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What Did They See?

Matthew 17:1-9

Pastor Robin Fish

Transfiguration Sunday
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church  
Laurie, MO

view DOC file

Sun, Jan 13, 2008
Baptism of Our Lord

Matthew 17:1-9

And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves.  And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  And Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah."

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!" And when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were much afraid.  And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid."  And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus Himself alone.  And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead."

What Did They See?

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

One of the reasons that the Christian faith is so unpopular these days is that it flies in the face of human wisdom.  When you discuss the faith with unbelievers -- and all too often with others who claim to be believers -- they respond with comments like, That just doesn't make sense.  They might say that they simply cannot believe this or that.  Then there is the cry that we should not become too religious, or let this "God-stuff" go to our heads.  I was once told that I should be careful not to become so heavenly minded that I was no earthly good.

I called the Christian faith unpopular because even so-called Christian churches are abandoning it.  There are congregations in our own Synod that have stopped using the Apostles' and the Nicene Creed.  Some have quit doing the confession of sins, saying it makes people feel "uncomfortable".  Many congregations, particularly mission congregations, don't want to identify themselves as Missouri Synod because they think that the name carries with it a connotation of being narrow-minded and rigid and strict.  I don't disagree with those judgments, except I choose to sum up all of those negative sounding attributes with the single word "faithful."

For decades churches have been running away from Biblical morality.  In recent years it became stylish in the Christian community to run away from doctrine.  There always have been some denominations that would not stand on the truth of the Word of God, but today almost no Christian denomination considers sound doctrine to be vital.  Even the Missouri Synod, which does formally confess the truth of God's Word, regularly tolerates defections from the sound doctrine.  Today, many congregations are fleeing from sound and historic practice.  The result is that our Synod's public stance a mere paper-confession with no consistent teaching or church-practice behind it.

Christianity is not popular -- and it has never been popular.  That is at least part of what Jesus was referring to when He said in Luke 10 that God had hidden things from the wise and the intelligent.  This morning, Transfiguration Sunday, we want to talk about What the disciples really saw on that mountain.  Our theme is What Did They See?

In some ways, the Transfiguration is about God hiding things.  God tends to disguise much of what He is doing in this world.  That is because it is, as Jesus said, well-pleasing in the sight of God to hide certain things from the wise and the so-called clever people of the world.  It is a fact that except for works of nature, almost nothing that is commonly called a work of God in our society is.  Sadly, even the great and awesome work of God in nature is being described more and more frequently as nothing more than a natural phenomenon -- Evolution -- and as not requiring the presence of a deity whatsoever.

God is pleased to work on earth without being observed or credited.  It isn't that He doesn't want the credit -- the glory -- for His work, but He only wants it from people who honestly know Him as God and trust in Him.  God is pleased to hide what He does and where He is working and even His own presence from people, so that they might believe -- or not.  The glory of God was hidden in Jesus Christ, for example.  He did not look like God.  He was singularly unimpressive.  The prophets had said He would be.  He looked like a normal guy.  Not so pretty.  Not so powerful.  Not so much anything that the world would say, "Why, that man must be God."  Not even "That man must be special."  Jesus was God hidden in the disguise of human flesh, and for most people the disguise was perfect.

His power was hidden in weakness. Jesus was at His best when He seemed to be at His worst.  He was actually working out our salvation when He appeared to be completely losing control, even of His own life.  The naked injustice of His conviction and sentencing by the legal standards of the Jews and of the Romans was clearly an outward reflection of the inward truth that this One was innocent, and that what He faced, and what He suffered, and the death He died on the cross, was not His . . . but ours.

His victory was hidden in defeat. Just when it looked like Jesus' enemies had finally won, they actually suffered total defeat.  Just when it seemed that it was all over for Jesus and His followers, it was just beginning.  Jesus was not put to death on the cross helplessly.  He deliberately laid down His life at the time and in the way of His own choosing.  Jesus said, "I lay down My life that I may take it again.  No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again."  He chose the moment of His own death and sacrificed His life for us. 

When Satan crowed in what he thought was victory, and when the Jewish leaders dusted their hands off and said, finally, the trouble-maker is silenced -- at that moment Jesus claimed total victory.  It is finished!.  That was what He said, and it was, at that very moment, for all men and for all women and for all time.  Our sins paid for, forgiven.  Our death served up in His body and taken out of the way.  Our eternal salvation purchased and won.

But that is not what it looked like.  No one saw God at work.  No one recognized His glory -- except the Roman Centurion, and even that was belatedly.  The Transfiguration was about God, who hides things, peeking through the veil of the humanity of Jesus for just a moment, revealing His true Glory where no one was able to see it before.

Transfiguration Sunday is about God giving us a glimpse of what our sinful nature simply cannot see -- does not want to see.  God revealed Himself in Jesus, and in Jesus He demonstrated that God is not where we think, necessarily.  He is not necessarily doing what we think He is doing.  And He is often at work in situations we would never choose and frequently forget to look at to find His purposes.  He holds us to values we would many times sooner discard as old-fashioned and out of date.  He makes things necessary that some might consider expendable, like truth and confession, or trust in God in impossible seeming circumstances and faithfulness to what we know is true and right, and love for other people, especially for one another.

Here is an example: only through Jesus can we know God.  Who would know that?  Most people think that all religions lead to God.  Most people think that all Gods are really the same God under different labels.  Most Christians, so called, believe God and Jesus are distinct for our religious purposes.  Jesus says NOT SO.  He tells us that you cannot actually worship God unless you are worshiping Jesus as well, and Peter says, in Acts 4:12, "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved."  As John wrote in His Gospel, No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

It is pleasing to God that simple 'faith' trumps worldly wisdom.  It pleases God to have us trust in Him, and that it is only through such faith that we stand as God's own people.  It pleases God that those who are too smart to be religious, or good, or faithful lose out, while us poor babes in the woods, us simple souls who are just foolish enough believe the Bible and to trust God have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life though Jesus Christ.

Why did Jesus take three men, Peter, James, and John, with Him into the Mountains?  Because of the Law of God and justice of Old Testament Israel required the eye-witness account of more than a single witness.  They required the witness of two or three.  Three was the ideal number - when you had three independent witnesses to an event, their report became fact before Law.  The New Testament also accepts this standard, when in 1 Timothy 5, Paul writes, "Do not accept an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses." In other words, the presence of Peter and James and John are your assurance that this event actually took place.  It is the legal witness required to establish this account as fact.

But, What did they see?

The word "transfiguration" literally means "being changed or transformed from one figure, body, shape, or appearance, into another." What happened with Jesus was not a change of shape or body - those apparently remained the same.  It was a change of appearance, in that Jesus began to glow - or shine with an unearthly light.  What was actually occurring was that the glory of God was shining through the veil of flesh and human stuff of Jesus.  It was not obliterating it, or changing it substantially, but it was simply shining through.  That Glory was so powerful that it altered the appearance of the clothing that Jesus wore, for the moment.  His face was shining like the sun - I would imagine that it was too bright to stare directly at, and His clothing became as white as light - and we can imagine that much, even if you have not personally seen it.  It was spotless white.  It looked lit-up like a Christmas Santa's clothing - the white parts - when you place a bright light inside the figure.  They do this effect well in movies and on TV these days.  Jesus did it by mere glory - no technology assisting Him.

What was shining through was the purity and holiness of God, and His great love for mankind.  That is, after all, the glory of God.  God's glory is not in His power.  It isn't really in His sovereignty.  It isn't in the fact that He is God and Creator - as glorious as those things are.  His glory is chiefly in the fact that while He is God and above all in power and value and importance and such things, He loved us so richly and deeply that He sent His Son to live for us, to fulfill the never-before-fulfilled Law and will of God - for us - and then to die when He did not deserve it.  He earned life everlasting and then traded it for death.  He is God - but became man.  He earned life - and willingly tasted death.  God announced our condemnation before sin happened - and then He rescued us from what we have so richly deserved.  His love is so profound that He became sin, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him! That love, and that grace, and those actions, and His profound self-sacrificing for our sakes and our benefit is the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus!

In other words, His glory is our salvation - and that was what was shining through on that mountain top.

Okay, then, 'What did they see, when Moses and Elijah appeared, talking to Jesus?' Moses is the great Law-giver.  Elijah the prophet among prophets in the mind of ancient Israel.  Each man represented their portion of Scripture.  Each one recognizes Jesus and points to Him as the Savior.  Luke even tells us that they were talking with Jesus about "His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."  The Law and the prophets are summed up in Christ.  In this moment captured by the Evangelist here, we catch a glimpse of heaven.  Here are Moses and Elijah, and although no one introduced them, they were instantly recognized.  That is how it is in heaven; you are God's chosen child, and you are recognized as being who you are without introduction.  It is also interesting to note that the conversation, even in heaven, is about the Gospel.

What did they see, when the 'bright cloud' overshadowed them?  Luke indicates that they entered the cloud.  It wasn't merely above them, as one might suspect, but it was all around them.  It "overshadowed them" according to Matthew, but Luke tells us what that means - it engulfed them.  They were permitted into intimate fellowship with God the Father, as they observed this transfiguration.  God tells us in the Psalms that He is shrouded in a dark cloud and heavy mists.  He appears on Sinai in the dark cloud with the lightning and thunder raging through it.  But here, He envelopes them in His cloud and speaks to them, sharing with them the mystery of Christ - true Son of God, and He who is perfectly pleasing to His Father.  The cloud, then is the symbol of the presence of God Almighty, El Shaddai.

Then they heard the voice.  What they heard meant not just that Jesus Christ is God's Son, but also that He is fit to take up the work of our salvation.  God spoke these words about Jesus at His Baptism.  At that time He was announcing who Jesus was and that He was fit to take up the holy work of His ministry.  Here, three years later, God spoke these words again, sealing the ministry of Jesus, as it were, and telling us that He is still perfect, fit to undertake the great work of the passion which lies before Him.  The only other place I remember these words coming into play is when the angels tell the shepherds at Bethlehem that God will give peace to men who are like Jesus, all those who are well-pleasing to the heavenly Father - and that only happens through Jesus and by means of the forgiveness of sins.  So these words comfort us by reminding us that Jesus has that judgment of God on Him, that He may share it with us, and we may receive that Peace on Earth of which the angels sang.

Matthew tells us about what Peter said in response to these things. "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  Luke tells us that Peter did not know what he was saying.  I think Matthew and the other Evangelists tell us the whole story - Peter was so shaken by what He was witnessing that He began to speak with out thinking - a problem common in today's world - without the tremendous experience Peter had just faced.  What is true, however, is that it is good that the three were there to see it for us, and to report it for us.  And Peter's response is so natural, it demonstrates that this is an account of a real event, and not some fable made up later.  If it were a fiction, the Apostles would have sanitized their own mistakes out of it.

Why did Jesus instruct them not to tell anyone what they had seen or heard until after His death and resurrection?  Jesus did not want people chasing miracles and following Him for the wrong reasons.  He wanted them to see this so that they could bear witness of it, and tell others who He was and what they and seen, but afterwards, when they faced the death and resurrection of Jesus and wondered how it could be real, or why didn't they see it coming.  When people would ask, how can you believe such things?, the Apostles could point back to these events and say, how can you deny them?

Finally, What did the three disciples really see?

This is the point at which Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and began to descend into the valley of the shadow of death on our behalf.  The Transfiguration shows us that He was ready.  It make is clear for us that He was fit for the job.  It teaches us that Jesus knew who He was and where He was going when He walked into Jerusalem to be crucified, that year.  And it reminds us that in Christ we are truly well-pleasing to God, for your sins have been forgiven; atoned for and punished already, and so forgiven.

What did they see?  The glory of God.  The miracle of the Transfiguration.  The whole of the Gospel depicted in living pictures.  The proof we need to follow them in faith.  That is what they saw.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

(Let the people say Amen)

These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due. Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.

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