SERMONS - FEBRUARY 2017
5 February 2017 - Epiphany 5 - Matthew 5:13-20
As we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus says to his followers - and to us - “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What does it mean to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees? Answering this question is not just a matter of idle curiosity. According to Jesus, our entrance into the kingdom of heaven is at stake here. We need to get this right!
I think that this question can be answered in three ways, with three different levels of applying what Jesus says, to our lives as Christians. First, God wants our righteousness to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees in terms of the form and scope of the good works that we perform.
In today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord criticizes the kind of superficial good works that the Pharisees were also later known for - and for which Jesus also often criticized them. On another occasion, Jesus said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
Today’s Isaiah text starts out with a quotation that represents the sinfully presumptuous sentiments of the people - as they remind the Lord of their external fasting; and as they express their annoyance that he seems not to have noticed it, or to have rewarded them for it:
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
And God then tells them:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
We Lutherans are sometimes so concerned to emphasize that our justification before God is not based on our good works, that we might tend to ignore or undervalue the importance of our good works for the benefit of our neighbor, and of the world.
It is true, of course, that alleviating the suffering of people in this life, in itself, has no bearing on anyone’s eternal destiny. But alleviating suffering is alleviating suffering!
Loving and serving our neighbor at the point of his bodily need is not the supremely good thing. But it is a good thing, and not a bad thing.
On the question of the scope of good works, and regarding the range of people who should be the beneficiaries of good works, the Pharisees cared about their fellow Jews - and even more precisely, about observant and religious Jews like themselves.
But Jesus tells us that the scope of our good works involves all people and all nations, everywhere. He says: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”
Remember what Jesus taught the lawyer in St. Luke’s Gospel, when he asked him, “And who is my neighbor?” The parable of the Good Samaritan was the answer.
Your neighbor is everyone - including those who are ethnically, culturally, and even religiously different from you. You are to love all of them, and serve all of them, and care about all of them, according to your vocation, and according to their need.
You are to be salt and light for all of them - not just for people who are like you, or with whom you feel comfortable. Truly, that kind of universal scope of human concern and compassion - as we would perform real and beneficial good works for real people in need - would be a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.
Again, what does it mean to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees? The second way of answering this question, is that God wants the motive that impels us toward the good works that we do, to be a righteous motive - a selfless and faith-driven motive.
A Christian is someone who has faith in Christ. As a Christian, St. James writes: “I will show you my faith by my works.”
We do not perform good works because we hope to earn God’s favor by means of them. If that were the case, the people for whom we do nice things, would thereby be people whom we are using, for our own selfish ends.
Those who believe that they can be justified before God by their own good works, are, in effect, saying to those people in this world for whom these good works are performed: “I’m not doing this because I love you. I’m doing this because I love myself.”
“In order to get myself into heaven, I need to do this - so that God will notice it, credit it to me, and reward me for it. So, I’m not really doing this for your benefit. I’m doing this for my benefit.”
For a Christian, however, the works of righteousness that we do, are works of righteousness that flow from a heart that has been transformed by the love of Christ. We perform acts of love for other people because we really do love other people.
In today’s lesson from his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul teaches that “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”
God’s Spirit indwells our hearts, and bears his fruit in us and through us. And as St. Paul states in his Epistle to the Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
There are a lot of potential good works bundled up in those Christ-like character traits, which grow organically out of a Christian’s life of faith.
These godly gifts of Christian character naturally unfold into the lives of others - by means of the good works for others that Christians perform - unselfconsciously and reflexively - when they see a need.
Elsewhere in St. Matthew’s Gospel, however, Jesus points out a very different dynamic and motive, for the outward works of those whom he calls “the hypocrites.” He tells his disciples:
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Performing good works because we love God and our neighbor - and not because we love ourselves - would indeed be yet another example of a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.
But there is still a problem.
We may indeed try to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, by seeking to perform useful and practical good works that really do help other people; and by seeking to perform such good works for all others.
But we don’t actually succeed in this. There have been lots of people whom we were able to help, and who could have benefitted from our help, but who did not receive our help.
There have been lonely people we could have visited, whom we did not visit. There have been hungry and naked people whom we could have fed and clothed, whom we did not feed and clothe.
And I’m not just talking about people we know. We are the salt of the earth, not just of Arizona. We are the light of the world, not just of the Valley of the Sun.
There are places in the world - such as India and Peru - where the mission agencies of our church body give us real and workable connections with needy people, so that we can indeed help them with a portion of our bounty, even though they live far from us. But how often have those connections gone un-utilized by us?
Again, we may indeed try to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, by having purer and more righteous motives for what we do. But our motives are not completely pure, and they are not completely righteous.
Jesus says in today’s text from St. Matthew: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
But how often do we, in pride, want others to give glory to us; to notice us and our noble deeds; and to tell us how great we are for doing this or that good thing? Our motives are always mixed.
What does it mean to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees? From the point of view of these two ways of answering that question, our righteousness does not, in the final analysis, really exceed their righteousness.
There might be a difference in degree between us and them, or between some of us and some of them; but not a fundamental difference in kind - at least not before the holy and righteous God! Jesus’ criticisms of them, ultimately land on us as well.
There has to be something more, or else we are lost. And there is something more. There is much more.
For the third answer to the question - the answer that really counts - we look, not to what is said in today’s text, but to the one who says it. We look to Jesus.
St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle lesson: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
St. Paul digs more deeply into the meaning of this in his Epistle to the Romans, when he writes that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
“This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
The righteousness that counts before God can only be the righteousness of Christ, since Christ’s righteousness is the only righteousness that really is, fully, everything it is cracked up to be.
Jesus faithfully fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. He was and is perfect in obedience, perfect in love, and perfect in service to others. He was and is all of those things for us. He suffered and died for us, to atone for our sins.
He now gives his perfection to us in the gospel of forgiveness, received through faith in his name. He now gives us his righteousness.
And when Christ gives this to you, and you receive it by faith, it really is yours now. God does not just pretend that you are as righteous as his Son - with a wink and a nod.
In his eyes, you really are as righteous as his Son - because you are in his Son, and his Son is in you, and upon you. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed your transgressions from you.
By his gospel in Word and Sacrament, God declares you to be righteous - by grace, through faith. And what God declares to be so is never a fiction.
God creates new realities by the power of his Word. By the power of his Word, he re-creates you.
He makes you to be acceptable to him, by what he gives you. He causes you, in Christ, to have a righteousness before him - a perfect and invincible righteousness - that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.
Whenever you become aware of your sins, and your conscience tells you that you do not deserve God’s favor, then remember - in repentance and humility - that, in Christ, God does not give you what you deserve. Remember, in joy and peace, that He gives you instead what Jesus deserves - because he has given you Jesus himself.
In his Word of forgiveness today, delivered to you in Holy Absolution, and in the Holy Supper of his Son, he gives you Jesus, today. He gives you, once again, the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.
And because this righteousness is yours - really and truly yours in Christ, by faith in Christ - you will enter the kingdom of heaven.
You will rise in Christ on the last day. And you will live forever in Christ, with all the forgiven - and righteous - saints of God.
We close with this prayer to the Lord, repeated from today’s Alleluia hymn:
Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous; Bright with Thine own holiness,
Glorious now we press toward glory, And our lives our hopes confess.
Alleluia, alleluia, Praise to Thee who light dost send!
Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia without end! Amen.
19 February 2017 - Epiphany 7 - Matthew 5:38-48
“I don’t get angry. I get even.” That’s a common sentiment. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.
Or if you haven’t actually said it, you’ve acted according to it. But Jesus has some things to say about such words, such thoughts, and such feelings in today’ text from St. Matthew.
In the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that was read last Sunday, the emphasis was on the internal impact that God’s law makes on our conscience. In that reading, Jesus discussed what the Ten Commandments actually demand of us personally and individually, in regard to our attitudes and thoughts, and not only in regard to our outward behavior. He said things like this:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
With these and similar verbal probings, Jesus made us look inside of ourselves, and to admit our inner failings. In this way we were led to see our very personal need for the gospel of Christ’s forgiveness, and for his gift of perfect righteousness.
In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we are thinking about today, there is a different focus. Today, in his explanations of the law of God, Jesus is not so much teaching us about our personal inner corruptions, and flawed thoughts and desires, but about the failings that we experience in our relationships with other people.
He emphasizes especially the destructiveness of the vicious cycles of revenge, and pay-back, and retaliation, which so often pollute and poison our relationships with other people. And he shows us that God’s way is a better way.
Our society does recognize a right of personal self-defense, for those whose life or limb are threatened by others. But our society does not recognize a right to personal revenge.
Revenge for a wrong - or, to express it more properly, justice for victims of a crime - is something that is supposed to be dealt with by the judicial system. You cannot take the law into your own hands, to “get even” with someone who has harmed you or your loved ones.
The Old Testament civil law did include certain principles of justice, and of proportionality in the punishment of those who were found guilty of a crime. It was in this public, societal context that the Law of Moses articulated the principle: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Jesus addresses this in his sermon today. He says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
He does not go on to reject the validity of this principle in the area of public, judicial practice. He does not tell the civil authorities that they should no longer punish criminals, or provide justice for the victims of crimes.
He does, however, address his hearers as individuals, and declare to them as individuals:
“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
Because of our sinfulness, we are indeed proud people. And that means that it goes down pretty hard when another person might embarrass us before others, or say or do something that diminishes us in the view of others.
It’s not very easy for us to “lay down and take it” when someone behaves disrespectfully toward us. And so, in these and similar situations, our basic impulse is to lash out at that person in response to the insult, and insult him or her in return.
And that’s the beginning of the downward spiral of offense and counter-offense, attack and counter-attack, that very quickly ruins whatever rapport or cordially might have existed in the relationship we previously had with the offending party.
And often, the animosity and hostility that flare up between two individuals in such a way, bleed over to the relatives and friends of the original parties, and draw them also into this destructive back-and-forth cycle. The friends and relatives of feuding individuals feel pressured to “take sides,” and to be drawn into the conflict themselves.
And your last name doesn’t have to be Hatfield or McCoy for something like this to happen to you. Even within a family - which is supposed to be a harbor of tranquility from which we can escape the stormy seas of life in this wicked world - family members can sometimes begin to irritate each other, and then to start to drag each other down into a painful and destructive pattern of repeated “put-downs” and criticisms.
Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, so easily get themselves stuck in a cycle of back-and-forth insults, and back-and-forth verbal assaults. In this way they embitter each other more and more, until their love and affection are lost.
In some ways, the relationship between an unbeliever and God follows a similar pattern. One difference, of course, is that God’s actions and reactions toward us are not motivated by pride or pettiness - even though our actions and reactions toward God are.
Basically, God tells people, in his law, what is expected of them. An unbeliever rebels against this, and pursues his own course instead. God’s law then comes back and condemns this rebellion.
And this, in turn, leads to an even greater hardness against God - perhaps even with attempts to silence God, by defying not only his will, but also his existence. The new popularity of atheism is, in many cases, the response of a stubborn sinner, who is looking for a way to silence the accusing voice of God in his conscience.
The recalcitrant unbeliever thinks that if he disbelieves in God, and ignores God, maybe he can make God go away. But it doesn’t really work.
The judgments of God’s law reverberate ever more loudly. And the unbeliever’s rebellion against God grows and increases accordingly.
But then, from God’s side, something happens. Something wonderful and unexpected happens, to bring an end to this destructive pattern - this destructive “dance of death” for the souls of lost sinners.
God’s Son comes into the world, as one of us. And he takes upon himself all the sins and rebellions of all people in the world, and carries them to the cross. God’s own Son in human flesh suffers and dies there, in the stead of all other humans, in a saving and reconciling act that is the absolute antithesis of pride and vengefulness.
In the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” - to quote St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
In the cross of Christ, God stops implementing his “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” justice, in regard to the sins that we have committed against him and against each other. In the cross of Christ, therefore, as far as God is concerned, there is an end to the vicious cycle - the cycle of fallen humanity being crushed harder and harder by the law of God, and spinning further and further away from God.
All of that ends, objectively speaking, in God’s sending of his Son to save humanity, and to reconcile humanity to himself once and for all. All of that ends, objectively speaking, in the death of humanity’s substitute under the law.
Instead of the fierce judgment that flows out of his holiness, God, in and through the cross, reveals his Fatherly desire to break the vicious cycle, to reverse the downward spiral, and to be at peace with us. Today’s Introit, from Psalm 103, summarizes this gospel truth in a wonderful manner:
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”
In the cross of Christ, God’s chiding of rebellious man, and his anger against the wickedness of man, is absorbed into the suffering of the Lamb of God. In the cross of Christ, God, from his side, stops the cycle of repaying us according to our sins - which is what we deserve - and instead forgives us, and embraces us according to the righteousness of his Son.
All of these blessings are poured down into the cross. Those who reject the cross, therefore, reject these blessings, and keep themselves under the wrath of God instead.
That’s why all people are not personally saved, even though God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But in the cross of Christ - when that cross does embrace you personally, and when you embrace the cross in repentance and faith - you stop running away from God, and fighting against God.
The turmoil of the ongoing destructive conflict between you and God comes to an end. And peace enters, in place of the conflict, when God justifies you in his Son, and thereby gives you the perfection that he demands.
This all happens by the saving power of Jesus’ death. And then, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, another new thing begins to happen.
Instead of our becoming ever more alienated from God and from other people - because of our sin - there is a reversal. We are drawn to God, and united to him.
And when that happens, we then begin to draw close to other people too - perhaps the very same people with whom we where previously locked in an ongoing destructive cycle of insults and put-downs, revenge and getting even. Those patterns of human conflict are also, in time, brought to an end, because the peace that God has established with us, bleeds over to a new peace also between us and other people.
When God, in the cross, transforms his relationship with you, he also transforms your heart. And a heart that has been liberated by the grace of Christ, and that has been remade into the image of Christ, is a heart that no longer wants to perpetuate those destructive cycles of hatred and bitterness in human relationships.
What our sin does - with its proud exaltation of the self - is to set us against other people, and put us into a harmful kind of competition with other people. What the gospel does, is to unite us with Christ, and therefore also to unite us with everyone else who is united to him.
In Christ, and in the fellowship of his church, our relationships with our fellow forgiven sinners are no longer torn down and torn apart in mutual destruction. Those relationships are built up and patched up, in a mutual healing and restoration of what had been poisoned and broken.
We are knit together in Christ, into a holy dwelling place. We are called home to God, and we are thereby also called home to the loving and forgiving embrace of each other.
That’s what St. Paul is talking about in his rhetorical question in today’s lesson from his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
Yes. In the gospel of Jesus Christ, which I now joyfully believe, I do know this. I didn’t know it before - when I, and others with me, were trapped in our destructive spiral of sin and pride.
But by the grace of God, I know it now! We know it, now. You and I are united together into a holy, living temple, with Christ Jesus himself as the stable and eternal foundation on which it is all built.
And, our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, also bleeds over into a love for all people. Even when that love is not reciprocated, we love even our enemies. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
When we have come to enjoy the peace that we have with God, and with God’s people, we then sincerely want to be at peace with all people - even those individuals with whom we had previously been locked in one of those painful conflicts. From our side, as the Lord helps us, the hatred and bitterness end - even if those on the other side of these old grievances still cling to the old hurt, and cultivate the old animosity.
In our personal relationships now - with relatives, with friends, and with neighbors - when the first “jab” is made, or the first provocation comes, we absorb it, and do not strike back. When tension is created by an insult, we diffuse the tension. We respond, not with another insult, but with a word of kindness.
In these personal relationships, we no longer think of revenge and of “getting even.” We no longer think of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We think instead of the cross, where our Savior absorbed into himself all of that pride, and all of that anger, and made it go away.
When God gives us his Son, he gives us his peace and forgiveness. And when he gives us his peace and forgiveness he gives us a peaceful mind, and a forgiving heart.
Dear friends, receive God’s forgiveness and peace. Believe his Word, when he absolves you, and nurtures you with the body and blood of his Son, and removes your sin from you as far as the east is from the west.
And, for the healing of your own life, and for the healing of all your relationships, receive in faith everything else that has been given to you by the God with whom you are now reconciled in Christ, and whom you now know as a your loving Father in heaven.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. ...”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Amen.
26 February 2017 - Transfiguration - 2 Peter 1:16-21
The Transfiguration of our Lord was an event in the earthly life of Jesus unlike anything else that had ever happened to him. In more veiled ways, Jesus had, of course, often given evidence of his divine power, by doing extraordinary things that would certainly be noticed by anyone who was paying attention.
We think, for example, of his walking on water, his calming of the storm, and his healing of many people from a wide assortment of infirmities and diseases. And topping the list of such miracles would certainly be his raising of Jairus’s daughter, and of the widow’s son in Nain, from the dead.
But nothing like the Transfiguration - with its direct and obvious manifestation of divine glory - had ever happened. St. Matthew describes this one-of-a-kind occurrence in this way:
“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
“And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. ...a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’”
From the moment of Jesus’ conception, when the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity took to himself a human nature from the virgin Mary, Jesus was always both human and divine. But during his state of humiliation, when Jesus lived as a man among men, the divinity of Jesus was hidden beneath the humble form of his humanity.
In the Transfiguration, however, the Lord’s divine glory broke through the cloak of his earthly humiliation - even if only for a very short time - and became visible to the three apostles who were there with him.
The various other miracles that Jesus had previously performed served as testimonies and confirmations of his Messianic authority, and of his power to forgive sins. Peter and the other apostles had seen those miracles, and had believed in him.
But the Lord’s opponents hadn’t been convinced of anything by his healings and exorcisms. They accused Jesus of sorcery. They claimed that he performed these miracles by the power of Beelzebub - which is another name for the devil.
But a sorcerer would definitely not be able to imitate what happened to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration! That kind of thing could only have happened to the true Son of God in human flesh.
So, even more so than his various other miracles, the Transfiguration of Christ was able to serve as a testimony and confirmation of his Messianic authority. Peter, James, and John could now be sure - really sure! - that the man they were following was indeed who he claimed to be. They could be certain that their faith in him was not in vain.
And if that were not enough, they also heard the supernatural, booming voice of God the Father, coming from the cloud, identifying Jesus as his beloved Son, and exhorting them to listen to everything that he would tell them.
Note, too, the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus, when the light of his heavenly glory was shining forth. According to his divine nature - even during the years of his earthly ministry - the Son of God was always ruling and sustaining the universe, in his eternal unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In other words, even when he was visibly on the earth in the form of a humble servant - eating and drinking, sleeping and rising - he was also filling the heavens with his divine power. And he was enjoying the heavenly fellowship of Moses and Elijah, and of all the departed saints, without interruption.
But now, in the profound miracle of the Transfiguration, this heavenly fellowship of God and his people becomes visible to Peter and the others - even if just for a short time. It was as if a crack in the doorway to heaven opened up, and these disciples were able to peek in and see what it was like.
When Jesus had raised Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son from death, these miracles had served to reassure the apostles that their Master did indeed have power even over death.
Jesus had promised eternal life, and the hope of the resurrection, to those who repented of their sins and believed in him. Anyone who had witnessed these miracles would be able to know that Jesus could keep such a promise.
I suppose, though, that there were skeptics and unbelievers who would have tried to refute these miracles, too. Some of Jesus’ enemies would no doubt have claimed that the people Jesus supposedly raised from the dead weren’t really dead - just unconscious.
But for anyone who had witnessed the Transfiguration, there would be no way to deny the reality of heaven, and the reality of Jesus’ divine authority in heaven.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah would have confirmed to Peter, James, and John, that there is indeed life after death, and that Jesus is indeed able to bestow eternal life on those who trust in him. If they weren’t sure of it before, they were certainly sure of it now!
As we think about all this, and try to imagine what these events would have been like, we might wish that we could experience something of what the apostles experienced, when they witnessed these things. We might feel this way, because when we compare our religious life to theirs, ours, it would seem, comes up lacking.
We’re not able to see Jesus with our physical eyes. We haven’t seen him walk on water or perform any healings. We haven’t seen him raise anybody from the dead. And we certainly haven’t seen anything like the Transfiguration.
Instead, in our religious life, we have to settle for the written descriptions of these things that we find in the Bible. We’re not able to see Moses and Elijah with our own eyes. We have to make do with the stories about them that come to us by means of Scripture.
And we don’t hear God speak to us in a booming, audible voice, either. The only way that he speaks to us is - again - through the pages of the Bible, or in liturgical contexts where Scripture is being publicly quoted. There’s nothing very exciting about that - at least not when compared with what happened to Peter, James, and John.
And in regard to the Scriptures, we certainly can’t fail to notice how many liberal religious scholars and critics there are in our day, who spend a lot of time and energy telling everybody that the miracles of the Bible are actually myths; that Jesus, if he existed at all, was not really the Son of God; that there was no bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easter; and that people have no hope of eternal life through anything that Jesus said or did.
In the classrooms of secular universities and liberal seminaries, on television and in popular magazines, the Bible is continually getting sliced and diced; folded, spindled, and mutilated. Sometimes it might be hard to continue to believe in the gospel of Christ, when our sole source of this faith and knowledge is mocked and ridiculed over and over again.
But wait! Before we go too far in bemoaning the lack of power and certainty in our spiritual experience, as compared to the religious life of the apostles, let’s listen again to what St. Peter tells us in today’s lesson from his Second Epistle.
We might think that the testimony of Scripture provides only a minimally-useful, second-hand kind of spiritual assurance for our faith, since it describes the experiences that other people have had with God.
Again, we might think that our faith would have a much firmer foundation, and a much greater ability to resist temptations to doubt or unbelief, if we ourselves had been present for Jesus’ miracles - and especially if we had been present for the Transfiguration. But that’s not the way Peter looks at it. He writes:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
“And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
With all the marvelous things that he had seen and heard during his time with Jesus - including also the Transfiguration, and all that had happened in conjunction with that stupendous event - Peter says that the prophecies and writings of Scripture are able to make us even more sure of our faith.
Witnessing the miracles, and being present for the Transfiguration, were wonderful privileges that Peter and the other apostles had. The fact that they were eyewitnesses of these things - and of all the other important events in the earthly ministry of Jesus - is what sets them apart as apostles.
But as far as the certainty of saving faith is concerned, the testimony of the “prophetic word” of the Scriptures is able to confirm the Messianic authority of Christ, and his power to forgive sins, more than these other things.
As far as the gift of eternal life and the hope of the resurrection are concerned, the prophetic word is best able to preserve us in our faith that Jesus is indeed our Savior, and that someday we will be with him in Paradise.
Let’s not sell God short. He has not left us without anything we need, to be saved from our sins, and to be preserved in that salvation, throughout our lives.
If we have a yearning for the kind of experiences that Peter and the other apostles had - with the thought that this would bolster our teetering faith - it only shows that we seriously underestimate the divinely-given power of the divinely-inspired Scriptures that are right here with us all the time.
It’s true, of course, that Peter, James, and John heard the voice of God. But when the message of Scripture is proclaimed to us, that’s God’s voice, too.
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” - to quote St. Peter again.
In the Transfiguration, Peter and the others became very much aware of the fact that Jesus did indeed have a true divine nature, united with the human nature that they had always known about.
And Peter now wants us to look beyond the human nature of the Scriptures - beyond the human writing style and human personality of each of the prophets who penned them - and to see that the Scriptures also have a divine nature - indeed, that they are chiefly a divine revelation.
Martin Luther once wrote: “The Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and, so to speak, spelled out and pictured in alphabetic letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God veiled in humanity.”
Siegbert Becker - a well-known theologian and seminary professor in the Wisconsin Synod in the last century - expanded on this thought:
“For just as Christ is human and divine, so the Scriptures, too, are both human and divine. The words are human words spoken and written by men, but they are also divine words spoken and written by God through human agency. The holy writers were His scribes, His penmen, whom He used to produce the sacred Scriptures.”
The words of Scripture are filled with life - the life of the Holy Spirit who inspired them. They probe us, and convict us of our sins. And then they sooth us, and speak the peace of God’s pardon and acceptance to our conscience.
God may not be speaking with an audible voice coming out of a cloud, but he is definitely speaking to your mind and heart - through the Scriptures - all the time.
By means of the Bible, with its Christ-centered content and message, God is bringing clarity, firmness, and certainty to your deepest convictions. He is rejuvenating your faith, shaping your values, and transforming your character. There is great power in what is written on the pages of that book!
In the Transfiguration, Peter and the others were almost overwhelmed by the brightness of the light - an otherworldly light - that was emanating directly from Jesus. They had never seen anything like that before. But after a few minutes, Jesus appeared to them once again just as he had always looked.
The heavenly brilliance of the Transfiguration was temporary - like a bright flash that comes and goes quickly. But the Scriptures emit a steady and permanent light from God that never burns out, and that illuminates the pathway of our faith for as long as we live.
Again, as St. Peter tells us, “We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
The divine light of Scripture is not the kind of light you see with your physical eyes. But that doesn’t mean that God’s Word emits no light.
The Scriptures supernaturally enlighten your soul. As a thoroughly reliable lamp from heaven, they show you the Lord’s ways, and warn you of the dangers that will come if you veer off the safe pathway of Christian truth.
In the prophetic Scriptures, by a miracle of God that is more profound even than the Transfiguration of Christ, we hear things that others can’t hear, and we see things that others can’t see.
In the prophetic Scriptures, which were not written on the basis of any human interpretation, our belief in Christ’s power to forgive and save is miraculously confirmed. In the prophetic Scriptures, which were not produced by the will of any man, we are continually made ready for our heavenly life with God, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.
We have a sure prophetic Word By inspiration of the Lord;
And though assailed on every hand, Jehovah’s Word shall ever stand.
By powers of empire banned and burned, By pagan pride rejected, spurned,
The Word still stands the Christian’s trust While haughty empires lie in dust.
Abiding, steadfast, firm, and sure, The teachings of the Word endure.
Blest he who trusts this steadfast Word; His anchor holds in Christ, the Lord. Amen.