Sunday, February 28, 2016

Why Will You Die?

“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 
We pray in The Litany: “From all sin, from all error, from all evil; From the crafts and assaults of the devil; from sudden and evil death; From pestilence and famine; from war and bloodshed; from sedition and from rebellion; From lightning and tempest; from all calamity by fire and water; and from everlasting death; Good Lord, deliver us.” In one of our funeral hymns we sing: “All trials and all griefs are past, A blessed end has come at last, Christ’s yoke was borne with ready will; Who dieth thus is living still” (LSB #759). There is such a thing as an “evil death” and such a thing as a “blessed death.” What makes the difference?    
In the book of Numbers, we read of the Word the Lord put into the mouth of Balaam regarding the blessedness of Jacob who was saved by the grace of God through faith in the Lord and who departed this life in peace. Balaam said of such a death and of such a man, “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10). We hear the same Spirit led prayer of faithful Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word.”
Ah, to die the death of the upright, to die in faithful peace, to have a blessed end. That is dying unto eternal life. But alas, not all deaths are like this. Many are horribly tragic because they are so unnecessary and they end in everlasting destruction. For example, we think of Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus, died in despair, and entered into eternal death. His was an evil death, accomplishing nothing but the opposite of God’s intended purpose of salvation. There are far too many Judases in this world, dying unto eternal death.
If, somehow, you were able to identify and speak to a person who was heading to eternal death; that is, if you were able to talk to that person before physical death—the separation of body and soul—took place, you would try to warn him or her, wouldn’t you? And if that person would not listen and would not heed the warning, would you not plead with him or her: “Why, why will you die? There is hope and righteousness and peace forever for you. Why will you die unto eternal death?” That, my dear friends, is God’s question in our text: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
Now, before we can get the Word out, we must get the Word straight. So let’s begin by having the answer to God’s question given right away. Why will you die? There is one reason why anyone dies—sin! Death entered the world as a consequence of sin, and death is the just punishment for sin. “For the wages of sin is death,” St. Paul declares. Then He adds, “but the free gift of God is eternal life is Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 23). Christ’s death paid the penalty for all sin, for every sinner. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Therefore, there is only one reason why people die eternally: Unbelief, which is not having the God-given gift of faith in Christ as your Savior. And there are two basic reasons why people depart this life in unbelief. The first is because the person has never heard that Jesus is the Redeemer and Savior. The second is because the person has heard this Good News, but rejects it.
Consider the people of New Orleans a few days before Hurricane Katrina reached the city. Imagine that there was one person in charge of getting the word out to the people. What word? A two-fold proclamation—the warning of a deadly storm and the promise of the evacuation to life. That was the “law and gospel” of what was to be proclaimed to the people.
But suppose the word doesn’t get out to the people. Katrina devastates the city and people die. The called messenger, who is authorized and obligated to speak the word to the people, neither warns of the coming death nor tells the people of the way to life. People die in unbelief because they do not hear the message. The messenger, however, is and will be held accountable.
Now imagine instead that the messenger does do what he was called, authorized, and obligated to do, and that the word of warning and the word of escape are declared. The message goes out to the citizens. The storm is approaching and the way to escape the death and destruction is to evacuate the city. In short, if you stay you will die; if you leave you will live.
Suppose some of those who heard this death and life message ignore it. The called messenger does what he was called to do; he is not responsible, nor will he be held accountable. Such people die because they reject the message. They do not believe the warning or trust in the promise of rescue.
In our text, Ezekiel’s warning is not about an approaching hurricane or an impending flood or even a powerful earthquake, but something much more devastating. It is about the end of the world on the Day of Reckoning and applies to those who die the second death, which is the lake of fire. Compared to that Day, the category 5 Katrina was but a gentle breeze. The floodwaters in New Orleans were but a trickle. And the tremors that killed more than 100,000 people in the 2010 7.0 earthquake in Haiti were a nervous twitch. Though these events may end life for people in this world, they are not able to touch anyone’s soul for eternity.
Please remember: It is not only unbelievers who depart this life as a result of such catastrophes, Christians do as well. However, there is a difference: faithful children of God who die as a result of hurricane, terrorist attack, flooding, earthquake, accident, disease, or violence leave this world and enter into Paradise to be with the Lord. Theirs is a blessed end. They truly depart in peace.
The Lord God asks, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” This question is directed to the Church and it deals with eternal death: “Why will you die eternally, O My people?” God does not desire that anyone be lost forever, especially those who are numbered among His people. The Lord doesn’t punish and discipline because He likes to, but seeks to turn people from their wicked ways back to Him. He continues to call each of us to repentance, to shrug off death, and live eternally.
Why will you die? Only one reason, remember? Unbelief. It may be unbelief because the pastor does not warn with the accusing Law of God and/or because he does not comfort with the soothing Gospel of the forgiveness of all sins. The departure from preaching the Word of God in its truth and purity is an American epidemic. Pastors exchange their liturgical vestments for cheerleader outfits in order to encourage the flock with the chants of manageable law, rather than to kill and make alive by proclaiming the full counsel of God. They become the hawkers of this world’s therapeutic, moralistic deism, offering helpful hints on how to have your best life now, rather than preparing you for a blessed end and eternal life.
Such hirelings seduce with a conditional gospel, which is not the Gospel. Their messages are often no different than motivational speakers who ignore the reality of sin and who call for hope and change without Christ. Congregations subjected to this sort of pastoral malpractice are left hungering for the Word. They become more and more anemic as the cleansing blood of Jesus, both in sermon and in the cup, is withheld from them. Many members of such congregations have no idea what the Gospel is, or what the means of grace convey. And if they, perchance, would cry out like the house of Israel, “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” well, tragically, the preacher is all too often silent about Jesus’ forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. For the many lost because of the failure to preach Law and Gospel, the pastor will be held accountable on the Day of Reckoning.
The Lord God asks, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” This question is directed to the Church. God does not desire that anyone be lost forever. Rather, He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:4-6).
Why will you die? Again, only one reason, unbelief. It may be unbelief due to the fact that, while the pastor does preach the Word of God in its truth and purity, and does administer the Sacraments as Christ instituted them, the congregation will not receive the Word nor stand for the Absolution nor be catechized in the faith. In such a situation, while many are lost, the pastor will not be held accountable on the Day of Reckoning; each will stand for his or her own unbelief.
Now, since at the beginning of this sermon, we have heard the answer to God’s question, we will proceed to the end by hearing what is not the answer to God’s question, “Why will you die?”
You will not die eternally because you are a sinner, for “the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15).
You will not die eternally because you have sinned, for behold, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
You will not die eternally because of your lack of righteousness or failure to obey God’s commandments, for the Good News is that by Jesus’ “obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
You will not be lost forever because of what you owe God, because in Baptism the Lord God made you “alive together with Him, having forgiven [you] all [your] trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against [you] with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).
You will not die eternally because you feel so alone or because uncertainly assaults you, or because you face the end of this life, for though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord is with you to comfort you (Psalm 23).
You will not die eternally because of the grave that awaits you, for “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), and all who have been baptized are baptized into the death of Christ and because Jesus lives you also shall live, and there will be a heavenly reunion of all those who have departed this life in Christ.
You will not suffer the second death and go to Satan’s hell because Christ has conquered hell and defeated the devil; and for you, dear child of God, no one shall take you out of the Lord’s hands (John 10).  
You will not die eternally if you die this day or tomorrow or whenever, for Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life and he who believes in Christ; though he dies, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in Jesus shall never die (John 11:25-26).
In short, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). The only reason anyone is lost is unbelief. This is the Good News of God’s love in Christ Jesus and it’s not only for those hearing this message now, but for everyone. “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself” (Acts 2:39).
“What promise?” you ask. This promise: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
“What promise?” This promise: “Take, eat; this is My body which is given for you…. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
“What promise?” This promise: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:23).
“What promise?” This promise: “Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Indeed, our Lord continues to come to you in His Word and Sacraments, bringing you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In these means of grace, through His called and ordained servant, He brings you this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Tempted in the Wilderness for You

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“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The first Sunday of Lent brings us to the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness, and it is good that we take some time and reflect upon what He does for us there. I’ll tell you this from the start: This is a text that should humble you and me, and rightly so, for we can hardly be proud of our ability to resist temptation. But there is also Good News: As we understand our weakness the Lord’s strength for us grows all the more apparent and all the more comforting.
It is no accident that Jesus finds Himself in the wilderness for forty days after His Baptism. The Holy Spirit has led Him there, because this is part of His journey to the cross. This “forty days” is part of Christ’s active obedience for our sake. He is living the perfect life that you and I cannot. He is resisting the temptations that you and I are unable to resist in our fallen state.
Throughout the forty days, Jesus fasts and He is tempted by the devil. Remember, that although he is far too clever for us, the devil has a losing hand. He is called “the Accuser” because all he can really do is point out the sin of people. For a while, as we hear in the book of Job, Satan could stand before God in heaven like a prosecuting attorney standing before the Judge and accusing people of their sin. On account of Christ, however, Satan has lost that forum. He can no longer accuse us before God. However, the devil can still accuse people of their sin in their own conscience so they feel that God could never love them or forgive them.
Of course, before Satan can accuse people of their sin, they have to have sins to be accused of. This is why the Accuser tempts us to sin, so that he can gain leverage for his accusations against us.
But this is why Satan is at a distinct disadvantage in out text—because Jesus is without sin. Therefore, the devil has no accusation to make unless he can get Jesus give in to temptation. So the devil tempts for those forty days. He tries out temptations of physical appetites, wooing Jesus to turn the stones into bread and fill His aching stomach. But this is against the Father’s Word and will for His Son in the wilderness, so Jesus refuses the devil’s suggestion.
The devil tempts Him with power, promising to give Him all the kingdoms of the world without the suffering on the cross. This shows how weak the devil’s hand is, trying to dish out the lie that Jesus needs his help for power.
And the devil tempts Jesus to pride, telling Him to test His Father by throwing Himself off the temple. In effect, Satan challenges: “Instead of all this suffering Servant stuff, Jesus, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to make God save You? Show everyone right now how important You are, and then they’ll all follow You.”  
But once again, the sinless Son of God says no. He is not about taking the easy way or power or pride. He has become flesh for humble self-sacrifice and servanthood. The Accuser leaves as a loser for all of his efforts. Jesus has resisted all temptation and has no sins to be accused of, so there’s no use in hanging around. As our text tells us, “the devil… left Him until an opportune time.”
Three years later, Satan will still have no ammunition against God’s Son, but he’ll opt for Plan B. He’ll accuse the consciences of sinners so badly that they’ll want the Savior destroyed. The “father of lies” will induce them to speak all sorts of lies so that the Son of God—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—is put to death.
You know, of course, that the devil loses on Calvary. He wants Jesus dead, but the Lord dies of His own will. Jesus gives up His own life. No one takes it from Him. Furthermore, Christ dies as the sinless sacrifice for us, dying our death for sin so that we don’t have to. At the climactic battle, your Savior is the clear winner, and His victory is demonstrated three days later as He rises from the dead.
For His death and resurrection, we give thanks, acknowledging that Jesus has defeated the devil for us. But do not skip quickly past this temptation in the wilderness; for already here, Jesus deals the Accuser quite a blow. By resisting temptation there, He remains the perfect, sinless sacrifice. This means that, while His crucifixion hasn’t yet taken place, the devil’s defeat is already secured.
Hear this Good News: in the wilderness, Jesus perfectly resisted temptation, and He did so for you. He did this so that, along with the forgiveness of sins, He could give you the credit for His perfect resistance to temptation.
In other words, imagine a scene where the devil gets to accuse you before God one more time. “God, do You see those people at St. John’s? They’re a sinful bunch—sinful enough where they don’t deserve Your favor or help. Therefore, because of their sin and on the basis of Your Law, I demand that You condemn them to hell.” It’s a frightening prospect, for God’s Law declares that we deserve such condemnation. It’s true, isn’t it? We just confessed those very sins and iniquities for which we justly deserved God’s temporal and eternal punishment.
However, God’s Law is only half the story. So this would be the Lord’s response: “Satan, I see those people at St. John’s, and I tell you this: My Son has died their death, suffered My wrath and their hell. As they hear the absolution and receive My Son’s body and blood, by those means I forgive them for all their sins. Not only that, but I give them the credit for My Son’s perfect resisting of temptation. So when I look at them, I don’t remember their sin; I see My Son’s righteousness. I see no sin, but perfect resistance to temptation.”
Again, this is the Good News of this text: Jesus resisted temptation so that He could credit you with His perfect resistance. This is important, because so often it has been taught as Law rather than Gospel: “Jesus went into the wilderness and resisted the devil to be the example, to show you that it could be done. So you get out there and resist that devil. That’s what being a Christian is all about.”
If that was the message of this text, then it has no comfort for you. The notion that you can do whatever Jesus did is ludicrous from the start, as you are not the sinless Son of God. No, you have that sinful nature that still clings; and so often, you’ve given in to temptation before you even know you’re being tempted.
No, if the entire message of the text is “Go resist temptation like Jesus did,” then it only sets you up for failure. If being a Christian is all about resisting temptation and you keep on giving in to temptation, it would mean you’re a pretty lousy Christian. But Jesus did not go into the wilderness to set an example that He expects you to live up to. He went there and resisted all temptation because He knows full well that you can’t, and He wanted to do it for you.
Of course, your old sinful nature wants to twist that statement as well, so that you cheapen God’s grace. It gets you to say, “I can’t resist temptation perfectly, so Jesus has done it for me. So, why even try? I’ll just go ahead and give in and sin, because the Lord will bail me out.” If that’s your understanding, you’d better hear some more Law. Think about it. This is what you’re really saying: “Since Jesus resisted temptation for me, I’ll just go ahead and sin.” That’s real smart. It’s like saying, “Since they’re having such good success treating AIDS these days, I think I’ll just go ahead and share a needle with Charlie Sheen.”
Both lines of reasoning have something in common—both hurt your life and intend your death. The Lord commands you to resist temptation and flee from sin for a reason: Every temptation and sin is an attempt by the devil to destroy your faith. If you just go ahead and willingly give in to that temptation, then you’re getting hooked by a sin that you apparently find attractive. The more attracted you are to a sin, the less you want to confess it and be forgiven. After a while you’ll start telling yourself it’s not really a sin—at least not a “bad” sin. You’ll convince yourself that it’s just part of who you are. Eventually, the sin becomes so important to you that you’re willing to abandon faith and forgiveness to keep it.
Like the frog-in-a-kettle scenario, it happens gradually, so that the next temptation doesn’t seem that much worse than the one before, and the next sin doesn’t seem so bad. Therefore, when temptation comes, resist the sin; it is at work to destroy you. Furthermore, your Lord has shed His blood to set you free from sin. Do you consider His death to be so insignificant you will freely indulge in the sin from which He died to set you free? Such a willful sin is a grave offense to God.
Of course, the Old Adam in you might make you take the opposite approach as to why it’s okay to sin. It goes like this: “It’s easy for Jesus to resist temptation, being the Son of God and all. But if He were in my shoes, then He’d really know what temptation was like.” If this is your reasoning, please consider a point that C.S. Lewis brought up a while back: You really don’t know what temptation is.
What does this mean? It means this: The one who gives in to temptation right away doesn’t need to be tempted very much; therefore, he only knows a little temptation. The one who resists for a little while longer will be tempted a little bit more before he sins. Only the one who resists all temptation perfectly knows just how bad temptation can really be. So, you really don’t know much about temptation. But Jesus understands perfectly. The fact that the Lord did not, that He could not, sin does not make the temptations He faced any less real or tempting. Only He knows just how strong temptation can really be!
There is another variation to this offense, and one that sounds so much more pious. It sounds like this: “I do try to resist temptation, but it’s just too much for me. I fight as much as I can, but I’m still overcome. Nevertheless, God must give me some credit for at least trying.” If you are tempted to comfort yourself in this way, then you’re in need of some specific Law from 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
By the grace of God, you have all the strength you need to resist temptation. So do I. If we are doing better at resisting temptation, that’s nice; but the fact that we still sin shows that we give in. If you seek to comfort yourself that you give in to temptation less than others, then you are seeking to say that you are saved by Christ and by your graded-on-a- curve obedience. This robs Christ of His glory.
The point is this: The Law says to flee temptation, and the Law isn’t there to make you feel good about yourself. It is not there to enable you to say, “Look, I’m sinning less than before,” but to tell you, “You’re still sinful and sinning.” The Law is there to show you your sin and your need for forgiveness.
Therefore, when you examine yourself to check your record in dealing with temptation, don’t use this self-examination to make yourself feel better. No, use this examination to rejoice in Christ all the more. For this truth remains: Christ has endured all temptation for you. He resisted the devil in the wilderness with all the temptations that were thrown at Him there. He resisted the cries to come down from the cross and save Himself so that He might remain there to save you. And with the forgiveness of sins, He gives you the credit for His perfect obedience.
Jesus has washed away your sin in the waters of Holy Baptism. Where the devil seeks to accuse you, the Lord absolves you, declaring that you are not guilty for His sake. Where you are still plagued with the temptations of a sinful heart and flesh, He gives you His perfect, sinless body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. That’s your hope. It’s a far better hope than, “I don’t sin as much as I used to.” It’s far better because it declares that Christ did not sin, and He gives you credit for His not sinning. Yes, you still face temptation, and yes, you will give in to it even today. But you need not despair. The One who has resisted all temptation declares specifically to you: “My righteousness is your righteousness. You are holy and blameless. You are forgiven for all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, February 5, 2016

From the Clouds of Glory

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“As He was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!’” (Luke 9:34-35).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
From here on out, it’s all downhill—in more ways than one. Peter, James, and John had gone up this mountain with Jesus to pray. Waking from another careless sleep, they are astonished at what they see. Jesus is transfigured, shining. Not like under a spotlight from above. No, He’s glowing from the inside out. His clothes are white as lightning. Elijah and Moses have appeared and are speaking with Him about events to come. And then, to top it all off, a cloud envelops them and the Father’s voice declares, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!”
Now, take a moment to review what happens there; for if this does not convince the disciples of Jesus’ identity, one wonders what will. Jesus radiates white, lightning-like light. This is not something that an ordinary man can do. In fact, this is something that Almighty God does, as He appears in white and fire on His throne in Daniel 7. This is exhibit A that Jesus is the Son of God.
Exhibit B: Moses and Elijah, who died so many centuries before, are alive and present and speaking with Jesus. They aren’t instructing Him as if He’s in need of their counsel and advice. No, they’re talking about Him and what He is about to do. The ESV translation speaks of His “departure,” but the literal word is “exodus.” They are speaking of Jesus’ exodus—His death and resurrection—by which He will set His people free and deliver them to the Promised Land.
Moses received the Law from God at Mt. Sinai and led God’s people out of the bondage of Egypt and to the Promised Land. Elijah defeated the 450 prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mt. Carmel, cementing his place in history as the foremost of the prophets after Moses. These two mountain men come to represent the Law and the Prophets, a name Jesus Himself used for the Old Testament scriptures. Therefore, as Moses and Elijah defer to Jesus on this mountaintop, they declare that the Old Testament scriptures—the Law and the Prophets—point to Jesus, too. Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. That’s a pretty good exhibit B.
But exhibit C is even more convincing: A cloud appears and overshadows the disoriented and fearful disciples, enveloping them. It’s not your average cloud, but a very Old Testament cloud—the kind of cloud that led the people of Israel out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and through the wilderness. The kind of cloud that descended on Mt. Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. The kind of cloud that filled the tabernacle and the temple, driving out the priests because of its glory. No, this is no ordinary cloud; rather, it indicates that God the Father has come on the scene, to button down who Jesus is. And so the Father declares, “This is My Son, My Chosen One. Hear Him!” Peter, James, and John should have no doubt. Their teacher Jesus is most certainly the Son of God, fully human and fully divine, the long-awaited Savior promised by God.
On this mountain, the Lord makes this plain and apparent to their eyes and their ears. No matter what happens from here on out, these disciples can look back at this mountain, this Transfiguration of Our Lord, and be sure that He is the Savior. Such memories are important because, just like that, things are back to normal. No glistening white, no Moses, no Elijah, no cloud, no voice. Just three dazed disciples and Jesus. For an all too brief moment, they had a hint of His glory. Now He looks like just plain Jesus again.
And from here, it’s all downhill. Jesus will never look like that again before His ascends into a cloud. Now, He’s going to go back down this mountain, do some more miracles and teach more about the kingdom of God. And as He goes along, people are going to start to reject Him even more.
The disciples have already heard one ominous statement; just eight days before the Transfiguration, Jesus told them He would be crucified. If it was hard to believe eight days ago, it must be impossible to fathom during the Transfiguration. But it will happen soon enough, because that is why the Savior has come.
Before the cross and its shame, though, the Lord gives Peter, James, and John a hint of His glory. And along with exhibits A, B and C, they will do well to remember the last two words spoken by God the Father: “Hear Him.”
“Hear Him.” Listen to what Jesus has to say, for the Transfiguration certainly shows that He speaks with authority. What He says is to be believed. “Hear Him” because He speaks His powerful, faith-giving Word. No matter how glorious the display of His majesty, God doesn’t save by His glory apart from His Word. His glory may convince man of His existence and power; but He uses His Word to give them faith to believe that He is also gracious and merciful. “Hear Him” and the Word He declares, because the faith He gives can enable the disciples to believe in what they can’t see—in spite of what they do see.
It’s only a matter of time until Jesus goes up one more mountain—a little hill, really, but one that He’ll barely be able to climb. The hill is called Calvary, and Jesus will be crucified at its summit. He won’t look very glorious when the palace guard is done with Him. He won’t look very powerful when He’s too weak and battered to carry His cross. He won’t look like the King of kings with a crown of thorns jammed down on His brow. And He sure won’t look like the beloved Son of God when He’s up there between two thieves instead of Moses and Elijah.
So the Father cautions and admonishes these three, “Hear Him.” Appearances change, but the Word of the Lord remains the same. Before the Transfiguration, Jesus has told them that He’s going to be crucified and raised from the dead, and that Word will be fulfilled. He will do exactly what He came to do: redeem man by dying his death and suffering God’s judgment for his sin.
The Lord tells Peter, James, and John to focus on the Word because appearances are powerful things, and will often seem to contradict God’s Word. Peter will see Jesus betrayed and arrested, and that will lead him to deny Jesus three times that night. When Jesus is raised from the dead, it may well appear that Peter has proven too much of a coward to be a disciple, but the Lord restores him. How? With His Word: “Feed My sheep,” and “Follow Me” (John 21:17-19). Hear Him, Peter, for thereby you are restored.
All of this lies in the near future for Peter, James, and John. So on this mountain of Transfiguration, the Lord does two things for them. First, He proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is, in fact, the Son of God, fully divine as well as fully human. Second, because the evident glory will not last, He points them back to His Word; for no matter how things appear, His Word remains forever.
On that mountain of Transfiguration, He is doing the same for you. He is transfigured there to show His glory, that you may know that He is the Son of God, your Savior. And since you and I could not be there to witness it with our eyes, He witnesses of it by His Word to our ears. He tells us, too, of the bright light, the presence of Moses and Elijah, and the Father’s testimony; and because He tells us about these things in His holy Word, we can be even more sure than if we had seen them with our own eyes.
So, as we hear this Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, remember the Word and remember the glory. First, as the Father instructs from the cloud, “Hear Him.” Hear the Son of God and His Word to you. Hear His Law and know that not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen has disappeared (Matthew 5:18). Hear His declaration of the Gospel and know that He who has died on the cross in your place still forgives you for all of your sins. Hear Him, and hear Him no matter what appearances may lead you to believe, for the devil will use appearances to make you doubt the Word of God.
Since Christ’s Word has such power, the last thing the devil wants you to do is to have you hear the Lord speak. So he comes up with many tactics to prevent this from happening. He will make sin appear to be permissible, enjoyable, maybe even beneficial in the short-term. The Word of the Lord—which you are commanded to hear—declares that enjoyable and “helpful” sin is still an offense to God that seeks to destroy your faith; so expect the evil one to bombard you with appearances and events to distract you away from God’s Word and make that sin look all the more attractive. In other words, you are tempted to believe that “If it feels right for me, then it must be okay.” Hearing the Word, you respond, “No matter how it feels, it’s wrong if God says it’s wrong. I must repent.” Similarly, you might find yourself saying, “I kind of liked that sin, and don’t really feel that sorry for it.” Hearing the Word, you must say, “Even if I don’t feel like confessing it, by faith I believe the Word that it was a sin that I must confess.”
At the same time, the devil may make use of sins you’ve committed to make it seem that the Lord could never forgive the likes of you. Guilt can bring on a despair from which there seems to be no relief. But far more certain than that crushing load is the Good News that Christ has died for your sins. Hearing the Word, we battle back and say, “Even if I do not feel forgiven, Christ promises that He forgives me. I have repented; He has forgiven me.”
Furthermore, the devil will do his best to make it appear that the Lord has forgotten you. As the world continues to slouch closer and closer to destruction, the devil will do his best to convince the Church that the Lord isn’t going to return. When terribly afflicted, the people of God cry out, “How long, O Lord?” If they look for the answer in what they see, the answer is a horrible silence. But if they continue to hear the Word, they know the Lord will faithfully return in His time.
So the devil and your own sinful flesh seek to do the same to you, personally and carefully selecting whatever afflictions will most effectively make you miserable. It may be a matter of sickness, because chronic pain and medicinal side effects will seek to shout louder than God’s Word. It may be a matter of loneliness, and your Old Adam will use that isolation from other people to make you feel isolated from the Lord. It may be a matter of unbearable stress and anxiety, tempting you to wonder if the Lord were indeed powerful, why would you have to suffer so? It may be a sinful habit or addiction that will seek to convince you that what you’ve done is so terrible that God could never forgive you.
Now, all of these things are more than just appearances—the pains and hurts are real enough. But what is not true is the appearance that these are more powerful than the Lord’s Word; and so the Lord calls you to continue to hear Him, no matter your circumstance. Illness and loneliness and stress will claim that God is out to get you, but don’t expect the wages of sin to preach a good sermon. Instead, hear the Word of the Lord. So much does the Lord care for you that He has already gone to the cross to redeem you. He promises that He will relieve you from all your afflictions in a little while. In the meantime, He has already relieved you of your sin and given you everlasting life.
The Lord looked glorious at the Transfiguration, and anything but glorious on Calvary. You and I must endure dark times, times, when the Lord seems neither glorious nor near nor merciful. But you have His Word that He forgives you, is with you, and will not forsake you. Hear Him.
And especially hear Him when He speaks His Word of grace and forgiveness to you. Cling to His promise that He has made you His own in Baptism. Hold fast to His Absolution and His Word, “I forgive you.” Do not let go of the promise He makes when He says, “Take and eat, this is My body…take and drink, this is My blood…for the forgiveness of sins.” For by these words, the same Lord who was transfigured in glory, crucified for your sin, and raised for eternal life, is with you.
Hear Him, for by His Word He remains with you. You have His Word on it. So you can say with St. Paul: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
This is true in your time in this world—the Lord continues to preserve you by His Word. It is also true that, when delivered from this world, you will see the Word confirmed by the Lord’s appearance in all of His glory. Your comfort is not just that the Lord is with you as you endure in this life; your comfort is the hope that, in Christ, you will outlive your afflictions for eternity. This comfort and hope is real, because you have the Lord’s Word on it.
Would you like to hear that guarantee? Then hear Him now: “I forgive you all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...