Two Sermons on the Transfiguration: “A Terrible, Beautiful Mountain” & “When Words Fail You”

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Sermon #1: A Terrible, Beautiful Mountain


And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.” (Matt 17:1–4)

It’s not hard to understand why Peter wants to stay on this mountain. Who wouldn’t! What an experience! First they get a backstage pass to meet two of the biggest rock stars of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah. But that was just the opening act! Then, there on that mountain they witnessed the Transfiguration of our Lord Himself, shining in all His brilliance. It’s a well-known fact that great things often happen on mountains in the Bible.

Remember what happened to Moses on the mountain? After he’d received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai we are told that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Truly a mountaintop experience. But Mt. Sinai isn’t a place God wants to leave you on, because that’s where the Law comes from, and the Law cannot save you from your sin. The Ten Commandments are a terminal diagnosis. They show you just how deeply infected you are with sin. Mt. Sinai is important—without the diagnosis we will see no need for a cure—but it’s not a good idea to sit around staring at a diagnosis all day without seeking treatment.

We tend to romanticize mountains. From Mt. Sinai we learn about our sin, and even the mount of Transfiguration has a dark side to it. For all its brilliance, Moses and Elijah were there to talk about death—the death of the Lamb of God for your sin. Not a pretty conversation.

You might think a mountaintop, like that of Mount Everest, would be one of the pretties places in the world. We see pictures of the snow-capped mountains and imagine such a remote place would be pristine and undisturbed. But after fifty years and thousands of climbers, an incredible amount of garbage has been left behind on the mountain. The climbing routes are littered with broken equipment, half-eaten food, and empty oxygen containers. In 2013 alone, climbers brought over 1.5 tons of garbage down from the mountain, including the remains of a helicopter that crashed into the mountain in the 1970s.[1] In reality, it’s a mountain that’s filled with garbage.

The same might be said of our lives. We make messes of things. Sometimes our efforts to clean things up even make things worse. We keep thinking we can do better if only we try harder. But even our best efforts end in failure, and the truth is we do not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want is what we keep on doing (Romans 7:19). We don’t want to keep making messes of things, but we just can’t help ourselves. You have to turn a blind eye to a lot of messes to think we’re good people. But even if we do, God does not. As Scripture says: there is none who do good, not even one (Psalm 53:3). Sinai, with the Law’s condemnation, isn’t a fun place to be.

This is why Jesus ascended mount Calvary, where the words Jesus spoke to Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration were put into action. Jesus refused to let us rot in our filth. He took all of your ugliness into Himself. He was so marred as to be beyond human semblance. Crucifixion isn’t pretty. In this sense, Calvary is a terrible mountain.

But it’s also a beautiful mountain, for there you see just how much you matter to your Lord, that not even a mountain of sin could keep Him from dying for you. It’s a mountain we do well to fix our eyes upon, to consider how great is His love for us, especially when things get messy.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain with them, and it was surely a great encouragement for them in the days to come. But Jesus didn’t leave them up there. What goes up must come down. Sometimes God encourages us with great “mountaintop” experiences, but mostof our lives are lived in the valley. It can get messy down there. When it is, fix your eyes on Jesus.

Sometimes we get so caught up in looking for the spectacular that we miss the holiness of the ordinary. You might expect Peter, reflecting on his experience on the mountain, to say, “that was really something,” and encourage us to go and search for our own “mount of transfiguration” experiences. But instead, he says: 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.

As we come back down from the mountaintops and walk through the valleys, Jesus doesn’t leave you alone. The journey is long and treacherous, but His Word is a light to your path.

Neither is life lived from the top of a mountain. Peter’s request to stay on the mountain was a rather selfish one. Life isn’t about our comfort and glory. It’s about pointing others to Jesus, to the mountain upon which He was glorified.

After witnessing the events on the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples fell on their faces and were terrified. Sometimes things happen to us that leave us hurting and afraid, too. Like Jesus in Gethsemane, and like Jesus on the cross, we cry out to our heavenly Father– only to be met with deafening silence.

But if God seems silent, it’s only because we’re listening for His voice in the wrong places. Just as the Father spoke and confirmed His pleasure with Jesus at His baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration, so also He has spoken His Word over you at the font, something even more sure than glorious mountaintop visions. You have the reassuring voice of God’s love in the Word made flesh, whose resurrection on the third day confirmed all of God’s promises. God’s voice is not silent; He continues to speak to you through the Gospel.

You have not only the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah and all the promises of God; you have their fulfillment. You have Christ crucified and risen. You are not alone; Jesus is with you. He takes away your sin. He removes the curse of death and silences the accusation of Satan. He gives you His risen and living Body and Blood. He is with you always, in the good times and bad, and brings you to feast with Him on His Holy mountain now in His Supper and for all eternity in paradise. As the prophet has spoken:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken (Isaiah 25:6-9).

Sermon #2: When Words Fail You


The transfiguration–the appearance of Jesus in his glory–is a very important event in Jesus’ ministry.  Just prior to the transfiguration, Jesus began to teach his disciples about his suffering, death, and resurrection.  The last thing He says to them before going up the mountain is, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” (Mat 16:28).  That’s the transfiguration: a glimpse of the Son of Man coming in power.  But the cross comes before the crown.  Jesus has to suffer and die before he could  rise victorious.

God’s promise of a suffering yet victorious King were nothing new, so these things shouldn’t have caught anybody off guard.  Psalm 22 records the words of Jesus prior to his suffering and death on the cross, which says, “My life ebbs away: all my bones are disjointed; my heart is like wax, melting within me; my strength dries up like a shard; my tongue cleaves to my palate; You commit me to the dust of death,” (Psa 22:15–16).  But death was not to have the final word, for as God promised David, Jesus’ throne was to be established forever (2 Sam 7:16).  In fact, these promises go back even before the creation of the world.  Revelation 13:8 describes Jesus as the Lamb who had been slain from before the Creation of the world. 

This was God’s eternal plan to save.  It shouldn’t have caught anyone off guard, much less Jesus’ closest disciples.  But it did.  In what should have been a moment of great joy and rejoicing, instead the disciples were terrified.  Have you ever been so nervous you just started talking a lot?  That’s what Peter did when he suggested they build those shelters.  After Peter finishes babbling, St. Mark comments in his Gospel: “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” (Mark 9:6).  Instead of rejoicing, Peter’s spewing forth this nonsense and all three of them are so nervous the first thing they’re going to have to do when they get down from the mountain is find a new pair of pants! 

Have you ever found yourself not knowing what to say to God?  You want to pray, but the words fail you?  Or maybe you find yourself multiplying words to God but not really saying anything at all.  Or maybe the words are correct, but your mind is elsewhere, like when we pray the liturgy or the Lord’s prayer.  I can remember on more than one occasion I wanted to pray at night but I was really tired and actually fell asleep while praying.  Is this really the best we can do? 

I don’t know about you, but when I mess something up really badly, I have this tendency of replaying it  over and over in my head.  I come up with all these really clever things I would have said or done if I had it to do over again.  Hindsight’s 20/20. 

Poor Peter.  Here he makes a total fool of himself, and worse, in the courtyard, he’ll deny his Lord three times.  Surely these things would plague Peter as he would replay these events in his mind.  But Jesus didn’t leave Peter with nothing more than the memory of his transgressions.  This is precisely why Jesus brought him to the mountain, so he could look back and also remember the glory of Christ, glory that Jesus didn’t withhold from him despite his wrongdoing. 

The transfiguration is meant to encourage and strengthen you in your faith, too.  God doesn’t leave you with nothing more than feelings of guilt or the memory of your transgressions.   When words fail you, turn to His Word.  He has given you his very own prayer, not to mention 150 psalms, and the liturgy of the Church, all of which give you the vocabulary of the faith. 

The best prayer isn’t fumbling around trying to come up with the right words: it’s speaking back to God what’s most sure and certain, His Word.  Don’t worry about trying to find the right thing to say.  Pray the Lord’s Prayer, pray a psalm, pray the liturgy or a hymn.  And remember the goodness of your Lord, that he still loves you despite your faltering prayers.

Peter may not have known what to say, but the Father did: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him,”” (Mark 9:7).  The Father’s voice from heaven came down, which we do well to ponder: This man is my beloved Son, in whom my heart has pleasure.  Him you must hear and him alone, and trust in fullest measure the word that he has spoken.[1]  When life isn’t what it should be, there is nothing better for you to do then to ponder God’s Word, to hear and trust in Christ alone.  Peter may have witnessed the transfiguration, but you have the Word of God, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting.

Your prayers may falter, but Jesus’ do not.  He always knows the right thing to say.  His prayer from the cross was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34).  Only once did words fail Jesus.  As a sheep before his shearers is silent, neither did Jesus open his mouth before his accusers (Isa 53:7).  Jesus could have spoken up and zapped them all dead on the spot, but he didn’t, because if he did, you’d still be dead in your sin. 

Instead, Jesus suffered silently before his accusers so that he might stand before his Father in glory and say, “I died for that one”; so that he might say to you, “you are mine” and claim you as his own in Holy Baptism.  Jesus remained silent before his accusers so that he might say, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and so that he might say, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.”       

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] “To Jordan Came the Christ Our Lord”, v. 1.

+Rev. Eric Andersen
The Transfiguration of Our Lord, 2014
Zion on the web: http://zionlutheransummit.org/
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