Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate upon the Gospel Lesson, the healing of the blind man.
When I was in college, I was an RA for the dorms, and I remember one evening there was a program being hosted by the center for campus ministry at Indiana. Now, when I say campus ministry, I speak of the actual center run by the university for campus ministry. This was Indiana University’s representation of the Christian Faith to its students. Now as I say that, don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the challenge that such a position presents in view of the establishment clause—although I think that’s often misinterpreted in our day to mean that there is no place for the faith in the public square, which isn’t what it means, but I digress. Even with this sympathy, this presentation upset me. Why? Because as a Christian I had the expectation that the University ought convey the faith of the Bible to its students properly. Instead what I found was something different. In this particular presentation, we all were asked to make a list of three ways we would identify ourselves. The representative from the campus ministry did so with identifying herself as a woman first, and if I recall correctly, then heterosexual, then last as a Christian. Now, to put the best construction on this perhaps she was trying to be as delicate as possible to have an opportunity to talk with those not of the faith and maintain an open line of communication. That’s certainly possible, but to me it was greatly disappointing. Why, as a Christian, she should be identifying herself first and foremost as such.
As I say that, such a focus on these identities as a whole is something we see a lot in our day, isn’t it? I’ve mentioned this before, but it seems that everything comes down to how we identify. It comes down to our sex, or gender, or however we choose to describe it. It comes down to our race, to our sexuality, again however we choose to describe those. And as I say that, those two categories tend to be the focus, and then perhaps we speak of an identity relating to our creed. Now, don’t get me wrong, in our nation, we have a melting pot of cultures and races and creeds, and there is a blessing in this. For us as Christians, even an opportunity to share the Gospel with those who don’t believe. But unfortunately this has resulted in a catastrophic division.
In fact, I was reading an article recently that said it wisely. In implicit view of these divisions by race and gender, the article made the point that in our day anger has become a virtue. Isn’t that a way to say it? In our day we are angry about everything. If someone has a point of view we disagree with, we are angry. If someone does something we don’t like, we’re angry. If someone slights a cause we support, we are angry.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are certainly things worth getting angry about. Our Lord even shows that with his anger at the temple, His anger at treating the Lord’s house as a place for business, and even more so for stealing from those who don’t necessarily have much means. But we should be guarded about that.
Now as I say all of this, you might be asking to what end. What’s the point? What’s the point especially in conjunction with our lesson this morning? Well you see, I think this anger, and I think this representative of Christianity seeming to be only tentatively willing to describe herself as Christian demonstrates something. It demonstrates a misplaced faith. If we are angry because someone has slighted something we identify with, where is our faith? In that identity. If we as Christians identify ourselves more so by our race, our gender, our sexuality, where is our faith? In short, not in our Lord, right?
And so we have this lesson this morning about faith. Here is Jesus, He’s on His way to Jerusalem to die, and what happens? There’s this blind man who comes and calls out to Him—and we’re going to come back to this man in a minute—but as Jesus heals him, what does Jesus say? “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” “Your faith has made you well.” Or the Greek could even say more literally, “Your faith has saved you.” What does that mean? In particular, we could ask “what is faith?”
Simply put, I always refer to the Lutheran definition which is to say that faith is a trust. To add a bit more we could take the step that Luther does with the First Commandment. What’s the First Commandment? You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Now that was from the Small Catechism. In his Large Catechism, Luther makes this point about the First Commandment, he says, “The purpose of this commandment, therefore, is to require true faith and confidence of the heart, and these fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone.” In other words, as we seek to understand faith we look to the call of the First Commandment: having no other gods. And we can understand that commandment to mean that we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
So to examine our faith, we should ask what we fear more than God. So what do you fear more than God? Do you fear what people say and their opinions? Do you fear bodily harm more than God? And what do you love or trust more than God? Do love the pleasures of this life more than His Commands? Or your family, do you love your family more than God? Do you trust in the comforts and securities of this life more than His promises? Whatever you fear, love, or trust more than Him then becomes your god for that time. So in this call to faith He says to you: look to me. Trust me. Trust that I want your good. Trust that I love you and am worthy of your love more than anything or anyone else in the world.
Or as we think of it this way, let’s break this down in view of the particularities from the lesson this morning. As we see this lesson, here is a blind man whose sight is restored. And I always think of what a great image this for faith. It’s like we say in Amazing Grace, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” I remember years ago talking about darkness and light and making the point about how we grope around in the darkness of sin stumbling. As I made that point I said that it’s akin to that inimitable feeling of being in the darkness of my kids’ room and stepping barefoot on a Lego. In the blindness of unbelief, we run into these things and we don’t know what to think of them, maybe even what they are, but just that they hurt.
But then Jesus gives us sight to see that these pains come as a consequence of the Fall into sin. He shows us that these things all the more joyfully are overcome by Him. Just like the blind man could see the light of day, we can too.
Of course, ironically this blind man already had the sight of faith didn’t he? Even before his physical sight was restored by Jesus, he had the faith in this Jesus. And in that faith, what does he do? Listen: He cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
What does this blind man do? He cries out to Jesus! In fact, they try to get him to stop and he cries out “all the more!” Christians, what an example for us. When things seem to cover over the sight of God’s goodness, when they seem to try to hush us, cry out all the more! When it seems like the devil, the world and your sinful nature want to silence you, cry out all the more! When it feels as though there’s no answer, cry out all the more!
To tie this to the Catechism again, I love how Luther puts this in the Lord’s Prayer. Here you have Jesus giving these beautiful words, teaching His disciples and us to pray, and what does Luther say about it? “With these words, [Our Father, that is,] God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our True Father, and we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their Dear Father.” Faith trusts this Jesus, trusts that He will hear us because He says so, and trusts that He will have mercy on us.
That’s something I love in this story, here is this man begging, and he asks Jesus for mercy. Now, something interesting is that the word there could just be alms. The understanding was that almsgiving was grounded in one desiring to be merciful, so the root of the word is the same. So he could be asking for some kind of aid. But no matter his intent, he’s asking for aid of any kind. He’s crying out to this one, fearing, loving, and trusting Him no matter what He might give. And He gives.
And you see, that’s the root of faith ultimately for us. He does give. As He said to His disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” Of course, the disciples didn’t get it, but what joy that we have in the resurrection: we see what this is. We see that this Jesus is so merciful to us that He holds nothing back. He gives over even His whole life for us. He has given that life for you. For your sin, that you can trust that God isn’t angry with you, isn’t angry with your sin anymore. He has shed His blood for you, given that blood that cries out for you.
If you remember the story of Cain and Abel, you might remember that when the Lord comes to Cain, He tells Cain that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. The writer to the Hebrews says that Christ’s blood cries out with a better Word than that of Abel’s. Do you see it? As you cry out to Him, His blood cries out in mercy for you before our Heavenly Father. It cries out that the Father would bless you, would keep you, would preserve you in every circumstance. And all of this is because Jesus is the One who gives.
And He still gives to you today in baptism, in His Word, in His body and blood. And why? So that in these you would hear, you would know that you can trust Him. He gives you His gifts that you would know and trust Him. And as you know and trust Him in that faith, He makes you His own. To tie back to the beginning then, as we live in this world with our identities and anger, then you can see with the insight of faith in Christ. That is your identity. That is who you are. You are His, you are His beloved. And He is trustworthy and good. He is worthy for you to call up in every trial because He will give you His mercy, His aid, again and again. In fact He already has by faith. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson from Luke, the Parable of the Sower.
You don’t have to be a product of a first century agrarian society to be able to picture what Jesus is talking about in the parable, do you? If you close your eyes, you can see each of the soils and the plants that come forth without too much trouble. There’s the soil on the path, and someone steps on the seed, the bird then comes and eats it. Then the rocky soil like a gravel driveway, too dry to sustain real growth. The hot sun withers it up. Then the thorny soil. Sure the seed starts to grow, but if you’ve ever gardened and left the garden unattended for too long, you know how quickly weeds grow in comparison to the things we want to grow, and then it gets choked out. And then the plants. We can see those if we just drive down the highway. Growing up in Indiana, I always remember hearing the mantra of the corn: knee high by the fourth of July. There’s the plant that grows and it produces the product for which it’s intended. It’s fruitful.
I’m guessing you can also visualize the spiritual corollaries. There’s the soil where the seed lands, but it’s snatched away. Luther describes this as someone who has the Word, who hears it, maybe even thinks that they partake of it, but it’s not really there. I think for example of how I’ve heard Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg use biblical passages to defend abortion up unto the breath of a child. The kernel of the word may be there, but its heart has been snatched away.
Then there are those who hear the word with joy, but then fall away in trials. I’m reminded there of people I’ve known who heard the Gospel, were so excited for its joy, but later decided it was not true. For example, I knew a guy in college who fit this. He was involved with Navigators pretty regularly, but eventually, I guess decided that he couldn’t reconcile the idea that God’s grace was so deep that even Hitler could be in heaven had he repented. Of course, there’s a sense in which this could apply a little more directly to something like persecution as the trial, and then giving in in those circumstances, but we can see the connection in both.
Then there are those who hear the Word but who cling too much to the worries and the pleasures of this life. There are so many this happens to. This is probably even the one we have to watch in ourselves. This is the child who grows up in the faith, but then goes to college and indulges in the hedonism there, finally deciding the burden on his conscience is better served by adopting a philosophy that changes who God is rather than repenting. It’s the adult who chases the paycheck rather than the faith. It’s the mother who allows herself to be overwhelmed by worry for her child and despairs of God’s ability to protect that child, or His goodness should that protection not reflect the care she expects.
Of course, as I describe these, I would hope we can also see ourselves a bit in each of them. There are always those times a portion of the word and its understanding are snatched from us. Thankfully by God’s grace, not so that we aren’t saved, but that understanding flees. There are always those time that we experience trial and doubt comes into our brain. And there are the times when the world and its thorns rise up around us and threaten to choke out that faith altogether.
And it the midst of that it becomes tempting to say “so be that soil that bears fruit.” In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard that when I was en route to becoming Lutheran. “You need to purify yourself, you need to till the soil of your life so that the Word will have the ability to grow up in your heart.” The understanding was that as Jesus says that this good soil “are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience,” my job was to purify my heart so that it would be good and honest. My job was to work extra hard to be extra good so that God would be able to do that.
Now as I say that, should I sin? No. Should I make every effort to live in a God pleasing way, living according to the Ten Commandments? Of course. But can I purify my own heart? I can’t. God does it. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I mentioned reading a book about being a pastor, and I was reading that again this week when I so appreciated the author reminding me that our sanctification—that is our being made holy—is God’s work. You see what we often do is to connect the fact that the Bible calls us as Christians to do good works, then if we’re not doing enough, we say we’re not sanctifying ourselves enough, we’re not making ourselves holy enough. But what the book said to me so well was the reminder that God does this. He makes me holy. His Holy Spirit makes me holy.
In fact, as we’re looking at this parable about the Word of God, it’s great to make that point again. How does God give His holiness to you? He bespeaks you righteous by His strong Word, as we say in the hymn. His Word gives it to you. He gives it to you with that Word in baptism. He gives you that holiness with the Word in the Lord’s Supper. He makes you holy that you would be holy in the blood of Jesus given to you in those things.
In fact, if you think about this in connection to the soil, you have take a step back and realize that this soil never can till itself. The soil can never clear itself. As my wife always likes to say, “nature fills a void.” For the soil to be cleared for the seed to grow, someone has to clear it. God has to clear the soil of our hearts. And He’ll do this in our tribulations. It’s like I said last week that these trials we know happen so that we wouldn’t cling to the idols of this life. But tribulations alone only clear the soil, the Word is the seed that grows.
And that Word comes and God speaks His Law in that Word. That hurts. When that Word, that Law reminds you of just how sinful you are, that doesn’t feel good. It pokes at your conscience. When that Law says how this world isn’t going to fulfill our expectations of happy life, that disappoints us because we want it to be easy. But what that Word is doing then is feeding the heart of that seed, the Gospel. It’s getting things ready that we can hear the joy, then of what Jesus did. You see when Jesus then died for sin, He rose to show the promise of His eternity where this will all be better. And what a blessing we have in that. We have the joy of that Word we heard spoken to Paul in the Epistle Lesson: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And we talked about that Grace last week. That grace which God gives you which is grounded in His eternal love for you, and earned in the work of Jesus for you.
But as we say this, then we can look at this week’s lesson and understand something else. You see what Jesus did on the cross was two thousand years ago in a place 6,000 miles away. So how does that do any good for you? Is it something where now there’s just this idea in God’s brain that He’s going to look at you differently? Well, we’re sort of prone to think that. But in Scripture we see that God delivers that grace to us. He gives it to us like a gift. And how does He deliver it? By His Word.
In view of that, I’m going to shift a bit. I’m going to shift because the fact that God gives this to us in His Word means something. It means that all we need is that Word. We like to think that this needs to be dressed up, it needs to be added to, it needs to be more appealing, but that’s all we need: this Word that Jesus has died for our sins.
Now I say that because of how people hear in our day. I was listening to a presentation online about public speaking, and the presenter said that in public speaking the speaker should tell stories. Why? He said because a story makes an emotional connection to the hearer, and the emotional connection makes the presentation more memorable. And this made me wonder something. I wonder if people have always had this experience, or if this is a result of when we live. What do I mean?
Well if you were in Bible Class Sunday, you were there when we talked about Judaism and the Enlightenment. I’ve mentioned this briefly before, but if you know about the Enlightenment, about even the era often called the era of Modernism, you maybe know that it was very rationalistic. Everything was pared down to be figured out by our reason. You wanted to know the truth? You could figure it out with logic. Well in the era after that, the era of Post-Modernism, there was a reaction. Now everything is true because of emotion. Do you want it to be true? It is if you feel it. And this is true even for many Christians. How do you know God is in a Church? You can feel Him there. How do you know what God wants you to do? You can feel it.
But Christians, there’s doubt in both of these. How do you know this really is God? How do you know either your logical conclusion or your feeling is what you should come up with according to what God desires, or says, or calls you to? You don’t. In fact I’m reminded of a book we read in seminary. It was a book called “The Quest for Holiness.” I really appreciated that book because of how it started. It said we as sinners try to ascend to God, we try to get to heaven in at least one of three ways: works, reason, or emotion. We either try to work our way there, reason our way there, or feel our way through an emotional connection to God.
Christians, this all depends on what we do. What a blessing we have in the Word. You don’t have to look to yourself. You don’t have to look at your works, you don’t have to look at your understanding, you don’t have to look at how you feel. All of those things will never be enough. All of those things will leave you unsure. Look at how things are in hard times. You feel like you’re working, and God’s not giving as much as you’d like. Or you’re trying to understand with all your might, and God still doesn’t makes sense. Or you want to feel something with regard to God, and you don’t feel happy, or comforted, or trusting.
But hear the Word: “My Grace is sufficient for you.” Hear that promise: “My Word will not return void.” You’re here with that Word. It’s working on you. It’s forgiving you. It did what it says in baptism, having washed you and made you Jesus’ own. It brings you Jesus body and blood now, forgiving your sins, and promising Jesus is here with you. Just like rain falls and we can see plants come up from the ground, the Word is going to work in you. In fact, it will bear that fruit Jesus talks about. So you don’t have to worry about making sure you’re that right kind of soil. No, the Word will do it, our Lord will prepare you. Keep hearing the Word, keep coming to church, keep reading the Scriptures. That Word will do it. And it will do it in ways that you won’t even recognize. But that’s the promise of the Word, the promise of God’s grace, and that is always sufficient for you. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson, previously read, the parable often called “The Generous Landowner.”
I often think of this parable, that it is one which is easy to relate to on its surface. After all, I think we’d all have a sense of indignation if we were literally those who went out and worked in a field all day and received the same payment as people who only worked an hour. I mean put yourselves in the shoes of those workers. It’s hot, it’s tiresome, it’s challenging. You see everyone in line. You see that these men who worked less than a tenth of the time you worked and they’re getting what you were told you would get. I’m sure at the least you would start to hope that this owner had a change of heart and decided to pay more. More likely, you would assume like these in the story did, that he will pay you more. And then he doesn’t. What?! What’s that?! How can he do that?!
And look at the story, look at the detail here, this is even more frustrating! Look at it. This owner goes out how many times in the day and hires people? I count five times total. At six in the morning, at nine, at noon, at three and at five. So first of all, this is looking like a twelve hour workday, and each time he’s hiring people. But the point I want to make here is that by the time he gets the crowd at five, what does he say? “Why do you stand here idle all day?” Why aren’t you out there working? And what’s the response? “Because no one has hired us.” Now, I could be wrong, but it seems like since this landowner went out five times, they would have been seen by him and hired already, doesn’t it? So, it isn’t just that you get this group hired at five that got paid for the full day, it seems like they were lazy and they hadn’t gotten their bums out there to be hired. And then they’re lying about it.
Again in the position of the twelve hour hires, you can relate, can’t you? I got myself out of bed. I put the effort in to make sure I got the full day’s work. I toiled, I labored, and that bum gets as much as me?! It’s infuriating.
And yet what’s the response of the landowner when he’s called on it? Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? That’s not satisfying, is it? If you’re that worker, you know that you can’t argue. It’s not like you can tell this guy what to do with his money. You can’t make him pay you more. In our day we would say that we’ve got the verbal contract. We’ve got the oral agreement. You can’t sue this guy for not paying you more. You said you would work for that, he paid you that, it’s done. But it’s not satisfying is it? “Sure, you’re right, but, but, but I’m worth more than that guy!” “I do begrudge you your generosity. I do want to tell you what to do with what is yours!”
And I love the literal translation of the Greek here. I think the phrase captures the sense but literally what the landowner says is not “Do you begrudge me my generosity,” but, “Are your eyes evil because I am good?” “Are you envious of my generosity?”
And we are, aren’t we? We are envious when people are generous and we think we’re more deserving. We are envious that someone got the promotion and we didn’t, that time our parents gave our sibling something we thought we should have and not them, or even that time our sports rivals with their quarterback who’s not as good as our favorite quarterback won their sixth Super Bowl in less than twenty years. We don’t like that.
Of course, this is all speaking of earthly things. As we look at this parable, what’s it really about? It’s about God’s grace, isn’t it? In fact, as I mentioned switching our lectionary last week with Transfiguration occurring then instead of the Sunday right before Ash Wednesday, a part of that is that we have today and these next two Sundays which follow something called “Pre Lent.” Today is Septuagesima which means “within seventy,” within seventy days before Easter. Next will be Sexagesima, “within sixty days” before Easter, then Quinquagesima, “within fifty days” before Easter. And I’ve heard it said that those weeks lend themselves well to Grace, the Word, and Faith. Like the Solas of the Reformation, if you remember them: Sola Gratia, grace alone, Sola Scriptura, Scripture (or the Word) alone, and Sola Fide, faith alone. So, we’ll be going that way the next three weeks, but today: Grace; God’s grace.
We use that word a lot, but what does it mean? Grace. I like to define it as getting good things from God we don’t deserve. To contrast that, I call mercy not getting bad things from God we do deserve. But today is grace; getting good things from God we don’t deserve. Or maybe you’ve heard it: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That’s grace right? We get the eternal riches of God’s kingdom paid for by the blood of Christ. That’s grace. That’s generosity isn’t it?
In our prayer of confession week in and week out we make that point, we deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. As we say in the Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer, we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment. And yet God gives us His grace. He gives us His Son, bleeding for our sin on the cross, rising on Easter that we could live forever. What a blessing! What generosity! After all, that’s what this about, isn’t it? God’s generosity.
In fact, to make this a bit tangible, I was talking to our confirmands a few weeks ago and I asked them a question: what is more comforting? Is it more comforting for someone to tell you they love you because you’ve earned their love, or is it more comforting for someone to tell you that they love you even though they shouldn’t? And of course our natural response is to say that love that we earned is more comforting. After all, I did what was needed to be done, and they love me because they know me, and they know all the good stuff about me. But what happens when they learn all the bad stuff about me? Then the real love has to come through. And that’s the love God speaks to us: I don’t love you because you’re good—you’re not—I love you because I’m good. Christians, what comfort. If it’s up to me to earn God’s love, then I have a fear I can lose it. But when I realize that God loves me because of His goodness, what security I have in that! I can be free, I don’t have to worry that I’ll mess it up! What comfort. And this is His grace, His generosity to us in Jesus. His generosity that He wants to give to all in Jesus.
As I say that though, I think in many ways when we think about this passage, we grasp that to an extent. I think we grasp that especially in application to others, which is the big part of that. After all, Jesus is speaking to the works righteous Pharisees here. He’s speaking to those who think they can earn this favor of the landowner, of God, by their obedience and good works. But I think we get that pretty well in our context.
After all, I don’t think we really trouble with the thought that someone would convert on their deathbed. I think for the most part we celebrate the thought that someone who never really believed would be like the thief on the cross and having no opportunity to earn anything by good works, would still be able to hear those words: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” I think we generally appreciate stories like that, don’t we?
But we still begrudge God His generosity, don’t we? We don’t like the idea of God not giving equally. We don’t like the idea that Jesus didn’t heal every leper in the towns that He visited. Or in a concrete aspect that I hear people often questioning, we don’t like the idea that there could be some in the world who don’t hear and so don’t go to heaven. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s not bad that we should want people to go to heaven. I heard it said recently that there’s an aspect where as Christians we should want to think that everyone might end up in heaven because of the sacrifice of Jesus. And I think we can say on a personal level we should be able to identify with that. But the trouble comes when someone doubts God and His goodness because of it. Or it’s even more trouble when someone chooses not to believe in the God who reveals Himself in Jesus and the Scripture because of it. At that point, we’re telling God what to do with His mercy. At that point we’re not trusting that God is good. And to that, I have to say when you wrestle with that, don’t look at what seems unfair. Look at Jesus and know that God is good, and that He has loved the lost even more than you have. In fact, look at that as an opportunity to pray for the confession of the word throughout the world. Look at it as motivation to profess your faith to those around you and to pray for opportunities to love people and tell them about Jesus that they would hear and be saved. But don’t begrudge God His generosity. That’s one way we can apply this.
Another is to realize that we also begrudge God His generosity when we suffer in this life. The devil always wants us to look at what God has given to others and how we don’t deserve the trials we have as much as the really bad people do. And as I say this, I say it knowing some people of whose trials I am very empathetic toward them and they have confessed this to me. So I don’t say this coldly. I say it addressing how we have to view this. For example, I think of one person I would have conversations with. We’ll call him Bill. Bill would say to me, “I’m a good person, why is God doing this to me? I love people, I have a heart for them, why is this happening?” In other words, Bill found himself in a trial and wondering why God gave it to him and not to the thief, or the rapist, or the murderer. Why in God’s generosity did He bless those people who do evil things and not Bill? And here is where the danger is. When we start to compare ourselves when the bad things happen, then we think it’s because of something we’ve done. That’s Bill, “What did I do that God put this on me?” So that’s what we have to watch, how we have to apply this: not to begrudge God His generosity when we suffer.
And how can we do that? If you’re in that suffering, you have to know that God gives rain to the righteous and the unrighteous, so you can’t answer why you’re in that trial and not someone else. But in Jesus, then you have to know that it comes from His love for you. That might seem odd to say, but that’s what we see in the cross. The grace, the generosity we see on the cross. On the cross we see the One who made Himself last in His generosity so that in His Kingdom, we might be made first. On the cross we see that we are those who are the eleven o’clock workers no matter how much of our lives we’ve been Christians. On the cross, we see God’s grace. And then we see the comfort of that grace. It’s given to us that we might cling to it and to God in all things. And then we might know that it’s ours. He gives it again and again and again: in baptism, in His Word, in His Supper. Grace for you, generously. The best kind that can’t’ be taken away. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read.
As we see the disciples coming up the mountain with Jesus, and we see Jesus transfigured before them, shining like the sun in their presence, I often try to imagine what that must have been like for them. I mean what an amazing experience right? Can you picture that? This man whom you know to be pious and amazingly wise taking you up on the mountain and shining? It would be amazing. Of course, then the cloud appears, and the voice of God comes from the cloud saying that this is His beloved Son! Like Peter says, they were eyewitnesses to that! They saw it. But then what happened? Matthew says that the disciples fell on their faces in fear. Now I can imagine that seeing all of this would easily evoke any number of involuntary responses. But what’s at the heart of the fear? They are in the presence of God. This is the God who is holy. The God who calls them to be holy; Who says, “be holy as I am holy.” And yet no matter how holy we think ourselves in our day to day lives, or as I’ll talk about more in a minute, no matter how much holiness isn’t a category that dwells much in our daily thought processes, when that reality strikes us that we’re standing before God, or that we will be standing before God, it evokes a fear. It evokes the realization of just how unholy we are.
But of course, we don’t talk about holiness much in our culture. We barely talk about what is sacred. And what is sacred? Here we are celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration, but what’s the “real” high feast today? It’s Super Bowl Sunday, right? It’s the day everyone gathers around the altar of their television and they pay homage to the demigods who battle one another in the arena. They assemble with great effort the sacrifices of their feasts. That’s sacred now. Or what else is sacred? Sports are sacred, in many ways having taken the place of the community of the Church gathered around her Lord, but the realm of feelings is sacred too, isn’t it? You can’t tell someone that something they’re feeling might be wrong. Do you feel a certain way? That’s always to be supported. Do you feel like you should leave your wife to marry your mistress? It must be right. Do you feel like God’s even calling you to do that? He must be. It’s sacred.
Now to be clear as I say that, feelings aren’t inherently evil—we should realize how deceiving they can be, but they’re not inherently evil. I say that often of how emotional the love our God shows to us in Christ makes me. It should. But that feeling must only be trusted when it is created by the Word, or at the least doesn’t contradict it. Likewise, watching the Super Bowl isn’t wrong. We’ll be having food and watching it too in our family. It’s fun. It just can’t replace the true God. But hopefully you see the point, these things are sacred in our day. But we don’t understand holiness.
And yet we see that our God is holy. We see that as Moses stepped into His presence on that mountain. And as I say that, I hope you note the connection here. We have Moses on the mountain, God revealing Himself to him there, just as we have Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration revealing Himself to the disciples, interesting with Moses appearing with Him—and Elijah too, which is important. But there’s Moses, if you recall he’d run away from Egypt having killed the Egyptian who was mistreating the Israelites. He’d gone off and married his wife, the daughter of Jethro that we heard about. Now he’s tending Jethro’s flock and there he is on the mountain, when God appears! And what does God say? Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And what does Moses do? He hides His face. There is holiness, and so He hides.
So as we see this, then, we ask: what does this mean that God is holy? Well, Merriam Webster says it well when it says that to be holy means to be: “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” That’s God isn’t it? Worthy of complete devotion as One who is perfect in goodness and righteousness. God is perfectly good. He is perfectly righteous. He is set apart as the Hebrew word for holy has at it’s root. He is cut apart from all other things because He is good and right.
In view of that I can’t help but think about some of the presentations I heard at the symposia I went to last week. We talked about atonement, about Jesus’ work as atoning, and what that meant. And as the presenters talked about that, they made the point that you see the picture of what Jesus did in the Old Testament. Now, many of you probably have some idea, but that being a vague idea, of the sacrifices in the Old Testament. You see, what would happen in that tabernacle, in the Temple then in Jesus’ day, is that the priest would have the “Divine Service” so to speak daily. Morning and evening he would sacrifice offerings. Among those were the offerings of animals. A lamb in the morning and a lamb in the evening. They would be offered for the sins of the people. And here there’s a glimpse, a foreshadowing of what Jesus did, the perfect Lamb of God. But what is this actually? Why this sacrifice?
Well, I heard this explained as doing two things. First propitiation. This was a satisfaction. There was wrong and that wrong had to be righted, paid for. Just like if I borrow your car and wreck it, I need to pay for it, so also sin requires a payment. What is that payment? A life. Specifically, the Bible says blood. The life is in the blood, so blood atonement is required. Why? Sin causes death and so life has to be given. Second is expiation; cleansing. Sin taints what it touches. If you sin, you are tainted and need cleansing. If you are sinned against you are tainted and need cleansing. Expiation. And both of those are explained by God’s holiness.
God is good so He can’t just wave a wand and pretend like the wrong against Him of sin didn’t happen. Likewise, He’s pure, He can’t stand in the presence of the impurity of sin. His holiness will destroy whatever it touches that isn’t holy. Hence the fear.
But as I say all of this, something that struck me as I was hearing this was what I’ve been saying: we don’t think about God in these terms. We just sort of think about Him as this mushy love God. But it all comes back to this and should be understood in relation to it. How we enter into His presence should be grounded in that understanding. And so I was trying to figure out how we can make this connection. How can we understand this? Sure there’s this inherent knowledge that we have, but how do we connect to that in a way that can be grasped.
One of the presenters, though made a great connection; actually a Biblical one: the conscience. You see when you feel guilty it’s because there’s a realization that you’ve been tainted. When you’ve been sinned against and there’s a sense of shame, or violation, or of just “blech,” you realize you’ve been tainted. And that’s where this Jesus comes and He cleanses it.
You see something that’s neat with the Old Testament sacrifices, they would do these offerings morning and evening every day, and in between the priests would take additional sacrifices that people brought, and they would sacrifice them on the altar in front of the tent. But then on the Day of Atonement, a special sacrifice would be made. On that day, the priest would go into the Holy of Holies, the most Holy Place, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was, and he would put blood on that Ark. Then he would take some of that same blood and bring it out to the altar where these sacrifices had been made day in and day out. And what God gave in that action was a picture: this is what Jesus would do. As we bring the tainting of our sin, as we bring the shame of sins that people commit against us, as we dump all of that upon Him, He brings His blood, that blood poured out not on an altar of bronze, but on the cross of Calvary, He brings that blood and He satisfies the justice it requires. He brings that blood and He cleanses the impurity of it so that it’s gone. If you compare it to the car wrecked, the wreck has been paid for. If you compare it to dirt on your skin, you are now perfectly clean. It’s done and it’s paid for.
And He brings this to you in the cleansing waters of baptism, where you’re joined to the promise of New Life in His resurrection. He speaks that comforting and cleansing Word, the Word that makes you holy as He is holy. And He feeds you with His body given, His life, given in place of yours, and His blood shed for you is the drink He gives you, so that you are clean. Christians, what a comfort. Your conscience can now be relieved. You don’t have to bear the guilt, you can know that your shame is gone. It’s covered over by Jesus. Paid for by Him, cleansed by Him.
Now as I say all of that, you might be wondering what this has to do with this whole thing of Jesus and the Transfiguration. Well, first of all, as we see Jesus shining as this Holy God on that mountain, we see that He is the Holy God then who took on this unholiness of sin. What an amazing thing!! Do you see it?!! That’s the greatest mystery of the whole Christian faith. Sure we marvel at the Trinity, that God could be One God, but still be three Persons. That’s a mystery. We marvel that Jesus could be both God and man. That’s a mystery. But most mysterious of all is that He, in His holiness, took upon Himself to carry unholy sin to the cross. That’s showing itself in the Transfiguration.
But the other thing, I think is beautiful. I was struck by it this week as I studied this passage; I hadn’t it caught before. When the terrifying voice of God comes, He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” And on the one hand I had always thought this meant we should listen to all that Jesus said. And of course it does mean that. It means hear every word you can from this blessed man, God in the flesh. But look at the first word Jesus speaks to Peter, James, and John after the Father says this. Here there’s been this cloud, this voice, this fear, and what happens? Jesus comes and Matthew says He “touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’”
Peter, James, and John, listen to this One, the One who says, “Rise, and have no fear.” Christian, you listen to this One who says, “Rise, and have no fear.” Listen to Him. When your conscience feels the burden of your sin, when you feel terrible about your standing before this Holy God because of it, “Rise, and have no fear.” When you’ve committed what you think of as a whopper of a sin, “Rise, and have no fear.” When you feel like you can’t come before God in prayer because of sin, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when others violate your conscience, when they harm you and sin against you, “Rise, and have no fear.” You are baptized, absolved, washed and fed in the holiness of Jesus. Have no fear. This God has made you holy. He loves you and has borne unholiness upon Himself for you. “Rise, and have no fear.” Amen.