"Journey with Jesus" (Mark 9:2-9 | Transfiguration B 2017)

Sermon Text: Mark 9:2-9
Date: February 25 & 26, 2017
The Transfiguration of our Lord, Year B

 

Mark 9:2–9 (EHV)

2After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain where they were alone by themselves. There he was transfigured in front of them. 3His clothes became radiant, dazzling white, whiter than anyone on earth could bleach them. 4And Elijah appeared to them together with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.

5Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say because they were terrified.

7A cloud appeared and overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”

8Suddenly when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus alone.

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

 

Journey with Jesus
1. Enjoy the Future Glory
2. Prepare for the Present Suffering
 

Hiking can be a tremendously fulfilling activity. Perhaps you spend hours or more on a steep trail and through tough parts of the country only to come into a clearing to see a view that takes your breath away. Maybe you simply enjoy the journey along the way with no grand goal, but take in the exercise and the fresh air and time with loved ones or even in peaceful solitude. Sometimes, though, a hike can just be misery. Maybe you twist your ankle on the way. Maybe you’re being eaten alive by mosquitos. Maybe the humidity is so intense that you’re just one giant sweaty mess with nothing to show for it.

And really, that’s the way life is, isn’t it? Sometimes things are going along great and you feel great rewards and joy in your work or your family or your school or your church or almost anything you work on. Other times, it feels like you’re constantly being beaten down and crushed by your life or your work or your family or even the guilt of your sins. Life has many highs and many lows.

We see that play out for us this morning in our celebration of the Transfiguration. This is perhaps one of those “forgotten” festivals of the church year, paling in comparison to the deserved popularity of events like Christmas and Easter. However, the festival of Transfiguration (historically, actually a Lutheran addition to the church’s calendar) has everyday meaning and application for us in our walk as Christians.

Mark tells us that we meet up with Jesus, Peter, James, and John “after six days,” which naturally leads to the question, “Six days after what?” If you page back in your Bibles to Mark 8 you run into one of the highlights and lowlights of Jesus’ time with his disciples. Jesus had asked his dear friends who people said Jesus was. They knew and recited the popular options that had been drifting through the crowds: John the Baptist raised from the dead? Elijah or one of the other Old Testament prophets? None of these answers hit on who Jesus really was or what he had come to do. So Jesus turned the question to his friends and followers, “But who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29a). To which Peter gave the beautiful, to-the-point answer, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29b).

There’s a lot wrapped up in those four little words. Peter was clearly and boldly confessing that Jesus was the promised Savior, that Jesus was the fulfillment of the whole Jewish religion. Everything from the first promises made in the Garden of Eden to the promises confirmed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the whole nation to come from their family was leading to this point—to this man. Jesus was the one who was going to finally bring about the forgiveness God had promised for so long. Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed and Chosen One of God.

But then Jesus said something troubling. He said that he must suffer, be arrested by the leaders, and eventually be put to death by crucifixion. Peter wouldn’t have any of that. He rebuked Jesus! “Never! This will never happen to you!” Peter pleaded. How could God’s Chosen One endure that torment? How could his dear friend and teacher go through that? And how did Jesus respond? “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have your mind set on the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33).

Ouch. Peter didn’t want to face the reality of what was coming, even though Jesus was clearly not lying to him. Jesus’ rebuke is harsh yet on-point. If Jesus had listened to Peter, the salvation of mankind would be undone. Jesus had a mission from which he could not veer.

So that takes us, six days later, to a hike that Jesus took with Peter, James, and John up a high mountain (for that region, think less of Mount Everest and more of a tall hill). And what happened? “Jesus was transfigured in front of them.” We don’t use the Latin term “transfigure” very often, but perhaps we are more familiar with the original Greek term, “metamorphosis.” Jesus was changed, or more, he was revealed for who he really was. They had known him as Jesus their teacher. Sure, the miracle worker, but he was from the carpenter’s family and the son of Mary. He taught well, but he looked like them. But not here, not now. Mark records, likely from Peter’s eye-witness account, His clothes became radiant, dazzling white, whiter than anyone on earth could bleach them. Matthew’s account describes his appearance as brighter than the sun and Luke as brighter than a flash of lightning. This is not a normal human appearance. More than any authoritative sermon and understanding of the Scriptures show, more than any miracle could hint at, Jesus was showing himself as he really is—true man and true God.

Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. Luke’s account tells us they were talking about Jesus’ impending suffering and death. Peter and the others don’t know what to make of any of this, so Peter sputters out the first thing that comes to mind, “Lord, I’ll make three tents so that we don’t have to leave. It’s good for us to be here.” And truly, it is good for us to be here. For here, on the top of this high hill we have a brief glimpse of what we will see in eternal life. The apostle John who saw Jesus’ glorious majesty at this moment would later write in the book of Revelation that eternal life will have no sun or moon because heaven doesn’t need them. God himself will be the light we need forever.

That’s something that we could never have dreamed of ever being a part of. We could never have even thought that we’d ever be able to see Jesus like he is here on the Transfiguration Mount, let alone in all his fullness that he’ll reveal in heaven. Our sins should bar us from that. And yet they won’t. Because as Peter is struggling to spit out sentence fragments and arguably even more amazing thing happens—a cloud, the very glory of the Lord that surrounded the shepherds on Christmas night, the pillar of cloud and fire that led the nation of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, descends on the mountain and the voice of the Father booms from that cloud, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” Why should we listen to him? Jesus is the one whom the Father had chosen, the one he loves, the one who does all things well, the one who would accomplish our salvation.

That death that he said he would have to die that Peter wanted nothing to do with, that would be the way that we could eventually see this glory. That inglorious and gruesome death would be the solution that we so desperately needed. Jesus would forgive those sins that so completely separated us from God. So when Jesus says he has to die, Peter and you dear Christians today, listen to him. Because in that is the certainty of eternal glory with the God who loves you so greatly.

The lightning clothes, Moses, Elijah, the cloud, the Father’s voice. If there was ever a case to be made for sensory overload, this would be it. And then, just like that, it’s all gone.  Suddenly when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus alone. No one else was there. Jesus was just regular old Jesus again—no more peeks at his divine glory. No more epiphanies into who he really was. Just Jesus, Peter, James, and John as they had hiked up the mountain, needing now to go down again.

But leaving this place meant leaving the glory and the excitement. Leaving this place would mean having to go back down the mountain and deal with life again. Leaving this place would mean having to face all those horrific things Jesus had said were going to happen. You wonder if in Peter’s exclamation, “It is good to be here!” there weren’t still echoes of that event six days earlier, “This shall never happen to you!”

But like all of our criticisms of Peter throughout the Gospels, aren’t we so often Peter? How often don’t we just want the good of being a Christian without the bad? How often don’t we want the highs without the lows? How often don’t we want the fun without the suffering? Whole church bodies (and, humanly speaking, very successful ones at that) center their whole theology around that very concept. But the life of a Christian in this world is not all fun and games. There are good times, true enough. God gives us moments of joy and glory. He gives us times where we see the plans he’s laid for us and the good he’s going to work from them. But then, from those times, we must journey back down the mountain to face the troubles that lie ahead.

Rather than being discouraged by leaving the good times behind, be strengthened by the good times to face the troubling. You know the end game to all of this. You know that for as miserable as this life can be, what is coming will be free from those miserable things. In the end, we will be with our Savior whose sun-wrapped clothing we will see for eternity because he was willing to suffer for us.

We’re leaving one of the high mountains of the church year today. We’re descending into the valley of Lent where we will have to face our sin head on. It won’t be comfortable or fun, but it will be absolutely necessary. We will say farewell to the term “Alleluia” in our worship for the next six weeks as a solemn reminder that our sin is not a reason to rejoice. But as we journey through the muck and mire we know what is waiting. We have to see our horrible repulsive sins for what they are and see the unimaginable, horrific price it cost our Savior to rid us of them. But we know that, Lord-willing, “Alleluia” will return to our worship. There is no other response to the angel’s message, “He is not here; he is risen!”

Hikes aren’t always fun and even the best ones must come to an end. Thanks be to God that after the often-miserable journey of this life we will be able to say with Peter, “It is good to be here.” And because of Jesus, the one whom the Father loves and the one who loves us, we will not have to leave. There our Journey with Jesus will end and we will simply be with him forever. Amen.

"God Keeps Us Ready" (1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Advent 1B 2016)

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Date: November 26 & 27, 2016

First Sunday in Advent, Year B [New Hymnal Lectionary Test]

1 Corinthians 1:3–9 (EHV)

3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

4I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus. 5You were enriched in him in every way, in all your speaking and all your knowledge, 6because the testimony about Christ was established in you. 7As a result you do not lack any gift as you eagerly wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also keep you strong until the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful, who called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

God Keeps Us Ready

Happy New Year! That might feel like an odd greeting for late November, although perhaps we’ve already heard the songs being played around us that wish us both a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. But our new year’s greetings today do not come from an over-zealous nature that would have us skip over almost the whole of December to focus on Christmas and January already. No, our new year in fact means just the opposite.

Today we begin a new season of the church year (despite my goof in the bulletin that didn’t list it as such in the front). Today we begin the season of Advent, a season that focuses us on being ready for Christ’s coming. Whether we think of celebrating his first arrival as Bethlehem’s manger-laid baby, or especially his second coming as King of kings and Lord of lords, we are right to think that we need to be well prepared for his arrival. We get ready through repentance and rejoicing in all that God has done for us. But the apostle Paul will remind us this morning that our getting ready really doesn’t happen by our own effort. Like all things, even our preparedness is a gift from God.

Our lesson for this morning comes from the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Christians living in the Greek city of Corinth. Well, it’s the first of the two letters that the Holy Spirit preserved for us. It seems likely that it’s actually the second letter he wrote them, the first letter having not survived to us today. From the inferences we can make in this letter, we can assume that Paul’s first letter was written to address some issues in the congregation. A reply came back from the congregation with questions, and perhaps a little bit of an authority-challenging edge to it.

So Paul writes to them this letter that we know of as First Corinthians. The section before us is the initial greeting Paul used to begin the letter. He starts out with a phrase that we can easily skim over because we’ve heard it or a variation on it so many times in our lives. But let’s not skim over it today.

Paul begins: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! When Paul tells the Corinthians that God’s grace is theirs, he saying a lot in that little word. Grace is not just a rather empty “church-speak” word that has no real meaning for us today. Nor is grace a special power that God gives us to enable us to do his will, as some churches would teach. No, grace is a word that can only be used to describe God’s love for mankind. It is a love that loves even when it is not loved back. It is a love that loves even though the person who is loved (the Corinthians, you and me) doesn’t deserve it. In fact, it is a love that gives exactly the opposite of what the person deserves.

And that’s where grace and peace intersect. The load of sins that the Corinthians and that you and I carried before God were our end. Our sins mean unending war with God which we actively choose to continue. It means that we deserve hell, eternal death and torment, as punishment. Because of our sins, that’s where we should be, and we should be seeing the Christians in Corinth and even Paul himself there as well.

But, Paul says there’s peace now. How? Because of God’s grace. God’s undeserved love for us meant that he didn’t want us to face what we truly deserved. So, he sought to change that. Paul continues on in his greeting: 4I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus. 5You were enriched in him in every way, in all your speaking and all your knowledge, 6because the testimony about Christ was established in you. Paul is so thankful for God’s grace to the Corinthians, because he knows that grace means everything. The grace, Paul said, was given in Christ Jesus.

Jesus is the fullest, most tangible expression of God’s undeserved love for us. We couldn’t do anything for ourselves so God did it all for us. Jesus came, not to show how to get ourselves to heaven, but to get us there himself. We contribute nothing to our forgiveness; Jesus did it all. He died on the cross and suffered the punishment that you and I deserve. That is grace in its clearest form. We sinned again God; God allowed himself to be punished for the sins we committed against him. We deserved hell, Jesus gave us heaven. We have received the opposite of what we deserve.

This is not something that can disappear like the fog of breath on a mirror, though. This is something that is foundational and long lasting. Paul says that the testimony about Christ was established in you. That word translated “established” has the sense of something that is deeply and firmly anchored. When God created the faith to believe what Jesus has done for you, he didn’t do so in a temporary way. He established it to last and endure through eternal life. God worked through his Word and Baptism to create that faith, and he continues to work through his Word and the Lord’s Supper to reinforce that faith which clings to Jesus as Savior.

The problem in all of this comes, not from God, but from us. There are people in this world who couldn’t care less about what God has done for them, and thus they will never benefit from it. But those of us who have heard this truth for months, years, or decades are not immune from having this be of no benefit to us. Because of our familiarity with it all, we can run the risk of letting it become blasé and old hat. We’ve heard it all before and we’ll probably have the chance to hear it all again, we reason. So we’re tempted then to let Jesus and this grace take a backseat in our lives. We’re tempted to leave God behind until we think we need him. But Jesus warns that if take that lackadaisical attitude toward him, it may be too late before we realize we needed that grace to rescue us.

I think most of us probably lock our house and our car with some regularity. Why do we do that? Because we never know when a thief might try to come in and steal something that belongs to us. So we lock the doors of the car before we go into the store and we lock the doors at home before we leave or go to bed to make sure, as much as we’re able, that things are safe.

Jesus described in our Gospel how uncertain we were about when he would return. We simply do not know when the end will come, and anyone who claims to know is either a liar or has been deceived himself. So what is Jesus’ advice? Keep watch! In another discourse on this subject, Jesus compares the coming of the Last Day with that of a thief breaking into a home. If you knew when he was coming to steal you’d make sure to be ready, but since you don’t, that doesn’t mean you just give up on the whole thing. No, you make sure you are continually ready with locks and perhaps security alarms.

Would we not do well to keep watch as well for our Savior’s return as we do for a potential thief? I wonder if we can’t train ourselves, every time we lock a door or set a security alarm, to think about how the end of this world may come like a thief, and thus keep that at the forefront of our minds in little ways every day.

If we do that, or have something else that keeps us reminded of the fact that he is coming—and soon!—what do we do with that? Being mindful of his return isn’t the sole goal. We want to have the whole of his message to us in mind: our sins, his grace, and the promises he’s made. The great comfort is, that like forgiveness and faith before it, this readiness ultimately doesn’t come from us. Paul explained to the Corinthians: 8He will also keep you strong until the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful, who called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

God is faithful; God will keep you strong. He’s the one who continues to work through his Word to get us and keep us ready for the end. We want make time to be in that Word where he gives us that readiness. That’s what makes church, Bible class, devotional time at home, all so important, not just in the lead up to Christmas or around Easter, but every day. There in his Word is where God makes us and keeps us ready for our Savior’s return and our time to spend eternity with him.

Are you ready? Keep watch! You are in God’s grace so you have nothing to fear and everything to look forward to. Thanks be to God! Happy New Year! Amen.

"The King Guards His Flock" (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-24 | Last Sunday of the Church Year A)

Sermon Text: Ezekiel 34:11-6, 23-24
Date: November 19 & 20, 2016

Last Sunday of the Church Year, Year A

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-24 (EHV)

11For this is what the Lord God says: I myself will seek the welfare of my flock and examine them carefully. 12As a shepherd examines his flock when he is with his sheep that have been scattered, so I will examine my flock and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land. I will shepherd them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys, and in all the settlements of the land. 14I will pasture them in good pasture, and their grazing land will be on the high mountains of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and they will pasture on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will shepherd my flock, and I myself will let them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost. I will bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak. I will destroy the fat and the strong, and I will shepherd them in justice.                     

23Then I will raise up over them one Shepherd, and he will tend them, my servant David. He will tend them, and he will be their Shepherd. 24I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be the Prince among them. I, the Lord, have spoken.

 

The King Guards His Flock

The people were waiting anxiously for what was going to happen. What would the new leaders be like? How would things progress for them and for their children? What was going to happen in the days, weeks, and years ahead? God would work good from this—but how? Everything seemed so up in the air.

We’re not talking about America in 2016 after a perhaps surprising election, but the nation of Israel at the time of the prophet Ezekiel. Not long before our lesson for this morning, God had finally done what he had threatened to do. His people had been unfaithful to him time and time again. They had worshipped other gods, false gods, gods made of bronze or wood or stone, that could do nothing for them. They thought their pagan revelry would somehow save them—or at least make them happy. But God is angry enough—and loves them enough—to make it explicitly clear that these pretend gods could neither save them nor make them happy. God uses the tools in his arsenal to get their attention; he sends the then-world super power of Babylon to come in, nearly level Jerusalem, and carry his people to Babylon in captivity.

Now God’s people were faced with uncertainty. How angry was God? Was he ever going to bring them back? What would these foreign kings—kings they had no connection to—do to them? They had gone from being a majority in their own land to a miniscule minority in a foreign place. They were scared. They were uncertain. What was before them was totally unknown.

And yet, it really wasn’t. God had said that he was going to do exactly this. He had told them through the prophet Jeremiah this was coming, and that it would last 70 years. But they seemed to have ignored that or forgotten that.

And so the prophet Ezekiel, a man whose ministry was both in Jerusalem before the exile and in Babylon after the exile, was tasked to bring a message from God, with insight as to what would happen now.

The words before us come just after a scathing rebuke of the leaders of God’s people. God lambasted them for only looking out for themselves and not the people entrusted to their care. They had totally forsaken the work they had been called to do. They had exalted themselves at the expense of the sheep they had been told to protect. Their negligence was a reason that the whole nation was in the garbage situation they now found themselves in. God was very clear in the verse just prior to our lesson, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them” (Ezekiel 34:10, NIV84).

Perhaps we sympathize a bit with the people of Israel—or at least see ourselves in them. How often haven’t we strayed from God? How often haven’t we looked out for our own good rather than good of others? How often haven’t we done what we wanted to do and ignored what we knew what right? We’ve all deserved exile from God, but not just being thrown into another country. Because of our sin, we’ve deserved to be cut off from God forever in hell. That is what our words, actions, and attitudes justly bring about.

But notice what God promised to his people in their exile. God is going to take the reins here and do something different. God says that rather than entrusting the work of shepherding to selfish people, he’s going to take the job on himself. At the beginning of our lesson for this morning he says, I myself will seek the welfare of my flock and examine them carefully. 12As a shepherd examines his flock when he is with his sheep that have been scattered, so I will examine my flock and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land.”

God is going to rescue his people from their exile. They wouldn’t be in Babylon forever. Within the life time of some who were carried off into captivity, they would begin to return home. They would rebuild Jerusalem, its walls and temple, and settle again in the land God had promised them.

But that’s only scratching the surface of what God is promising here through the prophet Ezekiel. He goes on: 14I will pasture them in good pasture, and their grazing land will be on the high mountains of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and they will pasture on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will shepherd my flock, and I myself will let them lie down, declares the LORD God. 16I will seek the lost. I will bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak. I will destroy the fat and the strong, and I will shepherd them in justice. 23Then I will raise up over them one Shepherd, and he will tend them, my servant David. He will tend them, and he will be their Shepherd. 24I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David will be the Prince among them. I, the LORD, have spoken.

God is going to bring these exiles home, but he’s also eventually going to do something so much greater. He’ll raise up a special servant, David, to shepherd his people. King David had been dead and buried for about 500 years when this prophecy was spoken. In fact, after the exile to Babylon, we will never see another king of Israel in the ruling sense that they had before the exile. From here on out, they will continually be a servant-state of another nation, be it Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. No, God is not exclusively talking about bringing back his people to the land of Israel; he’s talking about bringing them to the real Promised Land he’d promised to all people. He’s promising eternal life.

That “servant David” is the one who was a descendant of David, and yet had no regal splendor around him. We saw that weak-looking man on trial before Pilate in the Gospel. “Hail, King of the Jews!” the soldiers mocked as the needle-thorns dug their way into his head. This was no king. This was a man treated like a criminal, a despised man who was condemned for crimes he didn’t commit. To the outside observer, there is so hope or joy here. This is no Prince, as God had promised. This is no one to shepherd God’s people. This is a weak man who is about to be killed.

Or so it seems.

What is the chief job of a king or any governmental leader for that matter? To protect his people. What to us, humanly speaking, looks like the ultimate weakness, spiritually speaking was the ultimate strength. As Jesus is mocked and ridiculed by those soldiers, he’s about ready to go to his death. While they make fun of him for supposedly being a king, he’s doing what we needed our King to do—he’s taking our enemies on directly. As he goes to the cross, Jesus dies for the sins that you and I committed. He suffers hell in our place and defeats Satan who had such clear plans for our eternal punishment with him in hell. Those who wanted our eternal destruction, our enemies, are destroyed. Jesus defeated them for us, because that’s what a king, a real king, our eternal King does.

What is the result of our King’s work for us? Paul made it clear in our Second Lesson for today: For since death came by a man, the resurrection of the dead also is going to come by a man. 22 For as in Adam they all die, so also in Christ they all will be made alive. When Jesus died, he defeated death. Because our King lives, that means you and I will live. Because our King lives, that means that he will lead us like a shepherd throughout lives and to eternity. Because our King lives, we never need to have a fear about what will happen to us. Our sins are gone. Eternal life with our heavenly Father is ours. Our king reigns. The King guards his flock.

That doesn’t mean that our lives won’t be filled with uncertainty. It doesn’t mean that that uncertainty won’t at times be distressing. But it does mean that we know that ultimately, our King will shepherd us through harrowing times. No matter what our relationships with our coworkers, friends, neighbors, or family are, our King takes care of us. No matter what the political climate in our nation is, what the amount of relative peace or relative unrest might be, our King reigns. No matter what threatens us—up to and including hell itself—we know that our King has conquered our enemies and we know that in him we are free.

God himself watches over you. God himself tends to you. God himself is your Savior. God is your King today and forever. Amen.