SERMON TEXT BELOW
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hamilton, Ohio
Vicar Kaleb Yaeger
February 19, 2023
Exodus 24:8-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
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The season of Epiphany is all about Jesus revealing Himself to the world. Little by little, when He begins His ministry, He starts doing miracles. He starts teaching about Himself. He shows everyone - the crowds, the disciples, even the scribes and Pharisees - who He really is.
Just last week, we heard Jesus redefining the law, with His “You have heard it said… but I say to you” statements. Jesus teaches as one having authority. This leads a lot of people to question His authority. Sure, He’s a rabbi and a teacher, but to speak like that about the word of God? Who is this Jesus guy, anyway?
That is exactly the right question; and the question our gospel text answers this morning.
Jesus takes the first of His disciples, Peter, James and John, up to a mountain by themselves. Jesus is always going up into mountains to pray, to get away from the crowds and to rest. You can imagine the disciples, happy that Jesus has invited them to His prayer time. They go up onto the mountain. Things are peaceful. The beauty of God’s creation surrounds them as they look down on the land of Israel.
Then, abruptly, Jesus is transfigured before them. His face changes, shining as brightly as the sun. His clothes become white as light itself. This is an awe-inspiring sight. Peter, James and John are seeing Jesus as no-one has ever seen Him before. They see Jesus in His glory, in his majesty, in His awesome power. A wonderful vision of God, given as a gift to the first of His disciples.
Just as suddenly, Jesus and the disciples are no longer alone. Two men, who the disciples recognize as Moses and Elijah, are talking to Jesus. Moses represents the Law. Elijah represents the prophets. Jesus fulfills them both.
Peter, realizing what a great privilege he and James and John have been given, says
“Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Peter wants to stay on the Mt of Transfiguration. He wants to see the awesome beauty of Jesus as He speaks with Moses and Elijah. But God has other plans.
While Peter was still speaking, as though God was interrupting him,
behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Suddenly, the disciples realize what’s going on here. Suddenly they understand why Jesus brought them up on a mountain. They remember a mountain. A cloud. A voice speaking from the heavens themselves. Everything clicks into place. This mount of the transfiguration is very much like another mountain from Israel’s history.
Mt. Sinai stands over the landscape. A cloud covers it. God’s voice thunders out, shaking the very foundations of the world. The people of Israel are told to stay away from the mountain. They are not even to touch it, lest they die.
Here, on God’s holy mountain, the law comes. God chisels every word into tablets of stone. Here, God speaks the Ten Commandments. You shall, you shall and you shall not. These echoes of the past ring in the disciple’s ears. Here they are, on a mountain, with a figure shining as brightly as the sun. God the Father’s voice ringing from the heavens. This mountain of the transfiguration and Mt. Sinai are not so different. The disciples begin to understand.
With understanding comes fear. Peter, James and John were content to bask in the glory of God. But now, they have realized what that means. Now, they have remembered the mountain of God’s law. They remember the Ten Commandments. They remember Jesus’ words “But I say to you” It all rings against them like hammer blows. God’s standard is clear and by it, so is their sin. The disciples are not worthy to stand in the presence of the most holy God. They desired to be in God’s presence, but now realize they cannot stand it.
So what do the disciples do? Try to make excuses? Try to justify themselves before God so that they can stand on His holy mountain? To look for loopholes in the law so that God will not smite them where they stand? No, they fall to the ground with their faces in the dirt. Terrified, they cast themselves entirely on the mercy of God.
The disciples lay there, cringing, lying in the dirt. They’re terrified that they have come to God’s holy mountain to be destroyed. But then, the disciples feel someone touch them on the shoulder. Jesus speaks to them. Not in rumbles of Sinai thunder, but in gentleness and in peace. The voice ringing from the heavens told the disciples to listen to Jesus. What does He say?
“Rise, and have no fear.”
This is what the Son of God says. The same Son of God who sharpened the law, expanding it until it was clear that no man was righteous. This is the same Son of God who spoke the law with His own authority. He says to those disciples, the ones who realized their complete and total unworthiness:
“Rise, and have no fear.”
The disciples rise. There is no-one else around. Just Jesus. His face does not glow. His robe is no longer white as light itself. Jesus appears like any other man. Together, they come down off the mountain.
Now, the first of the disciples truly understand who Jesus is. They understand He is the Messiah, the Christ, God Himself coming to visit His people once more. Even so, they still don’t have the whole picture.
The season of epiphany is all about who Jesus is. But that’s only half the picture. Jesus is God. What the disciples don’t know yet is what Jesus came to do. In the moment, they are overjoyed. They have seen God and lived. But Jesus did not come simply to show Peter, James and John His glory.
Jesus walks down from Mt. Sinai. He walks down, out of the glory cloud and down into the world. Down, and then up again. For Jesus’ destination is another mountain. Not a mountain of glory, but a mountain of suffering. A mountain with no cloud covering it. A mountain where Peter will not say “It is good Lord, to be here.” Jesus walks down off Sinai so He can ascend Mt. Calvary.
As the disciples came down from the mountain, they probably wanted to shout for joy, to sing Alleluia, the song of gladness. But Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below. Neither can it be Christ’s.
Alleluia, our transgressions will make Christ for a while forgo all the glories of Mt. Sinai. He will come down off that mountain, exchanging the glory of Sinai for the glory of Calvary. The cross is Christ’s true glory. The mountain of transfiguration is the clearest statement of who Jesus is. The mountain of Calvary is the clearest statement of what Jesus came to do.
Jesus came to suffer. He came to die. We are those who follow Christ. We follow Him and behold His Sinai glory. But Christ does not stop on that mountain. Peter builds no tents there for Jesus. So we follow Him down, off of Sinai and up into the mountain of suffering and death. Holy suffering. A holy death.
Jesus has words for us as He comes down off the mountain. The same words He had for His disciples, because He knew what they would soon face.
“Rise, and have no fear.”
Rise and have no fear, dear Christian, because I took the punishment for your sin. Rise, have no fear of the wrath of God, for it has been poured out on Me. Rise in the face of your suffering. Have no fear in the face of your death. Suffering and death are not signs I have abandoned you. Suffering and death are the very things I came to do. Even I did not remain on the mountain of My glory. So rise, dear Christian, and have no fear. Rise, and follow Me through the sufferings of life. I will not fail you. Have no fear, for I give you no reason to fear.
So we rise and, having no fear, we follow our Lord. We follow Jesus, down off the mountain of the transfiguration. We leave Sinai glory behind with our Alleluias. We follow Christ to Calvary through the dark season of Lent. But even though we walk through the darkness, even though we go down to suffer for Christ’s sake, we fear no evil. Christ has walked this road before us. He will take us to its end.