Transfiguration Contrasts

A Voice from the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”  When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were terribly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”              Matthew 17:5-7 (1-9)

Three disciples went up a mountain with their Teacher to pray.  That was normal – what happened next wasn’t.  Suddenly, their Master, Jesus, was changed before their eyes – they saw something that only a very few privileged humans saw, the GLORY of God, shining through Jesus as He talked with Moses the Old Testament Lawgiver, and also with Elijah the great Old Testament prophet.  It must have been quite an awesome sight.

And yet they didn’t see.  They saw Jesus with the men representing the Law and prophets, but they didn’t distinguish the difference between Jesus and these men.   Therefore Peter babbles about building a memorial to all three of them, never recognizing that something greater than the Law and prophets was there.

That’s when the cloud came – but instead of darkness, it brought a brightness they had never known – and then the voice came, the voice of God.  Suddenly they realized that God was concentrated on that mountain top – GOD WAS THERE!!

Can you possibly imagine the horror, the fear, the wonder, the astonishment – all the myriads of emotions that must have shot through those men at once.  GOD was present – how would you handle that?  “Oh, Hi, Pops – How’ve you been?”?  No, I  think not!

So close to the presence of God – a presence so holy that it can annihilate anything less than perfect – those three men realized that “less than perfect” meant them!  With God this close, all those cutesy little pictures of Him as a half-blind, half-deaf grandfatherly-type melt like wax in a furnace.  Suddenly you become very aware that He doesn’t fool around with sin – and there before them were the two who revealed how much they were in deep danger: from Moses came the commands for a totally God-pleasing life; from the prophets came the judgment of terrible captivity, slavery and death against the disobedient and rebellious, God’s judgment even against His chosen People, precious to Him though they were.

It was enough to drive three strong outdoorsmen to their knees in sheer terror.

So far, though, the Transfiguration is an interesting story.  It is something that we can merely hold at arm’s length and often remark how foolish Peter was.  What we miss is that one day we will be those disciples finding ourselves standing in the presence of God.  On Judgment Day we will find the holiness and Glory of God surrounding us like a cloud, and the dreadful range of awe and fear will shoot through us as well.

We like to weaken God’s law.  We can get to feel pretty comfortable about our sin – after all, we really aren’t such bad people.  We’re just having a little fun.  We’re just experimenting.  Relax – after all, God’s pretty nice – He’s a God of love, isn’t He?  We even get to where we don’t think about sin very much – nothing is really going to happen – after all, it hasn’t so far – in fact, it seems not to really matter all that much.

Suddenly there comes a time when the presence of God invades our consciousness and we realize the holiness and the Glory of God – it crushes us – we see the depth of sin in ourselves.   We are confronted by God’s Law and we are overwhelmed by just how much it includes.  The Old Testament prophets declare condemnation after condemnation on how callous we have become in regard to God, to other people, and even to our own selves.  Jesus chimes in in the Sermon on the Mount as He talks about anger of the heart, lust of the eyes, love for our enemies, and then caps it by declaring that the standard of perfection is not some other human but God Himself.

We are in a most dangerous position.   God is deadly serious about sin.  When we realize that, it is enough to drive us to our knees in terror.  Truly, the presence of God – facing His holiness – is a crushing thing, when God digs so deep and finds so much sin throughout every part of our lives.  Before such holiness we know that the soul that sins shall die.  When God is present, man finds himself in a very frightening condition.

But notice something odd in the account.  God doesn’t pronounce judgment.  Instead He chides the disciples – He says, “You’re not listening – LISTEN – LISTEN to My Son – LISTEN to My beloved Son!”

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Now when you start with that, you turn to the prophets and discover not condemnation but rather “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6). The prophets, too, become bearers of the message of salvation, forgiveness and life.

And then we focus on the Ten Commandments and find that they are turned inside out:  “Thou shalt” no longer is a command of obedience, but rather a prophecy of how our lives will change as Jesus enters into our hearts and minds.  When Jesus gets done with us, we shall have no other gods before Him.  When Jesus gets done with us, we shall not steal, bear false witness, covet and so forth.  These now are promises to look forward to rather than a black pall over our heads.  Even the Law has become a bearer of the message of salvation, forgiveness and life.

In other words, it was not just Jesus which was transfigured on that mountaintop, it was the whole Bible, the prophets and even the Law was transfigured so that the Glory of God could shine through.  And the Glory of God God Himself described in Exodus 33:19: “My goodness, My Covenant Name, My mercy, My grace,“ and in 34:6-7: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, though Who will by no means clear the guilty” who remain in their rebellion against Him.

God said that you have to start with Jesus, His beloved Son.  Now with the prophets and Moses in proper order, the Gospel does not leave the three disciples whimpering on their knees, crushed in sheer terror.  Jesus comes over and touches them, speaking to their fears.  And when they get up, they can only see Jesus.

Think about that – Jesus comes and touches them.  Three men deeply aware of how great their sin was, and Jesus Christ, holy, perfect God, was not afraid to reach out and touch them.  As muddy and polluted in rebellion as they were, and as holy and pure as He was, still Jesus reaches out and touches them, helping them to their feet.

He does that to us, too.  He reaches out to touch us in this worship service especially in Communion – as contaminated in sin as we are and as clean as He is, He touches us.  But even more, He makes himself stained and foul – He takes our sins upon Himself, so that when He comes down from that mountain, He carries our sins to the cross, to pay their penalty of death, and to forever remove them from those who submit to His will.

Christ reaches out to lift ft us out of our sin, that we in Him now find that rebellion no longer has such power over us, that judgment cannot terrorize us – for Jesus Christ is both Judge and God, and He is the One Who lifts us up.  We find the truth in St. Paul’s words, when he rejoiced, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us; for I am sure that ….nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:36-39],

Jesus reaches out to touch us and to lift us up — to get us back on our feet, to bring us back into daily life, but this time we are changed people – you might even say a transfigured people.  Just like those disciples, who never forgot that experience, we also have become bearers of a message of salvation, forgiveness, and life.

Jesus not only reached out to touch and lift up these disciples, He also spoke to their fears.  He does that with us also when He tells us, “Your sins are forgiven you” [Matthew 9:2, 6; Luke 7:48]; “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” [Matthew 28:20]; “I have come that man might have life and have it abundantly” [John 10:10]; “peace I leave with you – My peace I give to you” [John 14:27].  Jesus comes with His comfort, His commitment, His deep cleansing, and His accomplished promises, to speak to our fears.

Here, at the Lord’s altar, experience His presence and His holiness surrounding you, let Him literally drive you to your knees.  But then in His Communion, see only Jesus, watch how He transfigures everything, watch how He brings His Glory right here, the Glory of His goodness, His Covenant, His mercy, His grace, His steadfast love, His faithfulness.  Watch how He comes to touch you, to lift you up, to speak comfort to your fears.  Watch how in the midst of your sinfulness He comes in His love, forgiveness and power.  Watch how He turns your life inside out – transfigures you – so that now you become the bearer of the message of salvation, forgiveness and life.

Here is Jesus transfigured before you in His Communion – come up to Him.  And then as you come down from the mountain, as did those three disciples, find that Glory of God is in now inside of you, a Glory that eagerly pushes its way to the outside so that the Glory might be seen through you.  This is what the Lord does in His Communion, every time you climb the mountain with Him.  What’s more, you’ll find yourself being like Peter, that even when many times he was driven to his knees as he recognized his sinfulness we find him spreading the word about this Jesus Who transfigures, Who forgives, Who touches and lifts up, Who speaks to one’s fears.

On this day of Transfiguration, God grant that you truly catch a glimpse of the Glory that surrounds you, the Glory that shone through Jesus, the Glory that transfigures the prophets and the Law, the Glory that, as Paul puts it, does not conform to this world, but that you are “transfigured by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God,” so that like Peter, you cannot but speak of the things you have heard and seen on this mountaintop today.

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