Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord

28 January 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 17:1-9 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is a particular human trait we all share: we need to be reminded of things we already know. Advertisers know this, which is why might we see the same commercial five times in the same program. Teachers know it, which is why they tell their students to make flashcards. Healthy families know it, which is why they are affectionate with one another over and over again.

It’s not enough to be told something one time. We human beings want reassurance. Our memories need re-enforcement. If someone wants us to truly know and understand something, he must repeat it and give us reminders. That’s just how we are.

Our blessed Lord, in His mercy, knows this. The Transfiguration is a reminder – to His closest apostles and to us – of what we already know. Jesus the man is also Jesus the God. The Jesus, in the words of the hymn, who is “meek and mild” is also the Jesus, in the words of the ancient hymn: who will come “to be our judge.” The same Jesus who gently teaches the children is the same Jesus who casts mighty Lucifer and his legion of demons into hell.

St. Peter certainly knew that Jesus has, as we say today “two natures.” Peter knew Jesus as a man, and yet Peter witnessed our Lord’s greatest miracles. Peter confessed as much when he answered our Lord’s question: “Who do people say I am?” when he replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And yet, Jesus knows that as his crucifixion draws near, Peter will need a reminder. Peter and the apostles will soon witness things with their eyes that will challenge their faith. Their reason will tell them Jesus is not God, but rather a criminal shackled in chains, strapped to a bloody whipping post, nailed to a shameful cross, and lying dead in a stone-cold grave.

And so, Jesus takes his closest disciples with Him up a mountain. God the Father issues a reminder of Jesus’ standing as the Son of God, as the Father’s voice repeats the words of Jesus’ baptism: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” God the Father adds the following merciful advice to this reminder: “Hear Him!” Peter, James, and John are reminded of Jesus’ divine nature as the figurative veil is lifted and the Lord’s face shines with uncreated light, His clothes unable to contain the glory. “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” As the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah in plain view.

In a forceful and unmistakable way, the three were reminded of Jesus’ divinity. And they became terrified, being three sinful, mortal men in the presence of God: “They fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.” At this point, they needed another reminder, of the mercy of God, of the God who takes on flesh, who becomes man, and who becomes our Redeemer. Jesus touches them, bids them not to fear, and they open their eyes to see “no one but Jesus only.”

The reason they (and we) need reminding is a matter of focus. We are assaulted by evil, we are challenged by the world, we are tempted by our flesh, we are downtrodden by our disappointments, we are inflicted with disease, and we are left mourning by death. Our faith wavers by what our senses and logic tell us. We are distracted by glitter and baubles. We are drawn away from the Word of God by sloth and complacency. We are bullied into silence by those who persecute us. We live in a busy world that is hostile to Jesus, and at every turn we are pressed to take our eyes off of our Savior.

We, like Peter, James, and John, must be reminded to fix our eyes on Jesus, and Jesus only.

In his novel called Hammer of God, author Bo Giertz, a faithful bishop, theologian, and preacher in the Lutheran Church of Sweden, includes a chapter called “Jesus only” that features a Transfiguration Day sermon. In this chapter, a well-meaning young pastor exhorts his congregation to holiness by telling the women to give up jewelry and braided hair, telling the men to give up all alcoholic beverages, preaching that the Christian life is all about wearing plain clothing and conquering our sins (real or imagined) by our own efforts.

However, on Transfiguration Day, he finds himself with no sermon prepared – having just spent a long time at the deathbed of a parishioner. Instead of his usual preaching method of just winging it and depending on the Holy Spirit to guide him, the tired preacher reads a published sermon from the eighteenth century Swedish pastor Henric Schartau. This proclamation of the Word of God convicts not only the congregation, but also the pastor, of the sin of taking our eyes off Jesus and putting them on ourselves.

Let us listen anew to Pastor Schartau preaching to us 200 years into the future and reminding us:

“It is a blessed thing when the believing soul in prayer fixes his uplifted eyes of faith upon Jesus only, not looking about for his dispersed thoughts, nor backward upon Satan, who threatens with the assertion that the prayers are to no avail, nor inwardly upon his own slothfulness and slight devotion, but above himself to Jesus, ‘who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.’”

This sin of taking one’s eyes off Jesus and putting them on the self is older than man himself. This was Lucifer’s sin. It was Adam and Eve’s sin. It was Moses’ sin that kept him from the Promised Land. It was the sin of the Pharisees who blew the trumpet to call attention to their donations to the Temple. It was Peter’s sin as he coveted to walk on water, and taking his eyes off Jesus, sank. It was the sin of the disciples who looked to their own safety instead of staying with our Lord during his trial.

In the days of St. Augustine, it was called “Pelagianism” – looking to the deeds of the self instead of to God’s unmerited mercy and grace. In the days of Luther it was called “works righteousness” – and it was Pelagianism come back like a bad penny. A century and a half after Luther, it was called “Pietism” – and the people who should have known better, the Lutherans, led the charge to take our eyes off Jesus and place them on ourselves, our works, our ability to follow rules and regulations, and to boast of our own moral righteousness. Pastor Schartau reminds us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus – as did the very first leaders of the Missouri Synod. As did Bishop Giertz in his writing and his preaching.

Whenever we take our eyes off Jesus, we fall into sin. We put faith in ourselves and our good works. And if not our good works, than we put faith in our faith, or faith in our doctrine, or faith in our Lutheranism, or faith in our synodical affiliation, or faith in the fact that we are conservative, confessional Lutherans who worship using the liturgy. When we place our faith in any of these things, we take our eyes off Jesus.

But thanks be to God that our Lord knows our weaknesses. He knows of our short memory. He calls to mind our short attention span, and mercifully yanks our attention back to Jesus only! He gives us His Holy Word, through the prophets, through Holy Scripture, and through the preaching of the Word by pastors. Again and again, week after week, we are reminded of the Holy Gospel. Over and over we are forgiven of our sins by Holy Absolution. Luther implores us to make the sign of the holy cross, again and again, every day, morning and evening, when we pray, when we are frightened, when we praise God, when we worship, and any time we need a reminder of our Holy Baptism – which reminds us once again, which draws our attention anew to “Jesus only.”

Dear beloved of our Lord, whenever you are tempted to take your eyes off of Jesus to place them on yourself, your works, your faith, your doctrine, your church membership, your church attendance, or any other false security, our Lord Himself bids you to fix your eyes on Jesus, to focus on Jesus only. He does this in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. For Jesus Himself tells us in the Words of Institution: “This do in memory of me.” We are being reminded to see “Jesus only.” We are told again and again that this sacrament is His body “given for you” and His blood is “shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus reminds us every time, saying that as “often as you drink it” you do so “in remembrance of me.”

Let us hear Pastor Schartau’s conclusion, in which he reminds us:

“Do you, O confident sinner, know whom you are warring against, whom you are scoffing at? It is not the servant who proclaims the message which you contradict, not human beings whom you mock for their spiritual interests, but Jesus only.... Rest assured that Jesus alone is able to overrule your wickedness and to judge and punish you….

“Take heed to what you have heard, O mournful souls, remember that Jesus only is the object of your awakening…. Where, indeed, can you look for salvation except to your Saviour?.... [D]o not look for Moses or Elijah, but be content with the grace granted to those early disciples of whom we read, ‘When they lifted their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only.’

“When the peace of Christ has brought you reinvigoration and His promises have given you assurance of grace, then it shall also be your lot, at the approach of death, when your eyes can no longer see the things of this world, then the vision of your soul shall be opened and endowed with heavenly light to see the great glory, world without end, face to face, - Jesus only. Amen.”

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

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