Every year the Gospel lesson for the last Sunday of Epiphany is the Transfiguration. So, every year this lesson comes up. The reason this text comes up on the last Sunday of Epiphany is because this is the Sunday just before the beginning of Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. So, you could look at this text from the perspective of Epiphany or from the perspective of Lent. We are going to do both. We are going to do both because that is why this text was specifically chosen for this particular Sunday in the church year years ago. It is a transitional text. It takes us from the glory of Epiphany to the humiliation of Lent. It takes us from the heights of the Sacred Mountain to the lows of the Valley of the Shadow of Death where Jesus is crucified for the sins of the world.
Let’s just go back and review what the season of Epiphany is all about and why we have it. I do this not to make the sermon tedious, but rather because so much in worship is lost when we don’t understand the terms. I didn’t understand these things either before seminary, but once you understand the major themes of the church year, you get so much more out of worship.
Most of you know that the word “epiphany” means “a revealing” or a “manifestation” of something that was previously unknown. That is why the two great metaphors of Epiphany are light and darkness. Because you can’t see anything in the dark. Everything hidden from your sight. And it is not until the light turns on that you can truly see.
So, at Christmas Jesus comes into the world, but no one knows who he really is. His identity as the promised Messiah is hidden to them. And so, the season of Epiphany highlights texts from Scripture that reveal Jesus as the Son of God to the people of the world.
This is why we hear about so many of Jesus’ miracles during the season of Epiphany. Obviously, only God can perform miracles, and so the fact that Jesus performs them is irrefutable proof that the power of God is with him, that God approves of him, and that he was sent from God.
So, from the humble trappings of a Jewish carpenter shines forth the glory of God himself. The things Jesus does are downright amazing. He casts out demons. He heals the sick. He gives sight to the blind. He makes the lame walk. Everything is good! In fact, it is so good that the people want to make him king. Until they don’t. That is where Lent comes in.
Once Jesus hides his glory, that is, stops doing miracles and nears his time of suffering and death, the people, and yes even the disciples, abandon him. They abandon him because the glory they once saw, they no longer see. And so, they forget the previous glory because at the present time all they can see is the suffering.
That is where you and I fit into this text today. We are not on the glorious Mountain of Transfiguration, but rather we live in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This world is dying. We are dying. This is not to be pessimistic. The Gospel message is anything but pessimistic. It is the most optimistic message there could ever be, for our Good Shepherd Jesus lead us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to his holy mountain in heaven! All that is certain! All that is true!
But! … we haven’t experienced it yet. We long for it. The same way Peter longed to stay on the mountain. It was all good there. It was heaven on earth. But here is the thing. Although there are brief moments that God graciously gives us where it may feel like we are close to heaven on earth, those moments are only momentary. We have to come down from the mountain. The celestial highs are for heaven, and we’re not in heaven yet.
And yet, we tend to confuse this most important aspect of living. Just like the Apostle Peter became confused. Of course, you can’t build three shelters to make a permanent home for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah! They’ve already gone to heaven. That is their permanent home. And Jesus was about to return to heaven. But first he had to die.
I’m not going to delve too deep into the details of this text, but I want to give you the big picture of what is going on here. Why does Jesus transfigure himself in the sight of these disciples? And what does the transfiguration of Jesus have to do with us today?
So much! Because like Peter we want heaven now. We want the good life now. Even believers grow confused with this central issue. What is it that every human on earth is trying to achieve? The good life! The way each person goes about it is as varied as the number of people on this planet, but we’re all trying to reach a state of living, being, or a state of mind where we can finally say, “This is good! I’m finally content!”
Now, there is nothing wrong with making life better for oneself. What is wrong (and this is where the devil has tricked the world) is thinking that the good life can exist here on earth. This is what is rightfully called a theology of glory. It is the belief and constant pursuit of trying to bring heaven down to earth. Everybody wants to experience heaven—as well they should! Most people, however, are trying to experience it on earth, and if not heaven itself (because they don’t believe in heaven) then the best possible experience known to mankind. Which is so sad, because nothing in this world, even the best experiences of life, can even remotely compare to the experience of heaven. It’s like your child thinking that the local park is more fun than Disneyland. Well, the kid just doesn’t know. She’s never experienced it. And that is how the unbeliever lives. The unbeliever always sets his sights way too low.
Well, Peter, James and John were not setting their sights too low. They saw Jesus unveil his divinity, and they saw him as if they were in heaven. Jesus revealed his heavenly glory to them, and if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah came to visit them too! [Read vv. 2-4]
Now that puts Peter’s following comment into perspective. (The three shelters comment) What he says is not entirely foolish. No, what is happening? What’s happening is that Peter is so enraptured by this experience that he doesn’t want it to end. Mark says he did not know what to say because all three of them were terrified, but in a reverence and awe type of way. God was there! They knelt down in reverence and awe. The Glory of the LORD was present, the same glory that appeared to Moses in the burning bush. And God the Father spoke from heaven. They heard his voice on the sacred mountain (2 Peter 1:18).
Now why does Jesus do this for them? Because of what is going to happen next. Remember that Epiphany is followed by Lent. Up until now, Peter, James and John had witnessed miracle after miracle. They were convinced that Jesus was the Son of God. The three years of Jesus public ministry were the most special time period in the history of the world. And it was about to be over. Jesus was going to hide his glory once again, come down from the mountain, and suffer and die. They saw him after the resurrection, but only a few times and only over the brief span of 40 days. Then Jesus returned to heaven, and they stayed on earth, all the long years until they died.
Realize that the disciples were young men when they first met Jesus. Realize that the majority of their life was lived after Jesus. Realize that Jesus was only with them for three short years. Do you think they ever second-guessed themselves in the aftermath of Good Friday? Well, we know they did. So, how were they going to see through the veil of tears that is this life to keep in front of them the joys of heaven?
By remembering! By remembering the many examples of Jesus’ glory that they had surely seen. Jesus wasn’t fake. What they experienced was not just a dream. In the Transfiguration Jesus encourages them with a foretaste of heaven. Because we need to be encouraged if we’re going to make it to the end.
You and I are in the period of history that comes after Jesus was here on earth. It is very similar to Peter, James and John’s experiences in the many long years after Jesus’ ascension. It’s the period we call the New Testament. What do you think they saw during those years? Death. Violence. Unbelief. Immorality. Corrupt government. Poverty. What do you think they experienced during the many long years after Jesus’ ascension before their death? Persecution. Ridicule. Rejection. Sickness. Fear. Loneliness. You get the idea. You see, they still hadn’t made it through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And in the Valley, it is dark and difficult to see what is ahead. They needed the light of Jesus to get them through. Therefore, [read Mark 9:2-3].
You see, this experience (and others like it) are what got Peter through the valley and up to Mount Zion in heaven where he is now. He never forgot! He held on the glory! And when you and I hold on to the glory, when we remember who Jesus is, what he accomplished, the reality of his resurrection, that he is alive today, well then, one day we will also make it out of the valley and experience the transfiguration of heaven! That’s when the theology of glory comes into play—when we’re in heaven! That is when the good life truly starts! God graciously gives us glimpses of it while we are still on earth to encourage us (the way he gave the three disciples a glimpse of it to encourage them) but we don’t expect to have heaven here on earth. This world is ruined by sin. The Good News is that we won’t always be on earth. Our present home may be in the valley, but our future home is on the mountain!
Can you be certain? Yes. Moses and Elijah were there on the Holy Mountain. That means they were real historical figures. That means they made it through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It means we are real people in heaven, not ghosts or whatever other crazy ideas there are out there. It means that we too will be able to talk with Jesus face to face. But not quite yet. For now, we hang on to the glory that is ours through faith. How? By listening to him! [Read v. 7]
That is why we gather together here for worship. And that is why God’s people will continue to gather together for worship until the day of the Resurrection when we will finally see Jesus’ glory in heaven. Amen.