Sunday, February 19, 2012
Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 19, 2012)
“Passing the Baton” (Mark 9:2-9)
In track and field competitions, there is an event called the relay race. Four runners take their places around the track. The first one holds in his hand a baton … a short, hollow rod. The starting gun fires and the runner takes off. As he approaches the second runner, he extends the baton in his hand. The second runner, meanwhile begins to run as the first approaches, reaching back, allowing the first runner to place the baton in his hand. The second runner then grasps the baton and continues around the track towards the third runner, passing the baton to him. If all goes according to plan, he will do the same with the fourth runner who then sprints as fast as he can to the finish line.
At our Lord’s Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John got to witness a “passing of the baton” of sorts. Moses and Elijah appear as representatives of the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. Their ministry was preparatory to the work of the Son of God. Now they were here to ”pass the baton” to Jesus. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus would cross the finish line for us and for our salvation. In a short while, Jesus will go down the mount of transfiguration and shed his blood on the mount of crucifixion. The Old Covenant of the Law and the Prophets will give way to the New Covenant … the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ given in the preaching of the Gospel, in the waters of Holy Baptism, and in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion.
Long before this, Moses passed the baton to Joshua. Moses had led the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt. The Red Sea waters parted. The people walked through in freedom on their way to the Promised Land. Moses received the Law directly from the Lord on Mount Sinai and communicated it to the people. But it was Joshua who would lead the people across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. God directed Moses to lay his hands upon Joshua, investing him with authority, commissioning him as their leader in the sight of all the people. The Holy Spirit rested upon Joshua, giving him the necessary wisdom and authority to lead the people according to God’s will (Num. 27:18-23; Deut. 34:9). After Moses’ death, the people walked down to the banks of the Jordan. The priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the water, and the river stopped flowing upstream so the people could pass through water for a second time and begin a new life.
Fast forward to the time of the divided kingdom. The Israelites settled in the land of Canaan, but the tribes soon bickered and fought amongst themselves. They fell into the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites who remained in the land. God sent prophets at various times to both the northern and southern kingdoms to call the people to repentance. One of these prophets was Elijah. When his ministry was coming to and end, he passed the baton to Elisha. On the banks of the Jordan, Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up, and struck the water. Once again, the waters parted and the prophet and his protégé walk through on dry ground. On the other side, Elisha views Elijah’s departure in the whirlwind. This assures Elisha that he had received the same Spirit that had rested upon Elijah. He takes Elijah’s cloak and, just as his master had done, strikes the water and passes through on dry ground back into the Promised Land.
Moses passed the baton to Joshua. Joshua’s name, by the way, means “Yahweh Saves.”
Elijah passed the baton to Elisha. Elisha’s name, by the way, means “My God is Salvation.”
Moses and Elijah now pass the baton to Jesus. Jesus’ name, by the way, is another form of the name Joshua or Yeshua. He is truly the God who saves. Like the name Elisha, Jesus is truly our God who is our salvation. And like Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha, Jesus had an important event occur at the Jordan River. Jesus passed through the Jordan in his baptism by John. The Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, authenticating his mission and ministry as the Messiah. God the Father’s voice resounded from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Now, on the mountain, the divine nature of Jesus shines brightly and whitely in his human body. The Father’s voice is heard again, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7).
As Jesus glows gloriously on the mountain, Moses and Elijah pass the baton to Jesus to finish the race. Moses and Elijah depart back into heaven. Only Jesus remains. He must finish the race alone. And this race will not be finished gloriously … at least gloriously as we think of glory. No, there would be no bright white glory at the finish line here. Instead, there would be only darkness, red-stained garments, nails, agony, the sting of death. No gold medal. Not even a silver or bronze. Just blood, sweat, tears, and a tomb. But finished it was. Jesus said so. “It is finished.” The race was won. The Law that said “You must be perfect, you must be holy, you must keep this Law in full or you will not see eternal life” was fulfilled in the perfect, holy life of Christ. The word of God says, “The wages of sin is death,” and those wages were paid in full (Rom. 6:23). The perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus was sufficient payment for the sins of the world, for your sins and mine. Jesus finished the race for each and every one of us. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Rom. 6:23) Jesus leads us through the waters of baptism into the forgiveness of sins and into the Promised Land of eternal life. For a moment on the mountain, we are given a glimpse of the glory of eternal life. We are given a glimpse of the light of the resurrection … not just of Christ, but the resurrection of all flesh, with Moses and Elijah “appearing in glory” with him (Luke 9:31).
You can imagine that Peter, James, and John couldn’t wait to get down the mountain and tell their comrades what they saw. But Jesus tells them not to tell anyone until he has risen from the dead. After the resurrection, the “don’t tell” of Jesus becomes “go tell” … “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20) … “You will receive receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8)
The same Spirit given to Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha … the same Spirit given to Peter, James, John and the rest of the apostles … is given to us through the Word of the Gospel. The baton is passed to us … not to finish Christ's work. That's already been taken care of. Rather, the baton of confessing the faith is passed to us and we hand it on to the generations that come after us. “Guard the good deposit entrusted to you,” Paul told Timothy (1 Tim. 6:20). “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” Jude tells his hearers (Jude 3). The Church today is called to pick up the baton and guard the deposit entrusted to us, the Good News of the forgiveness of sin in Christ alone, and contend for that truth in spite of all opposition.
Lent begins this Wednesday. One of the things we reflect on during Lent is the opposition that Jesus faced on the way to the cross. If Jesus faced opposition, then his Church will face opposition. St. Paul wrote, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). “Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below,” we sing in the hymn. It's not easy to praise the Lord while we suffer. That's why the Transfiguration of our Lord is so important for us today. It gives us a glimpse of what awaits us on the other side of Good Friday.