Sermon 12


Go to Jerusalem

on the Feast of the Transfiguration

Luke 9:31

February 18, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

On the mount of the Transfiguration we’re told to go to Jerusalem . In Jerusalem the transfigured Jesus will “complete his departure” (Luke 9:31). In the midst of all the glory on that mountain top, we are told to leave it and go to Jerusalem . There on the mountain, beholding the glory of Christ, with his body shining bright as the sun (Matthew 17:2), we’re told to go the Jerusalem .

Now that’s a dumbfounding directive. So for us to obey it, we’ll need a pretty good explanation. Who, after all, in their right mind would want to leave Christ’s glory and his shining brightness? Who, in their right mind, would want to walk away from the light which has come “for the Gentiles, and the glory… of Israel ” (Luke 2:32)? This is the “great light” that was promised long ago (Isaiah 9:2) and has now finally come. So why leave it – once it has so graciously arrived?


The Light of the World

And this light is surely stupendous – being none other than Jesus Christ himself, shinning forth brightly. He becomes “dazzling white” in his glory (Luke 9:29) – high up there on that mountain of the Transfiguration. This light of Christ shines in the darkness for us – to help us – that we might walk in righteousness. And when we do, then we are given “the light of life” (John 8:12).

      This is because all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus (Colossians 2.9), for God is light (Psalm 27:1; Isaiah 60:1, 20; Ezekiel 1:27-28; 1 John 1:5; Revelation 21:23), and in him we have salvation. For he can dispel our darkness – darkness due to the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 2:13; Ephesians 5:11). Neither we, nor anyone else, can do this because our sin is so great (Psalm 65:3). And so we must say plainly, and for certain, that we simply cannot save ourselves (Psalm 49:7; Ephesians 2:8).

      This light on the mount of the Transfiguration, then, is nothing less than miraculous. It shows the very divinity of Christ. And it promises salvation for all who believe in him. This makes the transfigured Jesus Christ of “surpassing worth” (Philippians 3:8). And so we long for him and do not want to leave him because he alone “has the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Indeed, “darkness reigns wherever Christ is not present…. Christ [thereby] exalts His ministry and elevates it above the proclamations, doctrines, and ways of all the world…. Thus Christ tears us away from all other lights, teachers, and preachers, so that we may remain with Him alone and cling to Him, lest we perish and die in eternal darkness” (Luther’s Works 23:319, 327).


Jesus’ Exodus

So coming down from this mount – and leaving the glory of Christ behind – is a high stakes matter. But we must nevertheless leave. We cannot stay. For this word comes to us on good authority. No less than Moses and Elijah tell us about Jesus’ departure in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). And so a powerful word draws us where we do not want to go – down from the mountain and on into Jerusalem .

      And in Jerusalem Jesus will have his departure. In the Greek that word is “exodus” or εξοδον. So Jesus in his departure is a version of Moses escaping Egypt . There Moses struggled against Pharaoh to set his people free from their bondage. But all the threats in the world couldn’t budge Pharaoh – until the last one came. In that assault God sends his angel to kill all the first-born children in Egypt (Exodus 11:4). This would include God’s own people, the Israelites, as well, since this killer doesn’t discriminate, on his own, the good from the bad. But to protect his own, God provides the needed discrimination. The Israelites are told to kill a lamb and take the blood from that lamb and smear it on their front doors. When the angel of death comes to punish and kill, he will then “passover” them, sparing their children (Exodus 12:7, 13).

      In 1 Corinthians 5:7 we are told that Jesus is our new Passover lamb who was sacrificed for us. His blood saves us from the wrath of God too (Romans 5:9; Revelation 5:9). So these two rescues – the first exodus through Moses and the second one through Jesus – are alike. They’re parallel cases. The first one saves Israel from social and economic misery. And the second one saves us all from everlasting torment in hell (Luke 16:28). In both cases a blood sacrifice is needed to save us from the deadly wrath of God. For indeed there is no help, no rescue, no exodus, “no forgiveness of sins,… without the shedding of blood” (Hebrews 9:22). As outrageous as that may sound, it’s at the core of the Biblical message.

      But even so the exodus of Moses is not equal to the exodus of Jesus. For from the earliest of times, the church has taught that


the Passover is the sacrifice, and not the exodus, as some people think. The sacrifice comes first, and then it is possible to make the transition from the old life to the new. For this reason it is the cross that is the saving reality signified by the Passover in the Old Testament [Ancient Christian Commentary on 1 Corinthians, ed. Gerald Bray (1999) p. 47].


     This means that the exodus in the time of Moses could never also carry the weight of sin and our liberation from it. Only Jesus’ sacrifice in Jerusalem could do that – and so it superseded the exodus in Egypt (2 Corinthians 3:10; Hebrews 8:13, 9:15, 12:24). Indeed, “Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).


Dying in Jerusalem

And all this had to happen in Jerusalem . So Jesus, with great determination, “sets his face to go to Jerusalem ” (Luke 9:51). There is nothing casual or arbitrary in this decision. “I must go,” he says, “for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem ” (Luke 13:33). This is because Jerusalem is the quintessential place of sacrifice. “Since the reforms of Josiah (621 BC), with the centralization of the cultus in Jerusalem on the Deuteronomic pattern, the city was the only holy place for Jews.... Three times a year pilgrims journeyed there from all over the world …. with pious offerings” [Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus (1962, 1969) p. 29]. So, indeed, “there could be no Jerusalem without a temple” [Robert L. Wilken, The Land Called Holy (1992) p. 16]. Therefore Jesus has to go there for his exodus.

      But this holiness in Jerusalem doesn’t exhaust it. We also find there an attending hostility toward God’s very servants. And so Jesus cries out: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem , killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!” (Luke 13:34). Jerusalem is therefore a high risk place for God’s servants. And Jesus’ disciples warn him that “Herod wants to kill” him there (Luke 13:32). But go he must. His face is set. The glory of the mountain cannot hold him back with its lofty serenity and safety.


Breaking the Spell of Glory

And so we must go there too. We cannot linger either on the mount of the Transfiguration. We must also journey with Jesus to that other mountain – mount Zion in Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 14:1) – the mount of the Crucifixion, Golgotha , where the sacrifice of Christ will occur – on which his exodus, his departure, his true glory are revealed (John 12:23; Galatians 6:14).

So Jesus’ uncontested glory must never be our first choice or our final resting place – strange as that may seem. Building huts, booths or tents to preserve that glory, as Peter tried to do (Luke 9:33), is always wrong. That’s because Christ’s unadulterated glory is not his supreme gift – that gift is instead his crucifixion. So Luther rightly derided theologians of glory and exalted theologians or teachers and preachers of the cross, saying famously:


A theologian of glory…. learns from Aristotle…. that God is… exceedingly lovable. Disagreeing with the theologian of the cross, he defines the treasury of Christ as removing and remitting of punishments, things which are most evil and worthy of hate. [But] the theologian of the cross defines the treasury of Christ as impositions and obligations of punishments, things which are [instead] best and most worthy of love…. [Now, not surprisingly, people] do not consider the theologian of the cross worthy of consideration, but finally even persecute him” (LW 31:227).]


     So punishment and suffering are good, since God “chastises those whom he loves” (Revelation 3:19; Hebrews 12:6). But even though we suffer, that we might be blessed by God (Romans 8:17), he will not allow this to crush us (1 Corinthians 10:13). For he gives us blessings beyond the best we could ever dream of or think about or even ask for (Ephesians 3:20).

What then shall we do on such a feast day as this? How shall we celebrate it? On our chief holidays we give gifts – peanut brittle and hot buttered rum on Christmas, colored eggs and chocolate bunnies on Easter. So what should we give away today – on the Holy Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus? Shall we give huts or tents or booths away – as Peter insisted we should do? No. Roadmaps to Jerusalem – that’s what we should give! And along with them, encouragements to glorify the cross and also to suffer with Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 2:2; 1 Peter 4:13) – for that’s what going to Jerusalem is about – non-geographically considered.


Saved By a Sacrifice

But can we truly break out of the trap of wanting just the glory and none of the pain? Is it enough to hand out roadmaps to Jerusalem and encourage believers to suffer with Jesus?

 For we have learned – painfully – that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). That is to say that we have come to see that we do not do the good that we want, but we do the very thing that we hate (Romans 7:15-19). So we lack power to deliver on our good plans. We’re held back over and over again. “For our flesh is in itself vile and inclined to evil, even when we have accepted and believe God’s Word” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 428]. So even if at present


I am chaste, patient, kind, and firm in faith, the devil is likely in this very hour to send such a shaft into my heart that I can scarcely stand, for he is an enemy who never stops or becomes weary; when one attack ceases, new ones always arise (BC, p. 435).


      So we have learned the hard way that we can do nothing without Christ Jesus (John 15:5). But with him we know that we can miraculously become over-achievers, and do all things through him who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13; 2 Corinthians 3:4-5).

But how does Christ help us? Well, he does it in the most unlikely way. Just listen to this: When he was on the cross, dying a slow, agonizing death, more was happening than the obvious. So just as he was dying, to give us a clue about what was really going on, he prayed: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). In this word we learn that Jesus offered up his life – at the moment of his crucifixion – as a sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:26) to his Father in heaven (Hebrews 9:14; Ephesians 5:2), that all who believe in him might be saved from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9; John 3:36) and his punishments (LW 26:284; BC, p. 414). So in his wounds there is more that sheer physical abuse. In, with and under them, there is also healing for sinners (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24). For when Jesus dies on the cross he is also punished for us in our place that we might escape from being punished ourselves (2 Corinthians 8:9). No one else can do this for us. Nothing else can save us from the wrath of God. So saying that


Christ is a man who is the Son of God, born of a pure, chaste virgin, became man, died, and rose again from the dead, and so forth, all this is nothing [das ist alles nichts]. But that he is Christ, that is, that he was given for us, without any of our works; that he without any of our merit has earned for us God’s Spirit, and made us children of God, so that we might have a gracious God,…. this is the faith…. This is the touchstone… and the scales, by which all doctrine must be weigh-ed… and judged [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. N. Lenker (1904, 1988) 4:256].


     Yes, indeed, das is alles nichts! All this is nothing! For the great achievement of Jesus is moving God to mercy and making him our gracious heavenly Father (LW 51:277; 42:23; SML 3:199, 361; BC, pp. 414, 561). All his divine qualities are therefore worthless if they don’t reconcile the Father to us poor lost sinners (LW 24:163; 26:325; 30:280; 36:177).


Moving Mountains

But all of this has to be believed or it won’t save us (Romans 3:25, 14:23; Ephesians 2:8; Hebrews 11:6). Compared to Christ’s sacrifice faith may seem puny and even unnecessary. But such a weak faith is a “counterfeit” one (LW 26:269). However when we truly entrust our lives to God’s care through the work of Jesus Christ, we have indeed done a mighty thing – we have even practiced a “profound art” (LW 23:179). For when we believe as we ought, we “fight against sin and slug it out with death” (LW 17:388-389). And by so believing – though it be as tiny as a “mustard seed” – this faith can “move… mountains” (Matthew 17:20). So faith is


a vigorous and powerful thing; it is not idle speculation, nor does it float on the heart like a goose on the water. But just as water that has been heated, even though it remains water, is no longer cold but hot and an altogether different water, so faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, fashions a different mind and different attitudes, and makes an altogether new human being (LW 2:266-267).


    Because of this transforming power, faith is anything but puny. It can bring courage where before there was only hesitancy. It can bring peace where before there was only sleeplessness and fear. Therefore it would be right to wonder with Robert Bly [My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy (2005) p. 47]:


Perhaps even my feeble faith may gain me

Mercy. I do believe a pebble on the road

Can throw a shadow a hundred miles long at dusk.


      So give thanks to God for your faith. If it’s paltry, call on him to strengthen it. If it’s robust, thank him for his mercies. Either way, come and receive Christ himself today at the altar of the Lord in his Holy Supper. For by eating of the bread and drinking from the cup your faith in Christ’s salvation will grow. So come and give thanks for Jesus today in your eating and drinking.


Quit Tempting God

But don’t leave this holy place today with your hands in your pockets. Remember that faith must be “supplemented with… virtue and godliness” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Not doing this – be so warned – will put you in the place of Hymenaeus and Alexander of old, who “made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19-20). For “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). We, then, who want to live in the Spirit of God, must struggle “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), to “walk by the Spirit” as well (Galatians 5:25).

      So on this feast day remember also how Jerusalem can boomerang on you. Recall Christ’s temptation, as if it were your own. Remember how the devil took him to Jerusalem and set him high upon a pinnacle of the temple and told him to jump that God’s angels might catch him and break his fall. And to this Jesus says: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Luke 4:9-12). And so let none of us do so either today. Let that then be our good work these days. Let us resolve to quit tempting God. Note then that


we should not bring evils and dangers upon ourselves. But when we are afflicted either by chance or by God’s will, then whatever misfortune there is must be borne steadfastly and with great courage, yet not in such a way that we neglect the plans and assistance by which we can be liberated. For it is tempting God to despise the remedies for evils – the remedies offered and shown by God…. [So] we should be prepared for both eventualities: to protect and preserve our life and to meet death with equanimity according to God’s good pleasure (LW 7:113).


     Therefore be steadfast in your faith. Don’t recklessly endanger yourselves. But suffer misfortune courageously. And always welcome release from danger when graciously provided. Finally place your life in God’s hands, knowing full well that you live and serve at his good pleasure – therefore always having on your lips and in your hearts: Deo volente, or “Lord willing” (James 4:15). Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)