Preparation for Passion
About 10 years ago sermon series on marital life were all the rage. From non-denom to churches named Lutheran, they advertised with inuendo. So, 10-years later I've caught up to contemporary worship with this sermon "Preparation for Passion." In this you'll hear all about how we are prepared for passion, that is Jesus' passionate suffering and death for sinners which begin this Wednesday. It's Jesus' Passion and He's the One who prepares us for it.
He prepares us for Passion by displaying His divinity. This Man who got hungry, thirsty, sneezed, bled, and cried is God in flesh and blood. That's been the focus since Advent. God in man, made manifest. Transfiguration is the height of this manifestation. St. Gregory in the 4th century is said to have originated this festival tying it to a pagan feast for Aphrodite called Var-ta-varh which means "the flaming of the rose." He retained it because at the Transfiguration "'Christ opened His glory like a rose'" (Feast Day Cookbook, 103). I like the imagery. The Man Jesus is the rose in bud which you walk by, take for granted, don't stop and smell, right? Transfiguration is this Man blossomed into divine glory and His beauty overwhelms you.
This imagery is probably too tamed. "His face shone like the sun," says Matthew. It's like driving into the rising or the setting sun. Only when it's just beginning can you contemplate it's beauty. But once it's over the horizon or just before it hits it, the full bloom of the sun causes you to shield your eyes. It hurts. The text says, "His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as the light." His clothes were the rays of the sun. And this is who the Jesus they walked with, talked with, joked with, always was. This is like the WW II story of a soldier one night stopping a passing soldier with, "Hey Buddy, you got a light?" In the flare of the match, the soldier recognizes the buddy' he has asked to light his cigarette is none other than General Patton.
The rest of that story is the funny part, but you can see the enlisted man popping to attention, saluting, stammering and stuttering when he realizes whom he mistook for an ordinary grunt like himself? Don't misunderstand; the disciples on the Mount are not that undone yet, but we are. We've been woke' as Mary and Joseph were by Simeon 40 days after Jesus was born and again 12 years later by Jesus Himself. We know we gather to worship a flesh and blood Jesus who is God Almighty. And that prepares us for Passion because if God isn't going into the Passion 2 things can't happen. 1) He can't keep the Law perfectly. We know this because prefect Adam and Eve couldn't. So being a perfect man would not be enough. Such a man would fall just as fast to Satan. He has to be more than a man, much more; He has to be 100% God. And, 2) unless He's 100% God His suffering and bleeding, damning and dying wouldn't be enough to satisfy God's white, hot wrath. We sing something like that in a hymn: a thousand deaths like mine would be all too few, 10 billion x's 10 billion would.
Preparation for Passion begins with Jesus showing us His divinity and continues with His showing what He's paying for. He's paying for a heaven where the dead in Yahweh are alive right now. We know Moses dropped dead on Mount Nebo. The Lord says why: "Because you did not trust in me enough" (Num. 20:12). Who has? Have you? I haven't? Even though Moses failed in such a grand way before all the Church, even though it deprived him of earthly blessing, the blood of the Lamb of God was thick enough and rich enough to redeem him for heaven's glory. And we know, Moses was buried by God Himself (Deut. 34:5-7), yet even now before the resurrection on the Last Day, we see Moses in bodily form in heaven. Get it? Stop thinking of your loved ones' dead in Christ floating about in ethereal light bodiless, bloodless, more ghost than human. The Passion of Jesus doesn't just purchase heaven for sinners at the end of the world but right now.
And what about Elijah being there? There's many a lesson we could learn from Elijah. He confessed to the Lord that he was as big a sinner as his unbelieving fathers before him were (1 Kin. 19:4). But right now let's take the fact that Elijah proves that Jesus' Passion purchases heaven for flesh and blood. Elijah was taken alive to heaven. He didn't die; wasn't buried, and yet here he is heaven. Stop thinking that your body - short, tall, pretty, ugly, old, young, diseased, distressed, a real mess, will not, cannot make it into a perfect heaven. Not true. O it will be changed. Scripture says that (1 Cor. 15:52). But stop thinking there's a radical disconnect between your flesh and blood on earth and your redeemed flesh and blood in heaven. The rose bud blooms fully into a rose not a rutabaga.
"Do you want to go to heaven?" That's a line from a country song as is "Heaven is just a sin away", and both songs have as there theme what those sermon series of 10 years ago did. In them, however, sins against the 6th Commandment are the ticket to heaven. Really, these catchy country tunes are as perverse as any rap music. Maybe more so because they're so polite about their unbelief. Sin isn't the ticket to heaven; forgiveness is, and both Moses and Elijah are shown to be gravest of sinners. Both despaired unto death itself. Both wanted to give up, give in, and get out of life, so pained were they, but the Lord Jesus didn't let go of them. He whom Moses only saw from the back and whom Elijah heard in a still small voice both on a mountain; now see Him face to face on a mountain right before He descends into the valley not of the shadow of death but of deep, dark, death itself to redeem them for the heaven they are now standing in.
Jesus is preparing you for Passion by showing you His divinity, what He's paying for your humanity to have, and by showing you the Father's seal of approval. Let's return to the fact that seeing the Man Jesus was really God isn't what unraveled the disciples. Mark and Luke say their terror came with the cloudy presence of God on earth. Think Stephen King's The Mist. But Matthew specifically says, it was the Voice of God the Father that actually did it. This is like seeing a big dog. Yes, his size is off-putting, but when he growls rough and deep, the fear pops up. And even though God the Father is testifying that He's all in on this plan of salvation that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about, the voice that shakes mountains, thunders like the surf, and deafens like a waterfall undoes them.
But this isn't merely overpowering sound like the musical response of the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These are intelligible words and they say not just that the Father is pleased with His beloved Son; that's sort of a duh', but that He is pleased in Him. Rather than believe your worries, trust your fears, or go with your fallen hearts and religious opinions, you go with the Father's words. He says He is pleased in Jesus. Where do the Waters of Baptism put you? Where do the Words of Absolution put you? Where are you in the Body and Blood of Communion? In Jesus. Then in these God is pleased with you. Believe that, trust this, go with the strength of these promises.
When God speaks sinners can't but be afraid if they are really listening. Of course, when He speaks through Means, like He does now, He can be ignored and only faith hears Him. But in the Transfiguration this is direct communication with the Almighty God and that knocks everyone down as Paul promises it will on the Last Day (Philp. 2). But you can hear God safely when He speaks through means. Go by the words of the divine liturgy. We begin the Sacrament with you assuring me that I have the Holy Spirit to celebrate the Mystery of God again on earth in flesh and blood. I respond by telling you to lift up your hearts, and you confess that you really do lift them up unto the Lord. You poor, wretched sinner that you are don't have to keep your face in the dirt, and you agree, and then I invite you to dare to give thanks for this holy mystery and you agree it is meet and right so to do. All these words are predicated on the Words of Jesus commanding us to do this meal often to bring Him back to us.
On the mountain, the disciples are prepared for Passion by the Father commanding them to make it their policy to listen only to Jesus, not their opinions, not their fears, not others, but Jesus. And what does Jesus say to sinners who have their face buried in the dirt in the presence of the holy God of heaven on earth? He says, "You must not just lift up your hearts but your whole body" and "You can stop being afraid." Even here, even now in the presence of the holy, almighty God on earth with angels, arch angels and all the company of heaven, we don't need to be afraid. Wow! Or more fittingly today: Hallelujah! And now we've come to the last preparation for Passion.
The final break from the Western church (think Catholic) by the East (think Orthodox) was over 4 things: use of unleavened bread for Communion, fasting on Sundays, eating the meat of strangled animals, and forbidding Alleluias during Lent (Church From Age to Age, 358). Please note: not one of these is a reason to break fellowship. The point being is that the East thought there was no fitting time to bury an alleluia. But isn't this what Jesus is doing at the end of this text? He tells the 3 disciples, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." In the midst of Lent where the emphasis is on our sin and sinfulness and our need for the Man who is God to redeem us, hallelujah's would be as Leonard Cohen styled them: cold and broken. To everything there is a season and a purpose under heaven, that means on this earth. So here and now there is time to laugh and dance, but there is also a time to weep and mourn (Ecc. 3: 1-4). Folks, even the Byrds got this; even the radical, free-love, 60's got that you can't always shout Hallelujah in a fallen world. Foregoing them is a fitting way to prepare for passion. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of our Lord (20200223); Matthew 17: 1-9