Transfiguration Day, 2020
Text: Ex. 24:8–18, Matthew 17:1–9, 2 Peter 1:16–21
In the name of Jesus, Amen!
It’s pretty common to have a church sanctuary like this in America (beautiful cross with golden shining background, large organ, etc.). But for a Chinese person who first came to the U.S. and entered a church like this, a feel of awe may immediately overcome the whole person. Sometimes, I meet some Chinese people who asked me if they could stay in the sanctuary for a while, and later told me that they had never had such a feeling before. Don’t get me wrong. We are not theologians of glory in the sense that we value a high church with stained glasses in the U.S. more than a low church or a house church in China simply because of appearance. We know the Lord’s presence is with His Name, His Word and Sacraments. He promises everyone that He may be found by whoever seeks after Him, and He commands us to worship Him in Spirit and Truth. However, something that helps us realize the awesomeness of God’s presence is very important because God is not casual, and approaching God is no small thing.
In today’s old testament reading, Exodus 24, Moses along with 70 plus people went up to the LORD to worship Him on Mount Sinai as commanded by God in the beginning of this chapter. However, the text is narrated in a way that makes it clear that approaching God is no small thing, nor is it possible for just anyone to get near. Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up. Joshua was with them, who is not named until verse 13 as Moses’ assistant accompanying him to go further. By the end, only Moses could enter the cloud. They “saw the God of Israel” with glorious vision of heaven. They enjoyed a blessed fellowship with God, eating, drinking, and beholding Him. This is remarkable. However, anyone who seriously reads this may have a wonderful feeling mixed with fear. Why does verse 11 say that God “did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel” while they were having fellowship with God? How come verse 17 describes “the appearance of the glory of the LORD on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” as “a devouring fire”? It is certainly a powerful and frightening description as they went closer and closer to this utterly strange and all-powerful creator and unthinkably holy God. Holiness of God is no joke, as one of the Narnia books puts it, “God is not safe, but He is good”. That’s why only Moses, whom God had appointed and designated could enter the cloud where he dwelt (literally lived) for forty days and forty nights. That’s why prior to Moses and the elders coming up to the LORD to worship Him, “Moses took the blood and threw it on the people” and reiterated God’s covenant with His people. This is because a sinful person cannot approach a holy God. They need forgiveness of sins.
It’s not a coincidence that the next large section (chs. 25-31) offers the teaching about the tabernacle, followed by the account of Israel’s worshiping the golden calf. With 7 chapters devoted to the tabernacle, its structure, its services, the ark of the covenant, the priests’ garments, etc. and one more chapter concerning the greatest sin of worshiping falsehood, you may wonder why God so meticulously tells us all these in great details. One thing is pretty sure: people’s sin is no small thing, God’s holiness is no small thing, thus, having a mediator between God and His people is badly needed. As we can see from the rest of the Old Testament, the faithful people of ancient Israel knew this, when they built the Jerusalem temple on mount Moriah, and when they went up to worship the LORD, bringing sacrifices along with them and singing psalms, praising and thanking Him. As they approached the temple, the consciousness about their sins and God’s holiness became stronger and stronger. People with uncleanness and non-Jews would not be allowed to enter the inner court. Only priests were allowed in the Holy Place to perform the sacrifices, and only the high priest was allowed inside the holy of holies once a year with blood of sacrifices for himself and for the people. Why? Because the LORD says repeatedly in the Bible that “You shall be holy, for I am holy”. Therefore, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”, and people with sins will certainly die “for our God is a consuming fire”. Only through the sacrifice, which is the foreshadow of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, can the gracious covenant of God with His people be achieved — “you shall be my people, and I shall be your God”.
In new testament era, with Jesus Christ and His Word coming to us, the damning of the Law and the grace of the Gospel only intensifies. He destroys people’s pride of being able to obey God’s commandment of “You shall not kill” by saying that anyone who is angry commits murder already. He smashes people’s pretense of having kept the commandment of “You shall not commit adultery” by revealing that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. He strikes the conscience of God and His holiness harder and deeper into our heart. But at the same time, He brings a fuller understanding of God’s grace and mercy in His own person and His work. He healed the sick. He made the blind see, the lame leap for joy, the lepers cleansed, and the dead brought back to life. Now, Jesus was on a high mountain transfigured right before the eyes of His disciples, Peter, James, and John, in our Gospel lesson for today. This was even more glorious and blessed than the scene when Moses brought elders of Israel on Mount Sinai in our old testament lesson. They were even more blessed because they saw God Himself in the person of Jesus, full of grace and truth. They were even more afraid because “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light” showing His glory and majesty. However, not only did Jesus never lay His hand on them, but comforted them saying “Rise, and have no fear.” They were so blessed to see not “a pavement of sapphire stone” but Moses and Elijah, and to hear them talking to with Jesus. This is a real picture and voice of heaven transcending time and space, deepening our understanding of the salvation history of the Bible. It’s no small thing, as Peter later says in our epistle lesson for today, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed”, which means that Jesus is confirmed as the one whom the prophets of old has been prophesying “at many times and in various ways”.
As for you and me, do you have conscience of God, His holiness, and His grace in your everyday life? Do you have a stronger and stronger conscience of God, His holiness, and His grace as you came into church this morning, as you are listening to this sermon, and as you will approach the altar to receive His Body and His Blood? It’s no small thing that He has to die for you. Your sins are heavier than you think, and God is holier than you can imagine. That’s why after the transfiguration Jesus had to undergo a new exodus, leading us out of death into life. He says, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead”. He is the mediator between you and the almighty and unthinkably holy God. He is greater than Moses. His once-for-all sacrifice can meet our on-going need for forgiveness of sins, and quiet our guilty conscience, as 1 John 3:20 says, “for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart”. I pray that the Holy Spirit move us to realize our sins, and to be conscious of God’s holiness and His grace, for Jesus’ death and resurrection to be our mediator is no small thing.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!