Because Easter falls so early this year, today is already the last Sunday after the Epiphany. The Gospel for the Last Sunday of the Epiphany always tells of the Transfiguration - that event when Jesus took His inner circle of three disciples onto the mountaintop and revealed just a bit of His own glory in heaven.
Before I get to the main point in today's sermon, I am intentionally going to do something that they discourage at the seminary. One of the things that they teach us at the seminary is that most sermons should focus on one main point of the text. They discourage us from taking side tracks to pick up other little items of interest along the way. Today, I feel that I must violate that guideline. There is a little item of interest in today's Gospel that can provide great comfort to those who mourn and I wanted to share it with you. I hope you will bear with me as I point out this little item before I proceed.
Many of our senior saints who have lost their spouse often ask if they will know their spouse when they get to heaven. Parents who have suffered a tragic loss ask if they will know their children. At various other times people have asked me if they will know parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles, and so on when they get to heaven. Today's Gospel has a wonderful answer for these people.
Today's Gospel tells us that Moses and Elijah showed up to talk with Jesus. Notice that Peter knew who they were without ever being introduced. Moses and Elijah died centuries before Peter was even born. Never the less, Peter knew exactly who they were. This tells us that we will know everybody when we get to heaven especially those loved ones who preceded us into the church triumphant. In fact, given that we will be in the presence of Jesus and totally without sin, I would say our relationship will be even deeper in heaven than it could ever have been in this sin filled world.
I find this little side light in today's Gospel to be a great comfort to many who miss their loved ones. I hope you will be able to use this little nugget of information as a comfort for yourself and for others during those times of loss.
Peter, on the other hand, had his own response when he realized that Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah. He wasn't thinking about recognizing his loved ones when he went to heaven. He was ready to set up a camp right then and there for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He was ready to make Jesus' revelation of glory into the centerpiece of his faith. This was not what Jesus wanted at all. That is the reason Jesus later commanded them, "Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead."
You know, Peter is that disciple that we all love to pick on. He had a tendency to speak from his heart without thinking about what he was saying. This meant that when he said something right, he was absolutely brilliant. On the other hand, when he was wrong, he was absolutely pathetic.
The verses leading up to today's Gospel show this very well. Jesus had taken the disciples way up north to Caesarea Philippi in order to get away from the crowds and give the disciples some private instruction. He was preparing His disciples for His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. During that instruction Jesus asked the disciples, [Matthew 16:15-17] "Who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
Here is a time that Peter gets an A+. Unfortunately, that would quickly change six verses later.
After Peter made his most excellent confession, [Matthew 16:21-23] Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." But he 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."
Here Peter gets a big zero. Six verses between absolutely brilliant and absolutely pathetic.
The great thing about Peter is that he actually does or says the things that everyone else is thinking, but is afraid to do or say. The fact of the matter is that we all get pretty excited about the God who speaks from the burning bush or thunders from Sinai. We like it that Jesus went around healing the sick and casting out demons. We really like it when He puts those bullies, the Sadducees, scribes, and Pharisees, in their place. We all like the Jesus who lights up the mountain top in today's Gospel. We all like the Jesus whose Father thunders from the cloud and tells us that Jesus is His Son. We like a God who is large and in charge. We like that kind of power and majesty. We like an awesome God who has thunder in His footsteps and lightning in His fists. We like our sovereign God.
The problem comes when that God says He is going to defeat sin, death, and the power of the devil by becoming the very opposite of large and in charge - when He tells us He is going to allow mere mortal men to arrest Him and beat Him up - when He tells us that mere mortal men will nail him up to some pieces of wood and let Him hang there until He is dead. When He tells us that that is how He will save us from our enemies, we want to join Peter and scold Jesus for talking crazy.
We would much rather stay on top of the mountain and never return to real life. We would like to join Peter and build three tents, but only until we could pull together a capitol campaign and raise the funds for three temples - one for Moses the great lawgiver - one for Elijah the great prophet - and the greatest one for Jesus. That is the kind of religion that makes sense to the human mind. We want a theology of glory.
The theology of glory may look good at first, but it can never work. Even while Peter was proposing the three tents, God the Father spoke and declared Jesus as His beloved Son. This terrified the disciples to the point that they fell on their faces. This is a common reaction when anyone stands in the presence of a holy God and realizes the full extent of their sins. The Bible has numerous examples of people who met God face-to-face and fell to their faces in terror. As they experienced the absolute perfection of God's presence, they realized their own sinful condition and could not stand.
The problem with the theology of glory is that it requires us to produce our own perfection. It requires us to keep God's law. It requires us to produce our own glory. When God reveals Himself to us, we see that we can do none of those things. We see that sin corrupts us and the theology of glory ultimately condemns and defeats us.
God does not give us a theology of glory. He gives us a theology of the cross. He gives us a theology that asks us to leave the mountain of transfiguration and go to Golgotha, the place of the skull. He gives us a theology that involves pain and suffering, sweat and blood. He gives us a theology that involves death and burial. It is through that suffering and death on the cross that Jesus offers us His perfection in exchange for taking away our sin. It is Jesus working through the cross who offers us forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is Jesus who takes away the burden of our sin and makes it possible for us to stand. It is Jesus who comes to us as He came to the disciples and touches us saying, "Rise, and have no fear." Only He offers us the ability to stand before God without fear.
Through the cross, Jesus became the death of death and the life of life. He rose from the dead. It was not until after that resurrection that the disciples finally understood the true mission of Messiah. Then Peter, James, and John could properly tell about their experience on the mountain when Jesus showed them a bit of heaven. Then it was that they could proclaim that they had seen the divine glory of Jesus Christ, but Jesus hid that glory in His human flesh and by means of that human flesh humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. They could point to the greatness of His glory and then the depth of His suffering. In this way they could proclaim the magnitude of His salvation.
God the Father proclaimed Jesus as His Son and commanded us to listen to Him. As we hear the proclamation of Jesus' words, the Holy Spirit produces and sustains the true faith in us - the faith that receives Christ's great salvation. That great salvation will carry us through not only the mountain top experiences, but also through the valleys in between until our last hour comes and our Father in heaven gives us a blessed end and carries us from this valley of sorrows to Himself in heaven. Amen
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