The moon is the brightest object in the night sky. Depending what phase it is in, the moon can provide real illumination at night. It is so significant that military planners have historically taken the phase of the moon into account when developing operations. Whenever possible, night missions have been planned for the least illumination possible from the moon.
While the moon can provide light at night, we recognize that it doesn’t do this on its own. Instead, it simply reflects light that is coming from the sun. It isn’t truly a source of light, but rather it derives its light from another source.
In our Old Testament lesson this morning, we hear about how Moses’ face shines with the radiance of the divine glory after he interacts with Yahweh. It is a sight that frightens the Israelites. While this is impressive, in our Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord we hear about how Jesus’ face shines like the sun. There is nothing reflected here, but instead Jesus’ divine nature is the source of the radiance.
Our Old Testament lesson picks up just after the Golden Calf incident. While Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and the instruction of the Torah, the people came to Aaron and said, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Aaron used their gold to make a golden calf, and the Israelites began to worship it. Moses returned from the mountain, and when he found the scene he threw down the stone tablets and broke them. By this action he showed that Israel had broken the covenant. Yahweh was ready to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, but Moses interceded for the people and God relented from destroying the nation.
Moses had returned to the top of Mt. Sinai as Yahweh reestablished the covenant with Israel. He wrote on a new set of stone tablets, and then Moses came down the mountain to the people. Our text tells us, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Moses had been in the presence of God and the radiance of the divine glory continued to be reflected in his skin, even after he left God’s presence.
Moses’ face shone with divine brilliance and Aaron and all the people were frightened by the sight. When Moses recognized what was happening he began the practice of wearing a veil after he had been speaking with God, and went to speak to the people. We learn from the end of Deuteronomy that Moses spoke with God in a way that no one else did – he spoke face to face with Yahweh – and his shining face demonstrated this.
This background is important for understanding our Lord’s transfiguration and Peter’s response to it. In the Gospel lesson we learn that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain by themselves. Matthew tells us, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
At Christmas we celebrated the incarnation of the Son of God. God the Father sent forth the Son into the world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary. The Son of God – the Second Person of the Trinity – took on humanity without ceasing to be God. During the season of Epiphany we have contemplated how the saving glory of Christ was revealed through his miracles. Today, we see the divine glory of Jesus revealed directly as his face shines like the sun and his clothes are as white as light.
Jesus shone in divine glory, and something else remarkable happened as Moses and Elijah appeared to the disciples and were talking with Jesus. Moses and Elijah were the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament- both had done mighty works. They were both also associated with the end times.
Caught up in the moment, Peter said, “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.” The problem with this statement was that it seemed to place Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. Yet as we have seen, Jesus’ face shone for an entirely different reason.
In our Old Testament lesson, Moses’ face shines with the derived glory of Yahweh. But in the Transfiguration, Jesus Christ shines with the innate glory of God himself. Jesus is God in the flesh. In the personal union the divine and human natures were joined together. Jesus’ face shines like the sun because he is God, not because he has been with God.
Peter was still speaking when God the Father acted to show how wrong the apostle was to put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. We learn that 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.” The Father identified Jesus as his Son, and directed the disciples’ attention to him.
The disciples fell on their faces terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” When they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain the Lord commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
The reference to Jesus’ death helps us to understand the meaning of Jesus’ transfiguration. The Gospel lesson begins with the words, “And after six days.” This specific time reference is very unusual in Matthew’s Gospel, and calls our attention to what has preceded. In the previous chapter, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Next Matthew tells us, “From that time 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.” Peter had just correctly confessed that Jesus is the Christ. And now Jesus says that he is going to be killed. This was too much for Peter. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
In the Gospel lesson we hear words that should sound familiar. We heard them on the first Sunday after the Epiphany when we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord. After Jesus had been baptized, the Spirit descended on Jesus and God the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words were taken from Isaiah chapter forty two and designated Jesus as the Servant of the Lord. We saw that this was Jesus taking our place and beginning his course as the Suffering Servant who would die for our sins.
Now, Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to suffer and die. This is not what the disciples expect of the Messiah. If fact, it sounds like the exact opposite of what a Messiah should be. Peter’s response illustrates this in a dramatic way.
The transfiguration of Jesus holds together two seemingly opposite realities. On the one hand, Jesus has spoken about suffering and death. On the other hand, Jesus stands on the mountain and reveals his divine glory. The transfiguration teaches us that the these are not contradictory.
Jesus has taken on the role of the suffering Servant. He journeys to the cross of Good Friday to offer himself as the sacrifice for our sin. Only in this way can we be reconciled to God. Christ will suffer and die. But this will not be the end. As our Lord tells the disciples after the transfiguration, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” The death of Jesus Christ leads to his resurrection on the third day. It leads to the day when Jesus’ flesh is transformed so that it can never die again. It leads to the resurrection that vindicates Jesus – the resurrection that is the beginning of our own resurrection.
What is true of Jesus is also true of those who believe in him. After predicting his own death, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Our Lord says that those who believe in him will suffer. They will even be killed. But this is not failure or defeat. Instead, the risen Lord is the guarantee that the way of the cross leads to life as we share in our Lord’s resurrection.
Suffering and death. Glory and exaltation. These are not contradictory for Christ, and so they are not for those who have been baptized into Christ. The presence of the former is not a denial of the latter. This is true as well in the experience of our daily life. When we encounter loss and sorrow, this does not mean that God’s love and care is absent. Instead, in Christ’s resurrection we find the presence of God’s love. In Christ we find the living hope, for we know that he has already been exalted in glory as he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God.