February 12-13, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peter, it seems, is always noticing the water beneath his feet. His eyes grow heavy and he ceases to pray. He waits in denial for the cock to crow. There on the Mount of Transfiguration it is the same. For St. Luke’s Gospel clearly tells us what Moses and Elijah were discussing. It was the Exodus of the Messiah, His departure from this world, His glorious Crucifixion. That is what heaven is interested in. It does not make the angels weep. It makes them sing. They love it. The saints revel in it. For the shameful death of Jesus is their glory. It is the fulfillment of all that Moses and Elijah prophesied. It is the Desire of nations, the Hope of Israel, the Light of the world made good. But Peter, with his standard awkwardness, misses the point. The words of Jesus have not yet broken his heart of its attachment to the finer things. He does not yet see the hidden things of God in the lowly and despised things of this world. He does not yet embrace the agony of God as perfect mercy.
That awkwardness of Peter is no stranger to us. It is a stubbornness born of pride, that wants its own way, that refuses to be sacrifice. It is the demise of marriages, the dissolution of friendships, and the root of war. It refuses to believe that parents should be honored, that spouses should be loved, or that neighbors should be protected above self. It wants lofty, soaring emotional highs, platitudes and easy answers, fancy music and ceremonies, rules to live by and improve; anything and everything but a cross, anything and everything but suffering, death, and blood. Repent. The flesh is weak. We have all succumbed to the vanity of our hearts and wanted fame, honor, and glory with men. According to the flesh, we have all been scandalized by God’s Word.
Here on the Mountain, in Moses and Elijah, is a lesson for Peter and for us. Moses had run away from God and from His people. He had committed murder. He was afraid for his own skin. But God, nonetheless, restored him. He made him His own ambassador to lead the people safely out of slavery to freedom, through the drowning, crushing waters of the Red Sea to dry ground, through death to life. Again, in the wilderness his anger would overcome him and because of it he would not be allowed to enter the promised land. A whole generation had to die in the desert and Moses along with them. The people had to be cleansed, purged of a perverse generation corrupted in Egypt. Slavery had to die. The Law had to be left on the other side of the Jordan.
But Moses did enter - through death, by Grace - the real promised land. He came to Abraham’s inheritance, the land of milk and honey that Canaan only foreshadowed. He died to being enslaved. He died to being a second-class citizen, an adopted son of questionable birth. He died to being afraid, angry, and tired. He awoke in heaven free even of himself, adopted into the household of the Trinity as a true brother of Christ! He lived his life of sorrow by faith, in suffering, with hardship and uncertainty. But in the end he came to faith’s reward. In his weakness he learned to know that there is no other place to turn. That God is his only hope. And knowing that, in weakness he was strong and in death he now lives.
Likewise, Elijah. He also ran and hid. He had called fire down from heaven. He had defeated four hundred false prophets of Baal. The only way it was okay to pray with them in Jezebel’s civic ceremony was if they were mocked and slain! But then, after the wrath of God was revealed upon them, Elijah was afraid. He ran from weak Jezebel lest she would do to him what he had done to them. Full of self-pity, wallowing in self-righteous arrogance, he was certain that he was the only one left, the only one who would not hold hands with Baal’s prophets and call them brother.
But God had mercy even on Elijah. He too was restored. He was fed by ravens, renewed in his strength and zeal, and finally, delivered even from bodily death, so that he ascended by a chariot into heaven. He, too, lived this life of sorrows, of disappointments and frustration, in a small, struggling Church. He lived by faith. He had his doubts, his worries, but now he and his faith are perfect. For what his faith could not do, God did. And by the Grace of God in the Messiah he too has come to faith’s reward.
And so, too, did Peter follow. In the end he stretched out his arms and died. For he would not stand idly by and smile nicely as incense was offered to Caesar, waiting his turn to meekly suggest one more innocuous religious option, one more qualified and weak prayer to a possible god. He was moved by the Holy Spirit. He spoke the Word of God. He laid out the only thing that matters: “Jesus died for the sins of the world. He has made full atonement for all men. He rose again and gladly calls men, ‘brother.’ There is no other salvation. And He is coming back.” And for this Gospel, this invitation to heaven, they killed him. But in that malicious act they did more to honor him then they could ever know. For the things of God are hidden from human eyes. Weakness is strength, foolishness is wisdom, death is life, and martyrdom is the single highest honor.
Above all the Divine liturgy sets us up as fools. We adore bread and wine, water, a book. We kneel before a nerdy man dressed like a clownish woman! The world scoffs at all this pomp and circumstance. But faith rejoices in it. For it confesses what the eyes cannot see: that Jesus is here for His people with healing, with acceptance, with peace. He is not transfigured here, but is hidden in the externals. Those who believe His Word submit to things they cannot understand. That is the true Theology of the Cross. You behave according the promises of God and not by what your eyes behold. The Church, too, is hidden. The saints are unknown. You are they whether the world recognizes it or not. For are you not baptized? Do you not have the Name of God upon you? Have you not been called out of darkness to light? But you are a sinner? Of course, you are. So was Peter. So were Moses and Elijah. And look what God has done for them. It is no less for you. That is a promise that cannot fail.
In + Jesus’ Name. Amen.