Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord

Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Exodus 34:29-35

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It came upon us so suddenly, almost like a thief in the night: Epiphany, and now the Feast of the Transfiguration. Wasn’t it just Christmas, and now we’re already preparing for Lent? Yeah, the Church Year is sometimes like that. The deep penitential season of Lent comes upon us while we aren’t expecting it, while we are still basking in Christmas joy, much the way death sometimes comes upon us suddenly and unexpectedly, sometimes even in the days of our youth. However, this is nothing new for God’s people. Indeed, Saints Peter, James, and John had a similar experience on the holy mountain. No doubt they were elated at having been hand selected by Jesus for this personal audience with their Rabbi, Master, and Lord. And, when Jesus’ face and clothing shone forth with primordial Light, and when Moses and Elijah appeared along with Him, they were overcome with elation and joy such that zealous Peter desired to preserve it by building tabernacles and shrines to preserve the glory and the joy and keep them alive forever.
Perhaps this is why we call such moments of elation and joy and holiness “mountaintop experiences,” and, like Peter and the Apostles, we too desire to preserve them and keep them alive forever. Like that moment Christmas Eve while we sang together Silent Night in the candlelit darkness. What a feeling of peace and joy, love and unity! No, we don’t want Christmas to end. But, we must not forget that the infant Jesus was born to die for us and for the world. That is the reason He was given. He came to us that He might fulfill God’s holy Law for us, and suffer and die on the cross in our stead and in our place for our failure to keep it. And He came that He might take up His life again out of death, and our lives with His, that we might live with Him in His Father’s kingdom forever. No, it cannot always be Christmas, for then there would be no Holy Thursday betrayal, no Good Friday death, no Easter Sunday resurrection, and we would still be in our sins. We cannot live on the mountaintop of glory at this time – the air is too thin and we cannot breathe! – but we must pass through the Valley of the Shadow of death, following Jesus in the way of the cross before we enter into His glory, glory that Jesus’ Transfiguration was but a glimpse and foretaste of, glory that exists now with God in heaven, that has always existed, glory that we forsook when our First Parents rebelled and chose a Theology of Glory over a Theology of the Cross.
When Peter, James, and John were granted a peak at Jesus’ unveiled glory, it must have felt like Christmas and Epiphany. But, when God the Father spoke once again, as at Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him,” the Apostles did what every man and woman must do in the presence of the glory of God: They fell down on their faces as though dead. Indeed, no man may see God’s glory and live, as the LORD said to Moses in last Sunday’s Old Testament reading. For that reason, the LORD in His mercy and grace granted Moses to see His backside, which is to say His veiled glory, even as He first placed Moses into the cleft of the Rock, which, St. Paul explains in His Epistle to the Corinthians was the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The point is this: Because no man can see God’s glory and live, our gracious and merciful LORD works through means, veiling His glory, that we may approach Him and live. And, that veil is always Jesus. Indeed, Jesus was the burning bush through which the LORD first spoke to Moses. And, Jesus was the Angel of the LORD who visited and spoke with Abraham and Hagar and with several others. We could say the same concerning the pillars of fire and cloud that went with the children of Israel in the Exodus and throughout their pilgrimage to the Promised Land of Canaan. It was God in His veiled glory. It was the Son of God, Jesus, the express image of the invisible God and His glory veiled in human flesh.
Perhaps most interesting to me is the connection between the temple veil and Jesus on the cross. When Jesus died and gave up His Spirit, the temple veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place where God’s glory dwelt amongst His people, was torn in two from top to bottom. Then the chief priests tore their robes and lamented because they saw with their own eyes that God was no longer with them in the temple. Indeed, God’s glory had not been behind that temple veil for thirty-three yeas, for, when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God proclaimed by the Archangel Gabriel, the glory of God took up residence in the flesh and blood veil of Jesus in Mary’s womb and remained with Him so that Jesus could say of the temple, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” St. John tells us that Jesus was talking about His body. Indeed, upon the cross, the veil of Jesus’ flesh was pierced with nails, and His side was torn open by a Roman spear. That wound issued forth water and blood, the Bride of Christ taken from the Second Adam’s side, the Church.
All who gazed upon Jesus’ crucified and dead body upon the cross were horrified. Those who loved Him and believed in Him despaired. Those who hated Him and cursed Him were alarmed at the earthquake, the darkened heavens, and the torn veil, wondering, perhaps having second thoughts, if He really was the Christ. Our Lord Jesus was much too easy to look upon on the mountaintop in non-threatening glory. It is only natural for sinful, fallen man to value the wrong things. We desire an emotional rapture, but we need God’s unchanging Word. We desire numbers in worship and overflowing offering plates, but we need to be faithful to God’s Word and commands even when it’s unpopular, even when it doesn’t seem to be working. We desire to be accepted and to be praised by the world and culture, but we are called to be separate, distinct, and holy, in the world, but not of the world. We desire an empty cross, which we rationalize to represent the empty tomb, but we are sent to preach nothing but Christ and Him crucified. We need to come down from the mountaintop of glory and live in the valley of the cross. What Peter, James, and John were granted to see was but a glimpse, a foretaste of glory yet to be fully realized. It was granted them that they might persevere and endure what Jesus and they were about to face in the valley below and in Jerusalem in the week to come. Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trials, scourging, crucifixion, and death would, otherwise scandalize, shake, and destroy their faith. Therefore, the LORD granted them a glimpse of His glory that they might be strengthened to persevere. That glory was not their life now, but yet to come. And yet, as that glory was always in Jesus, though veiled in His flesh and blood humanity, so was that glory with them and in them now, but not yet to be revealed fully. They were to be encouraged and strengthened, knowing that whatever happened, the victory was already theirs in Christ. And, this is true for you and for me and for all believers as well.
Indeed, our LORD continues to bless us with a glimpse and foretaste of His glory that we might be strengthened and persevere as we make our pilgrimage through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, following our Lord Jesus in the way of the cross. It is right here, on this holy mountain where God Himself is present, though veiled, under water and Word, and bread and wine which are the real and true body and blood of Jesus given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our faith, the equipping and sending of us for service, and for His divine protection along the way. If we do not receive His gifts on the mountain, we will surely be overcome and destroyed in the valley. For, fierce are our foes, those whose desire is to mock and ridicule, to marginalize, and to destroy us for the light of hope, grace, and forgiveness we proclaim in Jesus Christ through our words, lives, and deeds.
My dear children in faith, what we receive and do here in this holy sanctuary truly is our life, and yet it is only a foretaste, a brief glimpse, if you will, of what the saints in glory already know and live, in which you and I will join with them in on the day of Jesus’ glorious return and the resurrection of our bodies. For now, our lives are lived out there, in the valley and under the cross. And, while times have always been dark, difficult, and dangerous for God’s children, they are surely very dark, difficult, and dangerous for us today. And, on this Life Sunday, we are reminded that over 60 million children have been destroyed by abortion since 1973. That’s over 1 million abortions per year, approximately 3,657 abortions each and every day. And, that’s not to mention other life issues including euthanasia and assisted suicide. Truly, when human life is valued so little, and it’s destruction is touted as a personal right and choice, surely we live in very, very dark, difficult, and dangerous days. It is natural for us to be afraid.
Jesus’ disciples were afraid too. When God the Father spoke from the heavens concerning Jesus, they were afraid for their lives, for they knew that they must be destroyed because of their sin and guilt, and because they had beheld the glory of the Living God. But, Jesus raised them up. He said to them, “Rise, and have no fear.” Jesus’ words were an absolution, a proclamation of their forgiveness and that they need not fear, for God had favor upon them through Jesus Christ. However, they were also afraid as they followed Jesus down the mountain into the valley where, immediately, they were met by the diseased and the demon-oppressed, for they were those whom Jesus had come to save and to whom the Apostles and all believers were to minister and witness to in His Name. Yes, you are sent into this dark, difficult, and dangerous world bearing the Light of Christ. You are to be His hands and His feet, His heart and His voice to those dwelling in the darkness of the shadow of death. And, though it be dark, difficult, and dangerous, you need not be afraid, for the Lord is with you, and through His Word and Sacraments He is in you and works through you. Indeed, through Him you can do anything, for He will do everything through you. However, you can only give to others what you first have yourself. Therefore, Jesus invites you, once again, to ascend the Holy Mountain that you may receive His glory and life, His flesh and blood veiled in bread and wine, that you may be forgiven anew, strengthened in faith, equipped and sent with His blessing and protection in the assurance and promise that He is with you always, even to the end of the age. No, we cannot live in His glory fully yet, but His glory goes with us, is in us, and works through us now, to the glory of God in Jesus Christ.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

No comments: