The Transfiguration of Jesus
February 4, 2001
A couple of weeks ago, on January 20, Professor Jay
Webber and I along with two seminary students visited a spectacular
monastery about an hourís 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 Ė only the human voice.
The combination of sight and sound was quite a memorable
In recent years, quite a few Protestants Ė as
well as a number of Lutherans Ė 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 Godís 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
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
Jesusí 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 didnít 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 wonít 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 Godís 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 Godís dear children that they must get to heaven by their
Thereís 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 Jesusí 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 todayís 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: ďThis is My beloved Son, in whom I am well
pleased.Ē 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
Moses wrote about
Jesus. In Deuteronomy 18:15
we read his words: ďThe LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet
like me from your midst, from your brethren.
Him you shall hear.Ē 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
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: ďThis is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.
Hear him!Ē 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
Godís 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.
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.
Thatís the historical fact of Jesusí 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.
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 isnít 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 devilís 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 shouldnít 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, ďBlessed are those who have not seen and yet
Blessed are those
who have struggled over their sins and can do nothing but cry out to God
for mercy, mercy for Christís 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 Jesusí 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
Fatherís voice from glory is so very frightening because it brings to
light our own mortality and sin. But
Jesusí 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 Jesusí 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
Christís Transfiguration sustains us. It is Godís 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.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus