Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sermon: Transfiguration

5 February 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 17:1-9 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” So says the third verse in the Bible.

Of all the things God could have begun creation with, light is the very first. Of course, cosmologists and physicists understand the importance and uniqueness of light. Even to the most unbelieving, rationalist, materialist scientist, light is a mystery, an enigma. Is it a particle? Is it a wave? It seems both at the same time. It challenges our reason, and forces us to simply accept what it is on faith.

Why would the almighty Creator make light on that first day of creation? Without probing into what has not been revealed to us, we can conclude that light makes it possible to see. Nearly every life form depends on light. Plants convert it into sugars that nourish. Animals use it to see. Humans rely on it for civilization itself.

Light is mentioned in the Nicene Creed. Jesus is described as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” Jesus calls himself the “Light of the world.” The Psalmist prays: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” and “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?”

Light enables us to see, to sense the reality around us. And darkness is its opposite. Darkness conceals reality, confuses us, disorients us. We are unable to read, and are less able to communicate in the dark. Darkness breeds fear. Violence and crime often occur under cover of darkness. Long bouts of darkness can lead to depression. Satan is himself called the Prince of Darkness. Jesus describes Hell as a place without light.

It is no surprise that God’s presence is almost always described in Scripture as being accompanied by a glorious, shining radiance. His presence in the Ark of the Covenant was signified by a pillar of light. As we heard in our Old Testament lesson, Moses’ face shone with residual light from standing in the glorious presence of the Lord. So as not to become a distraction from the Word of God that he was called upon to preach, and in deference to the fears of the people, Moses veiled his face. The shutting off of this light was an act of mercy.

For as much as light is a blessing to us, the light from God’s presence is disturbing to us. This light shines upon our sinfulness and exposes our filthiness. This is why Isaiah, in a wondrous vision, when exposed to God on his throne, cried out: “Woe is me, for I am undone. Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Even the angels in this vision shielded their faces in God’s presence. However, these same angels mercifully purged away Isaiah’s sin by placing a hot coal on his lips.

Peter behaved the same way when he encountered Jesus miraculously putting a huge load of fish into his nets. He responded: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter’s encounter with the glorious and divine Jesus was terrifying. Peter would later be present as Jesus revealed his glory in today’s Gospel text, the transfiguration. And Peter, like Isaiah, would have his sins purged away as the Lord would give him his very own body and blood upon his lips at the very first celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

So while light is a good and beneficial thing, sometimes it’s a blessing that the Lord veils himself, just as Moses veiled himself. Peter and the disciples dealt with Jesus for three years. Aside from the transfiguration, Jesus’ face did not glow. Jesus’ divine glory was veiled by his humanity. And this was an act of mercy for those around him, just as it is an act of mercy for us today.

Skeptics will often scoff, demanding that God reveal himself. They don’t know what they are asking for. In every instance in which God speaks directly to man, it is terrifying. Again, our sinful flesh can’t stand to be in God’s perfect, glorious presence. God knows what we can bear, and so he reveals himself to us in rather unimpressive ways: through his preached word, through the ministrations of a pastor, through the work of a parent, teacher, shop girl, or delivery boy. Through the doctor and the street cleaner. Through a helpless baby in a manger, through a wandering rabbi, through a convicted criminal dying by execution. Through unextraordinary water poured in the name of the Trinity. Through bland wafers of bread and unimpressive wine that has been blessed by the word and command of Jesus.

God loves us, and so veils himself. He asks us to see him with eyes of faith. The author of Hebrews tells us the very definition of faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Though he may be veiled, we see him through faith. Though he may be hidden from our eyes, through faith we see him where he promises to be found. Though the world scoffs and bares its teeth and rages against us for our supposed folly, we continue to joyfully walk by the light of faith.

In the Creed, we confess that God is Creator of things both “visible and invisible.” Luther pointed out God’s mercy in veiling our eyes from the reality of the spiritual warfare that surrounds us. Can you imagine the horrifying sights we would see if angels and demons were not hidden from our eyes? When we are ready to see all, God will reveal all. But until that time, we see through the glass darkly. We should be content and grateful for God’s being veiled, and for his gentle revelations of himself. The word “revelation” means “unveiling.”

Notice in our Gospel text, Jesus shines “like the sun,” and even his clothing became overwhelmed by the light. Of course, Peter, James, and John were inhibited from looking directly at Jesus. But beyond the phosphorescence, they did see Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Now at last the mystery of Moses’ glowing face has been revealed. Like the moon, Moses’ illumination is only reflected light, light that comes from somewhere else. That light comes from Jesus, the light of the world, the source of all light, the selfsame Word of God that called light into existence, the Light of Light and very God of very God. Jesus, shining in his own glory is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. Apart from Jesus, the history of Israel is meaningless. But in Jesus, the Scriptures are illuminated, history fulfilled.

This is not merely a good man, a great teacher, a sage dispenser of spiritual advice. No indeed, Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh, the one “begotten, not made. Being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” In case there are any doubts about who he is, Jesus sheds glorious light on the situation. And by the light of this Christ, we see through the darkness of sin and death into the radiance and glory of God, the uncreated light. The book of Revelation, the “unveiling,” tells us that new Jerusalem will be lit only by this magnificent and radiant light of Christ.

During this miraculous transfiguration, God the Father reiterates his homily preached at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” And the disciples fell face-down, as did Isaiah in the divine throne room. And Jesus heals their sinfulness with his touch, and tells them not to be afraid. And when they looked at him again, his glory was once more mercifully hidden beneath his manly veil, and they “saw no-one but Jesus only.” Again, they only see the humanity of Jesus with their fleshly eyes.

But in revealing his glory even for a moment, Jesus prepared them for a time when their faith would be tested to the limit. And yet, in his mercy, he quickly covered up his glory, so that all they saw once again was his humble human form.

Dear friends, the Lord is merciful. For he takes away our sins, gives us eternal life, communes intimately with us, taking our flesh and blood and giving us his own flesh and blood. In our sinful inability to stand in his glorious presence, he stoops mercifully to stand in our sinful presence. And he continues to do so today.

Every time the Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated, Jesus’ modern day servants of the Word hold aloft the chalice and the host as the people sing: “Oh Christ the Lamb of God.” The elements are held up for us to behold as we sing - because Jesus is there! His glory is veiled, his presence hidden under bread and wine – but he is still in our midst doing his work: forgiving, strengthening, reconciling, healing, giving life, removing guilt, and rolling back the ravages of death and darkness.

For 800 years Christians have sung the marvelous communion hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas – himself named after the apostle who doubted Jesus’ presence until he could touch him physically:

“Word made flesh, the bread He taketh
by His word His flesh to be
wine His sacred Blood he maketh
though the senses fail to see
faith alone the true heart waketh
to behold the mystery.”

So, dear brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for the mighty and glorious Jesus, whose face shone, revealing his divinity and bolstering the faith of our first bishops of the Church. And let us equally give thanks to the humble and lowly Jesus, who, robed entirely in humanity, walked among us and continues to speak to us by his Word and makes himself present with us by his sacraments. Let us praise him for his mercy in protecting us from horrific and terrifying sights, while bathing us in the warm glow of his Word that lights our path.

And just as Moses’ face shone with light reflected from his God and his Savior, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world.” Let us remember that his glorious light and his merciful veil go together paradoxically. Just as light is both wave and particle, and just as Jesus is both human and divine, and just as the Holy Supper is both bread and body, wine and blood. May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you, you who have been baptized into his name and called “out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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