The Transfiguration of Jesus| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 4, 2001| Matthew 17:1-9
A couple of weeks ago, on January 20, Professor Jay Webber and I along with two seminary students visited a spectacular monastery about an hour’s drive north of Ternopil in a place called Pochaev. It was the festival of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, a day after the Eastern Epiphany, and so there were many visitors to the monastery. The monastery is comprised of a number of buildings on a high hill in western Ukraine. The most magnificent of these buildings is the Assumption Cathedral, completed in 1782. The exterior dome is covered in millions of dollars worth of gold. The interior shines with gold everywhere, adorned with precious icons on every wall and in every nook and corner of the vast building, as well as on the ceiling. When we entered the cathedral, the priests were conducting the liturgy in the ancient Slavonic language. There are no instruments used – only the human voice. The combination of sight and sound was quite a memorable experience.
In recent years, quite a few Protestants – as well as a number of Lutherans – have joined the Orthodox Church in search for something missing in their lives. Usually, it is a sense of piety and reverence and beauty in worship that is sadly lacking in so many churches today. Anyone who could see and hear such a beautiful service as I witnessed on January 20 in Pochaev would certainly understand the allure that Eastern Orthodoxy holds for many Protestants. They seem to understand the glory of God. The majesty that is God’s in his very nature ought to be acknowledged by his people here below. There are few things as beautiful as the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, especially when it is sung in a beautiful setting. I wish I could have packaged the moment and brought it back home with me.
But we had to leave that part of the hill to go on a tour of the rest of the monastery and that, let me tell you, became for me quite a sad experience. It the midst of such beautiful religious art and architecture that bespoke a love for the glory of God, there was precious little understanding of Jesus’ words. The second year seminarian that served as our guide could recount for us dozens of alleged miracles performed by the Mother of God through various icons. Mary had allegedly appeared in a pillar of fire in the year 1240 on the hill where the monastery would later be built. Her alleged miracles were repeated to us as evidence of divine favor and grace. Every effort we made to lead our guide into an affirmation of the gospel was in vain. It was as if he didn’t know what it was. What about grace, forgiveness, and the assurance of eternal life? He pointed us to a painting above the door of a chapel we visited. On the right side was a picture of hell and on the left side was a picture of heaven. We were told that the worshippers were to look at the picture when they left church so that they would find the right motivation to live good lives. You obey God so that you won’t go to hell. That was it.
The glory of God so beautifully expressed in the Assumption Cathedral was quite absent in the teaching of the Russian Orthodox seminary at which that seminarian was being trained to be a priest for Christian people. So I must say that I was let down by the experience. What a beautiful sight of God’s glory in that Cathedral! And how depressing were the words of the eager, sincere, and so very young seminarian who would for years and years and years to come be teaching God’s dear children that they must get to heaven by their own deeds.
There’s no glory in that. Only shame. There is no joy in that. Only failure. The true glory of Jesus cannot be seen in golden cathedrals, beautiful icons, thrilling voices, or any other aesthetically rewarding experience. The true glory of Jesus can be seen only as we hear him. We must listen to him. And when we do, we find in Jesus’ words a theology of the cross.
Jesus chose to bring with him to the mountain only three men. They were Peter, James, and John. These three only were permitted to see the glory of Jesus there on that holy mountain. And Jesus told them to tell no one about what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead. You are I must be content to accept the eyewitness testimony of those who were there. And this is precisely what Peter provides for us in today’s Epistle Lesson: eyewitness testimony. Listen once again to the words of St. Peter.
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.
They saw and they heard. What a sight it must have been! Ever since his humble birth in Bethlehem, Jesus had hidden his true deity under the cloak of humility. Even when he revealed his glory by doing various miracles, he himself appeared as an ordinary man. He had chosen deliberately to hide his divine glory from sight. But on that mountain for a brief moment he was clearly revealed for who he was. He was transfigured. His form underwent a change. The glory he shared with the Father was clearly visible. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light. There he was in his native glory. And there he was talking with the prophets of old, Moses and Elijah.
Moses wrote about Jesus. In Deuteronomy 18:15 we read his words: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear.” Elijah was a type of Christ; that is, he typified what would happen to Jesus. As Elijah was persecuted for the sake of the truth he so boldly confessed, so Jesus would be driven to the cross on account of his preaching of the truth.
And so, while God the Son was being transfigured before Peter, James, and John, God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, spoke from heaven these immortal words: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” Listen to him! Take into your heart and soul and mind what he says. For he is the truth incarnate and he speaks only the pure, saving, truth. And by God’s gracious providence the three witnesses of that singular event would all later write portions of the New Testament Scriptures so that we might know without a doubt the very words of our Lord Jesus.
The Transfiguration of Jesus tells us certain things that are of great comfort to us. Just as Jesus was glorified there on that mountain, so we who belong to Jesus will be glorified on the last day. Just as Jesus shone forth with the unborrowed glory he had had from all eternity, we will shine forth with the glory of Christ when he returns to take his Church home. Just as Moses and Elijah were taken to heaven both body and soul by God himself, so it will be for those who belong to Christ. No amount of suffering in this world can dim the glory that belongs to the saints of God.
But our problem is that we want it here and now. That, in a nutshell, is the source of most false teaching that plagues the Church of every generation. God promises us glory on his terms and we want it on our terms. But consider the events of that wonderful day. Peter wanted to stay there but that was not to be. The One to whom the Father said we must listen, the Voice we must hear, is the One who left the glory of the Mountain of Transfiguration in order to face the shame of Mount Calvary. That’s the historical fact of Jesus’ life and that sets the pattern for our lives as well. The glory is not for here and it is not for now. This is why Jesus said to his disciples not to tell anyone of what they had seen until after the crucifixion and resurrection. The true glory of the Christian must be found at Calvary.
The Orthodox priests of the Pochaev monastery in Western Ukraine wanted to see the evidence here on earth of a glory that is not ours yet. Their stories of the Virgin Mary appearing in a pillar of fire and providing military victory for the inhabitants of the monastery are of the same sort as every effort of the flesh to find here on earth the glory that isn’t here. The wannabe tongues speaker who thinks that this gift will give him some kind of supernatural thrill or the would be perfectionist who has a foolproof way of defeating the devil’s powers by human spiritual muscle flexing have this in common. They want a visible proof of their future glory. God gave it to Peter, James, and John. Why shouldn’t he give it to us? God, you showed them. Show me! Let me see! I want to see!
But the Father said to listen to him. Listen! Hear him! And what does he say? The Word made flesh speaks plainly for us all to hear. He says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Blessed are those who have struggled over their sins and can do nothing but cry out to God for mercy, mercy for Christ’s sake. Blessed are those who see their bodies dying before their eyes, diseases coming back again and again, and experience familiar pains that seem overwhelming. Blessed are those who gather together to hear Jesus talk to them through a minister who is just a sinner like those to whom he is preaching. Blessed are those who cling to Jesus’ words of life when they are facing the certainty of their own death.
Blessed are those who find their glory in the shelter of the cross. They know they cannot ascend to the Holy Mountain, but he also believe that that Holy Mountain has come to them, for they have heard Jesus and he has pointed them to his wounds and he has spoken to them words that impart forgiveness. Jesus was not assumed up into heaven from the mountain where he revealed his glory. No, he went to the cross to be shamed between two criminals. And there on the cross is the true glory of the living God. There is a deeper love that anywhere else in all of creation. There it was that the Creator died for his fallen and sinful and rebellious creation. There shone forth the glory of God in the suffering of Christ. And so there it is that we seek our glory here on earth.
Jesus tells us not to be afraid. He will make everything all right. The Father’s voice from glory is so very frightening because it brings to light our own mortality and sin. But Jesus’ voice comes to us from the cross. And that voice is not so frightening. And that voice, remember, is the voice the Father wants us to hear. So let us hear it.
To hear means to listen in faith. To hear Jesus means to drink in every word he says as if our very lives depend on every word he says. They surely do.
And so it is that we who want so much the glory that Jesus has shown to our brothers, Peter, James, and John, must find that glory in Jesus’ suffering and yes, in our own as well. It is not any fun to face our weakness, sickness, sin, and mortality only to be told that this will all remain with us as long as we live in this world. But the vision of Christ’s Transfiguration sustains us. It is God’s preview of heaven for us. Heaven is where Jesus is in his glory. And by being joined to his death and resurrection in our baptism and through faith we most certainly have a share in his glory. The kingdom came on the cross. The power was displayed in the resurrection. The glory is ours in heaven. Meanwhile we seek out Christ who suffered for us and we glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.