Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Transfiguration and the Cross

[This was prepared to be shared during the worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio this morning. Attendance was sparse. But both services were wonderful.]

Matthew 17:1-9
Sometimes you need to get away. Away from the phone, the fax, and the demands of people. It allows for a different perspective. You can pay attention to things that you otherwise ignore or take for granted or didn’t even know existed. Sometimes you get away for your own mental health and physical renewal. Sometimes you take a few people with you--family, friends--for their sakes, not your own. Because they’re the ones who need to get a different perspective. Who need to pay attention to things they were ignoring, to things they’ve been taking for granted, to things they didn’t know existed.

Six days before the events recorded in today’s Gospel lesson took place, Jesus had a stunning interaction with the twelve men we know as apostles. It’s recorded in Matthew 16:13 to 28. Let’s scan it because I don’t think we can understand what happens in today’s lesson without considering this incident first. It begins with Jesus asking the Twelve who people are saying “the Son of Man”--Jesus Himself--is. They report hearing people say that Jesus was Elijah and Jeremiah, prophets who, by that time, had been gone for centuries. “But what about you?" [Jesus asks in verse 15]. "Who do you say I am?" Peter makes a breathtaking confession. Verse 16: “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’"

Trace the background and the use of that title, Son of God, in Scripture and you realize that it doesn’t refer to someone who descends from another or to someone who is subordinate to another. It means Jesus was and is God Himself. Jesus confirmed that Peter was right.

Yet, even Peter didn’t yet fully appreciate the meaning of his breathtaking confession that God had become flesh and was living among us on earth. Beginning at Matthew 16:21, Jesus explains that He would go to Jerusalem, undergo suffering, be killed, and be raised from death on the third day. In verse 22, Matthew says that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke the One he had just called God. Peter evidently thought it was OK for him to tell God He was wrong. Peter could imagine “glory days” for Jesus, days when the world would recognize in His miracles the signs of God’s grace and power, days when hail Jesus as God and king. But Peter couldn’t imagine that God in the flesh--and by extension, those who repent for sin and believe in Him--could possibly suffer, or experience futility in their living and dying, or die. Jesus’ response to Peter is swift and condemnatory. Verse 23: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Read any of the gospels in the New Testament and you know that Jesus is a master teacher. So, He let the implications of this heated exchange with Peter simmer in the disciples’ minds for a while. Then, six days later, we come to today’s Gospel lesson. Take a look at it, please. Verses 1 and 2 tell us: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” 

The word translated as transfigured is, in the Greek in which Matthew wrote his gospel, metamorphoo. We get the word metamorphosis from it. Jesus looked different. On another mountain centuries before, the appearance of Moses was transformed by His exposure to the blazing, pure presence of God. It so terrified Moses’ fellow Hebrews that they begged him to ask God to keep them from ever being exposed to God’s radiance. I’ve heard modern day Christians try to reduce God to a compliant puppy, anxious to do our bidding. But the New Testament tells us that God is a consuming fire. Peter, James, and John were seeing that truth before their eyes!

Verse 3 says: “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Here on the mountain next to Jesus was Moses, the great lawgiver, born in the sixteenth century BC, who had died and then been buried by God Himself before God’s people entered the promised land. And here was Israel’s greatest prophet, Elijah, who God had been taken from the earth via a chariot of fire centuries before. They were the two symbols of everything God had been doing since the fall of Adam and Eve to bring a sinful, dying world back to Him and back to life, standing with Jesus.

Verse 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.’" Peter was always the man with a plan. And, during those days when Jesus walked the earth, Peter was almost always wrong. Overwhelmed by the scene he was witnessing, Peter did what many of us do when confronted by an imposing, even frightening circumstance we don’t control: He said something stupid. The gospel of Mark says of this remark by Peter that he didn’t know what he was saying. And it’s true. Peter proposes to give equal recognition to the three, even though less than a week before he was confessing Jesus to be God.

Folks, I have to confess I do the same thing. I confess my belief in Jesus as God in the flesh, King of my life, on Sunday mornings. But all too often, later that day, my life betrays that sinful inborn belief that He’s only a man, after all, that I have the right to do whatever I want, that I’m such a good guy I don’t need His shed blood or His resurrection. I think I can rely on myself. My own reasoning skills. My own emotions. My own common sense. My own virtues. It’s a lie. Every bit of it, a big fat, death-dealing lie. And, if I allow it to take hold--if I allow myself to be my own god and make Jesus out to be nothing more than a spineless, compliant buddy--and if I refuse to repent for it and refuse to ask Him to build up my faith in Him as my only hope, I will separate myself from Him forever. Thank God that the Holy Spirit, Who speaks through God’s Word and through the witness of other Christians, grabs me and reminds me to listen not to myself or my ego or my impulses, but to Jesus. When I’m listening, I hit my knees again, acknowledge that Jesus is my God and I’m not, and I seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God for the sake of what Jesus did for sinners like me when He died on the cross and then rose from the empty tomb!

This is similar to what happened to Peter. Verse 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!’" Notice that? Peter put his building proposal into Jesus’ suggestion box and God cut Peter off. It’s as though God said, “Shush, Peter! Moses and Elijah played their parts in my plans, but listen to Jesus. Focus on Him. He may seem to be only a man, especially when, in a short while, you see Him die on a cross, but He really is also God the Son, just as you confessed. He is God the Son. He pleases Me. Try to remember this moment when you see Him give up His life for you and all sinners. Listen to Him!” Later, after Jesus had been crucified and raised, after He had ascended to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to give His followers faith and the power to pass it on to others, Peter said of Jesus in Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." When we listen to Jesus, when we give him priority in our lives, we can trust that the Lord Who calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him--to acknowledge our sin and vulnerability and let Him rule over our lives--will also lead us through this life, safely past the gates of death into eternity with God!  Romans 10:17 tells us: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” If we want to live lives of integrity, if we want the power to resist temptation, the power to be faithful to the God Who made us, the power to live with Him now and in eternity, we cannot manufacture faith. But we can listen to Jesus. And as we let His voice cut through our sin and resistance, through our self-sufficiency and self-loathing, we will hear the voice of God telling us, “I died for you. I rose for you. Take my hand. Take my yoke upon you. Let me be the shepherd who guides you through all the shadows of this world, including the shadows of your sin and selfishness, and into the splendor of my light.”

Verses 6 to 8: “When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don't be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” What frightens you today? What sins are you struggling with. Or worse yet, what sins are you not struggling with? Putting yourself or some other person or some pleasure ahead of God? Neglecting your duty to your family? Looking down on someone else? Adulterous thoughts? Whatever it may be, look up. You need not be afraid. Neither your fears nor your sins need have the last word in your life! They need not condemn you to separation from God. When the world abandons you or seems unable to help, Jesus is there. He gives forgiveness and the power to live with a new heart and a new will in His kingdom to all who renounce their sin and surrender their lives to Him. Jesus, your God and King wants to help!

Now verse 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.’" I would have been busting a gut to tell everyone once I got back from seeing such an amazing thing, especially if I’d been Peter. Confirmation that Jesus is both Messiah and God, just like Peter had confessed. Yet Jesus tells them to tell no one. Lutherans would issue a sigh of relief and they would be rid of their sense of guilt if their pastors told them, “Don’t witness.” 

But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. He took three apostles away so that they could get a different perspective, pay attention to things they were ignoring, things they’d been taking for granted, things they hadn’t even known existed. Jesus was and is God. He promises the glory of heaven to all who follow Him. But that glorious destination can only be reached by way of the cross, only when we’re willing to submit for crucifixion everything in our character that’s marred by sin, everything that’s selfish. Taking up our crosses to follow Jesus means more than coming up with the right answer about Jesus as Peter did the first time he confessed Jesus to be the Son of living God. It means submitting our lives and sins for crucifixion. It means seeking the Holy Spirit’s power to love and forgive others as the crucified and risen Jesus has loved and forgiven us. It means seeking to align ourselves with God’s will and judgment and not our own. It means, to paraphrase The Small Catechism, letting our old selves, together with all our sins and evil desires, be drowned by daily repentance and sorrow for sin so that our new selves can come forward each day and, then one day, rise to live with God, reconciled and made clean by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ alone.

When we follow not just the risen, miracle-working Jesus, but also the Jesus Who died and calls us to die so that we too may rise with Him, then we understand Him. Then we understand what it is to call Him “the Son of God.” Our confession becomes true, authenticated by exposure to the real Jesus in His fullness. And it’s then that we not only can tell others about the Jesus of the Transfiguration, it’s then that we will want to tell others about Him. Knowing that Jesus died to make sinners like us clean, we will be like the early Christians who said when told not to tell others about Jesus: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." Amen

Snowy Sunday Song #4: 'Above All' by Michael W. Smith

Snowy Sunday Song #3: 'Breathe' by Michael W. Smith

We sang this in worship last Sunday. A great confession of our need of the God revealed in Christ. Love it!

Snowy Sunday Song #2: 'Ordinary Love' by U2

Snowy Sunday Song #1: 'Invisible' by U2