The Transfiguration of Our Lord

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Matthew 17:1–9  (ESV) 

1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.  3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4 And Peter said to Jesus, “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.”  5 He was still speaking when, 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.”  6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”  8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 

9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

When I was a child, my parents gave me a “Kenner Building Set”. It came with plastic girders, panels, bridges, and turnpikes. With it, I spent many an enjoyable hour constructing skyscrapers and roads. Children seem to be fascinated by building stuff. That explains two other popular toys from long ago: Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs. And today, children are fond of Legos. I imagine that even if you were to put a set of Legos in front of a child who had never seen them before, he or she would soon be busy happily constructing a wall or a house. And in another hundred years, there will certainly be new construction toys.

In the adult world, construction is not a game but big business involving developers, builders, and bankers working together to plan, build, and finance whatever is being constructed. Of course, as Christians, we receive the homes, stores, factories, schools, and churches constructed in our community as part of God’s gracious provision to us.

But there is a form of construction that is not blessed by God and which is evil. I am talking of the human tendency to construct God Himself according to our understanding.

Constructing God according to our human reason is idolatry. The prophet Isaiah illustrates this by telling of a common practice in his day: [A man] plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for [the] man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over [that] half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (44:14-17). This idolater cannot see his folly, that he is falling down to worship a block of wood from the same tree he had cut down for his fire.

St. Peter is also guilty of constructing God according to his own understanding. Just six days before the Transfiguration, our Lord had asked the disciples: who do you say that I am?”[. And…] Peter replied [correctly], “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16). But then, Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (vv 21-22). Peter was constructing Jesus according to his flawed human reason. He rightly confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, but then he insisted that Jesus avoid the suffering and dying by which He would save sinners.

On the mount of transfiguration, Peter again constructs Jesus according to his human reason. In the midst of our Lord being transfigured, Peter wants to construct three tents, one for Jesus and one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter is so awestruck by our Lord’s transfigured glory and by the appearance of Moses and Elijah that he wants to construct tents, really tabernacles, that would house all this glory just as the Old Testament tabernacle had been the dwelling place of God’s glory on earth. But Peter does not understand that Jesus Himself is the new tabernacle. It is just as St. John says in the prologue to his Gospel: the Word became flesh and [tented or tabernacled] among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14). 

Peter wanted to construct on the mountain a tabernacle that would house Jesus’ transfigured glory. Then, there would be no need to go down the mountain to face the suffering and death that awaited Jesus in Jerusalem. Peter is still wanting Jesus apart from the cross. And that is idolatry. Jesus must have His Good Friday. In fact, as St. Luke tells us in his account of the Transfiguration, the topic of conversation among Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was our Lord’s impending exodus, His departure, His death. To answer the question of who Jesus is, you must include both His divinity and His death.

Peter was a disciple of Jesus, but he still got it wrong. He wanted the visible glory of Jesus without the suffering and death. But then God the Father speaks from the cloud: This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him. Jesus is not just God’s Son but also God’s Servant to save sinners. Consider Isaiah 53:11: by His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. In solidarity with sinners Jesus is baptized. And the death for sin—His bearing our iniquities—is laid on Him at His Baptism, where the Father also affirmed Jesus as His beloved Son and the righteous Servant, whose face is steadfastly set to Jerusalem, where He will indeed suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day be raised. 

Peter was guilty of constructing Jesus Christ, God’s Son, according to his understanding that Jesus could save the world while avoiding suffering and dying for sinners. But of course, God was patient, kind, and gracious to Peter. The Father reminded Peter, James, and John to pay attention to what Jesus had been telling them about His mission. And then, Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear”.

Of course, they would still fear. In fact, after Jesus died, the disciples shut themselves up behind closed doors for fear of the Jews, [but then] Jesus came and stood in [their] midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (John 20:19-20).

Like Peter, you and I have often constructed Jesus according to our own human reason. We may never have questioned the need for Jesus to suffer and die, as did Peter. However, we each in our own way have questioned Jesus’ power and love. “If all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, as He says it has (see Matthew 28:18), then why has He allowed evil to continue?” “If Jesus does love me, then why does He allow me to suffer?”. In asking these questions, we show that we are guilty of constructing Jesus into something He is not. We are making Jesus into a dispenser of merely earthly glory. And He came for so much more!

Jesus the Word became flesh and [tented or tabernacled] among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. And understand this, that the glory Jesus displayed on the Mount of Transfiguration is a glimpse of the glory He came to impart to you. The glory that shone from His body is the glory He came to give you, to your very body, at the Resurrection! The glory of His body that day will be your own when He raises you from death.

In order for that to happen, Jesus came down one mountain and began to walk toward another, from the Mount of Transfiguration to Golgotha. From this is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased to My God, My God, what have You forsaken Me?. Jesus dies your death to give you His life. This is how Jesus would bring glory to your body, rescuing you from death and sin—by trading places with you, by owning your shame, by dying lost and alone. Yes, Jesus dies your death to give you His life. He bears your shame to give you His glory. That’s how much He loves you!

Peter constructed an idol, for he wanted a Saviour who could save sinners without having to suffer and die. But the only kind of Saviour Jesus can be is a suffering Saviour. And you and I are guilty of a similar sort of idolatry. We want a Saviour who will give us lives free of all suffering. But the only kind of Christian there can be is a suffering Christian, who follows in the footsteps of his or her Saviour, denying one’s self, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus through suffering and death to the Father’s house.

Let us then repent of all the ways we have tried to construct Jesus according to our human reason. And let us remember that repentance is a gift from God. To all repentant sinners, God proclaims His forgiveness, reminds us to pay attention to His beloved Son, removes our fear, and gives us joy in Jesus.

Imagine the joy of Peter, James, and John on Easter! They see Jesus glorified, never again to be touched by death. Imagine how their hearts burst as they saw Jesus glorified as He was at the Transfiguration, but that way forever. And then they recall how Jesus had promised them: Because I live, you too shall live! (John 14:19).

That changes how you will face your own suffering and death. Baptism makes your final destiny to be a coheir with Christ of His glory. In the water, He says, “You are now My family. You are My sister, My brother. You will share My glory with Me. You will see. The day I raise you from the grave your body with shine like My own!” Amen.