Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord

The Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 3, 2008)
“A Lamp Shining in a Dark Place” (2 Peter 1:16-21)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Starting on Wednesday, the season of Lent begins. The word Lent comes from an Old English word that means “to lengthen.” And the days are getting longer. Yesterday, the sun came up at 7:36 am. It went down at 5:10 pm. Today, the sun came up at 7:34 am. If the Lord doesn’t come back today, the sun will set at 5:11 pm. Three whole extra minutes of sunshine!

Make no mistake, it can still be gray and gloomy in these parts at this time of year. The clouds more often than not hide the bright light of the sun. But there’s some hope. The sun is staying up in the sky just a bit longer than it did the day before.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop, no clouds could hide his bright light. A bright cloud appeared there, from which God the Father’s voice declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And in today’s Epistle, Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty ... we ourselves heard [the] voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” It was no made up story. It happened. We saw it with our own eyes. We heard the voice with our own ears.

But surrounding that mountain of glory, there was darkness. The shadow of the cross loomed large, with its accompanying agony. Just before this, Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to have to suffer and be killed and be raised again on the third day. Peter was used as a tool of Satan as he vehemently tried to stop Jesus from going to the cross, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” ... to which Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan!” Talk of the suffering and death of their Master caused the disciples no small distress. And talk of their own suffering must have upset them, too. Jesus had told them that they, also, would have to bear a cross as his followers.

You and I live in a world of darkness and shadows. There is darkness all around us. There are shadowy, evil influences that would seek to harm us or draw us away from the One True God. There is false teaching from Christian pulpits that direct our attention to our own efforts at reaching God, rather than to God’s efforts at reaching us in Christ. There is false teaching from non-Christian sources that sounds attractive and seems reasonable. It calls for us to put aside our differences, since (as it is thought) “all religions are basically the same,” and to awaken to a new state of consciousness, recognizing the goodness within each of us. Ultimately, all of this false teaching appeals to the darkness within each of us. It flatters the sinner in each of us who loves to think that we are by nature good or that we somehow can achieve a higher level of faith and spirituality by reaching down inside of ourselves and discovering who we really are.

A police officer I once knew told me, “If you only knew what went on after dark, it would make your hair stand on end.” There’s something about the darkness that brings out the worst in people. There’s something about the darkness that makes it intrinsically frightening.

As adults, most of us are not afraid to sleep in a darkened room at night. But our children are. Any little bump or bang gets their little brains going, and they cry out in fear. Shadows on the wall become monsters that are reaching for them. They wake from a nightmare, and the darkness only adds to their terror. And even as adults, although we might say we are not afraid of the dark, waking up in the middle of the night to bumps and bangs startles us, too. Is someone trying to break in? Are they already inside? Your otherwise familiar territory now becomes a prison as you are paralyzed with fear behind your bedroom door, wondering what might await you on the other side. The darkness brings fear.

Or take, for example, the times you’ve stayed overnight in a hotel or a relative’s home. You wake in the middle of the night in a pitch black room, and you aimlessly grope for something to hold on to. The darkness brings uncertainty ... possibly pain as you stub your toe on a piece of furniture that wasn’t supposed to be where you thought it was. And the fear and uncertainty and pain of the darkness we face in unfamiliar dark rooms is a mere fraction of the overwhelming terror and despair and agony of the darkness we will face in eternity if we remain separated from God and his mercy.

At the cross, Christ endured the darkness for us. The sky turned dark on Good Friday as the Son of God was crucified. The darkness of the world’s sin placed upon him, and thereby felt what is was like to be separated from his heavenly Father and his mercy. And he did all this so that you and I never have to be separated from God. He did all this so that you and I might be forgiven of that dark, shadowy nature within us, and the dark deeds that flow from that nature.

But before all this happened, Jesus gave Peter, James, and John a preview of the glory of his Resurrection and the glory of heaven. The light of Christ burst into our dark world. On the mountaintop, his divine nature was shining through his human nature. And two great saints of the Old Testament appeared with him there and spoke with him. Moses stood there as a representative of the Law. Elijah stood there as a representative of the Prophets. What did they talk about? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But Luke writes that they “spoke about his departure.” (Luke 9:31) This was likely a conversation about what Jesus was about to face as he “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:51) knowing exactly what awaited him there. Maybe this was a little pep talk, I don’t know ... as if Jesus needed a pep talk. If only we could have overheard that conversation. Moses may have said, “Jesus, I now understand that it was you in that pillar of cloud and that pillar of fire that led us out of our bondage in Egypt. But now, you are leading your people in an even greater way, leading them out of bondage to sin and death, and into the Promised Land of forgiveness and everlasting life in heaven.”

Whatever it was they talked about, Peter tells us that “we have something more, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The prophetic word of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Christ. In Christ, the promises of the Old Testament Scriptures are confirmed, especially as the disciples on the mountain heard that voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The written Word of the Old Testament was like “a lamp shining in a dark place.” It came to those who were “walking in darkness” and “living in the land of the shadow of death” (Isaiah 9:2) ... foretelling the coming of the Savior. Peter urged his hearers to pay close attention to those Scriptures. Listen to them, for they speak of Christ, of whom the Father said, “Listen to him.” And now, you and I have both the Old and the New Testament Scriptures. This is God’s Word which is for us “a lamp shining in a dark place.” We are “living in the land of the shadow of death,” this earthly existence in which death still seems to have the upper hand. But the Bible points us to Christ and his victory over death and shines the light of God’s love upon us. It’s not full of “cleverly devised myths.” It’s not something that came about “from someone’s own interpretation.” Instead, it was written by men speaking under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:14-16)

Peter says that we are to listen to the Word of God, “until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” The morning star is that star that appears in the sky right before daybreak. When it appears, you know that the sun will soon come over the horizon and warm you with its light. Likewise, the Resurrection of Jesus is like the appearance of that morning star. Because Jesus rose for you, you can be sure that daybreak is coming ... a day more glorious than that moment on the mount of Transfiguration. It’s the day when all who have trusted in Christ in this life will be raised to eternal life, and will stand with Moses and Elijah, not to mention Peter, James, John, and the whole host of heaven.

In the meantime, we live in the light of Christ ... forgiven, loved, hopeful, living a life filled with joy and purpose as we serve our neighbor in love for the sake of Christ. Clouds may come and obscure the light for a time. But behind the clouds is always the sunshine with its light. So as we enter Lent this week, and as we ponder our sins and the price our God paid for our redemption, remember that behind the shadows of Lent is the light of Easter shining brightly.


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