What a sight! [The gospel-writer] Matthew whisks you away to a high mountain. No, not a hill (like James Hill), but a mountain reaching some 9,000 feet into the sky. (For comparison, that’s about the height of the Rocky Mountain foothills or standing on the tallest of the Appalachian Mountains).
That’s not all you see. The curtain continues pulling back, revealing two more characters! Moses stands there! He is the one who carries God’s Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, the same commandments chiseled into your heart (Romans 2:14-15). Elijah— well, he preaches those commandments to everyone. Yes, during his lifetime so many plug their ears, reject his words, and threaten to kill him. Still, he proclaims the same commands.
Then an enormous, so-thick-you-can-feel-it cloud swallows up the mountaintop. You no longer see the blue sky; everything is sheer white all around you! A voice within booms: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-5). This is the closest any believer will ever get to seeing heaven before they arrive there!
Can you picture it? Do you see it? …the jaw-dropping reason Jesus reveals all this for you? Or are you mustering all your strength just to stifle a yawn? (“Yes, Jesus shines, two guys appear, and God speaks, so what?” you might think).
In order to fully grasp why Jesus makes the effort to reveal this magnificent sight to you, you must visit another mountain. A different mountain— one that’s grimmer, more solemn, a mountain pounding out a heavy truth.
The scene before you is anything but quiet. After three months of hiking through a desert, two million Israelites camp here, in the desert of Sinai, at the base of Mount Sinai. Murmuring, looking, studying a mountain that is anything but quiet, peaceful, and serene. It trembles. Like a volcano about to erupt, the ground under your feet constantly rumbles. Smoke rips into the sky— as if you threw water onto smoldering embers. Lightning spiderwebs across the dark sky. Thunder claps, shaking your entire body. One mighty trumpet blasts its shrilling moan across the desert floor and it only gets louder! (Exodus 19:1-16) A fence surrounds the mountain— not to keep the mountain in, but to keep you out— just like barricades hold you back from pop-star celebrity or a powerful politician. A thick, dense cloud covers the mountain because, as our reading says, the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.
Do I really need to ask which mountain you would prefer to see? The Mount of Transfiguration is so bright, cheerful, peaceful. Mount Sinai thunders, trembles, frightens. Why be here? Why are we reading these words? Why does God even bother inscribing them onto the pages of Scripture? Maybe a better question is: What makes this scene so unsettling?
After all, this is your God (and my God). This is the One who creates the heavens and earth for you. This is the One who makes you. This is the One who opens his hands and provides for every living thing— including filling up your soul entirely. This is your God who promises a Savior immediately after the world plunges into sin (Genesis 3:15). And still, you hear: To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.
Oh, be sure, many try to ignore this sight. The popular thinking of our society tries to drag God down to meet our faulty human standards. “God doesn’t care how I use my body; he loves me anyways.” “God doesn’t care that I’m waiting for my brother to forgive me first. I’ll hold the grudge until then. God would understand the reason for my attitude.” “All God wants is for me to be the best friend I can be. We’re all sinners.” The human heart attempts to force a perfect God to become as imperfect as we are! The reason is the attempt to make this scene at Sinai more favorable!
You can try to gloss over this fiery scene. “Oh, this is just one of those ‘fire and brimstone’ messages. This isn’t what God is really like. It’s just Pastor trying to make me feel guilty about the way I live. I’m just going to focus worshipping the happy Jesus of the New Testament.” Yet, this is one of those times God is serious. On Sinai, he doesn’t invite Moses up for the Ten Suggestions or Ten Opinions. These are commands, expectations— the way God wants us to behave always!
You can try to hide behind Jesus as you stubbornly defend your sins. “Well, I’m a Christian. I know Jesus died for me. I don’t need to be reminded that my thoughts are impure. I don’t need to be told that my arguments are wrong. I know I am a sinner.”
Do you see what makes Mount Sinai so terrifying? When the human heart is confronted with its failure to be perfect, it fights against a holy God. Even as believers— our sinful nature still fights against a holy God! The human heart can create all sorts of excuses for behaviors that God clearly labels “wrong.” The foolishness of it all is that the human heart believes it can tell God how to enforce his commandments!
Do you notice who descends onto Sinai? Not just “God,” but the four-capital-letters: Lord. That is not a typo in your bulletin. The Lord in all capitals tells you two things about your God. (1) God forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin because he is patient and merciful. (2) Yet, God’s patience has a limit: he guarantees to punish those who reject him and who see no need to turn away from the lifestyles they know are wrong (Exodus 34:6-7). The truly terrifying thing about Sinai, the reason so many try to pass over it, the reason our hearts may even kick at these words is because we don’t want to be told when we have done wrong.
The scary truth is: if you do ignore Sinai, you will see no reason for a Savior. Because if you do not see that you fail to measure up to a perfect God, then you will not see a need for a Savior. You will think that your actions are not really all that bad. You will defend your poor choices. You will try to fix your own mistakes. It will leave you seeing Jesus as nothing more than a good model to follow or a nice teacher, but certainly not the Savior who breathes life into a body killed by sin. That— my friends— believing that you can handle the weight of your own sin will toss you into the consuming fire of God’s anger for eternity!
That’s why God shows us Mount Sinai. That’s why God has given you the privilege of living long enough to also see the Mount of Transfiguration. You know, sometimes it’s difficult to treasure what you have unless you compare it with what you had before. You will cherish your new SUV more if you compare it to your old Gremlin or Pinto. You will love your Xbox One more if you remember life with your PS One.
So, put the two mountains side-by-side. You see the high standards God hammers down on Mount Sinai! And on the Mount of Transfiguration, well, you see the standard met in the person of Jesus. That’s why he radiates like the sun! He removes his veil to give you just a glimpse of his glory as God!
Your Jesus carries God’s stamp of approval over his entire life. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5). It means that Jesus is sinless! Never having a grudge to justify. Never defending an immoral lifestyle. Never cringing at God’s Commandments. For that reason Jesus can think about Mount Sinai without trembling!
In fact, when Jesus stands on the Mount of Transfiguration, he looks forward to another mountain. No, not Mount Sinai; he is determined to reach Mount Calvary. On that Good Friday afternoon, thick clouds blotted out the sunlight, leaving Jesus hanging all alone in the presence of God. Chiseled into Jesus is our faults— our over-indulgence, our ignorant justifications, our stubborn unbelief. God’s fiery hatred for our rebellion consumes the life of Jesus.
Because it consumes him, the same Son of God can rise to touch you and say: “Don’t be afraid. Your sins have been forgiven. Removed. Consumed. Destroyed.” You can stand in the presence of God, not trembling. Jesus has met God’s demands in your place. He brings you before God, and you can call God “Father.” You can stand rejoicing and thanking him for the perfect gift of Jesus!
Continue look at these two mountains. Sinai does not describe your eternity. This scene on Mount Transfiguration, well, put yourself alongside Peter, James, and John. You are going to see Jesus in this same light. You will stand around the throne of the Lamb. No longer will you need the sun to be your light because the Lamb of God is your light (Revelation 22:4-5). No cloud will hide his presence. No fear will drop you to the ground. No veil will shroud his glory. You will see the face of Jesus because Jesus makes you perfect.
Still, continue looking at these two mountains. See Jesus—radiating, shining as the Son of God—because, after all, that is who he is. In heaven reigning—reigning for you. If you are carrying a burden on your shoulders, listen to him say: “Don’t be afraid because you are forgiven.” If that were not true, then why would Jesus take such effort to say this? If worries are crushing you, listen to him say: “Don’t be afraid because I am your God. I went to the cross for you, and if I did that, why would I abandon you now?” When fear about the future paralyzes you, listen to him say: “Don’t be afraid. Your eternity is secure with me. Until you join me, I am with you always.”
Are you still mustering all your strength just to stifle a yawn? (“Yes, Jesus shines, two guys appear, and God speaks, so what?” you might think). Or do you see it …the jaw-dropping reason Jesus reveals all this for you?
Really, Jesus reveals a glimpse of his glory so that he can answer your questions and still your fears. Mount Sinai holds no fear for you because Jesus could meet its demands fully. If you did not see his perfection, then you would still be locked under the weight of your guilt. Since Jesus has satisfied God’s consuming anger, you will spend eternity in a place grander than the Mount of Transfiguration.
Never lose sight of these two mountains. See how Sinai is answered on Calvary. Marvel at the sight of the Mount of Transfiguration. Live in the peace Jesus brings you.