Today in the Liturgical Calendar we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Jesus and three of his disciples are on a mountaintop, and that’s significant. Think of the times we’re told that Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. He gives his first sermon on a mountain, the Sermon Mount. Before the Cross, he prays his last prayers on a mountain, the Mount of Olives. And today, in the Transfiguration, he has also come to a mountain.

If Matthew in his Gospel account is right, that the first public words of Jesus were uttered from the Sermon Mount, and Luke in his Gospel account is right, that the last conversation of Jesus with his disciples (on that side of the Cross) was on the Mount of Olives, then today’s mountaintop is smack dab in the middle of Christ’s ministry. So it must be significant, but what could it mean?

In order to understand the significant meaning of the Transfiguration, we need just a bit of background. Luke actually begins his account of the Transfiguration by saying, “Now about eight days after these sayings…” So, in order to understand what’s going on, we have to know what were these sayings to which Luke refers. And there are two sayings in Luke’s Gospel prior to this which shed great light on what’s happening here on the Mount of the Transfiguration. The first of these sayings is the time when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter declares, “You are the Messiah of God.” The second is Jesus admonishing them not to tell anyone, and then predicting his death on the Cross.

We can’t understand what’s really going on in the Transfiguration without those two sayings in mind. The disciples have finally figured out that their master is indeed the longed-for Messiah. And so, they’re expecting Jesus to usher in that long-awaited age to come, in which the enemies of God’s people are trod under God’s feet, and peace will reign forever and ever. But they have no understanding of the Messiah going through great suffering and being rejected by the leaders of Israel and being lifted up on a cross. The disciples have figured out Jesus’ true identity, and yet they’re still perplexed, because they don’t have any reference point for what Jesus has said to them in predicting his upcoming death.

That’s part of the significance, because that prediction of his death, which he gave after Peter’s declaration of his identity, is the first time that Jesus has voiced such a prediction. It may even be the first time that he has realized this in his human form. And so, eight days later we find him on this mountain in conversation with Moses and Elijah. That, too, is significant, because both Moses and Elijah were men with whom God spoke directly, and many scholars believe these Godly conversations may have both taken place on the same mountain—not today’s Mount of the Transfiguration—but far south on Mount Horeb, which is also known as Sinai.

In the case of Moses, this is where he saw God, and his face shone as a result, much like Jesus is shining on the Mount of the Transfiguration. And in the case of Elijah, this was where the earthly elements swept by, but God was not in them. Then God spoke to Elijah in that still, small voice. Significant, too, is the fact that both Moses and Elijah were believed to have never died, but to have been translated into heaven. Elijah’s translation is in the Bible. Moses’ translation is a part of Talmudic tradition.

These men thus represent something significant. They are men who know the presence of God, who have never died, who can hear God’s voice, and who are now sent to Earth on this mountain in order to speak to Jesus. These men have most likely come to bring Jesus a message from the Father. And the content of this message should come as no surprise. Jesus has recently voiced his prediction of the Cross for the first time, and he is likely wondering if this is indeed the will of the Father. It seems such an odd thing to be asked of him. He understands that he is the Messiah, he said so when Peter voiced it, but perhaps he, like his disciples, is wondering how death became part of the messianic age.

So, the Father has sent messengers to explain the matter in person. And the content of the message must go something like this: that the only way home for Christ will be through the Cross. Unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus will not be translated into heaven. Instead, he will have to suffer horribly, be rejected by the leaders, and be lifted up on the Cross.

But now in the Gospel accounts Peter awakens, and seeing Elijah there with Jesus, it obviously makes him very happy. Every good Jew knows that the second coming of Elijah is the precursor of the Messianic age.  And here is Elijah speaking with God’s Messiah. He must have thought that the prediction of the Cross wasn’t the case after all, and the Messianic age had instead come in the expected form. That’s the reason he wants to build the three booths. He’s in awe of what he thinks is the start of the long-awaited Messianic age. So God himself now steps in, and tells them, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him!”

The Cross is now clearly the only way; God has ordained and decreed it. And from this point forward, Jesus’ eyes are clearly fixed on that Cross.

Thus, this is the turning point of the Gospel. This encounter with the holy men of Mount Horeb on the Mount of the Transfiguration is now the foretelling of the Mount of Olives. And our whole Gospel focus shifts as well. We are now no longer looking for a Messiah who rides a war horse and settles all of Israel’s grievances. Instead, behold Israel, your king comes to you humble and riding a donkey.

That’s what’s going on here on this mountain. But so…why? Why must the Messiah die?

The answer to this is tied up in an old word: atonement. Paul Zahl once defined atonement as the sacrifice of substitution that Christ makes on the Cross for the sins of the world. The atonement is the leverage in theology by which God reconciles his necessary demand for justice with his charter of forgiving love. This is the mechanism by which God saves us.

Some time back I caught a show on public television about a National Geographic nature photographer who has spent the last ten years or so cataloging the world’s endangered species of animals. He calls his project the Photo Ark, and in ten years he has cataloged over 5,000 species of animals with studio-quality photos as a way to save a record of them. When asked why he is willing to make such a sacrifice—to miss holidays and children’s birthdays in order to travel to the ends of the earth to photograph Persian leopards or Syrian brown bears…flightless parrots from New Zealand—he replied that he wants all of us to look these animals in the eyes, and have the opportunity to fall in love with them.

Then he said what was probably a cast-off line for him, but I’ve not been able to get it out of my mind. He said, “We will not save what we do not love.” Such a simple yet true statement! And this simple yet true statement applies most assuredly to God’s love as well. Looking back to a time shortly after Jesus’ baptism, John commented that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever will believe in him shall have everlasting life. And then later, shortly before Christ was handed over to die for us, John said, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the very end.

How do we know God loves us? Because God would not save what God does not love. God would not save what God does not love. The significant meaning of the Transfiguration is that the Father in his love for us consciously chooses to give up his son to save us, and the son in his love for us consciously chooses to obey him.