People want a sure thing, a can’t miss. When it comes to investing, we want guaranteed results. We get angry when we take a loss, mostly because we ignored the fine print saying, “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”
The apostles felt the same way. They had a can’t miss, sure thing. “Our rabbi runs circles around the teachers of the law. He loves the people and the people tend to love Him (except when He says off putting thing like, “My flesh is real food”). He performs miracles, which helps the fickle mob look past puzzling words.”
Jesus confirms to them that He is the Christ, God’s Son, the promised Messiah, King of kings and Lord of lords. With pep in their step they head with Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover, perhaps thinking that this journey will lead to Jesus overthrowing the corrupters of their religion and help open the doorway to the “day of the Lord” that the Old Testament prophets foretold, the day when God restored Israel, when the nations flock to Jerusalem, when, as Zechariah said, ten men would grab one Jew saying, “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you!”
Inexplicably, however, Jesus starts talking about death. As they journey to Jerusalem Jesus tells them, again and again it seems, “[I] must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…[I] must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Suddenly a can’t miss, sure thing, gets wobbly. So Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “No! This won’t happen! What are you talking about? And could you please stop talking about it!” To which Jesus replies by calling Peter “Satan” and saying those terrible words about denying yourself, carrying a cross, and losing your life for Him.
That sure thing suddenly seems less sure. Perhaps the apostles start conspiring ways to turn Jesus around and not go to Jerusalem. They sense a fatalism that doesn’t bode well.
So, a week later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain. Later, reflecting back, Peter writes that because of this, and the rest of what he learned, “We have the words of the prophets made more certain.” He freely admits that he and his fellow apostles misunderstood Jesus, sometimes willfully so.
But then Jesus shows His glory. He transfigures Himself. Literally He metamorphosed. He didn’t change His essence, rather He gave them an epiphany of His true nature: face like the sun, clothes white as light; then that voice, from the cloud, announcing: “My Son. I love Him. Listen to Him.”
All in private, though. And just to these three. Why? Why not show all twelve? Or, for that matter, a bunch of followers, or to His Jewish opponents, or Pilate?
Perhaps Jesus didn’t wish to confuse His disciples any more than necessary. If he shows the whole group, or some larger audience, or some enemies, His followers will revert to their “can’t miss, sure thing” theology. They will rally behind the Light and expect Him to topple Sanhedrin and Roman legion; perhaps even establish a world-wide Jewish empire, a heaven on earth, a misguided attempt at fulfilling misunderstood prophecy.
More than that, when the suffering, death, and burial happened, when Jesus literally bore the cross, that would increase confusion. “Wait, didn’t He show us that light? What’s this cross, then?” Jesus took pains to make sure He didn’t contradict what He taught about death, pain, denial and the cross. He gives these three something to fortify them for the crosses ahead, both Jesus’ and their own, something to bring Peter back from his delusional hopes for worldly glory, but not so much as to throw them back into scheming to create some kingdom of heaven on earth. This explains Jesus’ cryptic words: “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
How like the apostles we are. We fall into the same habits. Luther called it the “theology of glory,” a life focused on works and human wisdom and moral good and things that appear good and strong and right, that ignores the cross and wants only success, glory, light! The theology of glory says, “Never, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” and “It’s good to stay here.” The theology of glory scoffs at cross and suffering, at burdens and death. In the end, the theology of glory wants to be a Law follower and refuses to despair of any good within himself. The theology of glory wants a can’t miss sure thing, a bird in the hand, and that’s easier to find in doing Law works than falling back on grace alone and faith alone, in picking myself up by my bootstraps, in turning God into an ATM who credits me when I make deposits: building bigger churches, giving bigger gifts, saying nicer words, raising a godly family.
But God keeps giving us glory hidden under the cross. Jesus mostly hides His glory. He displays it at night with only three others and tells them to keep quiet. Just as He often healed or cast out a demon and commanded silence. Jesus rarely affirmed in so many words, “I am the Messiah.” When John’s disciples came asking, “Are you the one?” He didn’t say, “Yes,” but, “Read Isaiah, compare it to what I’m doing, draw your own conclusions.” Then the Baptism of blood, scourging, suffering, nails, death. Then the laying down of His life. Then the inert body bundled up, laid in a tomb, hidden behind the stone. Oh sorrow dread, God’s Son is dead!
This isn’t glory! How dare we revel in the electric chair or gas chamber? How dare God shed His blood? But, by faith, we come to grips with this. Or better, the Holy Spirit brings us to come to grips. In the words of St. Augustine, “God makes willing persons out of the unwilling and dwells in the willing.” By faith we see glory in the cross; God shows us God’s blood shed for us. Problem solved?
Not quite. What about this morning? God does it again. He gives me more theology of the cross: plain water, huh? Like the disciples, for just a moment, God displays His glory, baptizing Rory in His name and entering that name into the Book of Life through Baptism, washing and renewing him. Yet we see both glory and cross here. The glory: Baptism marks Rory, as it marked you, as God’s, giving forgiveness, life, and salvation. The cross: it marks you as God’s, which means cross-bearing and self-denying.
More. Something transpires at the font. A change occurs, a metamorphosis, a clothing in white brighter than the sun, and yet, still God’s words about bearing the cross stand uncontradicted. Rory doesn’t glow visibly (as Moses did when He came from talking to the LORD). He isn’t carried on the wind with chariots of fire to heaven, as Elijah was. God doesn’t peel back Rory’s face to display the “spiritual” body Paul promises in 1 Corinthians 15. In fact, nothing appears radically different about Rory. He still cries and poops and whines. Later he’ll be a toddler who bites and lies and then a sulky teenager. He might even wreck Dad’s car.
Likewise, the disciples hide their face from the glory of the Lord. They tremble at the Father’s voice. They fall to the ground terrified of an Indiana Jones face-melting. Then suddenly it’s gone. It’s just Jesus. And they don’t quite get what rising from the dead means. In other words, even after the drama, nothing seems different. They go down with Jesus to find the other apostles failing at casting out a demon. After repeating His message about suffering and death, the Gospels tell us, “But they did not understand what this meant….they were afraid to ask him about it.”
Thus the Father says, “Listen to Him.” We try to parse things out for ourselves; we make a mish-mash out of things. Listen. “Death and resurrection are good things,” God says. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” God says, even if that little saint still looks and acts the sinner. Jesus can say such things because He shines brighter than the sun, whiter than white. He makes the prophet’s words more certain. He is the divine one who forgives sins and raises the paralyzed.
More, He promises a metamorphosis, a transfiguration for us. Paul writes: “[W]e, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Two things: we reflect the Lord’s glory. In Baptism God clothes us with Christ. He looks at us and sees Jesus through faith in Christ. He transforms us. This is both ongoing and looking towards eternity. Of course we don’t give in to sin. In Baptism, through faith, we died to sin, how can we live in it any longer? And since the Spirit dwells in us, He works in us to will and to do God’s will, changing us, ever so slowly, ever so slightly, more and more conforming us to God’s will; the metamorphosis, the transfiguration that heaven completes: “[O]ur citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” It begins at the font for Rory. It continues through the Spirit’s work in Word and Sacrament. It seems like such a can miss, unsure thing, because so often we can’t see it happen. But we live by faith, not by sight. And faith says in this water God called Rory His son, His beloved.
Jesus ended His parables by saying, “He who has ears, let him hear.” This is what we have: words to hear. Surrounded by death and destruction, cross and gloom, we have this Word of God that says, “Look at Christ! Listen to Christ! Take His Word for it!” You have seen Jesus in God’s sanctuary, dead, but now alive, glowing with His divinity, God’s salvation, who touches you in Word and Sacrament, as He touched the disciples with His hands, bringing the peace of forgiveness, saying to us, people of unclean lips and hearts, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus guarantees that for the believer, our prayer of the day is a sure thing: “Grant that we who bear His cross on earth may behold by faith the light of his heavenly glory and so be changed into His likeness.” Amen.