“What a glorious sight!” That’s what I always say to myself whenever I go up on a mountain. There’s so much to see! I love taking in the view.
But Peter, James and John didn’t seem to feel the same way. Though up on a mountain, they were “heavy with sleep.” Maybe they’d seen that view too many times before.
Suddenly, however, something did catch their attention. Jesus stood before them with changed appearance. And not only that, but Moses and Elijah—two great heroes from Israel’s past—stood with Jesus, talking to him. As the text tells us: “When the disciples became fully awake, they saw Jesus’ glory.” A glorious sight indeed!
Peter, James and John had seen some amazing things in their time of following Jesus, but they had never seen anything like this. Here they saw their teacher, Jesus, shining on the mountaintop—just like God in the days of Moses. Here they saw their leader and friend standing with God’s chosen prophets—and it was he whose glory eclipsed theirs.
The glorious sight didn’t last long, however. Soon the disciples were left with Jesus alone, who again looked like he had before. The disciples only got a glimpse of Jesus’ glory. But that glimpse was enough… enough to provide what the disciples needed. Let me explain.
Today’s text begins by placing the Transfiguration “about eight days after these sayings.” The “sayings” referenced here are ones made by Jesus, and they obviously had quite an impact. Indeed, it was “these sayings” which caused the disciples to be in need
The first saying was when Jesus revealed to the disciples that he was the Messiah. He did this, you recall, by asking them: “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered correctly, “you are the Messiah (Christ), the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed this answer, and then told the disciples to keep this information to themselves.
The need of the disciples comes both from the burden of not sharing Jesus’ identity and in wondering about the truth of his claim. The Messiah was the one to be sent by God in order to usher in a new age. If Jesus was truly the Messiah, this was big news!
Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top eight days later was a sign that his words were indeed true. Seeing him glorified in that way would confirm that Jesus was sent by God as he said. The Transfiguration was certainly a needed boost for the disciples who were burdened with that stunning and secret message.
But Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah was not his only saying. Immediately following that claim, Jesus also shared that he would soon die. The Son of Man must “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Notice that Jesus concluded with the good news that he would be raised, but the disciples didn’t seem to hear that part. All they could think about was is death. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die. And they didn’t want to lose their friend either.
Jesus’ Transfiguration addresses the need of the disciples to grapple with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus, in his glory, appears with Moses and Elijah—both long gone, and yet there they were. What’s more, one of them, Moses, had died, while the other, Elijah, was carried up into heaven while still alive. Jesus, like God himself, seems to bend the line between life and death. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples will no doubt look back on this day as a sign that sheds light on the new reality Jesus brings.
There was one more saying of Jesus that presented a need as well. Jesus concluded his speech that day by saying: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The disciples would have challenges to endure. These challenges would involve pain and suffering—as implied by Jesus’ use of the word “cross.”
The disciples would certainly have been concerned about what kind of pain and suffering they would face. And as they walked along the road with their teacher, leader and friend they would have no doubt thought about this often. And then, after the eighth day, Jesus did something to help ease their fears. He let them see a glimpse of his glory. He showed them his great power. He assured them that he was on their side.
Yes, in the Transfiguration of Jesus God gave a needed glimpse of glory that spoke to the disciples in light of what had just happened to them. In the same way also, the glimpse of glory is given to help them in light of what will soon lie ahead.
The text tells us that Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah about his “departure.” Apparently, Jesus would be leaving them. It’s hard to lose a teacher, leader and friend. The glimpse of glory, then, would serve as a sign that the departing will not be forever. After all, Moses and Elijah, who had departed, were somehow still able to get together.
Jesus overcomes departures—and with much more than just the occasional visit. Jesus would later tell his disciples: “I am with you always.” He can say this because his departure is not really a leaving. Instead, it is an Exodus. That’s what the word means. As such, it signifies a great saving action of God—like when God saved Israel by taking them out of slavery and into a promised land. Jesus is talking about an exodus journey whereby he saves people from the slavery of their sins. His exodus will allow the saved people of God to dwell together always, in the promised life that awaits.
Finally, the Transfiguration is also helping the disciples reinforce their important task of listening. The voice of God on the mountain said: “This is my Son, my chosen One. Listen to him.” The disciples, after hearing this voice, would have more listening to do as they journeyed with Jesus towards his Exodus. Much of the listening would further challenge them. In times of challenge, they could look back and remember that voice of God, and be assured of their care.
Yes, God gave glimpses of his glory to help the disciples. And, God gives glimpses of his glory to help us.
Some of those glimpses we recall from our past. First and foremost, we should recall the time when God called us to faith through Baptism. Whether that Baptism first created our faith or whether it came later after we had already believed, our Baptism assures us that God has called us, cleansed us and re-created us. Our Baptism was a glorious mountain-top experience. It gave us the long vision that only faith can give. It was a time when God’s glory was present in a miraculous washing. It was a time when we heard God say to us, personally: “You are my beloved child, whom I have chosen.”
As God’s beloved children, we will continue to receive God’s help and care in many ways. Some of these will serve as important stories of our faith. For instance, when I now hear of mountain-top experiences I am reminded of the time a few years ago when I climbed up to the top of a mountain peak out west, in the midst of a great range of mountains, all by myself, and wandered away from the path to fully enjoy the view. After a time of taking in the glory of the scene, I turned my attention to the hike down, only to realize that I could not find the trail. A sudden feeling of fear washed over me and I thought I was going to panic. But I prayed, collected myself, formulated a plan for walking in a circular fashion down from the summit, and eventually found the trail. God helped keep me calm; and God brought me to the path.
And just as God has given us glimpses of His glory in the past, so also, as he did with the disciples, he promises that he will continue to help us through glimpses of glory in the future. In particular, we have God’s promise that he will show his glory when the church follows his instructions and carries out his means of grace.
One of these is the practice of Holy Absolution. The Lord Jesus, after he had risen from the dead, breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” This is a powerful promise of God, whereby the disciples of Christ act in God’s place. The Church carries out this task of forgiving sins in its public ministry. When the pastor pronounces this forgiveness in the rite of Absolution, he is doing so in the place of God. We can therefore be certain that our sins are indeed forgiven. Although we “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:24) we are “justified by his grace as a gift” (Romans 3:25). That’s a glimpse of Christ’s glory.
Another of these is the celebration of Holy Communion. Here we gather together with Jesus for prayer, much as he did with his disciples on the mountain, and here Jesus appears to us in a miraculous form. Jesus comes to us in the bread and wine and enters into our bodies and souls in a powerful way. Here we are not only united with Jesus but also united with all believers, including the saints who have gone before us—Moses and Elijah, Peter, James, John and the like. Here we see a brief but joyous glimpse of Christ’s glory and are strengthened for our journey.
In the Transfiguration, the disciples saw a glimpse of Jesus Christ’s true glory—a glimpse that confirmed their faith and prepared them for the days ahead. But they almost missed it, for they were heavy with sleep.
What about us? Are we heavy with sleep—perhaps exhausted from the journey or just tired of the same view?
Jesus appears to us today to call us back to faith. The days ahead will bring challenges. He wishes to strengthen and prepare us.
May we then, in response to Christ’s call, order our lives in a way that we can stay awake in his presence. And may we, with eyes of faith open, truly see those glimpses of glory that he promises to give. In the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen.