Monday, February 04, 2008

"Jesus Alone." Matthew 17:1-9 The Transfiguration of Our Lord

In the Name of Jesus our Saving Glory. Amen

Dear Fellow-Redeemed:
Just this week a member here at Redeemer commented on the unhealthy fascination given by many Christians to the possibility of a physical, brick and mortar temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount so that animal sacrifices might resume and thereby usher in the Last Day.
Why people professing to put their faith in Christ so easily slide back into putting their faith in signs and types and foreshadows while abandoning the real, honest-to-goodness thing that everything else pointed to may be sad, disappointing and lamentable, but not completely surprising.
Guided by the Spirit of Christ working through the Word of God, we should be grieved but not shocked when we see Christians — sometimes even ourselves — hankering for a return to the former things and the old ways with which our old nature, the fallen world and wily Satan will always feel most comfortable: the glory of gold and silver, the glory of institutions and ceremonies and personalities and talents that impress the world and give us what we think we want — what we often think we need: a vehicle to prove to God and our neighbor and ourselves that we are deserving the good things of this life and the next.
God comes to us this morning to reveal to the disciples of Jesus the true place of Moses and Elijah and the true glory of salvation. God comes this morning that each of us might see through the eyes of Peter, James and John, the saving distinction between God's Law and God's Gospel and the difference between salvation by two-way contract and salvation by God's gracious, unmerited gift.
May God mercifully bless the preaching of his Word and the reception of it by faith. Amen.
It's a special Sunday, whether you look at the Christian calendar or the television program schedule. For us brought into this sanctuary by our Lord himself, it is a special, glorious, once-a-year commemoration of the Transfiguration of our Lord on this last Sunday after the Epiphany; for much of the nation, it is a special, glorious, once-a-year commemoration of the best the sports world has to offer: the arena of no second chances, may the best man win, winner take all competition sprinkled with cheerleaders and million-dollar-a-pop commercials.
Today we find ourselves in the middle of two kinds of glory, two kinds of prestige, two kinds of basking in the light of praise and honor and adoration, two kinds of dazzling performance and brilliant achievement. One strengthens the American ideal that with hard work and determination and a little luck, we are ultimately rewarded with the fruits of our effort; and the other strengthens our belief that being rewarded with what we actually deserve is the worst thing that could ever happen to us.
One kind of approach is by two-way contract: sweat and hard work for a glorious reward; the other sees sweat and hard work as the reward for our fall from glory.
One kind of approach desires to live and die by transactions and barters and contracts and deal-making; the other approach desires a different kind of life: one that transforms and remolds our own minds and hearts through something completely unmerited, something completely undeserved, something that is pure grace; pure glorious gift.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the 17th chapter:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. (Matthew 17:1 ESV)
A good question to ask ourselves upon hearing this introductory verse to our Gospel this morning is, "Six days after what?" And for that we need to open the Scriptures and retrace what important event had occurred just before Jesus grabbed the three disciples who made up the inner circle of the Twelve and lead them up this high mountain in Galilee.
What we find in the second half of chapter 16 is the completion of three years of instruction that began way back in chapter 4, instruction by Jesus that finally produces in them a God-given recognition that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16:16) Jesus commends the confession given to him by the Twelve through the lips of Peter their spokesman, and announces that upon this true faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah himself will build his eternal Church, through which he will do the double work of binding sins and forgiving sins. And Peter begins to dream of wearing a gold champion ring that would put anything given at the Super-bowl to shame.
But Jesus will not keep the Twelve in the dark when it comes to how this reign of God's saving Word in Christ will be eternally established:
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. (Matthew 16:21 ESV)
Peter again speaks for the Twelve. After three years he still wants salvation by negotiation and vote. "No, Lord! That can't be the way the reign of heaven will be established! That's not fair and that's not what you deserve. Your suffering and death is the last thing we need. We're all waiting for your glorious kingdom, and we'll give even our lives to make it happen."
For the next six days Jesus' unexpected answer kept ringing in their ears:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:24b-25 ESV)
Jesus had thrown a bucket of cold water on the disciples' wild dreams of a grand parade into glory hanging on the coattails of triumphant Jesus. It was time to show his little band of followers the difference between salvation by contract and salvation by grace at the top of a high Galilean mountain.
It very well may have been night by the time they reached their destination. As was his habit, Jesus removed himself a stone's throw in order to pray. Saint Luke tells us that Peter and James and John were heavy with sleep, but awoke sometime later to behold a sight that would not only take their breath away but drive them to fall on their faces in fear.
And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. (Matthew 17:2-3 ESV)
Now this event in which Jesus was transfigured before the disciples was like, well, nothing else during the earthly ministry of Jesus. The Evangelists Matthew and Mark and Luke can only try to describe for us this heavenly scene in earthly language as Peter, James and John get a glimpse of that heavenly glory the divine Son of God had laid aside since the manger as he talks with Moses and Elijah about the greater exodus he was to fulfill at Jerusalem.
It is sleepy-eyed Peter who quickly wants to set up shop for Jesus and Moses and Elijah and get everything ready for the reign of heaven and the coming glory of deliverance for God's special people. But God himself will have no more of Peter's mistaken notions and intervenes with the bright cloud of his hidden majesty.
Falling to the ground, Peter now recalled the reality of his precarious situation as the voice of Yahweh himself thundered from the cloud. He remembered the pleas of the Israelites under Moses after he had come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18-21 ESV)
This is not the time for Peter to make-a-deal or do some good work to get the Lord's attention and impress the dignitaries. This is a time for the maker of heaven and earth to strengthen his only-begotten:
... 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.” (Matthew 17:5 ESV)
This is the center of salvation and the core of life eternal. No talk of you do this for me and then I might do this for you. No talk of a building committee or setting up phone lines for a praise-a-thon. The Almighty re-affirms the verdict on Jesus' one-of-a-kind mission given at his Baptism, while also re-affirming the inspired words given his people through Moses:
"The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you—from your brothers. It is to him you shall listen." (Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV)
And as Peter and James and John raised their heads at the touch of Jesus and his word of comfort, "Rise and have no fear," (Matthew 17:7 ESV) they saw with their eyes what they had heard from the cloud of divine majesty: no longer was there Moses the Law-giver; no longer was there Elijah the prophet who was to usher in the glory of the Messiah and his redeeming kingdom. No glorious cloud. Only the hand and touch of Jesus.
This is one of the most glorious Sundays of the entire year. But it is faith in the Almighty's faithful Son, the Beloved One — God-given and sustained faith in the Word and touch of the only-begotten Son of God come in human flesh—that sees what is truly glorious and redemptive and eternal.
The Word and hands of Christ — as he prays at his Baptism, as he comforts and leads the disciples at his Transfiguration, as he washes and feeds them in the Upper Room, as he announces and embraces his calling to freely lay down his life in the most unfair of exchanges and the most unimaginable deals: our sin for his righteousness; his glory for our shame, his death for our eternal life.
This afternoon, on the gridiron, eleven men will gather to get what they deserve and revel in it. This morning, in this sanctuary, God announces anew — through the glory on the mountain and the glory of the cross and empty tomb — that not only the Twelve but all who put their faith in the Word and touch of Christ with water, with bread and wine, receive the ring of son-ship, the crown of eternal life, the gift only God's grace can give: victory over death, Satan and the grave.
A glorious Transfiguration Sunday to each of you in the name of Christ.