An appropriate slogan for our times would be: "Got Fear?" How many times have we been told in the last several months that this is the worst economy in 80 years? How many times have we been warned of an economic catastrophe? And don't think it started with this President. Have you forgotten the terror level warnings of yellow, orange, and red? Have you forgotten the dire predictions if we didn't do this or that?
Well, don't think it started with the President before this one either. Who said the following? "'Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor with the cry of grave national emergencyAnd always there has been some terrible evilto gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real'" (American Caesar, 692). Douglas MacArthur said this in 1957.
"Got fear?" is a perpetual question put to us by this fallen world. So how do we answer? Let's look at the disciples in our text. They certainly had fear. Both Matthew and Luke mention the disciples were afraid as they witnessed the Transfiguration, but only Mark uses the word "terrified." I don't think it by accident that the only other time this word is used in the Bible is of Moses on Mt. Sinai. The mountain is described as burning, smoking, and shaking. There is darkness, gloom, and storm. And then like a trumpet blast God bellows: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." Heb. 12:21 concludes: "The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am terrified and trembling."" The disciples had fear, and unlike Matthew, Mark doesn't record Jesus telling them, "Fear not."
That's because Mark doesn't record their fear coming to a head till they're headed down the mountain. The disciples knew the Old Testament well. Malachi, the last book in their Bible, in the last chapter connects remembering Moses at Mt. Sinai, the return of Elijah, and the rising of the sun of righteousness. Mark shows Elijah looms large in their eyes because when recounting the first sighting of the two, Mark alone says "Elijah and Moses." Matthew and Luke put Moses first.
The disciples seem to be living out the fulfillment of Malachi 4, the very last words God spoke before 400 years of silence. They'd seen both Elijah and Moses. They'd seen Jesus dazzling white as the sun, so now shouldn't they, as Malachi said, "go out and leap like calves released from the stall?" Shouldn't they go on, as Malachi says, to "trample down the wicked?" Isn't this the day Malachi predicted when the Lord is doing these things?
That's what the disciples are thinking on the way down the mountain. Jesus' warning not to tell anyone what they had seen till He had risen from the dead gave them pause, but only briefly. They don't ask Jesus what He meant by the words "rising from the dead" although that is what they were discussing. No, they jump right back to Elijah, "Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" The vision they had seen had fulfilled Malachi's prophesy except that part about Elijah turning the hearts of the fathers and children back to each other. The disciples are wondering, to use Jesus' words, when Elijah would "restore all things." They don't see anything restored. Moreover, right before their beautiful, powerful mountain top experience Jesus had told them He will be rejected by the Church and killed by the State.
Jesus, as He usually does, replies to their question about Elijah with the question they should be asking. He connects Elijah coming to restore all things and His suffering. Jesus replies, "To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?"
Jesus is putting all the elements together that need to be, and surely you see that He is ratcheting up the fear level. Then He drops the bomb. "But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him." The mighty, fearless Elijah who had stood up to kings, slain hundreds of false prophets, raised the dead, and never, ever lost had already come and gone. Even if you don't know who Jesus is referring to, the disciples sure did. Matthew tells us, "Then the disciples understood that He was speaking to them of John the Baptist." The second coming of Elijah upon which they were pinning their hopes was the dead, beheaded John the Baptist. Can you hear them go "gulp?"
"Got fear?" Sure we do. NPR radio on Monday couldn't report on US markets because they were closed for President's Day, so they reported on the foreign markets. They could've led with the happy news that the Chinese market reached its highest point in the last 5 1/2 months, but they led with the sad new that the Japanese market slid 4 %. "Got fear?" Well, if not from the economy then from nameless, faceless terrorists, and if not from them then go back a few years to the bird flu and ominous warnings of a pandemic. Make no mistakes someone, somewhere, somehow wants to make sure you answer "Got fear?" with, "I sure do!"
And the rub is that, as in Mark, Jesus lets that fear lay heavy on our chest, heart, and mind, and not only does He let it sit there, He makes it worse. He takes our John the Baptist and Elijah away. He takes the prospect of a victory by power and might away. All He leaves us is the cross. Jesus says the beheaded, very dead John the Baptist, murdered by an openly sinful and unbelieving King Herod, did restore all things, but the disciples couldn't reconcile this with the cross that remains in front of them, can you?
John, who dressed, lived, and preached like Elijah, restored Israel to God by repentance and Baptism, but these were able to do that only because of the cross of Christ. Repent all you want, be as sorry as you can be for your sins, make yourself miserable because of your sins, punish yourself like Luther did in the monastery or give the fruit of your body for the sin of your soul as Micah 6 says, and you will have achieved nothing. The wrath of God is not removed by repentance but by the cross of Christ.
Likewise, be baptized a hundred times, in the purest water, in the holiest of places, and apart from the cross you have nothing. Isn't that what Paul says in Romans 6? "Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with." If Christ hadn't died on the cross, your Baptism couldn't join you to His death.
Had not Jesus kept the Law of God that constantly accuses you and convicts you of being a damned sinner what good would repenting do? The laws you break would remain before the eyes of the Father enraging Him against you. Jesus having kept those laws , yet dying for our breaking them gives us a place to repent back to, a place to be baptized into that is free from broken laws, sins, or guilt. We repent to the cross. We step under our Lord's outstretched arms where wrath and judgment can't reach us. We are baptized into the cross where our old Adam with all of its sin, guilt, and judgment die with Jesus.
Suffering isn't foreign to the cross but essential. All the power and might of God Himself couldn't keep the law for sinful humans; all the power and might of God Himself couldn't pay for the sins of humans. It would take suffering to get that done. Keeping the holy law of God in a sinful world meant suffering for Jesus. If you don't think so, then you try always doing the right thing in this fallen life and see how much you'll suffer for it. And of course, the law demanded temporal and eternal punishment for just one broken law. So Jesus answering for every broken law suffered here and in eternity.
Jesus suffering paid for sins. The cross that looms on the horizon in this text is where your sins were paid for. Yet the cross remains in your life, so does suffering, so do fears. What are we to make of this? It's not what we make of it; it's what God does. In the Epistle, Paul promises we are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. That likeness is cross shaped in this fallen world. For moments in time in this fallen world we see, feel, touch, taste the glory that will be revealed in us even as Jesus did in our text. But these moments can only be fleeting because we're not in glory yet, and God isn't through transforming us yet.
These things the world tells us we must fear; these things we're told we should bow before as one should only bow before God and the things of God, we are to run toward; we are to embrace. These things we are suppose to be so terrified of economic collapse, terrorist attacks, physical diseases are like sharp scalpels in the hands of a skillful surgeon. You ought to run from me with a scalpel in my hands. You ought to think no good thing could possibly come from letting me cut you with a sharp knife. But it's totally different with a skilled surgeon, yet still you're afraid to "go under the knife," still you fear what might, what could happen. Yet, you get the operation. You embrace it because you trust the hand that wields the knife.
These fears the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh would chase you around with are indeed terrifying in the hands of politicians, bankers, terrorists, fate, chance, and randomness, but they aren't in their hands. They are all, every single one of them, in hands that have been pierced by nails for your sake. Still they look frightening, even as scalpel does in the hands of a surgeon, but for the good of the operation, you embrace the fear. For the Easter ahead we embrace the present Lent; for the resurrection we embrace the grave; because of the glory that shall be revealed in us, we embrace what we are told to be afraid of knowing whatever we fear will only be used by the Good Physician to His and our glory. "Got fear?" Nope, got glory. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of our Lord (20090222); Mark 9:2-13