The gospel reading today records the events atop Mount Tabor, which must have made quite the impression on the disciples who were there. References to the event appear in the writings of both John and Peter, as we heard in the Epistle today. Unlike the miracles of healing or command over nature, the events in today’s gospel aren’t found anywhere else in the world, and for that reason must have been simply harder for us to imagine. Jesus shines radiant with Godly-divine glory; God the Father Himself speaks from the cloud. This isn’t something one sees every day, and so for good reason the apostle saw fit to bear true witness of it for us to hear and believe.
St. Peter was inspired to write: ““16 For 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. 17b For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory.” We normally might think of ‘glory’ as something like praise. Humanly-wise, glory seems like something to do with our reputation, how we might be known for great acts of heroism or service and the like. Yet with God this is something even more substantial. The way scripture talks about the glory of God as a physical thing. It appears in the Old Testament in a variety of ways. Exodus 16[:10ff] recounts how the people saw the glory of the Lord in the cloud as they were led out of Egypt safely through the wilderness. In Exodus 24 when Moses was up on Mount Sinai to receive the Law, the Ten Commandments and so forth, it says “15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.”
Small wonder the people were afraid of this. The Glory of God is unearthly, above-earthly, exclusively holy; before His power and His goodness no sinner could stand. We heard last week from Exodus 33[:12-23] how God caused His glory to pass before Moses, and yet in order to be protected, Moses had to be set in the cleft of a rock, and God would not yet let His face pass before him. Because, the Lord said “20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”” Psalm 1 verse 5 explains why that would be: “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” The holy presence of the Lord would, if we were left to stand on our own, bring about the just judgment of the Law against us because of our sins. The glory and holiness and presence of God were not to be trifled with.
So it is that we needed a veil. A curtain. A wall of separation, to protect us poor miserable sinners. In the days of Moses, a portable temple was built – the tabernacle – to protect the people. Likewise the temple in Jerusalem housed the ark of the covenant, a place where God had made His glory to dwell, so that the people would be able to receive His blessings… but not be destroyed by their own sins.
When St. Peter in the gospel reading suggests building tents… he might not have known what he was saying (Mk 9:6), but he wasn’t too far off. “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.””And why not? What Peter saw was the exact image of the radiance and glory of God (Hebrews 1:3): Christ Jesus, the true Son of God in human flesh. It says that Jesus’s “2b face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” The reasoning made some kind of sense… if God had caused His glory to dwell there at the top of Mount Tabor, then they might need a tabernacle in which His glory could dwell. You might remember that snippet from Psalm 26[:8], which connects God’s glory to the place where he dwells: “O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.”
Yet in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory of God dwells with mankind.1 In the person of Jesus Christ the godly nature and the human nature are joined together. He hid His glory for a time, not always or fully using His divine powers that were always there. He did this for our sake, for us and our salvation. Just as Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah, He would go to the cross to be crucified and pay for all our sin. By His glorious resurrection from the dead, He won resurrection, redemption. So that on account of Christ you are forgiven, covered, set in the safe place…. made by God’s grace to stand upright before Him again. Sinful man cannot see God’s holy face and live. But on account of what Jesus has done, you who believe and are baptized are made able to stand. You can see God’s glorious face and live. His countenance shines upon you. What did Jesus tell the disciples? They were terrified of the infinitely-holy and majestic voice of the Father from the cloud, and yet it was Jesus who raises them up. Verse 7 says: “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.”
The majestic glory of God is a perilous thing for sinners, but Christ Jesus is glorified in His self-giving love to forgive our sins and walk with us. No matter how much Peter protested, Jesus would not stay on the mountain, but He willingly went to do what was necessary for us and for our salvation. He walked with His disciples through the dark road that lay ahead of them. After rising, Jesus ascended on High to the throne of God, where He now fully and always exercises His glorious power and majesty – as both God and man.
In this body and life we will not always have glorious mountaintop experiences. Some days will be great, others will remind us of our poor miserable condition. Jesus walks with His disciples through all of it. But the brief glimpse of glory that Jesus manifests to us at the mount of Transfiguration is a foreshowing, a glimmer of the glory and joy that faithful Christians will share in when we too are raised. That glorious resurrection is veiled from our sight for a time, but we do have glimpses here and there.
Until that day, we look to where He has made His name and His favor to dwell: in the holy communion. His Word guarantees that in and under the bread and wine, Jesus is there for us in His body and blood, to forgive our sins and sustain us as we go our way. So it is that He goes with us, through thick or thin, through mountaintop experiences or the depths of January – His constant love for you does not fail. So rejoice, for the dwelling place of God is with man, and for you who believe and are baptized into Christ, your dwelling place is with Him. O lord, I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells. In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
1Were it not in the context of a prophecy judgment and act of destruction, Micah 1:3 would seem to be relevant: “For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.” Otoh, Christ came to give Himself up as a ransom for many….