A Day Worthy of a Party?
We had no Epiphany party this year. We switched to a Transfiguration Day party, but is the end of Epiphany as worthy of celebration as the start?
Church Fathers have something to say about this. The Venerable Bede, 8th century, says the appearance of Moses and Elijah on earth in the flesh teaches us something about death and resurrection. Moses stands for those in Christ who have died and were buried. Scripture says Moses died and the Lord buried him (Deut. 34:5-6). So, his appearance today in the flesh is a token that the dead and buried in Christ will rise. And Bede says Elijah, who Scripture says was taken alive to heaven in a whirlwind (2 King 2:11), stands for those who will be alive when Christ returns (ACC, II, NT, 113). Both facts are worth celebrating, but there are two more. People always ask, "Will I know my loved ones in heaven and how should I picture them now?" If Peter can know 2 OT people he never saw, without a picture, painting, or introduction, then rest assured the saints in heaven know earth other. And picture them as Scripture shows you here: The dead and buried like Moses have no less of a body than Elijah whose body was taken to heaven.
The Venerable Bede thinks today is worth a party, so does Augustine. He points out, "The Voice did not say: These are My beloved sons. For One only is the Son; others are adopted" (Ibid., 114). Rejoice! The Invisible, Almighty God who is Spirit, has as they say, "Skin in the game." Satan has ensnared us through temptation to lose ourselves in this world. 1 Jn. 2:16 says, "The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--is not of the Father but is of the world." Adam sold our flesh and blood to this fallen world; God sends His only Son in flesh and blood to buy us back by living an innocent life and dying an O so guilty death in our flesh and blood. So when you feel your fallenness in your very bones and blood whether because of age, illness, or sinfulness, remember today God proclaimed a flesh and blood Man was His beloved Son. He didn't cast us off but sent His Son to get us.
Jerome, 4th century, points out that Jesus' flesh and blood is set apart from the others here. He says the Father in effect says, "'Do not set up tents equally for the Lord and His servants'" (Ibid., 113). These 2 saints from heaven are servants of the Lord of heaven who stands now on earth. The Father further sets Him apart by saying, "You must listen to Him." The Law and the Prophets are the 2 great parts of the OT. Moses stands for the Law and Elijah the Prophets. From the beginning of His ministry Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17). And after the resurrection Luke tells us, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself" (24:27). The Law and the Prophets are important; the Law exposes our need for Jesus and the Prophets point us to Him, but our glory, our happiness, our hope, our joy, our forgiveness, and life is Jesus. Listen to Him.
The Fathers indicate that this is certainly a day worthy of a party, but this isn't a moment to hold on to. A 1996 country love song speaks of the joy of "living in a moment you would die for". This is a day for partying; and in a sense it is a day our Lord died for, but it's not a moment for us to hold on to let alone die for. Let me explain. The apostles see with their eyes what Paul wrote: "in Christ all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form" (Col. 2:9). Wow! Right? Not so fast. It's the shark in the boat illustration. I was fishing with my son in a boat across a narrow saltwater channel where a member and his son were fishing in their boat. The father hooks a shark. The boy says bring it in. The father says no. The boy pleads. The father reels the 3 feet or so shark to the boat and plops the writhing, snapping fish on deck. The boy in a still pleading voice says, "Put it back, put it back."
Right after saying those memorable words, "'Tis good Lord to be here", the text tells us, "They were so frightened." How about "sore afraid" (ASV)? How about "stunned" (MSG)? How about "stricken with fear and terror (Thayer)? How about the only 2 places this Greek word is found in the NT is here and Hebrew's description of Moses on Mount Sinai: "And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, " I am full of fear." (12:21)? God, like great heights, is best viewed from below. Look at a great height from above and you get dizzy, confused, tremble. But look from below it's different. It's Jacob's ladder with angels going up and down. Jacob's ladder in the OT is none other than the Flesh and Blood, Jesus, says Jesus (Jn. 1:51). God doesn't take us directly to His throne room where the 4 living monsters are; where the beings covered with eyes are, and where even Seraphim have to cover their eyes so terribly glorious the sight. To go to the throne room would be landing a shark next to a 10-year-old boy. No, the Eternal Word takes on flesh in the womb of a Virgin. And the God who no man can see at any time is born of that virgin and makes Him known (Jn. 1:18).
That moment of revelation to hold on to is Jesus on the Virgin's lap; Jesus sitting in the Temple; Jesus inviting those with burdens and guilts to come to Him for rest; learn of Him because His yoke is easy and His burden is light. But He is also Light of Light, very God of very God. In Him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, but this is not the moment to hold on to. No, apart from the cross which all the disciples not just the special 3 will be able to see the wonder of God's glory in flesh and blood can't be viewed or rightly known. A welding torch can do powerful, amazing things, but apart from a welder's mask to darken the piercing light, it can't be rightly or safely viewed. So, today is worthy of celebration, but it's only safely so in the Flesh and Blood of Jesus. And this is nowhere else but Lent.
Lent is a manmade period of observance, so Lent in itself is not what the welder's mask illustrates. No, the Passion is. The journey Luke says Jesus began after today when He set His face to go to Jerusalem (Lk. 9:51). God's full Person, power, and purpose are all-in on the things the Passion History covers in Lent. All the suffering and humiliation Jesus endures is not because He can't stop Judas from betraying Him, the soldiers arresting Him, Peter denying Him, Pilate whipping Him, King Herod making fun of Him, or the Romans mocking and crucifying Him. No, all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Him as we see today. And even today what Jesus and Moses and Elijah are talking about includes that suffering. Matthew and Mark tell you they were talking, but Luke tells you they were talking about His departure. What a quaint name for being arrested, unfairly convicted, brutalized, tortured, crucified, dead, buried, but then risen and ascended. The Son and the saints in heaven know that this will happen to the All-Powerful God in flesh and blood, because He wills it to happen, wants it to happen. Why? You say why every time you confess the Nicene Creed: "For us men and our salvation."
Perhaps a little rap for our party. I'm thinking of the 1995 hit, "This is how we do it." One of the things most notable about Jesus, God's only beloved Son, as He gives His all - His dignity, His holiness, His almighty strength, and His very Body and Blood is that He does so while ruling in the midst of His enemies. The most frequently referred to Psalm in the NT is 110. Verse 2 says, "The Lord will stretch forth Thy strong scepter from Zion, saying, Rule in the midst of Thine enemies.'" The light that blazes forth on the Mount of Transfiguration tonight doesn't go out as Jesus heads down the hill and to the cross, but it does get veiled. If it didn't, how could He take our place under the punishments our sins call for? How could the one glowing with light unapproachable suffer, sigh, bleed or die in our place? But "this is how we do it." He never gives up His reign or rule. He commends His life into the hands of His Father who promptly, painfully, and eternally punishes Him as we deserve to be. Not Satan who enters into Judas, or Judas who betrays Him to the church leaders, not the church leaders who betray Him to the Romans, and neither sin nor death are in charge. This is how Jesus does it as He willingly offers His life for yours.
Back to the Fathers. St. Augustine said, "'The Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot'" (in Holy Humor, 63). Today's the day the church since the time of Augustine has buried the Alleluias after a last, joyful proclaiming of them. "We are an Easter people and 'Alleluia' is our song." Pope John Paul II said that in a 1979 address in New York. He who is very wrong about so many things is right about this. Easter is about resurrection and alleluias, but for someone to rise he has to die. This juxtaposition, this holding both thoughts in our heads, life - death, forgiven - guilty, alleluias - ashes is characteristic of the Christian Faith. We don't look to be taken to heaven on "flowery beds of ease" (TLH 445:2). We look to go as our Savior did. He told us if they hated and persecuted Him, they will hate and persecute us (Jn. 15). St. Paul said that it's through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14:22). But we go with alleluias on our lips.
The appointed text starts with verse 2, but really we should've started with verse 1. Then you'd see that today from the get-go was meant by Jesus to be a day for a party. In chapter 9:1 Jesus says, "'I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.'" Before the taste of dirt and ashes, rightly comes into our mouths as we remember our sins and sinfulness, we celebrate the kingdom of God coming with power by singing alleluia. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Lent (20210214); Mark 9: 2-9