Sermon: The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus

Come with me to the mountaintop. A short while ago, Jesus gathered his disciples at Caesarea Philippi and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Then Jesus begins to explain that this will mean suffering and death before the glory of the resurrection. This doesn’t seem right. Peter pulls Jesus aside, but finds himself rebuked as speaking the words of Satan, instead of God. Jesus reveals that following after him will be a road of suffering and death as well. But then, six days later, he leads us up the mountain. Matthew 17, verses 1-13. Come with me, but before we do, let us pray:

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

After six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But 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.”

The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things, but I tell you Elijah has already come and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God

We need to know what story we are in in order to know how to respond. An event without context becomes difficult to understand. Alasdair MacIntyre illustrates the point this way. Imagine you are at a bus stop. A adolescent boy comes up to you and says, “The scientific name for the common duck is historianicus historianicus historianicus.” How do you explain what just happened? It could be that the boy is suffering from a mental illness that causes him to speak random facts to strangers. Perhaps, instead, someone who looked almost like you was at the bus stop yesterday and asked the boy what the scientific name was for the common duck. Mistaking you for that person, he tells it to you. Or, perhaps, the boy is a foreign spy who is uttering his not-so-clever pass phrase to reveal his identity as a spook. The same event can have wildly different meanings depending on what story we are in. And our response would be different too. We need to know what story we are living in so we can know what is happening.

The same principle is true of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. What story are we in that helps us understand what is happening on that mountain. When in doubt, go back to the book. Where else does this show up in Scripture?

Maybe you can help me out: A holy man of God goes up a high mountain. On that mountain, he hears the voice of God. Is there anywhere else that this happens in scripture? What about a time where a man of God goes up a high mountain covered with clouds and, upon encountering the LORD, his face shines?

The first thing we should note is that in the Bible, mountains are places of revelation from God. Jesus doesn’t speak the Sermon on the Mount on the mount only so that people would be able to hear him. Again and Again, the people of God receive revelation from God on a mountain. This conditions our hearts to expect that when Jesus goes up this mountain with Peter, James, and John, God is going to reveal something to them.

However, there are two Old Testament stories that closely parallel this one that give us an even deeper glimpse into what is taking place. By no accident, they are the stories of the two men who appear talking with Jesus on the Mountain – Moses and Elijah. Listen to this:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the LORD; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him…When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. Then Moses entered the cloud as he went up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:1-2, 15-18)

And then this:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29-30)

Jesus’ transfiguration is a Sinai-moment. After six days, the voice of the Lord is heard on the mountain. Moses brings three people with him – Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. Jesus brings Peter, James, and John. The mountain is covered with cloud. After talking face to face with the LORD, Moses’ face is radiant. When Jesus is transfigured and his glory revealed, his face shone like the sun. It is the same story, only greater. Jesus is having a Sinai-moment. But listen to this:

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Jesus’ transfiguration is a Sinai-moment. Horeb and Sinai are the same place, so Elijah goes up on the Mountain of God in order to come into the presence of the LORD. The power and glory of God are revealed in a voice. While it is likely that Jesus’ transfiguration took place on one of the mountains in the northern part of Israel, the mountain isn’t named. All we are told is that Jesus and these three disciples went up a high mountain. I think this is intentional to make us hear Sinai in the background, even if that is not where it took place.

What story we are in tells us how to understand what we are seeing. When Jesus takes those disciples up on the mountain, he is taking them to reveal the glory of God. Moses saw the glory of God on Mount Sinai in a voice from a cloud. Elijah saw the glory of the LORD in a voice on the mountain of God.

After six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

The similarities tell us what story we are in, but the differences tell us how much greater Jesus is than Moses or Elijah. Moses and Elijah again stand on the mountain and behold the LORD. They see Jesus who, for a moment, has pulled back the veil on his glory. Moses’ face shone with a reflected glory from his encounter with the LORD, but Jesus’ face shines like the sun itself. Up on that mountain, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The Holy God who set the stars in motion, who knit us together in the womb, who causes nations to rise and fall, who sends rain upon the earth and makes the sun to shine, this God stands before them in his glory. They stand on the mountaintop and again the glory of the LORD is revealed, only this time more fully in the face of Jesus. John would glimpse this glory one more time on this earth, many years later on the island of Patmos.

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands and among the lamp stands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sin shining in all its brilliance.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

How do you respond to seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. On Patmos, John falls down on his face. But on that mountaintop, with Jesus transfigured before him, Peter – blessed, foolish Peter – doesn’t at first.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter sees the glory of the LORD in the face of Jesus Christ and he wants to set up tents. Setting aside the wisdom of pitching tents, the more significant thing is that Peter wants to be doing something for Jesus. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Peter has declared rightly the identity of Jesus – You are the Messiah, the Son of the living Godand now he sees Jesus for who he is. Peter’s first reaction is to take the initiative and try to do something for Jesus.

Mark’s gospel inserts the comment that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. But he couldn’t stop himself. Even when he didn’t know what he was doing, he had to be doing something. I wonder if we ever feel the same way, particularly when we have a strong encounter with the presence of God. We spend our whole lives trying to earn our way, trying to do, trying to achieve. None of us ever achieves all that we set out to do, which can make our hearts insecure and fearful. We feel the need to justify our existence through our work and our actions. And then those moments when we feel God’s holy presence.

We are like Isaiah, who saw the LORD, high and exalted, seated on the throne, and heard the seraphim proclaiming, Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory. Isaiah cried out, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King the LORD Almighty.”

Woe to me! I am ruined! But then, like Peter, can begin to double down on doing something for God, something to earn, something to quiet our anxiety, something to make us able to stand in his presence.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Is this what you want? If not, I’ll do something else. Please, let do something. Is it this? Or this? Or this? Or this? What do you want me to do?

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said, “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

This, my friends, is the gospel. Peter wanted to do, wanted to work, wanted to achieve something for Jesus, but the voice of the Father says, “Listen!” Peter wanted to work, to try and justify his existence, knowing he could not stand before the LORD. But if you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, LORD, who could stand?

Upon hearing the voice, the disciples do the only proper thing – they fall on their faces before the LORD. This is what happens every time we come to worship. We sing praises and behold the glory of the LORD in the face of Jesus – we sing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ and then stop and say with Isaiah, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King the LORD Almighty.” This is confession. We do it every week because it is the only honest response to coming into the presence of God. We come and acknowledge our sin and fall on our faces in prayer to the LORD.

But then something amazing happens: the gospel happens. When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said, “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Jesus reaches out, stoops down, and touches the disciples. By his loving touch and gracious word, he makes this disciples able to stand. Where before they were cast down on their faces before the LORD, because of Jesus Christ, they are able to stand in the presence of the living God.

This is the promise of the gospel. In the face of Jesus Christ, we behold the glory of God. In Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness of sins. At the touch of Christ, we can stand in the presence of God. Get up, O sinner redeemed by my grace. Rise, O Sleeper. Wake, O ye dead. When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. No one except Jesus.

There is gospel on that mountaintop. When Jesus is transfigured before them, they behold the glory of God in his face. Jesus reveals himself to them with just a glimpse behind the veil. They fall down on their faces before the glorious presence of the LORD and Jesus lifts them up to stand in his presence. That is the promise for all who humble themselves to call upon the name of the LORD. We who are ruined would be made whole. We who are covered in guilt would be made clean. We who have fallen would be told, Get up, don’t be afraid.

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, LORD, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be revered.

Praise to our Lord Jesus, who has lifted up the faithful to stand in his presence.

Friends, the promise of the gospel is not only that the beloved of God will stand in his presence, but that they are invited to eat and drink with him. If you have been washed clean and fallen on your face before the LORD, come eat and drink at the table of the King. If Jesus has touched you and set you on your feet, come sit at the banquet table, where we taste and see that the LORD is good. If you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and confess with a sincere heart what the Father proclaimed about Jesus – that Jesus Christ is the beloved, precious, and unique Son of God – and you strive daily to listen to him, then come feast with the people of God before the presence of God.

Come, for these are the gifts of God for the people of God.

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