Jesus has just told His disciples that, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He has described how a life following Him, the life of a disciple, is one where you take up and carry a cross. He is slowly revealing to them how the working of God, the great deliverance He has come to hand over, is one marked by death, marked by suffering, and marked by powerful opposition. But then Luke tells us, about eight days after saying such things He takes Peter, James, and John with Him up a mountain. Eight days, which is a number that ought to jump out at us. The eighth day is the beginning of the new week, it is the day of new life, new hope, and new possibilities. It was eight people who were carried through the waters in the ark, eight who emerged on dry land, proclaiming the salvation of God. It is Peter, who here goes up the mountain on the eighth day, who will later compare God’s deliverance of Noah and his family to our deliverance through the waters of Holy Baptism. So, one of the most common shapes for baptismal fonts in the early Church was an octagon. There were even churches built with eight sides. The eighth day is the day of life through death, overcoming death, defeating death.
And on the eighth day they go up a mountain. Now, mountains were the common places of God’s revealing. It was the typical location where He would display His power and unveil His presence to His people. Even today, people will speak about experiences of great epiphanies as “mountaintop moments.” Abraham is directed to a mountain to sacrifice his son. It is also on the mountain where God provides a substitute. Moses encounters the presence of God in the burning bush on a mountain and it is to a different mountain that God descends and gives Moses the Ten Commandments. In fact, Moses logs a lot of hours on mountaintops. On the mountain he speaks with God and his face shines with reflected glory. Of course, the prophet Elijah is no stranger to mountains. He defeats the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel as God demonstrates His might and power. He then flees to the wilderness as the wicked queen Jezebel seeks to destroy him. There, near death, God comes to him and provides a meal which will enable him to journey to Horeb, the mountain of God, where God is not found in the great wind, earthquake, or raging fire but in a whisper.
We might speak of Moses and Elijah as God’s mountaintop prophets. It is almost as if we should have expected them to be there on that mountaintop on the eighth day when Jesus unmasks His glory before Peter, James, and John. He has spoken of His suffering and death, about His coming passion, but here on the mountaintop on the eighth day He reveals to His closest disciples just a glimpse of who this is that has been teaching them. There on the mountain His appearance is transfigured. His clothes becoming dazzling white. He is difficult to look at in such splendor. This moment acts as sort of a confirmation of His identity. Where this story is leading and how it will unfold is going to get really messy. It will be full of moments of doubt and despair, as it will not be strength and power on display but weakness, suffering, and shame. As Jesus prepares to take on the curse which twists all of creation, this mountaintop experience works as a gift for them, a moment to remember the eighth day, recall the proclamation of a new day, new life, and new hope which come in Christ.
So, we read, “Behold, two men were talking with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure, which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” They are talking with Jesus about His death, about the cross, about the sacrifice He will make for the sins of the world. The suffering and death of our Lord is the fulfillment of the Word proclaimed by God’s prophets throughout the ages, the Word that has echoed from mountaintops over and again, the Word who will be resurrected on the eighth day.
Of course, Peter’s response to this whole scene is not much different from any response you might offer at such a moment. Perhaps you might not think about making some tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, but what his desire represents is not foreign to any of you. What does he really want in this moment? I think what he longs for is some permanence. He wants to stay on the mountaintop, to remain in the glory shining from our Lord. Who would not want that? In fact, this is precisely what we all seek to do. We desire to skip the suffering, the sorrow, and the cross that marks a life lived under a curse. We strive to get to the glory, remain in the glory, embrace the glory, and never let it go.
Think about it, if Jesus were to reveal Himself to you, if He were to shine in all His majestic glory on a mountaintop right before your eyes, what would you do? Would you not want to embrace it, make it last as long as possible? Of course, you would. In fact, when it ended you would probably build some sort of shrine to mark the spot, a place to be visited over and again as a desperate pilgrim longing to bask in that glory again. Perhaps you would write a book describing the whole ordeal and hinting how others might achieve the vision glory you experienced. After all, everyone else would be clamoring to see what you did. Everyone longs for the glory, longs for a life without the brokenness of our age. Perhaps you would even get your own Netflix special about experiencing the divine majesty and dwelling in the glory of God every day of our lives. You see, your tents would look a lot different from the tents Peter imagines but the desire would be the same. And like Peter you too would not know what you are saying.
There is no staying on the Mount of Transfiguration. There is no remaining in the glory and the splendor of that moment. No, the whole purpose of our Lord’s coming is to go back down the mountain and endure the cross, endure the curse, endure the darkness and suffering which lay before him. The road ahead goes through the valley of the shadow of death, and it is only on the other side of it that we get the real eighth day, the fulfilment of the promises of our God. The Gospel is what happens when God gets dirty, when He embraces your sins, when He suffers in your place, when He is forsaken by His Father. And this cannot happen on the mountaintop. No, this moment is not about remaining here, but about going somewhere else.
But this scene is not over with Peter’s suggestion. In that moment, a cloud overshadows them, and they are afraid, rightly so. For this is the presence of God. As they long for permanence, as they seek to hold on to the glory, God speaks to them from the cloud. It is not a long speech, and it is not an overly complicated Word He gives them. Yet, it is precisely what they need to hear, precisely what we all need to hear. “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” All their attention is directed by the voice of God the Father to His only begotten Son. As they are told to listen to Him, everything ends. The glory disappears, the transfigured majesty of Christ stops, Moses and Elijah are no longer found, and the cloud disappears. What do they have to take from this moment? What are they given to do? One word, no doubt, still rings in their ears, “Listen to Him.” Listen to Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and life. He is the salvation of us all. He is the promise of the eighth day. Listen to Him.
The Mount of Transfiguration calls for us to see the glory of God in the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. It focuses us from our delusions of living apart from the curse of the cross and declares Christ is right here with you in the midst of it all. He came down the mountain, down into your life, down into your trials and hardship. He comes down and declares that you are forgiven all your sins, you are loved, and you are, this day, His brothers and sisters, heirs of eternal life. Listen to Him. Listen to what He speaks to you, for the eighth day is coming soon.