Seeing, Hearing, and Believing
The Transfiguration of Our Lord| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 28, 2007
“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!’” Matthew 17:5
Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” St. Paul writes, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” We want to see. God says no. I won’t show you. I’ll tell you. Take my word for it.
But sometimes we do get to see. Peter, James, and John got to see. Jesus took them apart from the twelve. They went up on a high mountain. There, as Peter, James, and John looked on, Jesus was transfigured. He had hidden His divine glory underneath a humble covering. Now He let it shine. His true deity shone forth. He had already shown His glory by His many miracles. Now He revealed His glory in His very appearance. His face shone like the sun. His clothes became as white as light. The glory that he had shared from eternity with His Father was clearly revealed.
What a vision! They witnessed with their own eyes the pure and holy and beautiful glory of the God become man. More than that, the two great Old Testament prophets were there with him. Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. St. Luke records for us that they were talking about Christ’s impending death. While enjoying His native glory Jesus was talking with the prophets about His impending shame. His glory would be hidden under deep suffering. He would fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah who wrote: “So His visage was marred more than any man.” (Isaiah 52:14) He appeared to be a beautiful Savior on the Mount of Transfiguration, but no souls would be saved there as His glory shone forth like the sun. Salvation would require Jesus to embrace the shame of the cross.
So stop all that foolish talk about building tabernacles. In fact, stop talking altogether and listen. Hear Him. Listen to what He has to say. You can’t listen while you’re talking. You can’t listen while you’re building. You need to settle down, be quiet, and listen. Listen to Jesus.
This is where faith is born. Faith doesn’t come from seeing glorious sights. Not even a vision of Christ displaying the pure beauty of His glorious majesty will do. Faith doesn’t come from having a mountain top experience. No, faith is born when we are rendered blind and mute and helpless. Then we listen. We listen to Jesus.
The Father identifies Jesus as His beloved Son. But He does more than identify Him. He gives His public stamp of approval upon Him. He says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. The glory revealed on the mountain displays an innocence that brings joy to God the Father. The Father beholds His only begotten Son and is happy with what He sees. The Father sees more than the eternal glory He has shared with His only begotten Son from eternity. He sees as well an obedience that is unparalleled. He sees the pure and flawless righteousness that marks Christ’s life. He sees the one and only righteous man. He sees Him whose righteousness becomes the robe with which the Holy Christian Church is clothed. Now listen, Peter. Listen, James. Listen, John. Listen, dear Christian, whoever you are. Listen to Him whose righteousness is your royal robe. Listen to the One whose glory is from eternity. Listen to the One who leaves the Mount of Transfiguration to go to the Mount Calvary.
Today is the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. Epiphany is followed by three Sundays known as pre-Lent. This is followed by Lent. The theme of Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ’s glory. The Transfiguration of Christ before the three disciples epitomizes Epiphany. We think of St. John’s words, “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
But the vision of glory could not last. This we must know. But it’s a bitter lesson to learn. It can be downright painful. Living in glory is much more enjoyable than living under the cross. But the true value of our lives is hidden under suffering. It is hidden under Christ’s suffering and our own.
We don’t base our faith on what we see. We listen. Our faith comes from hearing God’s word. This is because the road to glory must pass through Calvary. There can be no heaven without the cross. Listen to Jesus. That’s what He said again and again and again. He took His disciples aside and said to them that it was necessary that He suffer many things, be betrayed, crucified, and on the third day rise again. This is why Jesus commanded Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about seeing Him transfigured until after He rose from the dead. He didn’t want any misunderstanding. He didn’t want anyone to think that the route to glory could bypass the cross.
This is why we need to rely on what Jesus says to us instead of relying of what we see. What do we see, really? Compare what we see to what Jesus says. We see death. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live even though he dies and he who lives and believes in Me will never die.” Yet we see the body in the casket and there is no life there at all. The body lies perfectly still because the breath is gone and the heart has stopped beating. We hear that this body will rise from the dead to be glorified with Jesus in heaven. But that’s not what we see. So will we believe what we see or what Jesus says?
We see sin. Oh, there’s so much and it overwhelms us. We promise and then we break our promise. And we promise again with true sincerity and conviction and strength of resolution. And then what do we see? We see our broken promises. They litter our lives with the refuse of sin. But what does Jesus say? What do we hear? “Take and eat,” He says. “This is my body, given for you. Take and drink, this is the New Testament in my blood shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” So He says. His saying and our hearing contradict what we see. But our heavenly Father tells us to hear Him. Listen to His only begotten Son. His words are words of life.
If we insist on seeing, on looking, on watching the Lord Jesus then we will have to divert our eyes from the Mount of Transfiguration and look instead to Calvary. There we don’t see the glory shining forth like the sun. There we see shame and sorrow and death. We see Him suffering for us. We see Him dying for us. In that suffering our sin is borne away. In that sorrow our joy is secured. In that shame is the true glory of God and of all Christians. On the cross the power of sin is broken. He in whom the Father was well pleased was made to be sin for us. Innocence triumphed. But the world could not see it. We could not see it. It remains hidden from our sight.
But we hear the words of absolution that flow from it. We hear the voice of our Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us only to take it up again. We hear and our faith finds its source.
The true light of Epiphany shines from the cross. Oh, for a vision of heaven. But Jesus won’t guarantee this. Peter, James, and John saw it. Let that suffice for us. To see heaven is not such a blessing as to hear the gospel. The gospel is not just talk about heaven. It is the giving of heaven here and now where we live. To know that there is a place where sin cannot enter is a wonderful knowledge. We know that there is a place where the effects of sin are entirely absent. There is no sorrow of any kind. There is no suffering, no regret, no guilt, and no shame. Everyone loves purely and is so loved. The physical deterioration of the body with its attendant diseases leading to death are in the past. We enjoy pure and radiant glory that belongs to God. We enjoy it without it diminishing even though it lasts forever. All this is prefigured by Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain.
But it was not gained on that mountain. It was gained on the cross. It is given to us in the gospel we hear. This is why we treasure the message of the cross. This is why we love what we hear and why we pray God that we will always be hearing it until our hearing is gone. Should God give us a vision of glory, we will thank Him for the privilege. But our faith will rest on what He did for us after leaving the glory of the first mountain to embrace the shame of the second.
To me the preaching of the cross is wisdom everlasting
Thy death alone redeems my loss, on thee my burden casting
I, in thy name, a refuge claim
From sin and death and from all shame
Blessed be Thy name, O Jesus.