Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 17:1-9 Sermon
February 3, 2008
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
147 "O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair"
535 "Not Always On The Mount May We"
135 TLH "'Tis Good Lord To Be Here"
195 "On Our Way Rejoicing"
A TRULY AWESOME SIGHT
TEXT (vs. 1-2): “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
Amongst some of my earliest recollections, is a trip that our family took to California. I was very young at the time, pre-school age to be more precise. It was a long trip too; it took several days. And since interstate highways were just appearing, the majority of our trip was on two-lane highways, a lot of which was on the old “Route 66,” which now is recognized as an historical item from America’s past.
We had a 1958 Ford station wagon. The back seat was folded down and dad had put a thick comforter down so we kids could have pretty much the entire back end of the car to play around and take naps. Dad had built a car top carrier for the luggage, so we had a lot of space.
Air conditioned cars were very rare in those days—almost non-existent actually, so our trip was rather warm. Because of the heat of the day, dad would always drive through the desert at night. I liked this, because I always liked the night time. Things seemed so calm and peaceful and settled; it was cool and comfortable, and there were things you could see that were hidden from view during the day, like the beauty of the night sky. And as we traveled, I remember lying on my back in the back end of that station wagon, with my head up against the tailgate, where I could look up through the back window and have this great view of the night sky and all the stars.
Even at that early age, I felt a certain amount of insignificance, like a little speck in the middle of something so big. But I also remember thinking that God was also someplace up there, looking down on me, smiling on me, and keeping me in his care.
It was on that trip to California that I remember looking out the front of the car one night, and I saw this massive glow of light on the horizon ahead of us. And as we went on, it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. What was happening is that we were approaching Las Vegas, Nevada.
When we got there, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As we drove into town, I saw signs—great big huge signs of every description. Lights were blinking and chasing, animated figures were moving back and forth, huge arrows were pointing to various places, and blinking marquees had a lot of words I couldn’t understand.
Dad took a little time out from our trip. He parked the car and we got out and just walked up and down the street for awhile. We didn’t go in to any place; we just walked. And I was absolutely awe struck. Here it was, the wee hours of the morning; but with all the light from the signs, it made it seem like it was high noon. Crowds of people were milling about everywhere without any regard as to what time of day it was.
This was something the likes of which I had never experienced in my short life. I knew Emerson, our town of 800 people where we lived, where they rolled up the sidewalks at night. The only cities I knew about were Sioux City, and Fremont, and Lincoln. I don’t think I had even been to Omaha yet. And for me to experience Las Vegas at night was more than my small developing mind could comprehend. So I just stood there, totally dumbfounded, with my eyes wide open and my mouth agape. I just looked around and tried to take it all in, not knowing what to make out of all of this.
In our text for today, we see three disciples of Jesus—Peter, James, and John to be exact, and they witness something even more incredible than my first visit to Las Vegas. They are witnesses to the Transfiguration, where Jesus allows them to see him in at least some of his Godly glory.
Up until now, Jesus would have appeared to them in like appearance to any other person. Certainly they knew who he was, even though they most likely couldn’t have grasped the magnitude of it all. He was God’s only begotten Son, the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, and the Saviour of the world. They were familiar with his miracles and the fact that he could do things only God could do.
It would have been no surprise to them that Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer. And it also wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary for them to be with him at this time. They had been amongst his closest companions.
So all things considered, the situation seemed pretty normal as they ascended that mountain. But then, something happened that was far from ordinary. Suddenly, Jesus was transfigured. What this means, is that he totally changed his appearance. Our Gospel for today says: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
It would have been difficult to describe the sight they saw. Here was Jesus, and he was illuminated to such a degree that his whole body had changed in appearance, even his clothing.
And if that wasn’t enough, two other people were standing there with him. They were readily identified as the two great pillars of Old Testament Judaism: Moses, the great law giver, and Elijah, the great prophet. And what’s more amazing, is that the disciples knew without a doubt the identity of these other two men. They had lived many hundreds of years before them, they had never met them or had any clue as to what they looked like, and still they knew who they were.
The reaction of the disciples was something like the reaction I had the first time I experienced the spectacular lights of Las Vegas as a little kid. Like me, they didn’t know what to think. It was something they couldn’t fully comprehend or grasp according to human standards. It wasn’t anything they had ever even come close to experiencing before this time, nor would they experience anything like it again while they were still alive on the earth. This was a once in a lifetime event in their lives. And so they basically stood there with their eyes wide open and their mouths agape. But they did know that whatever it was they were experiencing, it was a good thing, and it was good that they were there to see it.
I mentioned a little bit ago that Jesus would have only partially revealed his Godly glory to the disciples. What basis would I have for making that assertion?
If we look to the Old Testament, we can find another example of God partially revealing his glory. In Exodus chapter 33 verses 18-23, we read about an encounter between God and Moses, as follows: “Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ he said, ‘You cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live.’ Then the LORD said, ‘There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my backside; but my face must not be seen.’”
This presents some interesting observations. First of all, God’s glory is described in terms of light. His countenance literally radiates. However, nobody alive on this earth has the ability to see God in his full radiant glory and still live. Why might that be?
It is the contrast between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. There’s the line in the familiar hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” which reads, “…though the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see…” And that’s very true. When our sinful selves are exposed to God’s glory, we cannot stand. Our sins condemn us. If we were to stand in the full presence of God’s glory on our own merit, we would perish eternally.
That’s where this event of Jesus’ transfiguration has great meaning for us. The glory that Jesus reveals there on the mountain is the glory that we will share. Even though Jesus did not show his full glory to his disciples, they knew full well that the glory he did show them was the glory of God; and that glory was good.
The Bible gives us several references here worth noting. In Romans chapter 8 verse 17 we read: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs— heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
And in II Thessalonians chapter 2 verses 13-14 we read: “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When Jesus was transfigured, it was significant in several ways. First of all, it was a visible sign to the disciples, and to us as well, that he is indeed who he said he was. Jesus Christ is true God, with all of the glory of the Father. And secondly, the glory that Jesus revealed is a glory he came to share with us. We too will have that glory as believers in Christ.
As I studied this text, several people referred to the Transfiguration as an important bridge between Epiphany and Lent. It brings a certain sense of continuity between Jesus’ coming as the Light of the World and Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead on Easter. One pastor even stated, “Without the Transfiguration, Good Friday would have been meaningless.”
How true that is. Had Jesus not been true God, he would not have been able to carry the sins of the world to the cross. He could not have paid the price for our sins. He would have just been another man to have died at the hands of the Roman government.
That’s why we always need to remember exactly who Jesus is—true God and true man. He set aside his Godly glory and humbled himself. He went from the Mount of Transfiguration to Mount Calvary as our servant to be crucified and punished for our transgressions; yours and mine. He did this so that through faith alone we would share in his glory and inherit eternal life.
It doesn’t matter who we are or what our lives look like. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in our lives that merit God’s punishment. Our past doesn’t matter anymore; what matters now is our future. That future is guaranteed by Christ and it is ours through faith alone in him as our Saviour from sin. Through that simple faith, he shares that glory with us, so that we may stand in the holy presence of God and live forever.
As a little kid, seeing Las Vegas at night for the first time was an awesome sight for me. Today I realize that there is nothing else on earth that can compare with all those lights. I see why they need the Hoover Dam to generate all that power. And I would also guess that the neon sign companies probably rival the casinos in profits. But of course I didn’t think about any of that stuff as a little kid. All I could do was stand there trying to take everything in, wide-eyed with my mouth agape.
That’s essentially what the disciples did at the Transfiguration. They didn’t know the mechanics behind what they were witnessing, but they knew it was from God, and therefore good. They even heard the voice of God speaking, as our Gospel for today says: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Yes, listen to him. These are words for us as well as the disciples who were with Jesus on that mountain. And so we, who are Jesus’ disciples in the world today, have a glory we need to share. We experience this glory every time we set foot in this church building to worship. We experience this glory every time we open our Bibles. We experience this glory every time we come to the Lord’s Table. When we believe in him and listen to him, we indeed share in his glory.
The glory of Jesus is represented by light. So as we go forth and prepare ourselves for the Lenten season ahead of us, let us remember the words of Jesus in John chapter 8 verse 12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” May Jesus always be the light of our life and our sure hope for the life to come.