Matthew 17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36
“28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure,[b] which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One;[c] listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.” Luke 9:28-36
“Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” They went up on the mountain to pray. What does it mean to pray? To pray is simply to speak to God in faith. You can speak to God anywhere and at any time. Going up on a mountain to pray can certainly be a good idea, because it gets you away from the hubbub and distractions of a busy life. Jesus often went to a desolate place to pray to his heavenly Father in peace and quiet.
And mountains have a particular significance in Scripture when it comes to talking with God, because God often met his people up on mountains. In fact, the two men Jesus spoke with on this mountain, Moses and Elijah, are well known to have met God on a mountain. Moses spoke to God for forty days on Mount Sinai. And when he returned to speak the words of the LORD to the people of Israel, his face shone with the brightness of God’s glory. Elijah met the great power of God on Mount Carmel, when the prophets of Baal prayed all day for their false god to send fire from heaven to burn their sacrifice and when the true LORD God sent fire down to lap up the water and devour Elijah's sacrifice. Elijah also met the LORD up on a mountain when he was hiding from Queen Jezebel. The LORD came to him in a low whisper, and Elijah wrapped his face in his cloak to go talk with God.
And now these two men talk to Jesus on a mountain and it becomes clear that Jesus is not just a man, who has come to talk to God, but Jesus is God himself. Moses shone with a reflective glory, which he hid behind a veil. Elijah in fear and trembling covered his face to shield himself from God’s glare. Yet, Jesus himself shines as the source of divine light. And the testimony of God the Father a second time confirms this with the words, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” These two men, who had already ascended to heaven have descended down to an earthly mountain to speak with their God, who has become man.
Moses and Elijah stand with Jesus as witnesses that Jesus is the true God and Messiah. Moses is the author of the Law, the first five books of the Bible. Elijah represents the prophets. Moses and the Prophets make up the Old Testament. These two prophets stand with Jesus as a testimony that all Scripture points to Jesus. It was Moses who declared that the LORD God would raise up a Prophet like him from the people of Israel, to whom God would give his words, to whom the people of Israel were to listen. (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). That Prophet is Jesus, who was born of the Jews while being the Son of God himself.
And what did these two prophets speak to Jesus about? Did Moses talk about how God used him to divide the Red Sea in two so that the people of Israel could walk across on dry ground? Did Elijah talk about how he called fire down from heaven? No. They spoke of Jesus’ departure, literally, his Exodus. They spoke of how Jesus would be betrayed, crucify, and die for the sins of the world and on the third day rise. This is the central teaching of the Old Testament. This is what Moses taught when he lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, so that all who looked at that snake on a pole would not die from the deadly snake bites. This pointed to Jesus, who became a curse for us on the cross. When Elijah preached that the people should turn back to the Lord God and sacrifice only to him, he was teaching that only the LORD God would provide a Savior, who would sacrifice himself for the sins of the world. Moses and all the prophets speak of Jesus’ departure in the Old Testament.
Yet, when Peter joins the conversation, he doesn’t contribute very well. He is stunned by the divine glory shining forth from Jesus. He’s shocked to see these two great prophets visit them from heaven. He wants to capture the moment. So, he proposes to build three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But this is a mistake. So, God the Father interrupts Peter. He says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
You see, Peter wasn’t listening. He wasn’t paying attention to what Jesus was saying with Moses and Elijah. He was too quick to speak himself. And in his speaking, he proposed ignoring what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were talking about: Christ’s crucifixion for the sins of the world. Peter was ignoring this most important work of Jesus! And in ignoring the cross of Christ, he tries to prevent it! He tries to prevent Jesus’ suffering and death by keeping Jesus’ glory with them on that mountain.
This isn’t the first or the last time Peter tries to prevent Jesus’ passion for our sins. The first time was in Caesarea shortly after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and die and on the third day rise from the dead. But Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him this will never happen to him. Jesus then rebukes Peter, calls him Satan, and says that he is not setting his mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. (Matthew 16:21-23) The second time Peter tried to prevent Jesus’ crucifixion was here on this mountain of transfiguration, where he tries to keep Jesus’ glory without the cross. And finally, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant Malchus, trying to prevent Jesus from being arrested. All three times, Peter is rebuked by God. All three times, Peter was setting his mind on the things of man and ignoring God’s word.
I don’t tell you this so that you look down on St. Peter or try to make him look like a fool. Rather, I tell you this to teach you how to pray. We’re all Peter. Peter kept setting his mind on the things of men, even while he was talking to God. God taught Peter and us, that if we’re going to talk to God, we need to listen to God.
When we treat prayer as simply an opportunity to talk to God without listening to what he tells us in his word, we end up acting like Peter and telling God what he should do. Our human way of thinking always ignores the cross of Jesus and tries to take away the cross that Christians must bear.
Yet, when we listen to Jesus’ words before, during, and after we pray, we learn how and for what to ask. We learn that our greatest need is the forgiveness of sins, which Christ purchased for us with his dear blood on the cross. We learn that his crucifixion is the greatest work God has ever done for us. We learn that through Jesus’ cross God gives us all that we need, including eternal salvation.
Jesus told Peter that he was setting his mind on the things of man. That is what we all by nature do. That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of Spirit is spirit. We are by nature born of flesh. We don’t think the way God thinks, unless we are born of the Spirit. This means we try to prevent the good that God does in order to do it our own way. We don’t want to hear that our sins need to be atoned for by the blood of Jesus. We don’t want to hear that we need to be saved from our sins. We want to tell God what we need. And we want to make God dwell with us on our terms.
This is what Peter did when he tried to get Jesus in all his divine glory to dwell with him in a tent on the mountain. Yet, Scripture says that Christ dwells in our hearts through faith when God grants his Holy Spirit to strengthen our inner being (Ephesians 3:16-17). And the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts through the words of Christ (Romans 10:17). In order to have Christ dwell with us now and forever, we need to listen to Jesus’ words. And most especially, we need to focus on his passion for our sins, how he died and rose in order to save us.
Before Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain to pray, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26) It is important also for us to hear these words of Jesus when we pray. We often pray that the crosses we bear in this life would go away. Yet, sometimes God wills for us to keep these crosses here on earth for the sake of our eternal salvation. When we pray to God, we must understand that his goal is for us to inherit eternal life, even if it means that we lose our life here on earth. When we listen to God’s word and recognize what his goal for us is, then we are strengthened to bear our crosses in this life, knowing that we do not bear them alone and that we will obtain a prize in heaven by the merits of Christ.
Many were shocked last Sunday at the death of Kobe Bryant, one of the most famous athletes in all of sports, along with eight other individuals including his 13-year-old daughter in helicopter crash. It is a solemn reminder that death comes to us all, both young and old, rich and poor; no one knows when his soul will be demanded of him. And as tragic this event is for so many people affected, I read one report that gave me some hope. At 7:00 AM last Sunday morning, just a couple hours before they died, Bryant and his daughter attended church and received Communion. They were Catholics. So, there is hope for them, that they were prepared for death having just heard the words of Christ and having prayed to him just hours earlier. And there is a reminder for us. We do not know when we will die. But we do know how to be prepared: by listening to the words of our Lord Jesus, by receiving his body and blood for our forgiveness, by clinging to Christ and his crucifixion in faith.
Jesus’ transfiguration ended. But Peter and all the disciples did see Jesus in his divine glory again. After his resurrection. Yet, that time there was something different. Jesus still bore the marks of the nails in his hands and feet and of the spear in his side. These marks remained to teach us how we can see and share in Jesus’ glory forever; through Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, which took away all our sins and made us right with God. When we pray, we pray in faith for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death which we hear, and our faith tells us we too will see this Jesus, who was crucified for us. Amen.