The Best Part of Epiphany
St. Matthew 17:1-9
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St, Matthew 17:9 Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Why does Transfiguration Sunday fall where it does in the Church Year? Briefly, it was a couple of Lutherans in the Reformation era who moved it to where we observe it today, on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, so that it is the grand finale of the Epiphany season, as the best part of Epiphany, right before we head into the pre-Lenten Gesima season, and then on into Lent.
Transfiguration Sunday fits perfectly in this slot because it really is the ultimate revelation, the greatest epiphany of Jesus’ ministry. And it comes right on the heels of the second-greatest epiphany of Jesus’ ministry, which doesn’t even come up in a regular Sunday Gospel reading, but it is alluded to at the beginning of today’s Gospel, which took place “after six days.”
Six days before the Transfiguration, Matthew tells us about this second-greatest epiphany or revelation of Jesus. Peter had just confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. That truth had been revealed by the angels since the night of Jesus’ birth. This second-greatest Epiphany was this bombshell of a truth: “From that time,” Matthew tells us, “Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Matthew 16:21). That truth was most certainly there in the Old Testament, but this was the first time anyone had ever spoken so simply and plainly about this truth: that the Christ had to suffer and die and rise again. What a revelation! What an epiphany!
But this revelation was so shocking to Jesus’ disciples that Peter actually tried to tell Jesus He was wrong, that this shouldn’t happen to Him. And we remember how Jesus replied: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mt. 16:23) And then that epiphany reached its climax when Jesus revealed to His disciples that not only would He suffer and face the cross, but so would they. Jesus said, “whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Mt. 16:24-25)
So there’s the epiphany: Christ, the Son of God, must suffer and die at the hands of sinful men; and His Church, which will prevail against the very gates of hell, will only prevail against the gates of hell as her members, one by one, deny themselves, take up their crosses – their torture sticks – and follow Jesus into death. That’s the epiphany. That’s the hard truth. And only those can bear it whose eyes have been spiritually opened, whose faith has been divinely fed and nourished and strengthened.
And so up the mountain they went, six days later: Jesus, Peter, James and John. Notice that Jesus didn’t take all the disciples with Him for this great transfiguration, teaching us once again that we don’t have to see it with our own eyes in order to believe it. God’s Word recorded by those who did see it is perfectly sufficient for our faith.
Jesus took these three disciples up a high mountain, “and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.” For the first and only time, from His birth until His Ascension, Jesus looked like God. He looked like we think God is supposed to look: brilliant in light, wearing a dazzling white robe. For the first and only time in His life on earth, Jesus looked glorious, with the glory of the only-begotten Son, glory that He shared with God His Father before the world was made.
But that wasn’t the only glory on the mountain. Moses and Elijah appeared in this vision, too, talking with Jesus. These great Old Testament men of God aren’t described as shining like the sun; only Jesus is. He is infinitely greater than the greatest prophets who ever lived; He is the fulfillment of their prophecies. Although there are other important things we could point to in the appearance of these two men with Jesus, chiefly they represent the Law and the Prophets, the whole Old Testament that pointed to this moment, this time of the Christ, to the dreadful defeat of the cross that Jesus had prophesied to His disciples just six days earlier when the Son of Man would be killed, when the heel of the Seed of the woman would be bruised by the serpent, going all the way back to Genesis chapter 3.
But things wouldn’t end in defeat for the Messiah. Think again of Moses and Elijah. Both prophets foreshadowed Christ; both looked forward to Him. One of them, Moses, died. The other, Elijah, didn’t. Moses died in the wilderness; Elijah was taken up into heaven with a fiery chariot, very much alive! How can you have both in the Person of Christ – one who died, and one who lives forever? But there it is, just as Jesus had predicted six days earlier: death and resurrection from the dead.
Dear friends, the Transfiguration prepares us for the defeat of the cross. The Transfiguration reveals this epiphany: that things are going to be eternally OK. Yes, Jesus will suffer and die, but He will rise. Yes, we Christians will suffer at the hands of wicked people, and worse, we will suffer and die every day as we deny ourselves, deny our sinful flesh, deny our craving to live for this life. Every day we will die to sin, and it won’t be painless. But, as we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s going to be OK. “Whoever loses his life for My sake,” Jesus says, “will find it.” (Mt. 16:25)
Jesus revealed that truth in heavenly living color to His disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here is Jesus, the glorious Son of God. Here are Moses and Elijah who finished their earthly race, and it turned out eternally OK for them. Things will be eternally OK for Jesus, even though He will die. And things will be eternally OK for Jesus’ followers, even though they die.
Peter naturally wanted to extend this vision of glory for as long as possible. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But God the Father burst onto the scene as a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice came from the cloud, interrupting Peter’s proposal. You want to stay up here, Peter? You want to bask in the glory of Jesus? Peter, you’re doing the same thing you did six days ago when you tried to tell Jesus He didn’t have to suffer and die. What did Jesus say to you then? “Get behind Me, Satan!” No, Peter, stop it! Here’s what you need to do – not build shelters, not keep Jesus up here in safety on this mountain. “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” This is what you need to do, Peter: “Hear Him!”
That’s it. Hear Him! His very Word is life and health—a life so strong that it will survive death. Hear Him! Yes, He speaks of suffering and self-denial and death. But hear Him speak also of resurrection from the dead, that He will rise from the dead on the third day. Don’t miss that part! And don’t miss that you will rise, too, on the Last Day. Death will be unable to touch you. You can face confronting your sin and confessing it. You can face the hard work of denying yourself and taking up your cross. But there’s only one way: “Hear Him!”
And hearing Him means that God has revealed in His Word that He wants to be known in no other way than through His Son. God does not want to be found in any other way than by His people hearing His beloved Son and receiving what He has to give in His Sacraments. Hearing Him – not seeing Him, not feeling Him in our hearts, not deciding to follow Him – but hearing Him.
And what does He say? What are the first words out of His divine mouth after the Father says, “Hear Him!”? “Arise, and do not be afraid.” Like the powerful word that Jesus spoke to Peter that enabled him to walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee, this word of Jesus has the power, by God-given faith, to give you strength to go on in life and to live looking forward with absolute certainty to the life of the world to come.
We may have been very afraid, with a genuine fear of God’s righteous anger and the punishment we have deserved from Him because of our sins. And we’re right to be afraid of that, until the Son of God says, “Do not be afraid.” That is what the absolution is; that is what Baptism is; that is what the Lord’s Supper is – a divine Word from Jesus to the sinner saying, “Do not be afraid. Your sins are forgiven.” There will be many scary things ahead of you in your life. But here is the Son of God, saying, “Do not be afraid,” and here is the Father saying, “Hear Him!”
And the fearful disciples of Jesus were comforted by Jesus’ words and encouraged to look up. And it says that they “saw no one but Jesus only.” What a comforting sight – even more comforting than the vision of glory and the appearance of the bright cloud: Jesus only.
That is what it takes to be saved from God’s wrath. That is what it takes to endure the cross, to suffer death and defeat, and come out victorious on the other side. Not our strength. Not our reason. Not anybody else’s help. Jesus only. He has given you His Word, He has given you His Sacraments, He has given you this ministry of the Word. He has given you His suffering, death, and resurrection. He has paid for all your sins and you are forgiven. We may not know what is coming tomorrow, but Christ will be faithful to us. He will not disappoint us or forsake us. It is Jesus only who has taken all of our sins upon Himself, died for them, and defeated even death so that we have nothing at all to fear.
When the disciples were coming down from the mountain with Jesus, He commanded them, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” Well, now that time has come. And what the Transfiguration reveals to us about Jesus’ glory is that it was there all along. As for His suffering and death—He meant to do that, for you and for all, to redeem you from sin and death, so that, by faith in Him, you can stand before God in righteousness, innocence and blessedness, just as He is risen from death and lives and rules to all eternity. This is the best part of Epiphany. And this is most certainly true.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.