On this Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, we’re going to explore the Gospel of Mark’s account of the day that Jesus took three of His disciples--Peter, James, and John--to a mountaintop and His glory as God was made plain to see.
But to set the stage, we need to look at a passage in the Gospel of John. So, turn to John 1:14, please. John, you remember, says that Jesus is the Word, Who was with God and was God. John then says this: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...”
The biggest word in that verse is the verb, dwelt. In the Greek in which John originally wrote his gospel, the word translated as dwelt is eskenosen. It’s the verb form of a noun, skene, which means tabernacle or tent.
John is saying that God Almighty took on flesh and experienced everything that we human beings experience because He pitched His tent among us.
Now, the idea of the tent or the tabernacle was important in the centuries before Jesus, in Old Testament times. In the 21st. century BC, God called a couple He later renamed Abraham and Sarah to leave their comfortable lives in the land of Ur, in what is today known as Iraq, and go live in a place God would show them after they’d gotten their start. God said that He would also make this childless and elderly couple the ancestors of God’s own people, of which we as people who confess Jesus Christ as Savior and God, are part. From the moment God called, Abraham and Sarah knew that they were just passing through this life and so, lived in tents or tabernacles.
Some six-hundred years later, about 1450 BC, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, having been freed from slavery in Egypt by God, spent forty years in a wilderness before entering the land God had promised their ancestors. In the wilderness, they slept in tents.
During their journey, the Old Testament says, God led them by a cloud. God was in the cloud, a bright and overwhelming presence shining within it. God’s perfection would kill any imperfect human being who came directly into His presence and, in fact, the Abraham’s descendants--the Hebrews, AKA Israelites, AKA the Jews--begged their earthly leader Moses not to let them be exposed to God’s presence. The cloud in which God’s presence and glory were shrouded were OK at a distance distance. But they didn’t want to see God up close.
But the fact is, God has never wanted to be removed from us. God cares about us. And while we should always approach God with reverence and awe, knowing that He is the Creator and we are His creatures, we also treasure knowing that we were made for intimacy with God, an intimacy God craves. That’s why God didn’t want to stay in the cloud away from His people.
Turn to Exodus 25:8. There, God is giving instructions to Moses on how His people are to worship Him and He says: “And let them [God’s people] make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” By now, you can guess what God told Moses in the original Hebrew: “Build a tent, a tabernacle, for Me, that I may pitch My tent, live, among them.”
For many years, God’s people lived in tents while the presence of God lived among them in a tent that also housed the Ten Commandments. In the very inner sanctum of this tent was a place called “the holy of holies,” the place where the holiness of God dwelt on earth.
Five hundred years after God gave those instructions to Moses, King Solomon built a temple which, like the tent in the wilderness, was a copy of God’s heavenly throne room. In the midst of it was the tabernacle, the holy of holies, the place where God pitched His tent. It could only be entered only once a year, on a day known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A priest, after making several sacrifices for his own sin, would enter the holy of holies to sacrifice a perfect, unblemished lamb for the sins of God’s people, then sprinkle the waiting worshipers with the blood of the lamb, assuring them that their sins from the previous year had been atoned for and forgiven. A curtain concealed the holy of holies, a wall that the people feared to breach, afraid, just like their ancestors, of meeting God face to face.
Now, we come to our Gospel lesson, Mark 2:2-9. Take a look at it, please.
Six days before the events the lesson recounts, Jesus told His disciples: “Truly, I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Now, Jesus takes His core leadership group--Peter, James, and John--to a mountaintop. While there, verse 3 says, Jesus “was transfigured before them [His appearance was radically changed], and His clothes became dazzling white...” Suddenly, Peter, James, and John, though they didn’t yet understand it all, saw Jesus in the bright splendor of His deity.
Look now at verse 4: “And there appeared to them Elijah and Moses...” The main strands of the Old Testament scriptures are the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets pointed to Jesus and here was Moses, the great Lawgiver, and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, conversing with Jesus.
Look at what happens next, in verse 5. “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings...”
Can you guess what the word translated as dwellings might be in the original New Testament Greek?
It’s skenas, the plural word for tents or tabernacles.
Jesus says nothing to Peter’s well-meaning but misguided suggestion. But there are two problems with what Peter wants to do.
First: Peter is putting Moses and Elijah on the same level with Jesus. Peter still doesn’t understand that Jesus is God in human flesh.
Second: When the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us, God signaled that He was busting out of the confines of tents or clouds or any of the other straitjackets in which we try to put God.
God wants to come into your life right now, today, with all its messiness and drama, boredom and challenge, joy and sorrow.
God wants to be your friend and Savior.
God doesn’t want you to wait for the sweet by and by to have an intimate relationship with Him.
God wants in on every part of Your life, to clean up what is sinful and ugly and to give you a new life.
Peter doesn't understand any of these things about God yet. It's out of this ignorance, Mark tells us that Peter suggests building coequal dwelling places or monuments for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter “did not know what to say,” Mark tells us in verse 6, “for they [Peter, James, and John] were terrified.”
Their fright no doubt increased with what happened next. Look at verse 7: “Then a cloud overshadowed them [a cloud again] and from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is My Son, the Beloved; listen to Him.”
Not long after these events, the God Who came to tabernacle among us would die on a cross and, strangely, the curtain of the temple, the wall between God and the human race, breached only rarely, would tear in two, from top to bottom.
No longer would human beings need to offer sacrifices or live without the constant, sustaining presence of God in their lives.
Through Jesus, all who turn from sin in His Name and trust in Him alone as their God and King can have immediate access to God.
Need your sins forgiven? Approach God in Jesus’ Name.
Need guidance on how to live your life? Come to God in Jesus’ Name.
Wrestling with a tragedy or setback that has befallen you? You may not get an answer to the question of why, but you will get God by your side.
Jesus Himself was and is the only sacrifice needed to bridge the gulf between a perfect God and imperfect people like you and me. He is, as John the Baptist said of Jesus, "the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world."
After the voice of God the Father spoke on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus stood alone with Peter, James, and John.
But those three apostles still could’t yet understand what you and I can understand, if only we will open our wills, minds, and hearts to Jesus. Here's why. Notice that Jesus says, in verse 9, “to tell no one about what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
You see, none of us can really see Jesus for Who He really is, God in human flesh, until we see the cross of Jesus and know that it was our sins--yours and mine--that made Jesus’ death necessary. The wages of sin is death and sinless Jesus took the wages we earned on His sinless body.
And none of us can see Jesus for Who He really is until we accept by faith the testimony about His actual, physical resurrection from the dead. Jesus rising from the dead is the sure sign that He and He alone is the way to new, eternal life with God.
Until Jesus' death and resurrection happened, no matter how amazed Peter, James, and John must have been by Jesus' transfiguration, they could not see Who Jesus really was...and is.
Today, at this moment, you and I can't see the risen Jesus physically. But we can see Jesus by faith in Him. Here are five ways that can happen:
- First: Read the New Testament. The New Testament is the cradle in which the baby Jesus can be found, His cross can be experienced, and His empty tomb can be seen. Starting on March 8, you can be part of Read the New Testament in a Year, digging into and discussing the second great part of God's written word for the human race, the Bible, with other members of the Saint Matthew family. As we read and discuss and pray over the New Testament, we're going to see Jesus together.
- Second: Pray in Jesus' Name.
- Third: Receive Holy Communion every time it’s offered. “This is my body; this is my blood,” Jesus says of the bread and the wine. In Communion, Jesus literally comes to us and enters us. He is as present and as powerful for us when we receive the body and blood by faith in Jesus, as He was to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration.
- Fourth: Spend time in fellowship with God’s people, including regularly worshiping, studying Scripture, and praying with people who believe in Jesus. The Bible says that "iron sharpens iron," meaning that as we challenge and affirm one another, we grow. If you're intent on seeing Jesus, you can't go solo; you need to hang out with and learn from other believers.
- Finally: Ask God to show you the ways in which you may have displeased him. King David prayed, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting." We need to submit to a spiritual examination by God and to confess the sins God makes known to us. Jesus died a rose to tear open the curtain--the wall--that sin had put between us. Our sins, the things we do that hurt God or hurt others, can become new walls between God and us. When we ask God to show us the walls we’ve erected against His will, God forgives our sins and dismantles the walls, and we get a clearer view of Jesus, God in the flesh.
These five things--reading the New Testament, praying in Jesus' Name, receiving the Sacrament, living in fellowship with believers in Jesus, and asking God to show you your sins so that they can be dismantled by the forgiveness He offers to all with faith in Jesus--can be means by which Jesus helps us see Him in our lives today.
May you always see Him clearly, starting now.