Text: Luke 9:28-36
The story is told about a new graduate from the seminary who went out to his first congregation, a country church which had a long history. As he was conducting his first worship service, he noticed right away that everyone sat on one side of the church. That seemed sort of strange. When it came time to sing the sermon hymn, the new pastor was amazed to see the entire congregation stand up, walk over to the other side of the church and sit down to sing. This new pastor couldn't figure it out. No one explained it to him. The same thing happened week after week. Finally the pastor pieced it together: many years earlier, the church was heated by a woodstove over on one side of the building. The building was cold during the winter. When people first got to church, everyone sat on one side, close to the woodstove. As the service would go on, the woodstove would get very warm, too warm for comfort, and so the congregation developed the practice of moving over to the other side of the church before the sermon hymn.
Even though the church building had been remodeled several times and the woodstove had long since been replaced, the congregation still kept its practice of changing sides during the service. Most of the members didn't even know why; it was just something they did every Sunday.
Some parts of the Bible seem the same way. Today's gospel lesson about Jesus' transfiguration is one example. To many Christians, the transfiguration story is a familiar one: Jesus took 3 disciples up the mountain, his appearance changed, Moses and Elijah were there, the disciples were afraid, and then it was over. Many Christians know the details of the story, but not the meaning. Yet Jesus' transfiguration is important to you as a Christian. Maybe you don't usually think about it that way, but these words from Luke's gospel mean a lot to your faith. On top of that unnamed mountain, Luke shows us that Jesus Reveals His Glory. This account is important to you because in it, Jesus shows you that he is God's Son, and that his words are true.
In his transfiguration, Jesus shows us that he is God's Son. Luke tells us in today's gospel lesson that Jesus took 3 of his disciples up a mountain by themselves to pray. Did you ever wonder why Jesus took these 3: Peter, John and James, his brother? When you look at the New Testament, you see that these 3 were Jesus' closest disciples. They wrote parts of the New Testament. They were Jesus' most devoted followers. Just a week earlier, Peter had made his well-known confession about Jesus: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." The disciples believed that Jesus was God's Son. Jesus was going to prove it to them.
On the mountain, as Jesus was praying, Matthew's gospel tells us that "He was transfigured before them." That's where today gets the title "Transfiguration Sunday." "Transfigured" isn't a common word nowadays; it simply means that Jesus was changed. Luke explains that change: "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning." Peter, John and James had seen Jesus day after day for quite a while. They knew his human appearance very well. What happened to Jesus showed them that there was much more to Jesus than a human appearance. What happened to Jesus was a miracle. God let the disciples see some of Jesus' glory as God the Son. God wanted the disciples to know that Jesus truly was his Son. The disciples understood. John wrote about this experience in his gospel: "We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."
Luke tells us that Jesus' disciples were tired--no doubt from climbing that mountain. They were sleepy. Yet when they saw Jesus changed in front of them, they woke up fast. God was giving Peter, James and John a wake up call. When God showed Jesus' glory to those disciples, he was telling them, "Wake up! This really is my Son!"
If the disciples had any doubt about what was happening, God took it away with what they saw next. Luke writes, "Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus." Moses and Elijah had been long gone, Moses buried and Elijah taken up to heaven. Yet here they were talking with Jesus. The disciples knew that they were seeing something supernatural, something beyond normal human experience. Here was Jesus revealed in his glory as the Son of God, along with two of the greatest men of the Bible: Moses, who brought God's law to the world, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets.
Imagine being one of those disciples! After listening to Jesus tell you that he is God's Son, he takes away your doubts shows you that he really is God's Son. You see heavenly glory: Jesus' glory as God's Son, the glorified forms of two great heroes of the faith. No wonder Peter exclaimed, "Master, it is good for us to be here." It was good for them--God was blessing them.
Yet Peter was also good at shooting off his mouth. When Jesus predicted his own death, Peter said "Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!" Jesus had to put Peter in his place. You remember Peter's promise, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." Yet Peter was quick to deny Jesus. In this midst of this vision of Jesus' glory, Peter said, "Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." Peter knew that he was being blessed to see Jesus reveal his glory. He wanted the experience to last a long time, and he figured that if he made shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, they could stay for a much longer time. Luke tells us that "He did not know what he was saying."
Before Peter could even finish making his foolish offer, Luke tells us that "While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him'."
This is the high point of the Transfiguration story. Everything has been building up to this cloud and this voice. This is what the Transfiguration story means to you. This is why it's in the Bible. "While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him'." The disciples certainly knew whose voice it was--God himself was speaking, the Creator, the Heavenly Father. God announced the same thing he announced when Jesus was baptized: 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' For the disciples, there could be no more doubt about Jesus. He was God's Son. For us there can be no doubt about Jesus either. At the Transfiguration, when Jesus reveals his glory, we learn beyond any doubt that he is God's Son.
Well, maybe you didn't doubt that. Maybe you already knew that the Transfiguration showed that Jesus is God's Son. Is that all God means to teach us?
Not at all. At Jesus' transfiguration, God didn't just want to show us the simple fact that Jesus is the Son of God. He also showed Peter, James and John, and shows us today just what we are to do with that fact. When God spoke from the cloud he said, 'This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him'. God added that command, "Listen to him!" In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, God used Moses' words to promise that he would send a great prophet, his own spokesman. Moses wrote, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him." God's message was clear: Jesus was that prophet, the fulfillment of his promise, his messenger to the world. Think what that must have meant to Jesus' disciples: Jesus had claimed that he would suffer and die for the sins of the world, and his disciples doubted. Now God put an end to their doubts by announcing that Jesus' words were true. When Jesus speaks, we need to listen because God tells us that his words are true!
The disciples knew who was speaking to them. Matthew tells us that the disciples "fell facedown to the ground, terrified." They knew that they were in God's presence. They knew that they were guilty of doubting Jesus. They knew that they were sinners in God's holy presence, and they knew that sinners deserve death in the presence of their sinless creator! When we hear God's words, "Listen to him," we feel some of those disciples' fear. We know that we are sinners just as they were. We are imperfect and unholy before God. We too have doubted Jesus' message, we've doubted God's Word and disobeyed his commands. God tells us what to believe, and we don't want to believe it. God tells us how to live, and we want to live our own way. As sinners, we deserve to be terrified, just as the disciples were, because we deserve God's anger and punishment too. As sinners, we deserve to live in fear of eternal hell.
Yet the transfiguration story wasn't meant to scare us into believing God. After the disciples "fell facedown to the ground, terrified," Matthew tells us that "Jesus came and touched them. 'Get up,' he said. 'Don't be afraid'. When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, 'Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead'." Jesus didn't reveal his glory to put the fear of hell into his followers. Rather, Jesus revealed his glory to show his disciples that his words are true, and that sinners don't need to fear God's punishment anymore. Jesus meant it when he said that he had come to pay for the sins of the world. Jesus came to live a perfect life in place of our sinful lives. He meant it when he predicted that he would suffer and die--he was going to suffer and die for the sins of all people, suffering God's anger in our place so that we could be forgiven. His words were true when he announced that he would rise from the dead, and we know that those words were true because the Bible tells us how Jesus came out of his tomb, showing us that he had paid for our sins. Jesus, God's Son, came to be our Savior. He told his disciples and us that he came to rescue us from hell and to give us heaven. In the Transfiguration story, we learn that his words were true, and we thank God that he has given us heaven instead of the hell we deserve.
That's what the transfiguration of Jesus meant to his disciples. They knew for a fact that they could believe Jesus and everything he told them. That's what it means for us too. When we hear or read again this part of Jesus' life, we realize what it means--God is showing us that we can believe his Word, because he made it come true. Peter put it this way in his first letter: "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." That's how Jesus spoke God's Word--by the Holy Spirit. That's why we can believe the writers of the Bible--because God inspired them through his Holy Spirit. When you are tempted to sin, remember that Jesus, God's own Son, died to free you from sin, and follow him rather than sinful temptation. When you doubt whether God forgives you or doubt whether you can believe the Bible or doubt whether Jesus is your Savior, remember God's words, "Listen to Him," and remember Jesus' promise of heaven. That's why God gave us this part of the Bible, because in his transfiguration Jesus Reveals His Glory, and leaves us no doubt that he is God's Son, and that his words are true.