Matthew 17:1-9 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters-- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three [tents] shelters-- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."”
Have you ever lived in a tent while in the military? Or slept in a tent for the weekend while camping? Or set up your tent in the backyard for you and your little kids in the summer? It’s not very nice, really.
You can purchase tents that house 6-8 people comfortably. These tents have weather resistant fabric and waterproof floors. They have a mesh roof and windows for ventilation. They have fiberglass poles and wind-responsive frames. Even the biggest and best tents can be set up in under 20 minutes.
But with all the modern day improvements and craftsmanship … a tent is still a tent. No matter how resistant the fabric is to weather, the weather always seems to win. Bugs are hard to keep out, heat is hard to keep in, plus it always gets dirty and musty in there. Which is why it always feels so good to get back home, and into your nice, warm, clean, comfortable bed!
So tents, Peter?
Actually, Peter was not that far off! His suggestion here actually shows some good theological knowledge. For yes, God did dwell in a tent. In the Old Testament, with the people of Israel, wandering around the wilderness for 40 years. They called it a Tabernacle – which is to say that it was a fancy tent! And sometimes they called it a tent, too – the tent of meeting. For that tent/tabernacle was where God visibly dwelled here on earth, and it was the place Moses went to meet with God and speak with Him.
In Exodus 24, Moses goes up onto Mt. Sinai to receive the instructions on how to build this tent/tabernacle. For God desires not to be a far-off God, but a God who comes near and dwells with His people. Who lives with them. Who is visibly present among them in the cloud of smoke emanating from the tabernacle. An intimate and close God. So when Moses goes up onto Mt. Sinai, He receives not only the Law written on tablets of stone, but what is even greater than that – He receives instructions for God’s tabernacle and the Divine Service that will happen there. This is how God will dwell with His people. This is how God will bless them and forgive them. This is how God will be our God. Pretty good theological stuff!
And so when Peter suggests tents here, it’s not as silly a suggestion as it first may have sounded. For He has just seen Jesus in His glory. Jesus, who is really “tenting” and “tabernacling” here on earth. God is not a far-off God, but a God who comes near and dwells among His people. He lives with them. He is visibly present among them. God comes to dwell among His people in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus who is God, comes to humanity in the “tent” of human flesh and blood.
This is what the Apostle John (who was also on the Mount of Transfiguration that day) spoke of in describing the birth of Jesus when he wrote in his Gospel: “the Word became flesh and made its dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The word translated “dwelling” is really the word for “tent” or “shelter.” In Jesus, God was once again “tenting” among His people.
Perhaps when John wrote his Gospel by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he was thinking of the transfiguration he had witnessed on the mountain so many years earlier. For the transfiguration demonstrates that Jesus is more than just a man, more than just a prophet, more than just a miracle worker – He is Immanuel; He is God with us. God did not come to dwell among His people this time in a tent or tabernacle made by human hands held up by tent poles and stakes. But God would dwell among His people in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, both true God and true Man. He is God tenting among His people to save.
Pretty deep theological stuff!
After the disciples headed down the mountain, they would be faced with opposition and persecution. We head down the mountain and prepare for a world that hates us and opposes Christianity. We, like Peter, James and John, need to remember this vision of Jesus in His glory as we head down the mountain into the valley of oppression and opposition to Christ.
Shortly after Jesus walked down the mountain of transfiguration, He willingly walked into the city of Jerusalem. There the people mocked and ridiculed Jesus. They rejected Him as their Lord and King. They spit on Him and beat Him. They whipped Him and crowned Him with thorns and fastened Him to a cross, pounding spikes through His hands and feet. All they could see was the human tent of Jesus as Man. But through it all He still remained the tabernacle of God.
Even through all this blood and suffering and beating and mockery, God was dwelling among His people, blessing and forgiving them. Our God was saving sinful humanity. God was being our God in laying down His life for us. God was being our God in enduring our punishment. God was being our God in taking our shame and humiliation. God was being our God in suffering our death and grave.
And if you think a tent is not very nice, how about all of that? Yet this is how God is our God. Jesus is in all His glory, shining like the sun on the Mount of Transfiguration. But Jesus is also in all His glory, as the sun refuses to shine on Mount Calvary.
You see, we like to find glory elsewhere. We glory in our team’s victory on the athletic field. Or we glory in a raise or a job promotion. We glory in health and wealth and well-being. We much prefer glory over a cross.
We don’t like troubles or heartaches or difficulties. We shy away from illnesses and hardships and adversities. We can’t handle long hospital stays or short trips to the emergency room or big piles of bills. We prefer that there not be any bumps in the road or deviations from our plans or problems we have to deal with. Basically, we want to stay as far away from the cross as possible.
A cross-led God is the way of the world. False theologies proclaim a theology of glory, of wealth, of fame, of happiness. They think it is better – more attractive. Successful people want a successful God. And this false thinking permeates even our Christian culture and thinking. We thank God for the birth of our child, but don’t thank Him when our child gets sick and we have the opportunity to be a loving parent to our sick child. We applaud God for His good will in letting us buy a new house, but we don’t believe it was God’s will that we lost our previous home to bankruptcy. We feel that when things are going well for us that is God’s sign of approval and when things are going poorly for us that is a sign of God’s displeasure. And so we often pray: “God, if you really loved me …”
No! The God of the cross, of blood, of shame, of death – that is your God. The only God. He is a suffering and dying God. And it is glorious!
God the Father was well-pleased when His Son was revealed in glory and splendor on the Mount of Transfiguration. God the Father was also well-pleased when His Son was revealed in gore and glory at His death on Mt. Calvary.
Three days after His death on the cross, Jesus revealed His glory by rising from the grave. Then forty days later He ascended to His seat of glory at His heavenly Father’s right hand. But Jesus continues to “tent” and “tabernacle” among His people here on earth.
Jesus dwells among us in His Word contained in our Bibles. Here He reveals His blessing and forgiveness. A tent of words that may not look like much, but it is glorious.
Jesus dwells among us in His Word joined with water in holy Baptism. Here He washes us clean from our sins and makes us His own dear children. A tent of water that may not look like much, but it is glorious.
Jesus dwells among us in His Word joined with bread and wine. Here He feeds us with His own body and blood so that He might strengthen us and also live within us. A tent of bread and wine that may not look like much, but it is glorious.
Jesus dwells among us in His tabernacle of our local church. This is where we come to meet God face to face in Word and sacrament, absolution and blessing. We come in weakness and leave once again strengthened. We live for six days in the valley of the shadow of death, but then come on the seventh day to dwell in the green pastures and quiet waters with our Lord. We come with our sins weighing us down and receive the forgiveness of our sins, new life and eternal salvation. We come to witness Jesus in all His glory as our Savior on the cross and witness Jesus in all His glory as our King who reigns supreme. We come and meet our God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We speak to Him in prayers, confessions and hymns. He speaks to us in absolution, Scripture lessons, sermon, sacrament and benediction.
The tents of our bodies need to come into the tent of the church so we might experience the tent of Jesus in Word and Sacrament.
And though we cannot see it now, what we are will one day be made known and made visible. For we are being conformed into the image of our Savior, Jesus Christ. So while this tent of our bodies may not look not very nice, pretty grimy and dirty with sin, pretty tattered and torn with the struggles of this life; while we here live under the cross and bear the crosses we have been given; while we may be rejected and persecuted and mocked and ridiculed – that’s okay. Actually no, it’s good! For we should not cling to this world and its things and its supposed glory. And just as with Jesus, while our earthly tent will one day be destroyed in death, it will be resurrected. And it will be glorious. With a glory far surpassing all the glory of this world. Far surpassing anything we could imagine.
God the Father came and dwelt among His Old Testament people in the tent of the tabernacle. God the Son came and dwelt among His New Testament people in the tent of His human body. One day the human tents of our bodies will be covered by the tent of our Lord in heaven, for “He who sits on the throne will spread His tent over them” (Revelation 7:15).
Tents, Peter? He seemed to get it oh, so, wrong. But he got it oh, so, theologically right! Tents, glorious tents. Amen.