Monday, March 03, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 & 2 Peter 1:16-21, onthe Transfiguration of Our Lord, "Jesus Only"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Welcome again to our grade school families and students! Today is the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the miracle you heard about in the Gospel reading. On that day, Jesus’ appearance was briefly transformed before three disciples. His face and clothing shone with a dazzling white brilliance like the sun. A simple and clear reality dawned on them—Jesus was far more than just an ordinary man. And they didn’t come to this conclusion on their own, but God Himself said it: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” God identified Jesus as His Son! It was unquestionably an incredible experience, on that mountain-top!
Almost as incredible, is that Peter, James, and John, the eyewitnesses, had to keep it bottled up, even from the other disciples, until Jesus rose from the dead. They must have been dying to tell the others what they had seen! But who would believe them, with such an incredible experience? They even saw two of the great figures of the Old Testament—Moses, the great lawgiver of the Israelites, who had been dead for over 1,000 years, and Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament, who was taken to heaven without dying! It all might seem too fantastic to believe, about Jesus, who at every other time looked and dressed like any other ordinary man, who had the same dusty feet and sandals, the same familiar beard and robe. And yet they kept this miraculous experience to themselves until after Jesus was raised from the dead. Because only then, after Jesus’ full work of dying on the cross and rising again were complete, would people be able to grasp and believe that Jesus really was the Christ, the Son of God!
The disciples of Jesus were like “cameramen,” recording the events of Jesus’ life. Through their eyes and ears, we see and hear the miracles, the teaching, and the life of Jesus. This is an incredibly important role, but just like the cameramen who make movies today, the way we appreciate their work is not by focusing on them, but by viewing the events they capture. They stand as observers at the edge of the story, but who or what comes into central focus? As we’ll see, it is Jesus who comes clearly into focus. That we are able to see Jesus through their eyes is what it means to be an eyewitness.
Many years after Jesus had died on the cross, and risen from the dead, the Apostle Peter reflected on their experience that day. We read it today in 2 Peter 1. He says, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Eyewitnesses. They saw with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears the “very voice borne from heaven.” Now a good eyewitness, like a good cameraman, keeps the right thing in focus. And notice what is the focus of the whole transfiguration—it is Jesus only. Everything points back to Him. Moses and Elijah stand as witnesses to Him. Their conversation revolves around Him. God the Father’s voice turns the disciples’ attention to Him. And after Peter, James, and John fall trembling to the ground, Jesus touches them and raises them saying: “Rise, and have no fear”. Then what do they see? “No one but Jesus only.” As if to remove any question, God takes control of the “camera lens” and focuses it on Jesus only. Everything and everyone else has dropped out of view.
Why were Moses and Elijah there? They stood as representatives of God’s Old Covenant—the books of law, and the work of the prophets, who both looked forward to the promised Savior. Moses and Elijah both had mountaintop encounters with God before. Today they stand with Jesus who comes to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets. And they have a holy conversation. We don’t know what they said, but Luke’s Gospel tells us the topic of their conversation. They were talking about Jesus’ “departure” or “exodus”, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. What departure? His death on the cross, His rising from the dead, and ascending into heaven. They were talking about the climax of Jesus’ mission! So on this holy mountain they were talking about Jesus going to another mountain, the hill of Golgotha, where Jesus would die on the cross for our sins. Still another clue connects these two together: that little note at the beginning of the reading, “After six days Jesus…led them up a high mountain.” Six days after what? If you read right before this story, it’s six days after Jesus first began to teach His disciples that it was necessary for Him to go to the cross, to suffer, die, and rise again.
But what’s the connection between this glorious transfiguration and the suffering and shame of the cross? And why did Jesus tell the disciples “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead”? The poor disciples obviously had way more than they could process—wrestling six days earlier with what it meant that Jesus would have to suffer and die. Bewildered today by the glorious sight of Jesus on the mountaintop, and things that they could not understand or explain. Since Jesus said not to speak of this until He was raised from the dead, could they have even fully understood what it all meant until then? Hindsight is 20/20 they say, and when we pull in the rest of Scripture, a clearer picture emerges. While at the mount of transfiguration three disciples get a private glimpse of Jesus’ glory as the Son of God, Scripture clearly points to the mount of crucifixion as where Jesus would be “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:9). It was where Jesus would publicly give glory to His Father, for all to see, by doing His Father’s will. The Father who declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”
God was pleased with Jesus because He fully carried out His will, even going to the cross for us. Only after seeing Jesus death and resurrection, seeing the final completion of His work and Jesus’ crowning miracle of rising from the dead, would the disciples be able to grasp the glory of the Transfiguration. Only after Jesus’ death and resurrection made it unmistakably clear that Jesus was the Son of God, with power even over death, would such a glorious appearance make sense. Then they could begin to understand that this was always who Jesus was—the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), and yet clothed in human form. That beneath His ordinary outward appearance, He was ever and always the Son of God. And yet what a wonder that He chose to make His glory publicly known through the shame and suffering of the cross. Through humility and lowliness. But look at another clue—both from the Father’s own words, and then later Peter’s reflections on this day in 2 Peter 1. When God speaks, He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!” The most important lesson they were to take away was to listen to Jesus.
And Peter carried this with him years later when he penned the letter of 2nd Peter. Listen again to what he said after recounting his experience on the mountain, in 1:19, “We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” He’s telling us that the Word of God is more sure, more certain, than to rely on visions or experiences. Although he could confidently say that everything he saw was true and faithfully recorded, he almost downplays his once in a lifetime experience, and says that the prophetic word is of even greater importance. That Word of God is ready and accessible to all of us. It’s not elusive and hard to grasp, but it is so near us as to be in our very hands. The Bible. The Word of God. The witness and record of what Jesus did, said, and taught. The message that lifts up Jesus only, and shows Him to be the only Way to Life with the Father. The Word of God that builds us up on Jesus Christ is the foundation of our certainty and confidence.
So do we build our faith on Jesus alone, and God’s Word that testifies of Him? Or do we rely on our human wisdom? Or do we demand that if we are to believe in God, He must show Himself to us in a vision? Or do we take our personal experiences and elevate them above God’s Word? That would be to ground our faith on sand and uncertainty. But God’s Word grounds our faith and salvation on Jesus Christ. And just as Jesus’ face and garments radiated with the brilliance of the sun, God’s Word is the lamp that shines like a light in our darkness, until the day dawns, and the morning star rises in your hearts. Jesus is that bright Morning Star, He gives light, life, and understanding to the church. To hear and believe His Word in our hearts is more sure and certain than even a face to face encounter with God Himself. Because His Word comes to everyone, and His promises are sure and true. All this He has confirmed by the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ His Son. Jesus, is the central theme, the central character that stands out in sharp focus through all the Bible. May God ever turn our eyes, ears, and hearts to Jesus only, to listen to Him and His Words of eternal life! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Moses and Elijah had both had “mountaintop experiences” where they saw the glory of God during their lifetime (for Moses’ see Exodus 24, for Elijah see 1 Kings 19:9-18). Moses died before the Lord on Mt. Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:5-6) and Elijah did not experience physical death, but was directly taken to heaven in the chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). Together Moses and Elijah stand as witnesses or representatives of the Old Covenant, the Law and the Prophets, before Jesus Christ, who stands as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets.
  2. The transformation of Jesus’ appearance points directly to His divinity as the Son of God, which glory was then hidden again.  Why might Jesus have told the disciples not to speak of this “until the Son of Man is raised from the dead?” Why would  most of the Jews have been unable to accept this witness to Jesus’ divinity before His resurrection? Matthew 9:1-8; 13:55; 26:63-66; John 6:42.
  3. Why might Peter have wanted to prolong the experience on the mountain? To what did the voice of God direct him instead? When Peter later wrote about his experience on the mountain (2 Peter 1:16-21) he reflected on the majestic moment, but said that we “have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” The Word of God has a weightier authority than visions and experiences. Where does this locate our confidence and certainty? Why is that such a good alternative to trusting our own experiences, emotions, etc?
  4. How did Jesus’ touch and His Word change the situation from fear to calm and amazement? Why had they been afraid? What is Jesus’ role as intercessor between us and the Father? What comfort is that to us? Why should “Jesus only” be our focus and center of trust?

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