What happens on this mountain?
Luke 9:28-36 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, 31 appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, "Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters-- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what he was saying.) 34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him." 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.
When you study Scripture, you realize that God really seems to like mountains. After the flood, Noah’s ark comes to rest on Mt. Ararat. Abraham has his knife raised ready to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah. God gives Moses His Ten Commandments and shines in His glory on Mt. Moriah. God burns up Elijah’s sacrifice among the 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Jesus gives His beatitudes on a mountain. Jesus prays in the garden on the Mt. of Olives. Jesus dies for the sins of the world on Mt. Calvary. Jesus ascends into heaven from a mountain.
After Peter gives his decisive declaration that Jesus is “the Christ of God” in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and His inner circle of disciples travel to the top of Mt. Hermon. There Jesus is transfigured before them.
God really seems to like mountains.
One way of looking at the Divine Service that we use for our Lutheran worship is that there are two mountains we climb every Sunday. They are the mountains of God’s Word and His Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
This morning, as we examine Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, we will also examine Jesus’ glory upon the mountain of His Holy Supper.
Jesus appeared humble on the plain of Judea. He experienced a humble birth to poor parents. He was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a feeding trough. As a 12-year-old, the religious leaders were impressed with His knowledge of Scriptures, but they didn’t think there was anything truly special about Him. He received a sinner’s baptism in the Jordan River. Then still dripping wet, Jesus marched into the wilderness to fast for 40 days and be tempted by the devil. Throughout His ministry, Jesus was always able to perform special miracles and teach with authority, but most only saw Him as human. Even His disciples questioned His true purpose on earth.
But there was a hidden glory behind all His actions and words. That full glory was revealed upon the mountain.
When St. Luke describes the angels at Jesus’ open tomb, he says they were “dazzling” in their glorious garments (Luke 24:4). But it was more like a “plain, old dazzling” when compared with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration. Luke uses the same Greek word to describe Jesus’ glorious garments. But he adds the word “extra” – Jesus was “extra dazzling” (Luke 9:29).
The glory of Jesus is often hidden in the Lord’s Supper. At first it is just plain, old unleavened bread. It is just plain, old grape wine. But after the words of institution upon the mountain of this sacrament, Christ’s glory is extra dazzling. For this is Christ’s body and blood.
Jesus is on the mountain with Moses and Elijah speaking of His “exodus,” His departure. They are talking about Jesus going into Jerusalem to be betrayed, arrested, tried, beaten, scourged, mocked, crucified, killed, and buried. This would be Jesus’ exodus.
Just before Moses led the Israelites on the exodus out of slavery in Egypt, they celebrated the Passover meal. The lamb was slaughtered, unleavened bread was eaten and grape wine was consumed. This would be a memorial meal for all generations.
Just before Jesus led humanity on the exodus out of slavery to the devil, He celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples. The lamb was slaughtered, unleavened bread was eaten and grape wine was consumed. But that evening, Jesus changed the Passover Feast into the Feast of His Lord’s Supper. He was the Lamb who was slaughtered. The bread became His body. The wine became His blood. This would no longer be a memorial meal, but a feast of forgiveness for generations of His believers.
Jewish law needed two witnesses to establish the truth of a testimony. Moses and Elijah, the greatest men of the Old Testament, are those witnesses. They testify to the majesty of the Messiah on the mountain.
Then God the Father speaks from heaven. His testimony trumps everything else. He proudly proclaims, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
Upon the altar we have simple bread and wine. But it will become so much more than that. It will become the very body and blood of our crucified and risen and glorified Christ. We have Christ’s own testimony that trumps everything else, “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you. For the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 22:19-20).
It may seem odd that as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave the disciples orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead (Mark 9:9) This was a mystery that took place on the mountain. It was something the disciples would not be able to accurately describe until much later.
Someone recently asked me why we place a white cloth over the communion ware on the altar. I had never contemplated that question before. So I did some research. When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the Vulgate in 4th century, he used the word “sacramentum” as a translation for the Greek word “mysterion” or “mystery.” Though we trust and believe that what takes place on the altar during the words of institution is that the body and blood of Christ are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, it remains a “mystery” to us. The white cloth reminds us that a mystery is taking place on the altar every Communion Sunday. It is not something we can accurately describe. Only believe.
On the mountain, Peter didn’t quite grasp everything that was taking place, but he did speak some very profound words: “Master, it is good for us to be here.”
We may not always grasp everything that takes place upon the two mountains of Word and Sacrament in each Divine Service … but it is good for us to be here. Often. That’s why at Epiphany we climb the second mountain to receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper so often – weekly.
Why do we crave the Lord’s Supper so often? We crave the Sacrament because it is pure Gospel. Luther’s Large Catechism teaches about this Sacrament: “The entire Gospel and the article of the Creed – I believe in the Holy Christian Church … the forgiveness of sins, and so on – are embodied by the Word in this Sacrament and presented to us” (Large Catechism, Article V, The Sacrament of the Altar: 32). When the Church shares Word and Sacrament, the Gospel is proclaimed loud and strong as St Paul declares: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives us His body and blood for our forgiveness. When the pastor speaks the words of Absolution, that is Jesus’ voice being heard in those words. However, when the pastor administers the Sacrament to those same repentant souls, that is one-on-one time with your humble, yet glorious Savior. You not only hear Jesus’ words, you hold His flesh and taste His blood. The Sacrament is Absolution spoken specifically to you.
We are a people whose vision has been clouded by sin. When we come to the Sacrament, the myopia is cured for a moment and we see Jesus face-to-face. We are a people who grasp the tangible. When we come to the Sacrament, we touch and handle eternal grace unseen but now solid to the touch and taste. We are a people who are starving in this desert world of emptiness and loneliness. When we come to the Sacrament, we are seated at the banquet feast of the Lamb of God and fellowship with all His saints.
Dangers lurk around us on every side. The world and our sinful nature are willing allies with Satan, the ancient serpent, the great red dragon of Revelation 12. The great red dragon hates the Church. He hates me for preaching Christ. He hates you for believing in Christ. He despises any who are baptized with Christ’s forgiveness. He loathes us for being strengthened with Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He detests Christians for our prayers, our devotional life, our support of Lutheran education and Christian worship. Satan, the old evil foe, is on the prowl. And he is after God’s saints here in the desert of this world.
We need protection from the devil and his minions. But we also need food. We need the bread of heaven, or we will die in this world. The Israelites needed the bread that came down from heaven to sustain them in the desert wandering. They drank from a water-giving rock in the wilderness. We receive our strength and nourishment from the Living Bread from heaven (John 6). This is spiritual eating and drinking of Christ by faith. But this spiritual eating and drinking are joined with physical eating and drinking as the bread of heaven is given under earthly bread.
A question I ask the adults in confirmation class is, “Should a member who is depressed or burdened with sin come to the Lord’s Supper?” The answer is a resounding, “Absolutely! That’s what the Sacrament is for!” “And that’s who the Sacrament is for!” (Matthew 11:28-29) Our members are hurting, harassed and helpless on their own. Every week. Not just every other week. Why not give them the exact thing they need? The balm of Gilead for their hurts. The Physician’s medicine of forgiveness for their scarred hearts. The Living Bread for their starving soul. The Lord’s Supper connects us to Christ in a spiritual, as well as a physical way. As one of our Epiphany elders once put it, “We need all the forgiveness we can get.” “This use of the Sacrament consoles godly and alarmed minds” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XIII, Sacraments: 22). The Augsburg Confession quoted St. Ambrose, “Because I always sin, I always need to take the medicine” (Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV, The Mass, 33).
And what does the Lord Supper offer? The simple answer is Jesus. Yes, we have Jesus with us at all times through the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith. But Jesus loves us so much that He comes to us in the special way of the Lord’s Supper. He is really present in this Sacrament. He gives us Himself – the unity of divinity and humanity contained in the mystery of flesh and blood that is in, with and under the bread and wine. That is a miraculous, mysterious, extra dazzling power that we cannot get anywhere else. Taking the Lord’s Supper gives forgiveness. It offers us a new life in Christ. It confers upon us the gift of eternal salvation. The Sacrament assures us that Jesus loves us. It really is pure Gospel. The Gospel in the Lord’s Supper comforts our troubled consciences. The Gospel in the Lord’s Supper lifts our sagging spirits. It cheers our wounded hearts. It connects us to Christ in a spiritual way and a physical way. It is the Lamb’s High Feast (CW: 141). It is the Feast of Victory (CW: 265). It is the Feast of our Salvation (CW: 312). We are invited to this Feast! And so we crave this Feast! Often!
The early Christian Church celebrated Holy Communion every week. The early Lutherans of the Reformation celebrated Holy Communion every week. At Epiphany, we celebrate Holy Communion every week. Why? Because the Divine Service is meant to have two mountains to climb every week - first the mountain of God’s Word followed by the mountain of the Sacrament.
Like Peter, James, and John, when we come forward to receive the Sacrament, this is our “mountaintop experience.” We leave the toil and trouble of the valley behind us. We need this glory on the mountain for the despair and death that is all around us on the plain. Amen.