Last Stop before Lent
The Transfiguration is immediately before Jesus turns to go to Jerusalem for the last time. Right before and right after the Transfiguration, Jesus tells all the apostles that He must suffer and die. So Jesus punctuates this glorious revelation with stark statements about His rejection by the church and execution by the State. This is the last stop the Lord would have us make before turning towards His suffering and death in Lent.
You know how a blinding flash of light leaves an image? In the Transfiguration Jesus glows light a lightening flash. He wishes to leave an image behind. It's the image of 2 great men of the Old Testament, Moses, and Elijah, talking to Jesus. About what? How to make the disciples more faithful? How the church can grow? No, they were talking about Jesus' departure which He was about to bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem. The things we speak to each other in Lent are what heaven talks about. In the Gospels 121 of the 12,000 days walked this earth can be identified. Of that 121 the Gospels focus most on the last week. On 6% of Jesus' life the Gospels focus an average of 30% of their verses. Think of the things they could have spent more time on: miracles of Jesus, words of Jesus. Yet, the Holy Spirit focuses them and us on His suffering and death.
Have the image of Old Testament saints speaking with Jesus about His departure burned on your mind, and be sure to note it is a glorified Jesus they are speaking with. If you focus on the Passion of Jesus rightly in the weeks ahead, you are going to see a gorified Jesus. Beaten, bloody, so swollen and bruised that Isaiah says He didn't even look human. It is important to know that Jesus doesn't end up this way because He is weak and helpless and couldn't do anything about it. No, as Isaiah says, this happened because the Father was pleased to crush Him. The gory Jesus is the glorious Lord whom angels wait on; devils must flee, and cannot suffer unless He wills to.
And Jesus wills to and He wills you go with Him. Note well: nobody stays on the mountain. God the Father removes Moses and Elijah, and Jesus removes Himself and the disciples. Nobody stays where alleluias rang in the night sky. Nobody stays where the reality of who Jesus is shines forth in flesh and blood: God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. Jesus takes His disciples and they descend into Lent where ashes prevail, where His apostles will betray Him, forsake Him, and deny Him. You can't get to heaven by staying on this mountain where heaven came down to earth. You've got to go through the ashes.
But we are Peter. Jesus is in prayer, and what are Peter and other apostles doing? Sleeping. They were literally "heavy with sleep" not merely sleepy. If all of them are asleep, why focus on Peter? Because the text does. But even more than that; before Jesus took them up this mountain, Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. Then Jesus predicted His suffering and death, and what did Peter do? Peter denied that it would ever happen to Jesus. Then Jesus said those awful words to Peter, "Get behind Me Satan for you mind the things of men not God."
If Jesus called you Satan because you weren't properly focused on His suffering and death, wouldn't you pay closer attention to Him after that? And if Jesus was in prayer, wouldn't that indicate to you that you too ought to be on your knees? Of course not, we are Peter. We know no special time for prayer like Lent. What Jesus does or even suffers isn't as important to us as what is going on in our lives, thoughts, hearts. The fact that Scripture says Jesus is always praying for us doesn't turn us towards Him or prayer. It makes us sleepy.
Peter only goes from bad to worse on this mountain. Peter hears them speaking of Jesus' departure which Jesus had earlier told him about. He hears them say it can only be accomplished in Jerusalem, but what does Peter want? Even though only 8 days ago Jesus had identified Peter's desire to keep Him from departing as Satanic, Peter still wants to stop it. Peter wants to stay on that mountain. This is heaven to Peter. Heaven can't be through ashes. No ashes only get in the way of God's real plans.
We are Peter. We talk about a theology of the cross, but we sure don't live there. No, God is only at work in the good that happens to me. My frustrations with kids, spouse, work, and world which leave the taste of ashes in my mouth can't be God at work. O I sing "Lift High the Cross" like everyone else, but I'm singing of a cross empty of the Body of Christ and my body. Only that which makes be feel glad, positive, upbeat, and confident is the work of God. Ashes should always be avoided, sometimes endured, but never, ever embraced.
But wanting to stay on the mountain isn't Peter's worse sin. It's equating Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Peter would build one shrine for each of them. Though Jesus is the one gleaming like lightening, though Moses and Elijah are there to talk to Jesus about what Jesus would do, to Peter they're equals. And isn't that really how it is to you too? Jesus is just one more Biblical character. You see no more need to focus on the last week in Jesus' life than to focus on the death of Moses or Elijah's lack of death. O it makes an interesting Bible study. You learn some neat facts about Jesus' last week of life, but in all candor, the death of Moses and the taking to heaven of Elijah are more intriguing to you than Jesus' death on the cross.
We are Peter, and the Holy Spirit tells us, for He really is the only one who could know this, that Peter "did not know what he was saying." I say a lot of stupid things about Jesus and think even more. Jesus is unfair because He doesn't lead me on the path of alleluias but ashes. Jesus should do this or that, or like Peter, I think Jesus needs me to do this or that for Him. Jesus shines in glory, I'm peeing my pants in fear, yet I still think Jesus needs me to do something for Him, and by golly, I can do it. You see? I don't know what I am saying. And that's why God comes on the scene today, right now in these words, and declares from heaven, "Listen to Jesus." Don't listen to Moses and the Law. Don't listen to Elijah and his miracles, listen to Jesus.
There are important things on this mountaintop, but they all lead down from here into Lent, on to Jerusalem, and Jesus' suffering and death. But we are Peter. We don't want to go where Jesus' leads, embrace the ashes of His Passion or the ashes in our lives, and we think that what we have to say is more important and correct than what Jesus has to say. God the Father hushes us and says, "Listen to Jesus."
Thankfully, though we are Peter, Jesus remains Jesus. Jesus is true God, yet He is also true Man. He is under the same Law that you are, and it is a command of God, a Law of God, that you pray. God doesn't give you the choice to pray or not anymore than you have the choice to breathe or not. Breath or you die physically; pray or you die spiritually. We don't pray as we should, about what we should. Jesus gives us the very words to pray in the Lord's Prayer, and what do we do? We don't use them at all the few times we do pray, and think our words are more meaningful.
We don't pray, and we sleep when Jesus talks in Church. Yet what happens? Lightening doesn't strike us though it should. God doesn't answer our foolish prayers though He could. No, God answers better than we pray, and sends grace, mercy and peace not lightening.
This is because Jesus embraces the ashes we deserve but shun. The suffering and death Jesus goes to face in Jerusalem is our suffering and death. Our failure to pray without ceasing, our asking for our will to be done not God's, our boredom with Jesus and His teaching, don't call for a rap across the knuckles with a ruler but for being forsaken, punished with disease and death, and damned. Even then our sins wouldn't be paid for. That's why we would go to hell forever. Sinners can't pay for sins even when they suffer. Only holy, perfect sacrifices can satisfy God's just wrath.
This is Jesus. He prays we sleep. He talks about the things of God. We don't listen. He is willing to suffer if it be the will of God; we aren't. He is the perfect Son of God, the perfect sacrifice. He can take away the sins of the world. He can be a wrath removing sacrifice for the sins of the of the world. That's what's going on in Lent, and though we turn away from it, don't focus on it, get bored with it, Jesus still does it.
Jesus remains Jesus. Paul writes Pastor Timothy, "If we are faithless, Jesus remains faithful." If Jesus is only as faithful as I am, then I'm in trouble. But Jesus keeps on heading to the cross, though we don't believe the cross is the real answer to our problems. More than that, though all heavenly hope disappears like on the mountain, Jesus stays with us and He takes us to His cross and ours. Though we like the first disciples grab on to Jesus' robe and dig in our heels because the cross just can't be the answer, Jesus keeps on heading for the cross because it's the only answer.
When only did the apostles see the cross as the answer? When only did they finally get that there are no real alleluias apart from ashes? When Jesus rose from the dead and opened their hearts and minds to the truth that He had to suffer for sinners in order for Him to enter into the glory of being the Savior/God of sinners. Once Jesus rose, His suffering was redeemed and so was theirs. Then the ashes in life were not seen as the remains of their plans, hopes, and dreams that had burned up, but the very source from which God's saving will for them would rise even as the Phoenix can only rise from its ashes. Ashes are not incompatible with alleluias. They are indispensable to them. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of our Lord (20070218); Luke 9: 28-36