I’d be willing to bet that everyone here – even the children – would be able to explain what Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are all about. Jesus was born. Jesus died. Jesus rose again. But what about this day: Transfiguration. What is this day all about? Sadly, many Christian churches don’t celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord anymore for reasons we will briefly touch on. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was transfigured. Why? For our benefit now and eternally, today, we will find out.
As we have noted throughout the Epiphany season, all of Jesus’ miracles serve one main purpose: to convince us that he is the Son of God, one with and equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. And that’s not my opinion but the clear declaration of Scripture. John writes near the end of his Gospel: Jesus did many other miraculous sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31) All of the miracles Jesus did during his earthly ministry reveal him as the Son of God, and these miracles reach their climax in the Transfiguration, the one and only time Jesus fully revealed his deity on earth.
Unfortunately, it has become disturbingly common today to downplay, distort and even deny these miracles. We are told that enlightened and educated 21st century people no longer believe in miracles, so if the Christian Church wants to maintain its influence and relevance in the world it needs to stop insisting that Jesus actually turned water into wine (John 2:1-11), calmed a stormy sea (Luke 8:22-25), fed 5000 with a boy’s lunch (Luke 9:10-17), and instantly healed sick people with a touch or a word (Luke 6:17-19).
We need to stop saying that these miracles actually happened because according to today’s scientific and rational standards, they couldn’t have. But if you buy in to that – and still insist on calling yourself a Christian – then you’ve put yourself in something of a bind. If these miracles didn’t actually happen, what do you do with them? You can’t pretend they’re not there – Christians have taught and believed them for 2000 years. You can’t just cut them out – all you’d be left with is the sad story of a poor, illegitimate Jewish boy who spoke eloquently and seemed to have some potential but wound up ticking off the wrong people and getting himself killed. Hardly an inspiring story. Since false teachers can’t get rid of the miracles, they do the next best thing: repurpose and repackage them; often as parables which teach important lessons that are supposedly more relevant to life in the 21st century; lessons that teach us how we can make this world a better place. Ironically, they are trying to do what Peter tried – establish heaven on earth. This is called the social gospel. Thus the feeding of the 5000 is repackaged as a call to support food stamps and welfare programs and a mandate to the church to open its own food pantry. The healing of the sick is repurposed to give support to Medicare for all and validate faith-healings today. Jesus may not have actually calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, but he is saying that we should watch our carbon emissions and do everything we can to stop climate change. Repackaged this way, we are told, makes the church relevant and Jesus’ miracles meaningful (and acceptable) to 21st century Americans.
While it is true that most of Jesus’ miracles did relieve the pain and suffering of real people in real ways – this social gospel theory hits a roadblock when it reaches the miracle before us today: Jesus’ transfiguration. There’s no doubt that the transfiguration was a miraculous event: Jesus glowed like the sun from the inside out, Moses and Elijah were there – alive, God spoke from heaven. The transfiguration was a miracle. But this miracle didn’t feed the hungry, cure the sick, or calm any storms. This miracle did nothing for anyone except give three of Jesus’ disciples a glimpse of his true glory as God. It confirmed to their eyes the Word proclaimed by the voice from heaven: this is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him. It’s hard to twist this miracle into some sort of social message – which is why it’s become acceptable in large segments of Christianity to classify “problem” miracles like this one, the six-day creation, the virgin birth, the resurrection, as myths. Things that never really happened, but were instead invented by the early church to pump up Jesus’ reputation so that people would listen to his social and moral message.
Such people think that twisting the Word of God like this is brilliant and innovative, but it’s pretty clear that this was happening already in the days of the apostles. Peter confronted this view directly in our second lesson: we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18) Peter is unequivocal in stating that he and the other disciples saw these things with their own eyes and heard them with their own ears. Peter testifies that Jesus is the Son of God – and that his miracles – especially his transfiguration – prove it.
And so, as we stand here today with those disciples and see Jesus in glorious splendor – his face shining like the sun and his clothes as bright as a flash of lightning – we too should walk away with the firm conviction that this Jesus is indeed the one, true God. Because if we leave this mountain today with that conviction, then we will be well prepared for Lent. Then when we see Jesus bleed and suffer and die, we will know that this is not just a man, but the Son of God suffering and dying to take away the sins of the world.
Because, once we believe who Jesus is, we will be prepared for what he came to do. Luke introduced our text by saying about eight days after Jesus said this… What had Jesus said? The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Luke 9:22) And when Moses and Elijah appeared guess what they were talking about? His departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. In any other circumstance, this would be shocking and disturbing. If you or I were to casually mention that we were preparing for imminent death, it would sound like we were planning to commit suicide, it would be viewed as a cry for help. But in the company of Moses and Elijah it is only proper that Jesus would discuss his impending death. Everything Moses and Elijah preached and wrote pointed ahead to this man and this moment: the promised One of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 5:39); which assures us that the ugly, unjust, brutal events of Jesus’ passion weren’t simply the result of tragic circumstances or the culmination of the plans of some evil men – but that God’s plan from eternity called for Jesus to willingly suffer and die for the sins of the world.
In that sense, this preparation was not for Jesus as much as it was for the three disciples. Just like staring at a bright light burns an image on your eyes, so Jesus wanted his glory to be etched on his disciples’ memories. He wanted this view of glory to strengthen their faith in the testing it would undergo when they would later see him fall on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane and pour out his soul to his Father (Luke 22:39-46); when they would deny and abandon him in his moment of greatest need (Luke 22:54-62); when they would see him arrested and hauled off like some violent criminal (Luke 22:47-53); when they would see him mocked and beaten (Luke 22:63-65) and nailed to a cross. When Peter, James, and John finally put all the pieces together after the resurrection, he wanted them to recall this day on the mountain and understand that it had to be this way; that according to God’s plan Jesus had to be betrayed and convicted, whipped and beaten and crucified – because only his blood, the priceless blood of God, could pay the price for the sins of the world.
As we prepare to step out of the bright season of Epiphany onto the dark road of Lent, from witnessing the heights of Jesus’ glory to the depths of his humiliation, keeping this image of him in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration in our minds will also help us to understand and believe. To understand that this was God’s plan all along. Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, had to die – not because he was forced to by the treacherous actions of Judas or the murderous intentions of the civil and religious authorities, but because he wanted to die for us; and then, second, to firmly believe that because this man is the Son of God, his bleeding and dying is enough to wipe away all of our sins and give us the hope of eternal life.
And before we leave this mountain, we receive a preview of the glory of eternal life. This, in the end, is why we are so adamant, so determined to teach and preach that Jesus’ miracles – from the virgin birth to his resurrection – are true, historical events and not merely myths or parables that can be twisted to be relevant in 2019. We must stand firm on this because there is no real hope to be found otherwise. People today have real needs, real weaknesses, real problems – and they really need help – that much the liberal, social gospel preaching churches have right. But their solutions are all wrong. Real hope for the poor in this world won’t be found in a higher minimum wage or in churches who fill bellies but starve souls. Real hope for the sick in this world won’t be found in creating more effective medicines or providing affordable health insurance for all. The real hope for the future of this world doesn’t lie in curbing carbon emissions or controlling the climate. (Remember: Peter tried to keep heaven on earth – and Jesus didn’t even dignify his foolishness with an answer.) The only real hope that anyone in this world can have is that this Jesus is God’s Son whose death on a cross satisfied God’s wrath and opened the door to eternal life.
That’s what Moses and Elijah do – they give us a preview of the glory to come. Do you realize how remarkable it was that Moses and Elijah were there? Moses had been dead for 1400 years (Deuteronomy 34:1-12), and the Lord had taken Elijah out of this world in a whirlwind around 800 years earlier (2 Kings 2) – and yet here they stand before the disciples’ eyes, talking with Jesus about his suffering and death. The lessons they teach can’t be overstated: 1) Heaven is real and all those who have died in faith are living with the Lord there in glory. 2) It teaches us to keep this life in its proper perspective: to remember that this life is preparation for the next; that 70 or 80 years here – whether those years are filled with pain or pleasure – are only a drop in the ocean compared to the glory of the eternal life Jesus has in store for us. So on those hard days – those days of pain and sorrow, those days when you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) – remember this preview of glory on the Mount of Transfiguration; remember and believe that even though this life will never be heaven on earth – the best is yet to come!
But you can only have that comfort, conviction and assurance – and that future – if you believe that the Transfiguration of Jesus was a real, historical event now. That’s why we can’t twist God’s Word to fit the social gospel message that we’re told we need to be preaching in the 21st century – no matter how popular or relevant or acceptable it seems. Because the only real hope for every single person in this world is not the social gospel – not creating heaven on earth (Peter tried that and failed miserably). The only hope this world has is Jesus. Jesus, whose transfiguration on that mountain proves his deity, prepares us for his death, and gives us a preview of his glory. May the Holy Spirit grant us the faith to believe that Jesus is our one and only hope now so that one day, when we are standing with him in his glory we too will say: master, it is good for us to be here. Amen.