“Climb Every Mountain” – Transfiguration 2013 – Exodus 34:29-35; Matthew 17:1-9

20. January 2013
Exodus 34:29-35; Matthew 17:1-9

Everyone wants a mountaintop experience. Maybe you have had such an experience figuratively or literally. Would you describe any events in your life this way? Or if you considered the general contour of your life’s topography would it be more valleys and shadows than mountains and brilliance? No wonder then that when we are trudging through those ravines of life we look forward to the small peaks with the joy, hope, and clear vision they bring. We want those experiences that thrill and delight.

This desire applies not only to our daily lives but to spiritual lives, too. We desire to see the glory of God, to receive the exhilaration of His presence, to see clearly the landscape and the path of our life, and to delight in all His many gifts. We want from God a mountaintop experience to remember.

This is, of course, why we see some people in church only infrequently like on Christmas and Easter. They know those days will be filled with joy and comfort. They’re not so sure that the weekly grind of the Divine Service will provide the same. And if we’re honest, we’ll say they’re right. The weekly service often seems more of a valley with each of us more slouching than leaping towards the promised land. Our prayers are drudgery, our voices lackluster, and our attention waning.

The problem is that we are wrong to judge the value of our life experiences based on whether they make us happy or not. Anyone with the wisdom of age will tell you they learned as much or more from the rotten experiences of life as they did from the moments of joy, peace, or hope. The war-torn scars of the soldier, the withered hands of the worker, or the stretch marks of the mother all tell of an experience that was difficult yet incredibly valuable. Those experiences may have glimpses of glory but were often difficult drudgery.

God never promises your life will be easy nor every moment a mountaintop experience. Your heavenly Father “disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:6; cf. Prov. 3:11). God works this way in your life, both body and soul. He allows you to experience pain, grief, and disease to strengthen your trust in Him. You will suffer even death because of your sin. You are dust and to dust you shall return. This discipline of your body is not His final work. God promises healing and will give it. Ultimately this is the gift of Jesus in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  Just as Christ died and rose so also you who are in Him will die and rise.

God the Father is also attentive to your soul. He gives you His commands that confess His perfect will. Given your sinful condition these accuse you and terrify your conscience. You are tempted to sin but never more than you can handle. This holy Law is a guardian or taskmaster. It restrains evil in you, shows you your sin, and shows you what God expects of you. This word is humbling for no one keeps it. It’s discipline scares our soul, frightened to death of the prospect of hell. As with bodily discipline this is not God’s proper work. His Law always gives way to the gift of the Holy Gospel. For there is forgiveness in God the Son. His death and resurrection gives you forgiveness. There is no more condemnation for you have been freed by His blood.

Our physical and spiritual experiences with God are not always what we would call a mountaintop experiences, if by the expression we mean that they are comfortable and happy. When Moses brought the God’s holy Law to the people from Mt. Sinai, did they receive him joyfully? No, this “mountaintop experience” scared them. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.

Moses came as the messenger of the almighty God and a little bit of that glory wore off onto Moses. But remember that this was after Moses’s second trip up Sinai. After the first trip he returned to discover the people worshipping a golden calf. Moses showed God’s displeasure by melting the calf and forcing the people to drink it mixed with water and God himself sent a plague upon them. In His mercy God heard Moses’s intercession and forgave the people. God called Moses to once again travel to Sinai and there cut new tablets for the Law. When Moses returned to the people they were rightly frightened. Would God again be displeased with them?

This righteous fear continued. Every time Moses went in to speak before the LORD, he would return with his face shining. The people knew that He had spoken with the LORD. When Moses lifted the veil they would hear the God’s Word. They would have a “mountaintop experience” in God’s way. The words Moses spoke did not always lift their spirits but they were always for their good. The people hated the reflected glory in Moses’s face and were terrified when the veil was lifted. For Moses’s ministry was of the Law and thus of accusation, condemnation, and death.

This is not the mountaintop experience our bodies long for nor the one that is our soul’s hope. Perhaps that is why St. Peter acted the way He did on Mt. Tabor? perhaps he thought he was finally having the mountaintop experience that everyone hoped for. After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

One has to wonder if Peter had not paid attention in his sabbath lessons.  Jesus and Moses shining in glory shouldn’t make happy or comfortable. He should be frightened out of his wits. When anyone goes up on a mountain and ends up with shining flesh it is a moment of terror. But not Peter. He said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter wants to continue to dwell on the mountain, to be accused by the Law, and to know only God’s  terrifying glory. He wants to live under the Law and not the greater and proper work of Jesus to die for their sins.

Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah and is speaking of His exodus (according to St. Luke.) From the mountain of Transfiguration Jesus turns His face toward Jerusalem where He will climb another mountain. On Mt. Calvary the true glory of God will be revealed, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father. On that mountain Moses’s ministry of condemnation will cease. Jesus will die for the sins of the world, ushering in a new ministry of righteousness. The glory of Jesus (and Moses and Elijah) that Peter wanted to package in tents on Tabor will be shown to have no glory at all. As St. Paul said, “What once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it” (2 Cor 3:11).

Peter was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. Now Peter, James, and John make the connection. Now they know that the glory in Jesus they see is truly the glory of God. Now they are rightly terrified, fearing God’s judgment and His holy presence.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Already at this mountain a new mountaintop experience begins. God’s holy Law is surpassed by the gift of Jesus. The Father’s voice that terrifies is followed by the Son’s voice of comfort. Brilliant glory is shrouded so that we would bask in the cross of Christ.

This is a different sort of mountaintop experience. It begins when Jesus comes to you. After you are terrified by the Father’s discipline, the Son comes with the touch of forgiveness. He speaks to you tenderly and says “Rise, and have no fear.” These words are greater than Moses. Their glory more brilliant than even the sun.

Jesus tells death “It is finished” and he transfigures it into eternal life. He says to water, “save” and it is transfigured into a saving flood. He says to bread and wine, “body and blood” and He is transigured for your forgiveness. He calls sinners “forgiven” and you are transfigured into the redeemed. He says to His church “shine” and we are transfigured into cities shining on hills. From that little mountain of Calvary now a greater mountain is rising up in you. For Christ has gathered you together to Mount Zion to give you the best experience of all—forgiveness in Him.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

The Feast of the Holy Trinity ’12

3. June 2012
The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Octave of Pentecost
Isaiah 6:1-17; Romans 11:33-36; John 3:1-15

Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us. Amen. Today is the conclusion of the festival half of the church year. We have come from Advent, through Christmas, and Epiphany, into the Gesima Sundays, and Lent, finally to Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. It is fitting then to reach the culmination of this journey with a festival dedicated to “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible” (Dorothy Sayers).

This does not bode well for the sermon. All this talk of eternals, incomprehensibles, and uncreateds will make your head hurt. You might think its the kind of stuff for academic theologians, too heady for common folk. We pastors delight in this day even if you secretly hate it. For some of us, the Athanasian Creed is our favorite. We love the detail which the confessor of this creed refutes error and believes the truth of God revealed in Holy Scripture. The word games it plays delights our inner theologian. It is even fun to confess.

Not only that but every Christian pastor vows it is true. I said at my ordination “Yes, I believe and confess the three Ecumenical Creeds [Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian] because they are in accord with the Word of God. I also reject all the errors they condemn.” Our congregation, according to Article III of our constitution,  “acknowledges and accepts without reservation… all the confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, contained in the Book of Concord of the year 1580, to be the true and genuine exposition of the doctrines of the Bible.” These “Confessional Writings” include the three Ecumenical Creeds.

Both the Lutheran church and your congregation believes, teaches, and confesses this creed. But maybe not for you? This creed so infrequently confessed is just something you suffer through each year, perhaps to fit your pastor’s fancy or because its just what-you-do-on-Trinity-Sunday. Maybe your agreement is just a token assent, a nudge-nudge-wink-wink acceptance. When have you taken the time to confess this creed? Do you even say the Apostles’ in your daily prayers?

For all their complexity, these creeds, especially the Athanasian, are not simply verbal exercises and wrote repetition. The many confessors died for the sake of what the Creed says. The swore to uphold this faith even unto death because they are true and genuine expositions of the doctrines of the Bible. In other words, to deny the creeds is to deny the faith. There is no middle ground, no wishy washy confession that is suitable for the Christian. Its the whole Trinity or nothing.

As a friend of mine wrote: “Confessing [the Athanasian Creed] is like jumping into the deep end of the pool for the first time as a child: at first you are somewhat timid, but once you jump in you can’t wait to do it again and again and again, exploring the depths, swimming in its sonorous life. A new world—indeed a new life—has been opened up to us, revealed for us in this name. For it is the life and Name of the very Triune God—who is love in Himself—that we come to know and worship whenever this creed it confessed.”

If this is true, then it is a pity we only confess it publicly once a year. For it presents to us in a comprehensive way what God himself has revealed in the Scriptures. For who could imagine a God like the God of the Scriptures and the God of the Creeds who would assume human flesh and blood in time and history, not by conversion of the divinity into the flesh but by the assumption of our humanity into God? No one. Everyone’s mind is blown. He’s not the God we want nor one we could ever dream of. He is the God who is real, merciful, loving and revealed to us.

The old appointed Gospel for the festival of the Holy Trinity was from St. Matthew chapter twenty-eight. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen (Matthew 28:18).

This familiar Gospel is the locus classicus, the central quoted passage for the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus shortly before He ascended to the right hand of the Father spoke for the first time the complete Name of God, that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity was revealed to us in Genesis (as the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep and the Father breathed Jesus/the Word calling all into being and life) and further throughout the Torah, the Psalms, and the Prophets. The full Trinity was revealed at the baptism of Jesus, when the Father spoke: “This is my beloved Son” and the Spirit descended as a dove. Yet, now the Name is given, not just to be heard but to be placed upon you.

Our Lutheran fathers chose to retain the old eighth-day-of-Pentecost reading of Nicodemus and Jesus.  Perhaps you were wondering why a text about Holy Baptism was chosen for a Sunday celebrating the Holy Trinity? At the center of the old reading was not simply the Name of God but the verb of the name, baptizing. Its one thing to know God’s name, as mind-blowing as a God who is one, indivisible and yet three persons is. Its another thing and far beyond our wildest dreams to know what God does for us. God’s name is given so that God’s name does what the Name loves to do.

His Name loves to drown the sinner until he is dead, just like He drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh. His name loves to give new life, to be born of water and the Spirit. He loves to give entrance into the kingdom of God. His Name is placed on the forehead and heart to mark you as one of His redeemed. The Name is given so the Name does what the Name loves to do.

Even in the third century, St. Tertullian reports on how beloved the name of the Trinity was to the Christian. “In all our undertakings—when we enter a place or leave it; before we dress; before we bathe; when we take our meals; when we light the lamps in the evening; before we rise at night; when we sit down to read; before each new task—we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads.”

Baptizing into the cross, baptizing into the Name is what our Tri-une God loves to do. Its not a one-off event but is a daily dying and rising into the life of the Holy Trinity. This is why the daily remembrance of Baptism is described in detail by Augustine and commended to us by Dr. Martin Luther, of blessed and holy memory. Each day, when we rise, when we receive our food, and when we go to sleep, Christians make the sign of the cross, the sign of our redemption, with three fingers for the Holy Trinity on their foreheads.” Later, it was added upon their hearts with the words “In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Our daily life is confessing our baptism and thus the Name, remembered as we make the sign of the cross. How is it that we born of this Spirit and thus have a new life in this Name? Jesus tells us: this is not an earthly birth, of our earthy mother. He is speaking of heavenly things and thus of a heavenly birth. This birth comes by water, Word, Spirit, just as the waters were collected by the Word of Jesus as the Spirit hovered at creation. So again, the Spirit of God hovers over the font, the Father speaks Jesus with the Word over the water, and new life is given where the Spirit wishes.

How can these things be? Nicodemus asked. We probably will ask ourselves the same thing as we witness Vincent receive this new birth next week in Holy Baptism. We don’t have to nor cane we understand our Triune God. We don’t have to solve Him. We can’t plumb His depths, not the riches, the wisdom, or the knowledge. How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! No doubt, St. Paul. That does not mean that we ignore Him. He is the giver of every good. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.

We are given the Word of Jesus to speak, the Spirit to grant faith to believe, and adoption as Sons to call God Father. We only say what we have been given to say. We have been given the Holy Scriptures and confess the Athanasian Creed not because its easy or simple but because it is true. It is the testimony of Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit. Truly, truly, I say to you, we [the Holy Trinity] speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen.

But don’t just take my word for it. Nor ought you believe it because the confessors including Athanasius, the councils at Nicea and Constantinople, or even the Apostles’ believed it. Even if you think the Bible is authentically an old book, you don’t believe it because it seems probable. No, belief does not come by seeing, or by mind, or by reason. Believing comes by the Name doing what the Name loves to do.

The Name loves baptizing. The Name loves giving new birth. The Name loves you. How do you know this is true? No one has ascended into heaven except Him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.

There’s proof positive Fact. “It is simple religions that are the made up ones… If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course, anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book Four, chapter 2.)

The Scriptures and by relation, the Creeds and Confessions, are far from easy to understand for they are Word given by the Holy Trinity. When Isaiah saw the Word incarnate in heaven, heaven barely could contain even the train of His robe. His Spirit fills the heaven and the Earth. These are heavenly things, incomprehensible, unbelievable apart from the Spirit. Thanks be to God He has come to us, just as He wishes and granted us the confession of the true faith by the power of the Divine Majesty, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen (2 Cor 13:14).

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana