Our theme today is an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a figure of speech which combines contradictory words. In the Army, "military intelligence" is considered an oxymoron. In Texas "good snake" would be an oxymoron. Today we face a Christian oxymoron: Dying God.
Dying and God do not go together - even human reason tells you that. In pagan mythology, gods do not die. That's there advantage over humanity. The gods bring death upon men, but do not experience it themselves. Even in the church, human reason has won out over divine revelation at times. In the early church, there were some who said Jesus didn't really suffer and die on the cross. He only appeared to. The modern church has been infected with the opposite error based on the same reasoning. Jesus could not be God because He did really die.
Dying God is an oxymoron. Death and deity just don't go together, and that's true not just among false teachers in the church. It's true of those really in the church. About 8 days before the events of our text, Peter confessed Jesus to be "the Christ, the Son of the living God." Then Jesus began to teach them that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, and be killed. A dead God didn't make any sense to Peter either. He said, "That will never happen to you."
Suffering, sighing, bleeding, dying are no place for deity, and Peter said so. The place for deity was the marvelous mountain top where heaven came down to earth. Peter liked what he saw here: a God in glory surrounded by the saints of the Old Testament. "It's good Lord to be here," said Peter. "This is a fitting place for deity to be. There's no need to move from this spot. Let's put up 3 shelters, and have a heaven on earth where suffering and death can't touch us."
Death and deity don't go together. Human reason knows it; the church knows it, and even God knows it. What did God do once Adam and Eve sinned and died? He drove them out of the Garden of Eden. Dead sinners can't stay in paradise. What did God proclaim to Moses from the burning bush? "I am not the God of the dead but of the living." What did God do about dead bodies in Israel? He declared them unclean saying the person who touched them was unfit for fellowship with Him.
Dying God is an oxymoron. There's no way death and deity go together. You feel that too, don't you? If the living God really rules the world, why do airliners crash killing hundreds, why do wars kill thousands, why does disease work death in our own bodies? At night sometimes when you hear the footsteps of death as it quietly approaches don't you think, "What's going on here? I'm a baptized child of God, reborn by water and Spirit, resurrected with Jesus from the dead; fed by the living God, yet I'm going to die?"
Death and deity simply don't go together, yet what do we find in our text? The Transfiguration brings them together in a stunning way. In the midst of this scene of heavenly joy and life on earth, what is the talk about? Life from the dead? Victory over Satan? No, it's all about the departure of Jesus "which He was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem." Jesus spoke of His suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying. And Moses and Elijah spoke as the Old Testament did: of a sheep led to slaughter; of Jesus' face being marred beyond recognition; of the agony of His soul all the way to death. In a setting as festive, as joyous, as bright as a wedding they talk about a funeral, about a brutal, torturous death.
And looks who's doing the talking: dead men. O I know Elijah was taken alive into heaven. But this is the Elijah who was tired to death before going. This is the Elijah who begged God to end his miserable life. This is the Elijah who was a walking dead man even in life. And Moses of course really did die. God presided at the funeral burying him with His own hands.
I said they are all dead men. That includes Jesus. Remember, His flesh and blood are no different than yours except without sin. His body is mortal. It is able to die. But what do we see here? "The appearance of His face changed." And His mortal body became so altered that "His clothes became bright as a flash of lightening." This body that would be cut and bleed, be stabbed and ooze, be beaten and bruised, glows, radiates with all the everlasting life of the Godhead.
In the midst of all this heavenly splendor of life, the Father's voice booms, "This is My Son; listen to Him." Up to this point, what is the only thing the disciples hadn't been listening to Jesus about? His suffering, sighing, bleeding, and dying. They didn't want to hear it because it didn't go with their understanding of deity. Dying God was an oxymoron to them.
It is to us too. So the Church sets aside a special season each year called Lent for focusing on the suffering, sighing, bleeding, and dying of God. The Church purposely afflicts herself each year for 40 days with talk of a dying God, not for the sake of God but for Her own sake. Just as Jesus took His disciples up on a mountain to look at death and deity, so we set ourselves apart during Lent to look at the same thing.
The tide of death will wash over us all. There's no levee to prevent it; no sea wall to break the crest. Like a relentless flood tide it washes into our lives. It reaches our toes, then our ankles, then our knees, our necks, our noses, and then over our heads death rushes till there is not one spot of life left. During Lent we see that's how it was for Jesus. All the life was beaten out of Him, whipped out of Him, bled out of Him. O no man took His life; He gave it up freely for our sakes to pay for our sins. But He gave every single ounce of it. And so will we, not to pay for our sins, but to be free of them.
Lent leads us through His death taking us through ours as we go. Lent brings us face to face with the God who dies so we can come to terms with the fact that we who are baptized into the living God nevertheless die. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. Historically this was the day when those excommunicated from the church applied for readmission. They came to a Wednesday service. It came to be called Ash Wednesday because the pastor sprinkled them with ashes as a sign of their repentance as they lay on the ground before the altar. They were then enrolled in a 40 day period of penance so they could commune once again on Maundy Thursday.
The 40 day period of Lent in the early church was a time when those dead in their sins were shown just how dead they were apart from the life of the church. We still do this today. We observe the custom of putting ashes on the forehead with the words, "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return." We remind people what God first said to fallen Adam.
We need to be reminded that we're dead in our sins. Having been born of Adam, we're born dying not living. Although we're born again by water and the Word, although we're absolved of our deadly sins, although we're fed by the very body and blood of the living God; still we're going to die. We can't get through this life without tasting the ashes of death. We can't go through this life, even as Christians, always singing lively alleluias. So we have a season called Lent where we "bury" the alleluias for a time.
Everywhere we turn during Lent we are faced with death. Purple paraments remind us of our deadly sins that ought to be repented of. Ashes made from the green Palm Sunday palms of the previous year remind us that no matter how green and living we may be today we will all end up as ashes. The once living Christmas tree is turned into a naked, dead cross. All our crosses are veiled with the shroud of death. And the buried alleluias remind us that there are times even in the Christian's life when sin and death take the alleluias right out of our hearts and voices.
All of this occurs for our benefit. All this preaching of sin and death, all this focusing on the dying God is for us and for our salvation. We are no smarter, holier, or pious than the first disciples. When Jesus speaks to us of death, it often goes in one ear and out the other. Although we all experience the aging process, we're shocked when grey haired people die. Although we all experience disease, we're surprised when the ill die. Although we all live in a world where sin and Satan are everywhere, we're startled when sin and Satan work death in God's creation.
We need to be taught about death; we need to face it now, so when it strikes we don't think God has abandoned us. That's what happened to the disciples. When Jesus died, they concluded all was lost. They went and hid for their lives. But something happened. Those 11 came out of hiding and went into the world proclaiming the same message Jesus had died for till they themselves died for it. What happened was the resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus had told them all through their "Lent" that He would suffer and die for the sins of the world but He would rise. But the words about rising from the dead blew past them because the words about His death did too. The Church "afflicts" herself with this 40 day period of extra services focusing on death so she doesn't miss the resurrection. In Lent we admit we don=t have any lasting life here so when we're confronted by death we may not despair but find our lasting life in the resurrected Jesus.
Lent shows us death and God go together so that we don't lose hope when we find death in those who belong to God. In Lenten services we watch death pursue Jesus remembering that death isn't inconsistent with His deity. So, when we feel the rising tide of death in us, though the tide is swift, cold and deep, we know it isn't inconsistent with the life we have in Jesus. The God who used His own death to redeem us can easily use our death for the sake of our redemption. To this we shout alleluia! To better appreciate this we stop shouting alleluia for awhile. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of Our Lord (20130210); Luke 9: 28-36