Going Up to Come Down
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:2–9:9
The Transfiguration of Our Lord
February 14, 2021
“Going Up to Come Down”
The Epiphany season is almost over as we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord today. This day serves as a bridge between the Epiphany season that is all about the light of Jesus going farther out into the world, and the coming Lenten season that begins this week on Ash Wednesday, February 17. In heart and spirit today, we travel with Peter, James, and John up the mountain and for a brief, fleeting moment see Jesus’ heavenly glory and splendor. Within the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches, Jesus’ transfiguration is observed at a different time – in the summer, on August 6. But within the Lutheran Church, this day is observed on the final Sunday of the Epiphany season, and that, I believe, is a very good thing. Regardless of when we celebrate Jesus’ transfiguration, the important thing is not when it happened, but that it did happen. This amazing sight which Peter, James, and John were privileged to see there on the mountain top would soon give way to something very different as Jesus came down from the mountain top in order to enter into the valley of his own suffering and death. That image becomes the theme for preaching today on this Transfiguration Sunday under the theme, “Going Up to Come Down.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
The word “epiphany” means to manifest or show forth. The Epiphany season began with the light of a star that led those first Gentiles, the wise men, to come and worship Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12), and so Jesus who is the Light of the world (John 8:12) was manifested to the world. And now the Epiphany season concludes with light there on the mountain top as Jesus is transfigured before that inner circle of disciples, flanked by those towering figures of the Old Testament: Moses the Law giver and Elijah the prophet. The Law and the Prophets find their fulfillment in Jesus who came to accomplish all that was written in them, not for his sake, but for ours. That word “transfiguration” in the original language of the New Testament is where we get our word “metamorphosis” (μεταμορφόω), to be transformed from the inside out. For a brief fleeting moment there on the mountain top, Jesus’ true identity as the divine and eternal Son of God shines through his humanity as “his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). There at Jesus’ transfiguration, we are reminded of how God made himself known to Moses on the mountaintop and in the cloud at Sinai, but now the One greater than Moses is made known on another mountaintop. As at Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan (Mark 1:9-11), we hear again the Father’s voice: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). Why is this important? Because if Jesus is only man, and not the divine and eternal Son of God, then we are in trouble. If Jesus is only man, then he is, like us, a sinner and in need of redemption. The transfiguration attests to the truth that Jesus is the divine and eternal Son of God who came to fulfill all of the Law and the Prophets in our behalf, because we could not.
The old phrase is what goes up must come down. That’s what the final verse of today’s Gospel lesson tells us: “And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 1:9). The world was not ready to know that Jesus is the divine and eternal Son of God, the promised Messiah. This would only make sense later on after Jesus had fulfilled his mission to suffer and die as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and then rise from the dead in glory on the third day. Then and only then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would all of this begin to come together as blessed truth in the hearts and minds of the disciples, and through them, to many others. But before they did come down, Peter gave voice to what everyone was thinking there on the mountain top: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5). Let’s enshrine this moment; hold onto it, and just stay up here. Isn’t that how it is with us? When we have mountaintop experiences in life, we don’t want to let go of them, either. We want to remain there on the mountaintop. It can be hard to come down and re-enter everyday life with its tasks and obligations. But in fact, this is exactly what Jesus did. That brief, fleeting moment of transfiguration up there on the mountaintop gave way to the real reason for which Jesus entered into our world: to offer his life on the tree of the cross as payment for our sins. Jesus came down the mountain to redeem us – to buy us back – from sin, death, and hell in order that we might become children of our heavenly Father instead children of wrath and condemnation.
The Transfiguration has been depicted in art throughout the centuries. The Italian Renaissance master, Raphael (1483-1520), painted this between 1516-1520 (https://www.raphaelpaintings.org/the-transfiguration.jsp), and completed in the year of his death. It is some 13 feet high and 9 feet wide, and is now in the Vatican Museum. “Raphael’s painting of the transfiguration… juxtaposes the glory of Christ on the mountaintop with a scene of chaos below. Immediately following today’s story, Jesus and his disciples descend the mount only to find the rest of the disciples in the midst of a mess [see Mark 9:14-29]. A man has come to them seeking their help with his possessed son, but they have been unable to do anything. Contrasting these two scenes, we are reminded that ‘mountaintop experiences’ are often followed by a return to the confusion and failures we face in our everyday lives as Christians. Moments when then disciples seem to finally understand Christ’s identity come side by side with others showing they still have much to learn. The season of Lent continues this journey that is often two steps forward, one step back. Yet, Christ leads the way for us with patience, courage, and hope” (Sundays and Seasons: Year B 2021, Guide to Worship Planning. Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2020; p. 92). As Jesus came down the mountain to face his own suffering and death, so we draw strength of purpose and fresh courage as we follow him into the challenges and difficulties that we face in our own lives. We are not alone. The Lord Jesus promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
Jesus’ glory at his transfiguration points us ahead to the greater glory of his resurrection that will follow the 40 days of the Lenten season. And so we follow Jesus down the mountain trusting that he will lead us from crucifixion to resurrection; from death to life. Thanks be to God. Amen.