[Matthew 17:1-8] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
New Covenant, Greater Glory
The glory of a greater covenant is hidden under the plainness of the things of the faith and under the cross that you carry.
We know that God’s ways are not our ways. God is one who makes the second first – who makes the things that are as if they are not and the things that are not, He makes them to be – God makes the first last, and He serves the good wine second as we learned in last week’s Gospel.
And we see today that God is one who has given the more glorious covenant second, and yet, at most times, has hidden it under great plainness – the Transfiguration being a blessed exception to the rule.
It was through Moses that God gave the first covenant, the Old Testament, to His people. That first covenant, given through Moses, came with great and open glory. Moses led the people out of Egypt with great signs and wonders, plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea.
In the wilderness they were fed with an open miracle, the manna that appeared every morning. God led the people as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day. God filled the tabernacle, the tent, at times, visibly with the glory cloud of His presence.
Moses gave this first covenant – this first agreement or contract – to God’s people on Mt. Sinai with the lightnings and thunderings of God all around. And Moses, each time he went up onto the mountain, into God’s presence, he came down the mountain with the residue of God’s glory clinging to him – so that the face of Moses still glowed with God’s glory – so brightly that the people could not endure it, and Moses had to veil his face for their sake [Exodus 34:29-35].
Great glory. The first covenant. Now called the old covenant. A covenant of Law.
The covenant, or agreement, God made with His people through Moses – in all that glory – was an agreement of Law. It said, “Do this and you will live.” That covenant of Law says, “The one who does them shall live by them” [Galatians 3:12] – the one who keeps the law shall live – but, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” [Galatians 3:10].
Or, as it says elsewhere, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” [James 2:10]. In other words, a covenant of Law, by the very nature of justice, cannot save – unless we keep the whole thing, which, by the nature of our weaknesses, we cannot do.
That first covenant which came through Moses with such great and open glory is the inferior wine, the covenant that cannot save. It is even called “the law of sin and death” in Scripture. That covenant was good, but it could not save us who are not good. So, that good first covenant is to us only a curse.
An agreement of Law is the way we naturally think. But our conscience knows we fall short. With God we need something different than Law.
That first, inferior covenant came with outward glory. But now the second and greater covenant has come – a covenant which does save – a covenant with greater glory - yet glory that is hidden under plain appearance and a cross.
Today’s Gospel, in which the hidden glory of this second covenant is briefly revealed, began with the words, “and after six days.” Six days after what? Six days after Jesus told His disciples of His coming cross, and theirs. It says, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” – and that the disciples would also bear a cross [Matthew 16:21-24].
When Peter objected to this, Jesus warned him, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man.” And shortly after today’s Gospel, Jesus points to His cross again, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men…” [Matthew 17:22].
Yet, in between this talk of crosses, for just three of His disciples – Peter, James, and John – Jesus shows, for a few moments, a glimpse of the glory and the divinity that is hidden under this superior New Covenant.
Why the cross? The New Covenant – this second and superior covenant – is not a covenant of Law, but a covenant of Faith. The Law says, “Do it and you will live.” The New Covenant says, “God has done it for you. By what He has done, you will live.”
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” [Romans 8:3]. “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” [Acts 13:38-39].
God’s new covenant/contract with man is this: “I will pay the price. I will give my Son.” In this new covenant, God’s Son says, “You have sinned, but I will die. I die for you, in your place, for your sin; you are set free, forgiven – not by what you’ve done, but by what I’ve done for you.”
This second, superior covenant, is a one-sided agreement. God does it. And, in God’s ways-which-are-not-our-ways, this covenant which gives life to the sinner and has a superior glory is hidden under plainest things: The Bible, God’s Word, preached; prayer; water (Baptism); bread and wine (the Lord’s Supper).
Jesus Himself was, by all accounts, plain – “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.” [Isaiah 53:2]
And, this greater glory is hidden under apparent failure: the Cross.
Yet, today, for those three disciples, that superior glory and even divinity – God’s nature hidden under Christ’s human nature – shines forth through the face of Jesus, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” For a few brief moments, they saw the truth of God’s glory that resides under your crosses and under the plainness of your life of faith.
Moses shined with a residual glory from God. Jesus Himself is the Lord and shines with a glory that is His by nature. Under His cross, and under the ordinariness of all the things of our faith, and under your crosses, this glory of the Lord’s divinity resides hidden.
Those three disciples got to see. We know by faith, believing what they saw. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” [Hebrews 11:1].
That same Transfiguration glory shining through Jesus will some day be your light which will light your day. What is hidden will be revealed. His face will shine on us, even making us as He is.
For now we say that “this light momentary affliction – our crosses – is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison – the Transfiguration glory of this superior, second covenant of faith – as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” [2 Corinthians 4:17-18].
So, let’s give thanks to God that we live in this time of the second, more glorious covenant. Let’s live by what is hidden for us in the plain things of the faith. Let’s keep the faith until the Transfiguration glory of our Lord does shine upon us. Amen.