Posted on February 14th, 2011
Life is filled with the mundane, some happy and some not so much: endless driving runs to work, school, lacrosse practice and ballet lessons; broken water heaters, chili suppers, baby showers, and cracks in your windshield. The accident of birth lands some in a place of wealth and freedom, and others in a place of poverty, tyranny, and terror. People are born and grow, eat and sleep, marry and have children, get sick and die. Helplessly trapped in our mortality, in our human limitations, men look for restoration, renewal, reformation, or hope that through evolution, education, and technological advancement we can climb out of our pit, ascend beyond our diseases and wars and debts and finally conquer death itself.
The Jews were looking for a restoration of David’s kingdom, and those who read the prophet Isaiah were waiting for a Messiah to usher in a new creation where lion would lie down with lamb and deserts would bloom and gush with springs of water.
Three of Jesus’ disciples get to see a glimpse of the restoration that the Messiah would bring, but then are immediately told something that seems at direct odds with it. First they see Jesus radiating light blinding as the sun, from within Himself — His form still that of a human being, and yet at the same time celestial. This is the divine nature manifested, epiphanized in the human nature of Jesus, showing that He is at the same time true God, begotten of the Father, and true man, born of the virgin Mary. And then, as they descend from the mountain, He talks of His resurrection from the dead: “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” Which means, of course, that He is going to die. How can the Messiah die? How can one who is true God die? That did not meet their expectations.
The LORD Jesus, although He is true God, did not exercise the powers of His divine nature for His own benefit in the time preceding His resurrection. As true man He hungers, thirsts, feels pain, grows tired, gets warm or cold. As a man He is tempted in every way we are, yet without sin. Finally, as a man He is bruised, abused, beaten; He bleeds, He cries out in agony, He dies. All of this—the setting aside of the powers of the divine nature (which He could have exercised for His own benefit)—is called the humiliation.
In today’s feast of the Transfiguration, the veil of that humiliation is pulled back, and Peter, James, and John get a glimpse of who Jesus truly is. Peter in Matthew 16 had just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, but even now they do not fully understand that Jesus is not simply a great teacher, an inspiring Rabbi, a holy man, a prophet like Moses and Elijah. Peter puts Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah by offering to build three tabernacles, one for each.
But one of these men is not like the others. The Lord JESUS stands in continuity with Moses, Elijah, and all the prophets, but also stands apart as the One to whom they all bore witness. The Lord JESUS is the self-same LORD who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. As the bush burned with fire but was not consumed, so the human nature of Christ was (and is) filled with the divine nature but not destroyed.
The Father’s voice that came from the cloud spoke the same words as at Jesus’ baptism—“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”—but now adds this instruction: “Hear Him!” What Peter, James, and John heard directly, we hear also, through the media of Bible and preaching. We also are told to listen to Jesus and follow His voice alone. The voice of the world says to look out for yourself first of all; the voice of your flesh says to give in to your lusts and sinful impulses; but only the voice of Jesus—only the words of Jesus and the Word that tells us about the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection—only that Word is a trustworthy guide through this valley of the shadow of death.
Peter, James, and John are about to follow Jesus to His gruesome death, and Jesus gives them this vision of the Transfiguration to bolster their courage for the trials to come. As we journey through the mundane, bear our crosses, and finally descend to our own grave, the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus is told to us so we will know that the way of sorrow, the way of suffering, our experience of every temptation and evil was already undertaken by the Godman for us and our salvation, and He will bring us to share in His glory after our own baptism is finally brought to completion in our death. The Transfiguration of Jesus, like the resurrection, is a foretaste of what is to come for our bodies and for all creation.
But Peter wants to stay, skip the way of the cross, and build booths—tabernacles—perhaps as a shrine for future generations to come visit, pray and worship. Peter does not yet understand that the cross must come first, and that the place of worship will be wherever the flesh of Jesus is. His body is the new tabernacle. Remember how back on Christmas Day we heard from John’s Gospel that Christ is called “The Word,” and that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”? Now remember back on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, how I spoke to you these words from the book of Hebrews, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” We talked about this passage in light of the great gifts that Jesus instituted, Baptism which washes the body with water, and the Lord’s Supper where our hearts are sprinkled clean with the blood of Jesus.
But the writer to the Hebrews just before these comforting words compares the sacramental worship life of the New Testament church to the Old Testament tabernacle and implies that all Christians, as a royal priesthood, have the right of access into the holy of holies through the blood of Jesus. Listen to how the writer to the Hebrews puts it:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. (Heb. 10.19-22)
“We have confidence,” that is, the right of access, “to enter the holy places.” How did the Old Testament priest enter the Holy Place? With blood, the blood of the sacrifice. How do we enter? With the blood of Jesus. This is no metaphor, no symbolic way of speaking; the Scripture tells us that this is the “new and living way.” As the Old Testament priests went through the curtain, the veil, so do we enter “through the curtain, that is, through [Christ’s] flesh.” Jesus is both High Priest and victim, a priest who sacrifices not a bull, goat, or lamb, but sacrifices Himself. So where do we receive the benefits of His sacrifice? Where His flesh and blood are. And where are they? Where He has promised them to be, in His Supper; and in case we were in doubt that Jesus means it when He says, “This is my body,” “This is my blood,” the Apostle Paul confirms this by saying, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion in the body of Christ?” And, “The Cup of Blessing which we bless, is it not the communion in the blood of Christ?” This is why, among other things, there cannot be tabernacles built on the mount of Transfiguration, as though there, or in Jerusalem, or Rome, or Wittenberg, or Geneva, is the holy place of worship. Christ is present with His gifts wherever the Church gathers in His name around His Word and Sacraments.
There will not be a single place that will be the locus of worship, but the gifts of God will be wherever the body of Jesus is, and by His Word the body of Jesus is made present wherever the Church gathers in the name of Jesus.
None of this do the disciples understand yet. On the way down from the mountain, they ask Jesus,
“‘Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?’ He answered, ‘Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17.10-13)
Did you catch those beautiful, hopeful words of Jesus, about the restoration of all things? But Jesus’ way of restoring all things is not the way the disciples would choose, nor the way we would choose. In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “‘To restore all things’ does not mean everything is going to work out the way we want it to work out.” The Transfiguration was not an end in itself, but a glimpse of the end as they journeyed to the cross. On the cross, in His suffering and death, is how Jesus accomplishes the restoration of all things, and for us, it will come after we have died to the flesh, died to sin, and are raised, restored, renewed, reformed in our death and on the last day.
So what does all of this mean for you now, as you go back to the mundane, to the broken water heater, the cracked windshield, the laundry, and getting ready for another week, to slog it out again and again and again until you die? It means that in the vision of the Transfiguration, and finally in the resurrection of Jesus, you know what the end is. You belong to Jesus, in whom is the true renewal, the true restoration of all things, the resurrection and the life. The life of the church, and your life as a disciple of Jesus, is an alternative to the values and standards of the world. We are in the world, and thus we use money and homes and cars, have jobs and vote and pay taxes, but our life is not wrapped up in the world’s priorities. Possessions and reputation and carnal pleasures are not what define you or give your life meaning. As disciples of Jesus you follow Him to Jerusalem, you bear your crosses, you live under the banner of the forgiveness of sins—praying for your own forgiveness and forgiving those who trespass against you—always knowing that what is coming for you is not just another week of work, another set of problems, minor victories, little joys, but all ending in death; what is coming for you and all believers in Christ is the parousia, the return of Jesus the transfigured and resurrected One, and the restoration of all things. In Him your sins are forgiven and you are righteous, and even your dead body shall be transfigured to be like His glorious body, and you shall abide in His kingdom forever and ever and unto the ages of ages. +INJ+