told them or showed them something quite special. Often this smaller group consisted of Peter, James, and John, as it does in the Gospel lesson today.
In this instance, not only does Jesus pull them aside from the crowds and the other disciples, He takes them well away from everybody else. As St. Matthew records it, he “led them up a high mountain by themselves.” Imagine: all alone with Jesus. Apart from the world. All by themselves. Or, so they think…
The next thing they knew, Jesus wasn’t simply a carpenter from Nazareth, or just a wise teacher, or just a healer and miracle worker. He wasn’t even just the one who calmed the storm or walked on the water. No, there on the mountain—right in front of them—Jesus was transfigured in a way which demonstrated without a shred of doubt that within Him was the glory and power of God Almighty.
The word which is translated in this account into our English phrase “he was transfigured” is the single Greek word metamorphothay. From this we get our word “metamorphosis.” Not just a slight alteration, but an overarching, fundamental change.
This is one of those instances where the exact wording of the sentence is very, very important to us in a theological sense: The word form here is that of a passive verb. I know that many of the young people who’ve been studying English and Spanish in our school know what a passive verb means. It means that the object of the action is being acted upon by an outside agent. The fact that Jesus was transfigured means that the changing of His appearance originated from outside of Him; it was not generated by Him alone. Rather, the full glory and power of God are shown in Jesus by His heavenly Father.
For that brief, shining moment, the disciples behold Jesus for who He truly is: The Son of Righteousness, the Son of the One Eternal God. Clearly, the disciples are not all alone with Jesus. No, this dazzling display shows that the fullness of God has appeared on the mountain, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the co-eternal Trinity.
As if that isn’t enough to seal the deal in the disciples’ minds, and to convince them that they weren’t all alone with Jesus, here also appear Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets of old. Whether it dawned on the disciples or not at the time, it certainly couldn’t have escaped them as they thought about it later. Here were all the elements which so often came together when God was about to make an important announcement to His people: prophets, a mountaintop, and the glory of God.
Moses, you will recall, was alone on the mountain when the Lord called Him to lead His people out of the bondage of Egypt and into a beautiful, bountiful land. Many years later, as Moses spoke to the Lord face to face on the mountain and received God’s Law, he was himself covered with the glory of God. Climbing back down the mountain and returning to the camp of the Israelites, he had to hide his face with a veil so that the people would not be dazzled by it. On the mountain, God revealed His will. On the mountain, God gave His promises.
Elijah, too, had had his “mountain moments”. It was on Mt. Carmel that he stood alone, the sole surviving prophet of Yahweh, challenging the priests of Baal to a contest. By it, Elijah trusted His Lord to prove which of the gods was a false god, and which was the one, true God. On that mountain, the Lord God’s glory and power came down swiftly and stunningly, like a bolt of lightning.
In an instant, consuming fire took the sacrifice which Elijah had prepared and which he had even soaked in water until it filled the trench around the altar. God took it all—meat, wood, even altar. There was no doubt: “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God,” the people shouted.
Later, you may remember, Elijah hid and fretted in a mountain cave, fearful for his life. He was certain that he was not only physically alone, but also the sole surviving individual faithful to God. But the Lord came to Elijah again. Once more, He showed Elijah His power. Not in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire which preceded Him, but in a small, quiet voice. In gentleness, He came to His prophet. He assured Elijah of His love for him, He told Elijah of His will, and He once again revealed to Elijah His promises.
Now, once again on a mountain, surrounded in clouds, the voice of God comes to reveal His promises, His love, and His will: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him.” With those few words, the Father confirms everything we need to know to trust and follow Jesus Christ. In the very presence of the ones Peter, James, and John had previously known to be the greatest prophets of Israel, the Father establishes Jesus as superior to Moses, Elijah, and all the rest. The voice of God speaks, revealing Jesus to be one to whom the disciples and the whole world should listen. “He is my Son,” God is saying. “He is the one who comes in my name, who represents me and all that I am. He has my approval and my favor. When He speaks, it is as if I were speaking to you directly.”
Then, as quickly as it had begun, this amazing episode ends. The disciples look around, but once again, it seems, they are alone on the mountain. Alone with Jesus. Yet something has fundamentally changed. It has entirely transformed. It has “metamorphosized”.
Now the disciples can be sure that they can never be—and never have been—alone with Jesus. They have always been in the presence of God Himself, in all His power and glory and holiness. For wherever the Son goes, there also go the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, inseparable and indivisible. Each unique in person, certainly, and each having His own function within the Trinity. But, without a doubt, unified in will, and in purpose, and in love.
Perhaps, you, like Moses and Elijah, feel sometimes that you have been abandoned by God. You wonder if you are all alone, and if you can survive the day as the ruler of this world seeks your life. And be assured, the evil one most certainly does seek you. As St. Peter writes, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” He’d like nothing better than to pounce on you and to chew up your soft flesh, you lamb of the Shepherd. And it will happen, if you stray too far from His flock, and the protection that He offers us here.
On the other hand, maybe some of you feel more like Peter, James, and John did as that day began: Happy to be alone with Jesus, your friendly and benevolent healer, miracle worker, teacher, and friend. The one you count on when you’re afraid of the storms that rage around you. The one who comes walking across the troubled waters, and reaches down to pluck you out just when you think you are going under for the last time.
In either case, however—whether you feel all alone and abandoned by God, or if you feel yourself alone with Jesus—you’re only seeing a piece of the puzzle. A small portion of the picture. You’re standing there like Peter, confused and afraid, not really knowing what you are saying. For it isn’t in being alone with Jesus that our faith is sustained and strengthened. Nor is it in isolation on some spiritual mountaintop that God has promised to give you His saving gifts. It’s here, in the Christian community, among the fellowship of your brothers and sisters in Christ, that He gives you His cleansing, speaks to you His forgiveness, and feeds you His very body and blood.
Moses and Elijah got confused and afraid occasionally, too—sometimes in thinking they had been forgotten by God, and other times in fearing His power and glory. The disciples became fearful and confused, too, both that day on the mountain and at many other times during Jesus’ ministry.
They knew that they were with Jesus, but sometimes they forgot that they were with God. They all doubted, they all questioned, they all feared. They knew there was something about Jesus that gave them comfort when He was around. It’s just that they sometimes didn’t rightly know what it was.
And sometimes we get it wrong, too. We get so used to being on our own and taking credit for the good things that happen to us, we push God aside and we don’t allow our hearts hear His voice when we should. Or we want to keep ourselves close to Jesus, but in a way of understanding Him that doesn’t really take in the full, true nature of who He is. Our weaknesses in these areas can lead us astray.
Dear Christian friends, if you remember anything at all from this Epiphany season this year, let it be this: God has come to you and to all people in the person of Jesus Christ. The fullness of God took on human flesh, and His Epiphany has shown us that the power and the glory of God dwell in Jesus. That power and glory was, and is, shown in His teaching, His healing, and His miracles. But even more, it is shown in His suffering, death, and resurrection.
You are not alone. You are never without God. You are not even alone with Jesus. God dwells in, and with, and as Jesus. Through His Holy Baptism and His faithful Word and His body and blood, God dwells with you and in you, also.
We are never alone with Jesus, for Jesus is never alone. The Father and the Holy Spirit are one with the Son, even as we are one with the Son. Jesus sometimes went off to a lonely place, it’s true—apart from people, that is. He faced temptation in the wilderness, alone, but with the Father and the Spirit supporting Him, He used the Word of God to deflect Satan’s power. He faced the anguish in the garden, alone, but the Spirit led Him in prayer to seek the Father’s will, and His prayer was answered. And, of course, He faced the wrath of the Father on the cross, alone, to take the punishment that your sins and my sins heaped on His suffering.
But even there, when He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—even when He felt the most abandoned of all—He was not. For when all had been completed, He was still able to say, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” The Father and the Spirit remained with and in Him, even in the worst of circumstances.
Adopted as God’s children, we can never be alone and apart from God, either. He has promised through Christ that He will be with His Church always, to the very end of this age. And we can never be alone with just Jesus, as the disciples sometimes thought they were.
For as much as we might like to remain on the mountaintop in the presence of God and in the company of Christ, He has other plans for us. He places us in the world as His witnesses to the Gospel, and to serve one another, especially those who need what God alone can offer, and what we are to tell them.
There are those we come across in our daily lives who do feel abandoned by God. People who are confused and afraid. Despairing people who don’t and can’t even feel alone with Jesus, because they don’t know the love of Jesus. The love of God, which has been theirs to know and to experience since before the world began, has not been told to them.
As we observe the Transfiguration of Our Lord, let us certainly bask in the glow of Christ’s glory and power, for God intends that, and so much more, for us. But let us also remember that there are those who have not yet been led up the mountain. There are many whose robes have not yet been washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb. There are billions who have not yet heard or listened to the words of the beloved Son.
Jesus told Peter, James, and John that day not to tell anyone what they had seen and heard about Him until He had risen from the dead. But we are no longer under any such restriction not to tell anyone what we know about Jesus. He has died, He is risen, and He reigns eternally for you and for them. We can tell them with the confidence of faith that they are never alone without Jesus, and they are never with Jesus alone. Amen.