21. January 2024
Peter answered and said to Jesus, “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.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
We get what St. Peter was thinking. In that moment, all of his theological heroes are right there. There’s Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all in one place. And we’re on a mountain, a new Sinai, or maybe even heavenly Zion. This is the perfect church, with his favorite pastors and friends. Let’s try to put time in a bottle and capture the moment for eternity. One tabernacle isn’t enough, as impressive as the Exodus was. Let’s build three! It’s time for a capital campaign and a massive building project. All the world will flock to see and hear God’s greatest teachers, a permanent, eternal congregation. Let’s capture this moment. I think we get what St. Peter was thinking.
We get it because we always try to return to what we think we once had. We imagine a time when this place was a Mount of Transfiguration. We remember packed churches, impressive music, and promises of an even better future. We might even think the faces were glowing from the glory of God and not just from the candlelight of a full Christ Mass. If only we had stopped to assess what got us to that point and what could keep the party going. If only we had locked down our families, congregation, and world as it was at that moment, building tabernacles of a sort, then we could get back to it.
But nostalgia is a cruel mistress. Our youthful naiveté shapes our memory of the past. Everything was bigger, better, and bolder when we were young, not yet worn down by the weathering storms of life. The past can’t describe the present, even if it contributed to it. The future is unknown to anyone but God. Jesus explicitly warns us against trying to go backward to Sinai and Moses. Jesus also explicitly commands us not to worry about the future. He makes no promises about what 5, 10, or even 20 years will look like. As far as we know, Jesus may take us from this veil of tears while we sleep tonight. Or maybe he has another 168 years in store for us. God only knows.
God completely rejected St. Peter’s big idea. The cloud of God’s glory overshadowed them (which is no surprise with all the talk of tabernacles.) And the voice of the Father repeated the proclamation from Jesus’ Baptism, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” Returning to Sinai, where it appeared the mountain was being consumed by fire and smoke, isn’t an option for Jesus and His church. At first, the Elders were overjoyed to dwell on the mountain and feast with God. But then remember that nobody wanted to listen to Moses because they hated the strict demands God put on them and even the reflected glory in Moses’ shining face.
Returning to Mount Carmel, where Elijah defeated the representatives of false religion in the prophets of Baal, isn’t an option for Jesus and His church either. After an impressive worship event at the altar and fire from heaven, Elijah slaughtered the false teachers in the Kishon Valley. It was a bloody, deadly affair. And it just inflamed Jezebel and Ahab’s wrath all the more. It wasn’t long after the impressive Divine Service that Elijah was stuck in a cave, afraid for his life. You wouldn’t want to go back to Carmel any more than Sinai. Both were scenes just like the Mount of Transfiguration. “’Tis Good Lord to Be Here” quickly changed, as the disciples “fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.” Moses and Elijah most frequently struck fear and terror into the people. Mostly, their job was disciplinarians and taskmasters until the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would come. Nearly everyone hated them, believers and unbelievers alike, because of the Word given into their mouths. Perhaps St. Peter had forgotten his Bible stories and catechesis in Synagogue school?
“But Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and do not be afraid.’ When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Moses and Elijah, like John the Baptist, all had their given role to play. But once the promised Messiah Christ has come, they must decrease that He increases. Indeed, now that you have Jesus, you can finally escape the past and nostalgia for what once was. Yes, God used those prophets and everyone and everything that has happened for this moment. But this moment can’t be caught in a bottle, any more than you can go back to what was or make any guarantees about what will be. Lift up your eyes and see Jesus only. Hear Him and follow Him wherever He takes you.
And Jesus, who holds all time in His hands as the Alpha and Omega, will take you where He wills. He doesn’t say it will be easy or spectacular. You might never get a mountaintop experience like Peter, James, and John did. In all likelihood, Jesus warns you to expect the opposite. Right before they went up the high mountain, Jesus said this to His disciples: “If anyone 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) Jesus promises that to follow Him will be a burden, suffering for His sake and the confession of His name.
And then again, later in the same chapter as our Gospel for today, Jesus says to them, “‘The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.’ And they were exceedingly sorrowful” (Mt 17:22-23). The path with Jesus only goes through death and resurrection. There is no other way but through the valley of the shadow of death, feet guided into the way of peace. So, beginning today, this Christian congregation will again remember the Exodus journey and the Babylonian captivity. We’ll spend weeks again in introspection, looking to eliminate anything that is getting in the way of living as forgiven children of God. The stories of old are mirrors of our story, where we bear crosses daily while being raised to live again in the forgiveness of sins.
The only way through isn’t to try to go back to the past or to try to conjure up an imaginary future but to go with Jesus where He goes, listening to Him. His instructions are simple but good. He commands singing a new song, instructing the children how they should go, praying without ceasing, and loving your neighbor as yourself. And He gives Gospel promises, too, that lighten every load. Go disciple-making by baptizing in my name and teaching my Word. Absolve sins. Preach the whole counsel of God in season and out. Receive His body and blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation. ’Tis Good, Lord, to be wherever Jesus is for you with His gifts, be it on the mountain or the plain, through death and life.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin