Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration (also "Life Sunday")
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The actions and corrections of the disciples are written for our learning, and in this Gospel both pride and fear are exposed in them and in us.
Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain by themselves and is transfigured before them in brightness and glory; and Moses and Elijah appear to them, speaking with Jesus. The experience tempts these disciples toward feelings of pride, elitism. They receive an exclusive invitation to the top of a high mountain, to be with Jesus as He shines in glory, and with the great prophets Moses and Elijah.
“Lord, it is good that we are here,” Peter says, his pride soaring through the clouds, as though his invitation to this event resulted from something in himself. Perhaps he thinks he’s proven himself deserving of this glorious vision. Has he so soon forgotten the rebuke he received just six days prior, when Jesus called him Satan for his offense at Jesus’ impending death?
“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter had said. But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, you are a hindrance to me! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man”?
Can you see yourself in Peter, in his pride, his feelings of entitlement and self-worth? Have you not set your mind not on the things of God but on the things of man? Have you not set yourself above others, and thought more highly of yourself than you ought? Have you not neglected the rebukes and directions of God and lived as though only your will mattered. Have you not shirked or despised the cross, the suffering that accompanies faithful Christian service and obedience, and sought only glory and mountainous heights?
To you, as to Peter, James, and John, God the Father speaks from heaven, interrupting all your prideful thoughts—“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” Jesus is the only one deserving of God’s favor, the only one in whom the pleasure of the Father rests, the only one who, sharing in the very essence of the Father and the Spirit, shines like the sun, the resplendence of His divinity bursting through His human vesture. You and I are but mortals, dust and ashes, sinful, corrupt, fully displeasing to the Father.
“Hear Him!” the Father speaks, and our pride is exposed. We have not listened to the Son faithfully, diligently, but to what our own itching ears have wished to hear. We have not heeded the prophetic Word of the Scriptures as we ought; we have not lit our daily path with the lamp of God’s Word but have stumbled in the dark, going our own way, seeking our own glory, our own pleasure, our own high mountains upon which to dwell.
Hearing the word of God from the bright cloud, the disciples’ pride is quickly extinguished, but their second response is in need of correction, too. “And when the disciples hear it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and do not be afraid.’” It is good that you acknowledge your sin, that you fall on your face in repentance, confessing your wretchedness. It is meet and right that you fear the wrath of God against sin, and yet Jesus says, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”
He doesn’t want the disciples, or you, to be crippled by their fear, for such fearful paralysis is no better than the pride that came before it. It neither trusts God’s mercy nor does it rise to serve the neighbor. Instead such fear becomes another form of selfishness. When you despair of God’s grace, and fear or self-pity overcomes you, your neighbor suffers, for self-pity naturally results in apathy toward the needs of others. When you wallow in your own sad estate, you become inactive in the works of mercy and service your neighbor needs.
Thus Jesus came and touched the disciples saying, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” Immediately He restores and comforts them, just as He is quick to restore and forgive you. He doesn’t desire that the knowledge of your sin leave you paralyzed, but that repenting, you be raised up to newness of life, and that, leaving fear behind, you boldly and selflessly serve your neighbor in love. So we don’t remain on our knees in the Divine Service—whether at the Confession or the Lord’s Supper—but hearing, and tasting, Christ’s absolution we rise: forgiven, renewed, enlivened toward loving service.
Though they don’t understand it until later, in Jesus’ Transfiguration, the disciples see a preview of the third day, when their crucified Jesus will be raised from the dead in glory. And they also see a preview of their own resurrection. United to Jesus Christ in baptism, we are crucified and raised with Him. Jesus comes and touches you through the Pastor’s absolution and in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. And He raises you up, even now, to a life of faith and love. The beatific vision will be yours at the Last Day when you will be raised incorruptible. . . . But in the meantime, Christ touches you and sets you on your feet to lead a life of mercy and service, following Him, hearing Him.
In hearing the Word of Christ, the Holy Spirit works in you to will and to do according to God’s good pleasure. For by the Word, the Spirit both plants faith in your heart and causes it to grow up. From Jesus we know that a good tree must bear good fruit. The Apostle James teaches that “faith without works is dead,” and the Apostle Paul reminds us that “with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” So by the power of God’s Word and Spirit you are forgiven, raised up, and set on the path of faithful Christian living.
Tomorrow, Jan. 22, 2018, will mark 45 years since the most abominable decision the US Supreme Court has ever handed down, that of Roe Versus Wade. So today, in addition to being Transfiguration Sunday, is “Life Sunday” in our Synod. It is good that we encourage each other to make the good confession, to be voices for the voiceless unborn, our weakest and most vulnerable neighbor. For these unborn children are desperately in need of our Christian service, of strong voices, of good Christian leading and example, and of courageous acts of mercy.
Friday, on my way to the March for Life, I passed by the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and the large sign outside the museum saying “Never Again” highlighted for me the tragic irony of abortion in our nation: in this society where all recognize the evils committed in Hitler’s Holocaust, so very many are blinded or calloused to the even greater holocaust of abortion, the slaughter of over 60 million children in the womb since 1973. While many in our nation are militant in their fight to keep abortion legal, others are woefully ignorant or indifferent, adopting a “laissez faire” attitude toward the whole matter. But even we Christians, who know the sanctity of human life most clearly of all, are subject to attitudes of indifference and defeatism. Even we are subject to being persuaded by the lies Satan spreads throughout our society, culture, media influences, institutions, and in our own families and personal lives. And even we are at risk of allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good, and seeing the perfect out of reach, to become complacent with the status quo.
We all must be reminded of the horrors being committed among us, to innocent children and to their mothers. And we need our Lord’s reminder and encouragement to rise in service of our neighbor, to make the good confession and not to be afraid. We must learn, as the prophet Isaiah writes, to do good; to seek justice, to rebuke the oppressor; to defend the fatherless, and to plead for the widow, to speak the truth in love.
Those unborn children in danger of abortion need our faith to be living and active. Those women who are with child, especially those considering abortion, who are hurting, misled, abused, confused, or distraught, need your Christian friendship and help. Those women no longer with child, who became victims of abortion, need of your Christian love and grace. Those fathers, siblings, parents, friends, are in need of your loving service.
There is more that we can do, more that we can say and confess to the world around us. And this doesn’t only mean that we must be active against the evils of abortion, but even more importantly that we must be actively for what is good.
As usual, most of the media described Friday’s march as “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life.” But being pro-life is so much more than being against abortion. We must—as the Christian Church, as individuals, as families—demonstrate to the world by our words and actions that we value human life at all stages, and of all colors and creeds, and whether disabled, deaf, dumb, or otherwise “different.” We must demonstrate by example that we uphold the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, as the only proper setting for sexual relations and for the bearing and raising of children. We need to offer support and encouragement to troubled marriages and families around us. We need to extend the message of God’s loving forgiveness to the wounded and broken-hearted. There is so much more that we can do, and the good of our neighbor, depends on our doing it.
Arise, and do not be afraid, for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has both died for the sin of the world and has risen again in victory over death and the power of the devil. As His divine glory shone through His human nature on that holy mountain, so does the light of His love shine through you into the world. For He has bound Himself to you, and you to Him. So He is with you all the way, as you fall and rise in baptismal repentance in renewal, as you love your neighbor. He is with you, even unto your own rising on the Last Day. For joined to Christ, you are loved by the Father, and with you He is well-pleased.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.