Here is my sermon from this past Sunday. It addresses a lot of what is happening these days, and addresses it from the Word of God.
The events of our Gospel today happen we are told, “After six days”. Six days after what? It’s important. Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. It was Peter who made the bold confession – you are the Christ the Son of the living God. Each year the confession of Saint Peter is commemorated on January 18. Which is actually six days ago. It happens about 3 or 4 times a century that the schedule works out so exactly. But don’t hold your breath – it won’t happen again for 62 years.
The confession of Peter is important. Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Christ, the promised one whom the Father sent into the world to save us from our sins. After Peter makes that confession, Jesus blesses him, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in the heavens.” The confession of Jesus as the Savior of the world is not our work. It is worked in us, as we confess in the third article, “I believe that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” The confession which saves us – saving faith – is given to us as a gift. Jesus also gives Peter the keys to heaven – to unlock heaven for the repentant sinner, who confesses his sin and looks to Jesus for salvation. To lock the gates of heaven for those who refuse to repent of their sin, who reject the salvation Jesus offers.
And then, Jesus tells the disciples what is coming – his death and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Peter objects. Jesus rebukes him. The same mouth that confessed so boldly, now tries to stop God’s plan of salvation. A plan that doesn’t involve earthly success, but does involve a cross. Jesus doesn’t say “Your intentions may be good Peter, but you are mistaken.” No. “Get behind me Satan.” Those who would deny the person and work of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins are working against God. They are tools of Satan, working to bring about the destruction of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells the disciples that some of them will still be alive when they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
And Then, after six days, the transfiguration. Well, this must be it! The moment they were promised. Jesus is coming in his kingdom. The heavens are split open, the prophets of old have already arrived, the angels will soon pour down the mountain and Jesus will be acknowledged as Lord of creation, the Son of God and Son of Man. Now, the world will bow down and truly serve him.
Peter wants to put up three tents. Just like Moses of old who established the tabernacle, they’ll start with tents. One for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. Eventually a more permanent structure will mark the place where the kingdom of Christ began in this world.
It was not to be. We’re told in Luke that Jesus talks to Moses and Elijah about his coming death. This isn’t strategy about how to build a kingdom, how to succeed in business, how to win friends and influence people, how to make the Gospel irresistible to the world, to draw huge crowds and build a huge congregational budget with lots of committees and boards and buzzwords. Jesus is talking to them about dying. It’s the same topic he had with the disciples six days ago. Moses and Elijah are offering him encouragement for the burden to come. Jesus will carry not only the burden of dying, he will carry the burden of the world’s sin into his death. He will carry the punishment of the Father against sin. He will carry the burden of hell itself.
That’s what Jesus kingdom is about. It’s easy to forget that. We have to live in the world, where moth and rust destroy where thieves break in and steal. Where wars and rumors of wars, where earthquake and famine and flood and fire cause fainting with fear and cause hearts to tremble. In Jesus none of that really matters. We are in the world, but not of the world. Let the world have it’s wars and corruptions. Let the world have its power games and sinful insanities. We don’t bow down to the gods of this world, regardless of how tempting they may, how powerful they look, how frightening the punishments for those who refuse. We worship the Lord our God, and him only do we serve. We confess God the Father almighty, Jesus Christ his only Son, and the Holy Spirit the comforter. We are baptized into that name, and, like Jesus, our kingdom is no longer of this world. As we sing in the great reformation hymn, “Take they our life, goods fame child and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.”
(But) And what a kingdom it is. It’s a kingdom with the face of Jesus shining brightly, Moses and Elijah talking to him, and then, nothing. When we look up we see Jesus only. No bright light. No shining heavenly countenance. Just the same old thing that was there before. In our case, the word and promise of God. That’s what Peter talks about in the Epistle reading. The more sure prophetic word – that the apostles were themselves witnesses to the glory of Jesus on the mountain. And then, witnesses to his death on the cross. And greater than anything that came before: Witnesses to the resurrection, the life that is given to all who believe in his name. Peter will witness to that truth with his own blood. As will Paul, and all the martyrs.
Luther used to say that if there was medicine that could cure death, people would line up for miles, pay any price to have it. But the church, which offers immortality, is empty because it all appears so ordinary.
Luther wasn’t trying to be a prophet with his words. But this week, there were pictures in Europe of people lining up as far as the eye could see to get the COVID vaccine. And, because they needed a building that wasn’t really in use for anything important, the vaccination sites they used were churches – normally empty, but now with people lined up to get the medicine that would hopefully prevent death from that one disease.
Luther was right. The world seeks after wealth, and health, and power and all of those things. Jesus says not to bother with them – seek after the kingdom of God and his righteousness. But the kingdom of God is so boring, so weak looking. We’re already heading to the cross again. When Jesus will say to Pilate, “You would have no authority if it were not given you from above.” He is such a pathetic figure that Pilate tries to release him as a beaten crazy man. Compare the power of Rome with the sad little figure of the man bloodied and beaten. No comparison. If that’s the kingdom of God coming on earth, someone goofed. This can’t be it. Even after hearing that Jesus was raised from the dead, the disciples on the road to Emaus are depressed because everything went so wrong. Thomas won’t believe until he actually sees and touches. Until then, his fellow disciples are just a bunch of crazies who wanted something so badly they lost their minds. It isn’t until a week later that Jesus appears to him and he believes. The church spends her first 300 years being persecuted as unpatriotic atheists who reject all common sense, and are a threat to public safety and the common good. It just never looks like the victory it is. Apostles who shed their own blood as witnesses of the hope that is in them. Churches that are emptier each year. And yet, in those churches, babies are still brought forward and have the name of God placed on them, and are brought up in the instruction and knowledge of the Lord in the church. Sinners are forgiven sins. Heaven is opened to sinners who repent, the poor have the good news preached to them. All of those things don’t look like they are happening. But they are. The kingdom of God still comes, even and especially when the world fights against it.
It’s easy, looking at headlines the last few weeks, to get anxious about the future, to get caught up in whatever is going wrong with the world. But we need not worry. The victory has already been won. The church continues to pray for kings and all those in authority as it always has. We know that no one is given authority unless God allows them to hold it. Even Pilate, who sentenced Jesus was only there because the authority was given to him from heaven. God is in control of this crazy mixed up out of control world. And Jesus has already won victory over this world. Not with banners and men at arms, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. He won victory over this world, and over death. When we talk about Transfiguration, we know it was a glorious day. And yet its the death of Jesus that brings the glory to earth, that splits the heavens, and makes Jesus face shine like the sun.
Last week, we heard about Jesus first miracle – turning water to wine at the wedding of Cana. John says that Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. That was nothing compared to the glory revealed to Peter James and John this week. And yet John, the only Gospel writer to see Jesus transfigured on the mountain, doesn’t include it in his Gospel. Why doesn’t he include this glorious moment? John was given a special revelation by God. The book of revelation records it. And in that revelation, John talks about seeing Jesus enthroned in heaven. With eyes of fire, face like the sun, a sword in his mouth, and a voice like the roar of great water. John doesn’t fall down in fear to worship. He falls down as if dead.
Remember last week, when Moses was told by God “Man shall not see my face and live.” Well, John – the beloved disciple, the one who reclined with Jesus at the last supper, sees Jesus enthroned in the fullness of his glory, and it is so far beyond the Transfiguration that he is knocked down by the vision. Do not be fooled by the appearance of this world. Jesus does reign. But it is a kingdom of this world. Instead, with the psalmist, we let the kings of the earth rise up, we let the rulers take counsel together. Because we know that he that sitteth in the heavens laughs. The Lord holds them in derision. This kingdoms of this earth pass away – like a vapor, like grass that is here today, and tomorrow is withered.
The world doesn’t harm us, and it shouldn’t really bother us too much. Our sins are forgiven, our salvation is assured. There’s nothing more to worry about.
Instead, we gather to hear the testimony of the apostles – those eyewitnesses on the mountain, who have given us the more sure prophetic word, as Peter says in our epistle today. We have that word – and it saves. Not just vaccinated from from this particular disease, and then another comes along later and finishes us off. Instead we are saved from all forms of death. We are given eternal life.
That’s why the church – in good times and bad, in times of plenty or times of need, in times of popularity or persecution – the church in all of those times just continues to do what God has called us to do. To serve as witness to the truth of the Word and promise of God. To proclaim Christ Jesus who died and was raised for the forgiveness of your sins. And who now calls us to live lives as his forgiven servants. That is why the church does not change her teaching depending on the whims of the world. The church is not about opinions or our ideas, or what we want. Oh, the world will tell us it is: You have your belief, you have your truth, but you do not speak for all. We speak the word and promise of God. We are witnesses to the truth. Not a truth that may change like the tides or the weather or the fashions. But the eternal unchanging truth of the word of God. We do not speak our own thoughts. We speak the word of God, the promise of salvation for Jesus sake. And we speak nothing else. That’s what it means to be witness to the truth. We speak only what is given us to speak by God. We don’t change his word to suit our opinions. We subject our opinions and thoughts to his word and to the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ. We never do it the other way around. Because we have been given the more sure prophetic word. The death and resurrection of Jesus. One Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The body and blood, given and shed so that you might have life, and have it to the full. Our opinions and ideas are less sure, less certain, and when we move to them we move from the unchangeable truth to the shifting sands of our sinful hearts.
Let us stay firmly established on the word and promise of our Lord Jesus Christ. His word has power. Even though the world can not see, will not acknowledge, does not care, despises his word. We know it is the power and wisdom of God, that it makes us wise unto salvation. That is saves our bodies and souls from hell itself.
The disciples looked up and saw Jesus only. May we be granted such grace that we never look elsewhere.