Sunday, February 07, 2016

God's Encouragement

Luke 9:28-36
We were talking with a young person this past week and the subject of this year’s presidential election came up. She was equally glum about all the presidential candidates in both parties. “It doesn’t matter who we vote for,” she told us. “Nothing will ever get better again.”

I have to say that I share that young person’s assessment of whether the election of any person would significantly change our world for the better. 

Only a spiritual renewal will cause us to act differently toward one another. 

Only massive numbers of people coming to be disciples and to live as disciples of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, massive numbers of people daily repenting and daily believing in Christ, can move us out of what some are calling degenerative discouragement syndrome

It was discouragement to which that young person gave voice. 

And she isn’t alone, though some try, on their own, to make the best of it. Like people who say, “The world is going to hell. But I’m going to get what I can for me and my family.” 

Not, “The world is going to hell and I’m going to share Christ with whoever I can.” 

Not, “The world is bad, so I’m going to love my family and forgive those who sin against me.” 

Not, “I’m going to pray that God’s kingdom will come.” 

No, these people think, “Things are bad and I’m going to get as much good as I can, other people be hanged. Then I'll die."

The followers of Jesus Christ had observed many epiphanies--many manifestations of His power and Lordship--over the course of His ministry. 

Because of them, they were pinning their hopes for a better world on Jesus. 

For five hundred years, God’s people--the Jews--had suffered from a kind of degenerative discouragement syndrome. It had been that long since God had spoken through the prophets, through whom God had promised a Messiah, a Christ, an anointed King. 

Through those centuries, they endured injustice, foreign domination, and the enslavement of a grace-less religion. 

Many had given up hope that God would ever act. 

But now, as Jesus preached, taught, healed, raised the dead, and cast out demons, the veil of despair began to lift. Was God’s kingdom close at hand, after all? Was Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king, come to make things right?

Eight days before the events recounted in this morning’s Gospel lesson, one disciple, the apostle Peter, was moved by the Holy Spirit to claim Jesus as “God’s Messiah.” [Luke 9:20] 

According to Luke, Jesus silently acceded to Peter’s confession, charged the disciples to say nothing to anyone because first, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” [Luke 9:22]

At that, the disciples must have felt that the small embers of hope just being brought to flame by Jesus were being doused by His cold wet blanket

Popular thought said that the Messiah--the Christ--would conquer foreign foes and ensure an era of financial prosperity. (The very things we expect of presidents, by the way.) The Christ, they thought, would govern justly and everyone would live happily ever after.

But Jesus understood that the people of His homeland--the people of the world, including you and me--are oppressed by much more than foreign threats or economic challenges, more than poverty or terrorism. All of those ills and many more come from a deeper human problem, the problem that Jesus came to conquer. The problem is sin, humanity’s inborn alienation from God, and death, the common enemy of every human being, that springs from death.

Jesus was telling Peter: “You’re right. I am the Messiah. And this is what the Messiah does. He bears the weight of Your sin and death on the cross, taking the punishment you deserve, so that if you repent and believe in Me, you will have eternal life in the kingdom of God.” 

The kingdom of God exists for all eternity, starting here in the hearts and wills of people who follow Jesus. Being a member of this kingdom today won’t erase the sins or tragedies of this fallen world. It’s still poisoned by sin and death. 

But being a member of this kingdom today will give us the faith and courage to live the Christian life: to love God, to love neighbor, to serve others with no expectation of return payment, to call others to follow Jesus with no expectation that they will say yes, to pray in Jesus’ name for those we love and for those who hate us

When the risen Jesus lives in us by faith, we can take a world going to hell in our arms and love it with the love of Christ

When you know that the story ends beyond the gates of death with eternal life with God, it changes how you do today!

But when you’ve lived for five centuries with degenerative discouragement and you’re told that your favorite myth about the Messiah is false, that the Messiah is going to suffer rejection and execution, that He will conquer your enemies by death and not warfare before He rises from the dead, you need encouragement. 

And so, our lesson tells us that God the Father supplied it! 

Verse 28: “About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. [God always shows up when we pray! Even if we’re discouraged, even if we can't sense Him coming close to us when we call Him. God will show up for us when we pray!] As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. [Already, this should be reminding us of the time in Exodus 24, when, centuries before, Moses took Joshua up to a mountaintop with him as he received God’s Law. When people looked at Moses, they saw the bright light of God on his face. Now back on this mountain with Jesus,] Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. [The word translated as departure here is literally exodus. Jesus is leading people who repent and believe in Him out of the wilderness of sin and death into the promised land of forgiven sin and new and eternal life.] Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.”

What a sight it must have been for the discouraged eyes of Peter, John, and James! The holiness, grandeur, and light of God emanating from every pore of Jesus’ earthly body. The lawgiver Moses, centuries dead, and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, carried away by a chariot of fire centuries earlier, there to affirm that Jesus was the Messiah to Whom the Law and the Prophets and the Writings of the Old Testament all pointed. 

God was assuring the three disciples (and us) that despite the cross that awaited Jesus--that awaits who follow Him, He was still God and that the Messiah, after claiming His throne, would reign eternally over all who endure in believing in Him.

Verse 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 (The word in the Greek in which Luke wrote his Gospel is skene, literally meaning tabernacle or tent, also resonating of the Old Testament's account of God's people during their exodus from Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land.)—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone.”

Peter wanted to capture the moment, as though you could possibly capture the majesty and mystery of God in a tent, a booth, a tabernacle, a church, a cathedral, or a universe. God, who Peter was looking at in Jesus, is bigger than all the boxes we try to put Him in

Besides that, Peter seems to think that Moses and Elijah were on an equal footing with Jesus. Just so Peter doesn’t misunderstand, God the Father envelops the whole group in a cloud, like the pillar of a cloud through which He led ancient Israel through the wilderness, and then says unequivocally: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him.” At that, the three disciples found themselves with Jesus alone. 

What was God telling Peter and the other two (and us)? Simply this: “This is all you have been looking for. This is the one to whom Moses and Elijah were pointing. This is your king, God in the flesh. This is your wandering hearts' true desire!” 

Jesus was and is the Messiah toward whom all of human history had been moving

As the book of Hebrews puts it in a passage I mentioned a few Sundays ago: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” [Hebrews 1:1-2]

For people discouraged by life, the events of the first Transfiguration Sunday give hope

They must have helped Peter, John, and James and the disciples they led through the pain of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. “Yes,” they could have said, “Jesus has died, but we saw Him on the mountaintop. We know that He is God. But hold on. Hold on!” 

And when they saw the risen Jesus, the Holy Spirit would help them to put the pieces of the mystery together. They would understand that the sinless Messiah had to die so that when He rose, He could claim us not for a kingdom that lasts for a few fleeting years, not a kingdom that may give us material prosperity and personal security before we die in our sins, but an everlasting kingdom filled with the righteousness and peace and presence and love of God

Take courage in the midst of this world’s darkness, hold on tightly to Jesus, because “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” [Matthew 24:13] That’s the promise of Jesus’ transfiguration!

[This was shared today during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

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