The Transfiguration of our Lord follows six days after the first clear revelation of His coming Cross and Passion. Simon Peter had just given his great confession, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Then Jesus explained what this would mean, that He must be handed over to suffering and death, and that He would be raised again on the third day. At that point, Peter rebuked the Lord, insisting that He should by no means suffer and die; and the Lord rebuked Peter in return, for His Cross is according to the will of God. Not only that, but those who would be disciples of Jesus must deny themselves, take up the Cross, and follow after Him.
Then Jesus went on to say that some of those who were standing there with Him would not taste death until they had seen Him coming in His Kingdom. And six days later Jesus took three of those men, namely, Peter, James, and John, up on the high mountain, where He was transfigured before them. And they beheld His Glory, though they still did not yet understand it.
The Transfiguration of our Lord is a confirmation of His coming Cross and Passion, which are the way He comes into His Kingdom. And as such, His Transfiguration is a visible manifestation of the divine Glory that is otherwise hidden under the Cross in this valley of shadows, sin, and death.
It is thus appropriate that one of those two ancient fathers who appear with Jesus in His Glory on the mountain is the Prophet Elijah. For he was also summoned, in his own day, to the Mountain of the Lord, to receive a revelation of the true divine Glory, contrary to all the wisdom and reason of his human feelings and experience. Remember that story? It was at a point when Elijah felt as though the whole world were against him. He was suffering for the sake of the Lord’s Word, because of his faithful preaching of that Word. And for all of that, in utter despair, Elijah finally sat down in disgust under a tree and prayed that he could just give up and die.
In response to that miserable prayer, the Lord took Elijah on a journey to Mt. Sinai, where the Lord had once met with Moses and established His Covenant with Israel. There, on that holy mountain, the Lord reassured Elijah that he was not alone in his faithfulness and suffering. There were still 7000 people in Israel who had not joined in the worship of pagan gods. What is more, the Lord Himself was with His people — including Elijah — only not in the bombastic power and might of earthquakes and hurricanes and raging fires, but rather with His Spirit in the simple speaking of His Word. His divine power and glory were manifested in such weakness.
So does Elijah witness, once again, the power and glory of God now manifested in the weakness of this Man, Jesus Christ, steadfastly set on His way to the Cross. For He is the Voice of the Lord, the Word made Flesh. So listen to Him, and pay close attention to His preaching and teaching. Though His appearance is deceiving, by His suffering and death He will redeem the world.
This same divine glory and significance of the Christ-who-will-be-crucified is also witnessed and confessed by the Prophet Moses on the mountain with Jesus (and Elijah) this morning. Just as he once beheld the Glory of God on Mt. Sinai in the Exodus, so does he now behold the Light of the Revelation of the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary, on His way to die.
You have heard the Old Testament story. At the foot of the mountain, Moses sealed the Covenant between the Lord and His people by the sacrifice of oxen to the Lord, the blood of which he sprinkled first on the Altar and then on the people. Then Moses and Joshua, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up the high mountain, where they saw the Lord their God, and they ate and drank in His presence. Then Moses went further up the mountain, with no one else but Joshua (the Old Testament “Jesus”), and the cloud of the Glory of the Lord covered the mountain. Six days later, on the seventh day, the Lord called Moses into the midst of that cloud, which was the visible manifestation of God’s gracious presence among His people.
It was in that glorious divine cloud on Mt. Sinai, for the next forty days and nights, that the Lord revealed to Moses the detailed and precise instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, for the institution of the Old Testament Priesthood, and for the Sacrifices, all of which pointed forward to the coming of the Christ and His Sacrifice for all people as our merciful and great High Priest.
When the Tabernacle was completed — and the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle — the cloud of the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle, which He provided as the way and the means of His gracious and abiding presence with and for His people.
It is that same bright cloud which covers the Mountain of Transfiguration this morning, identifying the New Testament Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, as the very Tabernacle of God on earth as it is in heaven. He is both the Priest and the Sacrifice, and by His Cross, with His own Body and Blood, He becomes the Covenant between the Lord and His people, even to the close of the age.
This fact sheds some light on Peter’s well meant but misguided proposal to build three tabernacles there on the mountain, one for Jesus, and one each for Moses and Elijah. For it was in the cloud on the mountain that Moses had received the Lord’s instructions for the Old Testament Tabernacle, and again, the same cloud filled the Tabernacle when it was finished. What is more, the Lord subsequently instituted the Festival of Tabernacles, which was celebrated a week after the Day of Atonement each year, and lasted for a full festive week.
Throughout that week, the people would live in little tabernacles, just as the Lord had chosen to dwell among the people in His Tabernacle in the wilderness. Even after the people had settled in the promised land, the Festival of Tabernacles was an annual remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, of the Covenant at Mt. Sinai, and of the wandering of the people in the wilderness.
So, it made a certain kind of sense for Peter to suggest the construction of three tabernacles there on the high mountain. But he did not understand, yet, that the Tabernacle (and the Temple) and the cloud of God’s Glory were being fulfilled and superceded by the flesh and blood of Jesus!
Peter was still in mid-sentence when the Father clarified the point. There was no need for any further tabernacles, because here now was the cloud surrounding Jesus. This Man, Jesus, is the beloved Son of God, with whom the Father is well-pleased. There is no need for anyone or anything else. Rather, listen to Him; hear and heed what He says, and believe His Word.
This is the Father’s explanation of the First Commandment: “I Am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before Me.” What does this mean? “You shall acknowledge and worship and believe in this Man, Jesus Christ from Nazareth, who is My beloved Son in the flesh, and you shall listen only to Him.” You have no Lord, nor Father in heaven, nor Holy Spirit, except in this Man, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, who is to be crucified, dead, and buried.
There is no other God than this only-begotten Son of the Father, who has been made Flesh and tabernacles among us; who has indeed been crucified for us men and our salvation. For the Lord our God reveals Himself and gives Himself to you in the flesh of Jesus Christ, and God the Father speaks to you by the Word of this Son, who is Himself the incarnate Word of God.
It is in His suffering and death, in His Cross and Crucifixion, that He manifests God’s gracious presence and power to save. That is His divine Glory, for it is by His Cross and Passion that He forgives sin, and saves sinners, and establishes the New Covenant between God and man. And it is from His Cross that He gives Himself, His Body and Blood, His forgiveness, life, and salvation, to His people in the Temple of His Body, the Church, in which you also now live by His grace.
Because you are forgiven by and from His Cross, and because your life and salvation are in the flesh of Christ the Crucified, your Christian faith and life are defined and shaped by the Cross of Christ. So do you carry His Cross and live under His Cross in all of your relationships, and in all of your love and service to your neighbor in Jesus’ Name. His Cross is your glory as a Christian.
If that seems inside-out and upside-down, consider that the sort of glory you might think you want or need, would bring you to your knees and crush you and destroy you, because you are a sinner who deserves nothing else than temporal and eternal punishment. But, Christ be praised, that sort of power and glory is not the height of divine Glory. No, the true Glory of God is chiefly made known in His Self-sacrificing love and mercy toward sinners, in His forgiveness of sins, and in His gracious gifts of divine life and salvation.
The height of divine Glory is found, therefore, precisely in Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, in His sacrificial flesh and blood. Not at the top of the high mountain, but first of all lifted up and nailed to the Cross, buried in the tomb, in the dust of the earth, and only then resurrected and ascended to the Right Hand of the Father in heaven; all for the sake of redeeming you, a lost and condemned creature, and bringing you with Himself into eternal life.
There is no shortcut to this divine Glory — not for Jesus, nor for His disciples whom He saves. No, the true divine Glory is found only by way of His Cross — the Cross of Christ the Crucified — which you share by virtue of your Holy Baptism, and the fruits of which you receive in the Holy Communion of His Body and Blood. But thus do you also share His Resurrection and His Life.
That’s why Peter was wrong for wanting to remain on the mountain, as though to savor the glory of Christ without the Cross. Just as Peter was quite wrong the week before, when he tried to prevent the Christ, the Son of the Living God, from going to His necessary Cross and Passion.
In contrast to St. Peter’s misunderstanding and misguided zeal, Jesus actually forbids the disciples even to mention His glorious Transfiguration until after His Resurrection from the dead. Why? Because the divine Glory of the Transfiguration is accomplished in the Body of Christ Jesus, for you and for all people, by His innocent suffering and death. He is transfigured by the Cross for your salvation, that you might be conformed to His Image and die and rise with Him in His Glory.
Thus are you called, as a disciple, to see and hear no one but Jesus only: specifically, this Jesus of frail flesh and blood, who goes to the Cross to suffer and die. It is the Glory of His Cross that you are invited to share. It is His Word of the Cross that you are commanded to hear and to heed. It is with the Body and Blood of His Cross that He reaches out to touch you, to raise you up in His Resurrection through the forgiveness of your sins. And it is the Cross of Christ that you are given to bear and carry from the waters of your Baptism unto the death and resurrection of your body.
It is by this Cross of Christ that your own flesh and blood, your own body and life, are transfigured into the divine image and glorious form of Christ the Crucified. That image and form are utterly despised and hated by the world — and by your own sinful flesh — because they are the likeness of the Cross and Crucifixion of your Lord. Yet, they are nevertheless an image and likeness that will finally be revealed in all their beautiful Glory at the last, when the Lord shall raise your lowly body of humiliation from the dust of the earth to be glorious like unto His own glorious Body. And then you shall be like Him, shining like the Sun in His righteousness and purity forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.