Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our transfigured Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
What a difference a week can make. It was only six days earlier, at Caesarea Philippi, that St. Peter had made his great confession, and had also given and received great rebukes. And now Jesus leads His closest disciples up the slopes of a high mountain and is transfigured before them.
A week earlier, the Holy Spirit working within him, St. Peter had confessed of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For that brief moment, he was seeing clearly. Then Jesus began to tell them that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. But Peter’s rational mind did not like this. This wasn’t the Christ he wanted. This wasn’t the outcome he wanted from God. Peter thought he knew better than his Creator what he and all other human beings needed.
So, Peter took Jesus aside and told the Son of the Living God that He was somehow mistaken. The fisherman rebuked the One who had separated the waters and made them teem with all that swims in the seas. Surely this can’t be what you meant, Lord, because it doesn’t make sense to me. Peter tried to place his own image on God, so that he’d get a god of his own design.
“Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” Peter demanded. This wasn’t what Jesus hoped to hear from the man whose confession would be the bedrock on which His Church’s foundation would rest. Jesus had a rebuke of His own: “Get behind Me, Satan!” You are a stumbling block to me, Peter, and so your rejection of my crucifixion is all the more a stumbling block to others. You are not allowing the Holy Spirit to guide your thoughts and your words, but rather are under the control of the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh.
Peter is not banished from the Lord’s presence for this failing, for Jesus is patient with him, just as He is patient with us. Peter not only continues to travel with Jesus, but now—six days later—he is one of the select three who are allowed to accompany the Lord up the mountain.
Here an incredible phenomenon takes place. As if all the miracles are not sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Jesus is exactly who Peter had rightly confessed Him to be, right before their eyes, a glimpse of God’s glory is revealed to sinners, yet they are not destroyed.
In this, Peter sees once again. Though he sees Jesus still in His humanity, flesh and bone like his own, Peter and the others now observe the Son with the glory of God upon Him—even within Him. Yet it’s not just in the seeing of this glory that further convinces these men of Jesus’ divinity; it is in witnessing the discussion Jesus has with Moses and Elijah.
You will recall that Jesus often used the term, “the Law and the Prophets” when speaking of the expressed will of God, and of the testimony the ancient writings gave to His own being, ministry, and mission. Now His disciples see tangible proof that indeed the Law and the Prophets—as represented by Moses and Elijah—support and testify to His God-ness, His divinity.
St. Matthew’s Gospel account does not give us any details of the conversation, but St. Luke does. They are discussing Jesus’ departure in Jerusalem. The Greek word used to describe this is His exodon—His exodus. Even now, though, having seen God’s glory revealed in Jesus at this transfiguration, Peter falls back into his old habit of wanting things his way. He wants not only to preserve and sustain this glorious moment with Moses and Elijah and a glorious Jesus, but even to detain Jesus, to prevent His departure for Jerusalem and the inevitable suffering and death Peter knows is coming.
“Let me build three shelters here, Lord. Let’s stay here where it’s safe and beautiful and glorious. Let’s not go to Jerusalem, where you know you are hated by the religious establishment and will be perceived as a threat to the Roman authorities. And, above all, please stay clear of all those terrible things you spoke of last week.”
Peter, thinking and speaking from his own mind and heart again, rather than with a mind and heart led by Jesus’ words, is rebuked once again. This time, though, the rebuke is far less severe. Peter has still spoken out of turn, but this time he did not challenge God with his own ideas and desires; he merely made a suggestion about staying on the mountain, and left the decision up to Jesus, rather than demanding it.
The rebuke that comes, though, doesn’t come from Jesus, but from the One who sent Him. The Father speaks from heaven, validating Jesus and putting to rest any doubts about whether or not what the Lord says and does is in accordance with His will: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him.” The Father not only confirms Jesus’ identity, He provides confirmation and approval of His words and actions.
Although Peter, James, and John all heard the Father’s words, they must’ve had special intent and meaning for Peter: “See here, Peter. You have confessed your teacher to be my Son and to be the Christ. That comes with certain ramifications. It’s not up to you to decide how He proceeds with that which I have given Him to do. That’s between Father and Son.”
The Son is to be sacrificed by the Father to fulfill God’s will. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, though, no angel will intervene to stop the execution. There is no other substitute; no ram caught by its horns in the thicket. There is only the perfect Lamb, enmeshed in humanity’s predicament by the devils snare, entrapped by His own love for His creatures. This Perfect One must be sacrificed on another mountain so that the imperfect may go free. The kingdom of God must come, so that you, Peter, and all who confess, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” can come and stay forever upon a greater mountain.
My will shall be done, says the Father, so that I might make an eternal people and nation for myself, and they may enjoy not daily bread but the greater eternal banquet.
Take a lesson from the Law and the Prophets, Peter: See Moses and Elijah? They are talking of my Son’s death, but they have joy and peace; they are not sad! The joy and peace you want to maintain on this mountain is a temporary one, but that joy and peace which comes by this great atoning sacrifice never ends. Moses and Elijah see the Day the Lord has made: It is the Day of the Crucifixion. They and all the prophets see it and rejoice.
It the promise of Jesus’ exodus at Jerusalem that makes it good that you are here, Peter, here on this mountain. Indeed, it is that coming departure, that death, which makes you able to stand in God’s glorious, holy presence, and not be destroyed.
Therefore, Peter, listen to My Son. Hear it and see it His way; our way—not your own way. His words are My own words. He is obedient to the end. Our will is fulfilled. He lays down His life of His own accord, and He takes it up again. In Him My righteous wrath is appeased. And you are made mine, my beloved, once again.
With this revelation, this rebuke, and this Gospel, Peter and James and John are prepared for the mystery to come. They, too, can set their faces toward Jerusalem—and beyond.
In the context of the church year, the Transfiguration of Jesus serves the same purpose for us. Ash Wednesday is almost upon us, and next Sunday is the first of Lent. There will be forty-six days until Easter. The cross of Jesus and what lies beyond it are our strength for the fast, for the days of contemplation and denial ahead of us.
The trouble is: Our contemplations are too often not of the things of God, but the things of man. Our denial is not the denial of sin, the rejection of temptation, but the denial of God’s divine right to be the ruler of all things, including our thoughts and words and deeds. We question His Word and try to make it—to make Him—conform to our ideas, our wishes, our desires.
Count, if you can, the times this week you have been caught in wishing and hoping God and others would fit your expectations. Not just the times you’ve consciously caught yourself doing it, but look back and consider your complaints, your frustrations, your aggravations. Repent of your tendency to want to re-shape your environment and those around you to get your way. Repent of your resentment that creation and creatures aren’t made in your image, according to your own selfish, “Let there be…” Repent that your human heart, like every one before it and yet to come, finds the idea that God’s will supersedes your own so foreign to its very nature.
But rejoice that Jesus took upon Himself that which was foreign; that which was not His: Namely, our sin, our guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us. He kept the Law—that written Law given through Moses as well as that Law put into the hearts of all mankind through Adam. He kept it without fault. Even so, He allows the Law to do to Him all that it should have done to us. What should have crushed you eternally now only crushes you until you turn to Jesus, for He has taken the crushing burden of the Law upon Himself, and in His death He falls headlong upon the wicked serpent, crushing his head forever.
And now, there is no one to accuse you. The Law has been spent; the devil’s ledger erased. Christ, the Lord, the Son of the living God, took what was yours. He gives you what is His: His life. His innocence. His Name. His righteousness. His royal pedigree. His priestly garments. His Body and His Blood. You, by Divine declaration, by perfection proclamation, by blessed exchange, are clean.
If this man Jesus—the One who gave His life for us—is the Father’s Son, then we, too, shall be the Father’s children. If the Father is well-pleased in the Word made flesh who consecrated all waters at His baptism in the Jordan, then He will be well-pleased with we who are of the flesh, but are adopted through water and the Word.
Soon, you shall stand as Moses and Elijah already do. Your body shall be transfigured, also. “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” Paul writes. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
That will be then. This is now. Yet by grace we have already seen with the eyes of faith that Moses and Elijah had long before Christ’s incarnation, the vision of that which will come. We hope and trust in that which lies beyond the grave. And while we wait, ever eager for the Day, we do not sit idly on the mountain in booths; we preach Christ crucified, to the glory of God and for the love of our neighbor. For Christ was lifted up on that shameful tree to draw all people to Himself. The cross may still be offensive, but it is no longer shameful. It, too, has been redeemed. Upon it, we see God according to His mercy, as He desires to be seen.
It is in accordance with this that we proclaim the death of Jesus Christ, as St. Paul says, by receiving that which was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, that which was nailed to the tree and laid in the grave, that which rose from the dead.
For those with the eyes of faith to see it, the bread we bless is transfigured for us. It is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven, the medicine of immortality, the foretaste of the feast to come, the banquet that does not end. That which was fastened to that instrument of death by cruel nails has become the instrument of life.
It is real food and real drink—sustenance for the journey of Lent and our wanderings in the wilderness of life. It is nourishment for the soul and strength for the day. It transfigures those who receive it into saints of God, loved by Him, precious in His sight, united to Him and in Him. O Christian: Who, then, can stand against you? On account of the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Father counts you as beloved. With you He is well-pleased, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.