Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lent 3 Midweek

Part of the midweek Lenten sermon series at Lamb of God (Holy Cross is only having Lenten midweek services on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday).

Sermon on Mark 15:39

For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
March 30, 2011 (Lent Midweek 3)

“Truly this man was the Son of God.” A confession of faith. No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul reminds us. This means that the centurion became a Christian because he witnessed the crucifixion. Granted, he probably also heard about Jesus’ teaching and the claims that were made about him by the chief priests, not to mention that the inscription above His head also pointed to His identity. There probably wasn’t a soul in or around Jerusalem who hadn’t heard something of Jesus’ teaching, and probably even His claims that his death would be the atonement for the whole world’s sin. But it was by witnessing the crucifixion that all the pieces of the puzzle came together for this Roman soldier, such that only moments after Jesus’ death, and even before His resurrection, this man confessed faith in God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, and in His saving work for sinners.

Now, we don’t live in or around Jerusalem in the first century. We live in southeast Wisconsin and northeast Illinois in the twenty-first century. We can’t hear for ourselves the cries of “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me,” and “It is finished,” nor can we see for ourselves the darkness or the saints walking around or the temple curtain torn in two. Certainly we have a statue of the crucifixion in front of our eyes, we have the apostles’ testimony in the Holy Scriptures, and we can go rent “The Passion of the Christ” or pop it in the DVD player again if we happen to own it. But we can’t witness the actual events themselves with our own five senses.

But that doesn’t mean that we weren’t there. St. Paul reminds us in Romans 6 that we were there in a more intimate and mysterious way than the centurion was. We actually were nailed to the cross in, with, and under Him when we were washed in the font of Holy Baptism. We actually rose from the dead with Him at the same time. And His own body and blood, which the centurion witnessed being tortured, torn open, and dying, is our food for eternity in the Holy Supper. Of course, the centurion received those things too when he was baptized and became part of the earliest church, we can assume. But the point is, what God gives us in Word and Sacrament is an even more wonderful and intimate revelation of who He is and what He has done for us than even the centurion received when he witnessed these events. How dare we treat these gifts with anything less than complete devotion? How dare we presume to wish we were there at the centurion’s side, when in fact we, and he, were on the cross itself with our Lord that day?

But that’s the point, isn’t it? We were there. And so even though our focus is sometimes wrong, even though we want to see with our physical eyes and hear with our physical ears even though God has given us something much more wonderful, He does still come to us and bring us paradise itself. We are still there with Him on the cross and rising from the empty tomb. We are still at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. He is merciful, just as His father is merciful. This whole chain of events, leading from the Annunciation, which the Church celebrated only a few days ago, to His death and resurrection, was out of mercy for us. God is love, which is can also be translated, God is mercy. And in bringing that mercy to us by the cross, through the water and His body and blood, He shows that He is merciful as only God can be. Truly this was the Son of God. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lent 3, Series A

Sermon on John 4:5-26
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 27, 2011 (The Third Sunday in Lent, Series A)

The well was the ancient equivalent of a singles’ bar. The well was where Abraham’s servant met Rebekah, who would be Isaac’s wife, and where Jacob met Rachel and Leah. Moses met his wife Zipporah at the well. And so it’s more than a little odd that Jesus sits and has a conversation with this woman here. Some would say it’s downright scandalous. After all, as she points out, she’s a Samaritan, and shouldn’t be associating with Jesus, a Jew, especially in this place which is traditionally where people meet and find out about members of the opposite sex. Not to mention that Jesus is the Son of God, the promised messiah, and this woman has not exactly kept the Sixth Commandment, You shall not commit adultery. And so if we were among the disciples that day, we too would be more than a little uncomfortable and put off seeing Jesus talking to this woman at Jacob’s well.

Of course, Jesus isn’t flirting with her or courting her. He is, rather, teaching her about the kingdom of God and about how the ancient Israelite religion was established for the purpose of pointing to Himself, and that while the Jewish worship of those days was, in fact, closer to what God had established than the Samaritan worship was, it was still not complete in itself, but only pointed forward to the day when Messiah Himself would come and bring forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to everyone, and that God would be present not just on this mountain or that, but wherever God’s people gather to receive the Holy Spirit through the preaching of God’s Word and the administration of His Sacraments.

Now, it is true that Jesus wasn’t flirting with or courting this woman in the normal, earthly way of speaking. However, I do think that He chose this venue to have a conversation with this woman in order to make a point, both to His disciples and to us. You see, He came to bring the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to sinners. You can’t get the forgiveness of sins if you’re not a sinner. As He points out elsewhere, it’s not those who are well that need a physician, but those who are sick. The Church is more of a hospital than a gymnasium. It’s a place where God comes to us to heal us, not a place where we do spiritual exercises to improve ourselves. And so, the fact that He talks to this woman, just like the fact that He eats with tax collectors and other sinners elsewhere in the Gospels, stands as a reminder to us that it is precisely those who are lost that are to be welcome here; it is precisely those who have not always lived good and decent lives that here can receive forgiveness and healing. None of us is any better than this woman from God’s perspective. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and it is only because He comes to us with the forgiveness He won on the cross that we can presume to stand here before Him at all.

Now, as I said, Jesus wasn’t courting this woman in any earthly sense. He was teaching her, catechising her, to give her faith in His promises and thereby a recipient of salvation, a member of the one, holy, universal, apostolic Church. But isn’t that, in a spiritual sense, a form of courtship? After all, the Church is described in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere as the Bride of Christ. Which means that Jesus was asking this woman to be part of His Bride, the Church. He was asking her to meet Him by the true well, which gives water for eternity, and have her sins washed away in that baptismal water. He was asking her to become a partaker in His eternal wedding feast, in which He is both the host and the meal. He was asking her, in short, to become joined to, part of, His Bride.

And that’s the way God always courts those whom He meets and whom He invites to join Him in eternal bliss. He meets them at the well which gives the water of eternal life, yes, that one right there, and washes away their sin, and makes them new creatures who really are what He created them to be, perfect and holy in His sight. And he invites them to the wedding feast, in which He feeds them with His body and blood. That’s what our God does. He condescends to even the worst sinner, and brings them forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through His word and His body and blood. That’s what He did for each of you. He made you, the Church, collectively, into His bride, worthy and well-prepared for His coming, looking forward to sharing with Him an eternity of love and joy that we can’t even describe using earthly terms. We are His bride, His beloved. He has come to rescue us from our life of sin and receive us to Himself. Welcome to the feast. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reminiscere

Because I am still a called assistant pastor at Lamb of God, Pr. Smallwood and I do a pulpit exchange every couple of months so that I can still be carrying out my call to that congregation. Today is one such pulpit exchange.

Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
March 20, 2011 (Reminiscere)

Why did God allow this woman’s daughter to be possessed by a demon? Since God is all-powerful, and Satan and his fellow fallen angels are just that, mere fallen angels, why didn’t God stop that demon from entering the woman’s daughter in the first place? And then, when she asks God for help with the situation, why does He act so impolite toward her and make her go through all of that begging and humiliation before He will consent to heal the daughter? Why? For that matter, if God can do anything, why does He allow us to be tempted and afflicted in various ways? Why does He allow us to have to fight and struggle against the temptations of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh? After all, if Jesus already won the victory over the temptations that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh bring us, then why do we still have to fight against these things? Why do we still have trouble in this world? Why do the righteous so often seem to suffer while the evil so often seem to be so well off? You would think, that if God is both good and loving on the one hand, and almighty and all-powerful on the other hand, then these kinds of things wouldn’t happen to us. Demons wouldn’t be able to torment people like they do in various ways.

These questions, why do bad things happen to good people, why doesn’t God help me out when I’m suffering, why doesn’t He seem to care if He’s supposedly such a good God, are questions that theologians and philosophers have pondered over for thousands of years. And they’re not just an academic exercise, either. Suffering is very real all around us and in our own lives. And very often God’s response to our prayers seems to be the same kind of seemingly callous and insulting response we read that Jesus gave to the woman in today’s Gospel.

Now, many times we can’t know specifically the reason why God allows these sorts of things. But in general, we know from Scripture that God uses these things to make us rely on His promises more firmly. God’s promises to be with us and to preserve us and to comfort us depend only on the fact that it was He who spoke them. His promises to us are true even if the whole world and everything we see and feel seems to contradict them. His promises to us are true even if He Himself seems to be ignoring us and rejecting us. Sometimes God puts us through experiences like that of this woman to remind us of that fact, and to strengthen our faith so that we rely more firmly on the promises rather than testing Him and trying to see physical evidence of His care for us. Our confidence in God’s protection and care, and more importantly our confidence in His salvation, should not depend on whether or not we feel or see His care and protection in our lives. Our confidence in God’s love for us and His care for us depends solely upon His promises to us in the Holy Scriptures. But all too often we like to rely upon other things besides God’s promises to support our faith, whether those things be our emotions or good feelings about God, or whether those things be the fact that things are going well for us, or whatever it may be. For this reason, sometimes these blessings are taken away from us precisely because we are using them as a crutch in the place of our faith or making our faith depend on them rather than Him.

Notice also that even though Jesus didn’t come right out and call the woman a dog, she more or less admitted herself to be one when she said that even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table. God’s care for us and His protection of us also don’t depend on our own worthiness. We can’t come to Him and say that He should do things for us because we’re such good people or because we have tried to do what is right or whatever. The fact of the matter is that we aren’t good people. None of us have done what God required. Before God’s throne we have to admit that we are nothing but poor, miserable sinners. And many of us can name specific sins we have committed that are pretty terrible. If we were to have a conversation with God the way this woman did, we too would be forced to admit that we aren’t worthy for God to do anything for us. We too would have to admit that we are nothing and worse than nothing, and that God would be perfectly within His rights to ignore us and to forget about us and allow us to go straight to hell after our deaths.

But God has promised not to do that. And it is His promises that give us the reassurance that He won’t do that. It is His promises in the Holy Scriptures that we hold on to. God keeps His promises. This woman stubbornly held God to His promises after He had cut out from under her any other reason for Him to help her. He wasn’t going to help her because of her nationality, because she was not of Israel. She was a Canaanite, a group of people whom the Jews of those times often referred to as “dogs.” He wasn’t going to help her because of her crying and yelling after Him. He helped her only because His nature was of love and mercy. He helped her because not only the Israelites but all people were among those who are to humbly and thankfully receive God’s gifts. He helped her not because she was worthy of the help but because He is the one who helps people and upholds them. That’s who He is, that’s His identity: the life-giver and life-sustainer, both here and in eternity.

God has not promised to take away all our pains and griefs and troubles in this world. After all, if He did away with everything that’s wrong with this world the easy way, He’d do away with us sinners too. He has not promised that we will always feel very good or that we will always have the greatest feelings of joy and peace. But He has promised to take away the guilt of our sins and to give us eternal life. In eternal life we will have no more problems, troubles, and fears. In eternal life every tear will be wiped away from our eyes. In this life we may experience times that feel an awful lot like hell to us. Sometimes those hells are of our own making, whether because we have refused God’s Law and done what we ought not, or whether we have refused the Gospel, disobeyed the First Commandment, and imprisoned ourselves in a nightmare of guilt and self-blame. But we have His promise that this too shall pass. And we believe His promise, we have faith in His promise, not because we see Him working, not because we feel Him working, but because He is the one who gave us this promise. Despite everything we might see and feel, He is still there watching out for us and providing us with daily bread, and more importantly with the forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation. Even we dogs, we poor miserable sinners, get to eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table. And these “crumbs” are nothing less than the body and blood of Jesus Christ Himself. These “crumbs” grant nothing less than eternal life and salvation to those who receive them. We don’t deserve it, but God has given us to participate in the eternal feast of victory which has no end. God may not always seem to be gracious to us if we only use our five senses. But to the eyes of faith, which see the promises of His Word and the body and blood of His Supper for what they are, the richest blessings imaginable are ours. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent 1, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 13, 2011 (The First Sunday in Lent, Series A)

Life would be so much easier without temptations. It would be so much easier to be able to go through life and accomplish what you need to accomplish and to do what you want to do and what you ought to do without being distracted by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. All of us would be much happier and healthier if we didn’t have temptation to contend with. Even when we don’t give in to temptation, fighting it off takes strength and willpower that could be more productively devoted to other things. Well, temptation is a fact of life in this world. Even our Lord, who was perfect and without sin, had to fight against the temptations of the devil. Even though unlike us He didn’t give in to the temptations, He still had to expend energy and time fighting against the devil and against the temptations he put in Jesus’ path. As we look at these temptations we see that the temptations Jesus faced are really the same ones that face all of us, because Jesus’ purpose was to face them in our behalf, as our substitute.

Now, at first glance, these temptations may seem to be unusual and extraordinary; after all, how many of you have fasted for forty days straight, or been offered rulership over the whole world, or stood on the highest part of the temple in Jerusalem? But when you dig beneath the surface, these temptations are the same as the ones we face each day. Each of these temptations asks us to violate the First Commandment, which says that we are to have no other gods before the true God; each of these temptations asks us to rely on something else than what God in His providence, mercy, and love gives us for our well-being.

The first temptation, perhaps the most obvious one, is to rely on something other than God for our daily sustenance. The Son of God came to earth to share in our experience, and that means that although He used His divine power to help others, He never used His divine power to help Himself, but rather suffered what an ordinary man would suffer in the same circumstances. Here Satan tempts Him to break that rule. God had not provided bread for Him in that wilderness, and so He had to suffer the pangs of hunger. If He would have taken the stones and made bread for Himself from them, He would have been criticizing the Father’s providence by doing so. We, too, often try to get things apart from what God has given us, whether those things be material things or relationships with other people. The sins of stealing and adultery are of course what happens when we give in to this temptation, and even when we don’t outwardly give in we commit the sins of jealousy and covetousness, which are, of course, the same thing.

The second temptation is to test God, to try to force Him to act outside of the means He normally uses to help us. How do you really know that God is supporting and upholding you and protecting you unless you make Him show Himself? After all, if Jesus had jumped down from the Temple and landed unhurt, or even better been carried back up to the top by angels, it would really have shown the world that He was somebody special. But God has not promised to take away the consequences of our own foolishness, nor does He condone the unbelief that wants to make God show Himself by forcing His hand. We are to trust that God is with us and protecting us, and rely on His promises. If we try to make Him prove that He is protecting and upholding us, we show that we don’t really believe His promises, and we might end up getting ourselves hurt. The Christian Church is not always outwardly prosperous and successful in this world. It may be tempting to think that something besides baptizing and teaching are how disciples are made, and therefore how the Church grows. If only God would show Himself by some sort of sign or wonder. Maybe He is doing so at that church down the road where they have thousands of members and it seems they have money coming out of their ears. Maybe if we did like them it would show us, and those around us, that God really is watching out for and taking care of us. But signs and wonders are not where God has promised to be found. Signs and wonders can be faked, not only by human beings, but by the demons themselves. To doubt the promises in the Word is to doubt God, and that can land you in Satan’s territory very quickly.

The third temptation is to focus on results rather than what our responsibilities actually are. Jesus, after all, had come to this earth in order to be the Lord of the whole earth. But His purpose was to become the Lord of the whole earth by becoming the Savior of the whole earth. And to save the people of the world He had to pass through some mighty unpleasant things, including the scorn and contempt of the religious leaders, pains and sorrows, and finally beatings, mockery and a painful, ugly death. It would be so much nicer if all He had to do was to pretend to bow down to Satan, and mouth a few words worshiping Satan which He didn’t really mean. It would be so much easier just to play-act for a few seconds and gain lordship over the whole world that way rather than to endure all of that suffering and pain. Many people in our society face this temptation. To live the good life, to be on the fast track, to measure a person by how much money he has rather than how he uses it; this temptation is operative there as well, especially when dishonest means are used to get where you want to be. God does not call us to worldly success. He does not call us to gain the approval of the whole world. He calls us to faithfulness. The ends do not justify the means. He calls us to act within His will for us even if it means that by the world’s terms we finish last. Because when we cheat, the way Jesus was tempted to cheat here, we really end up worshiping someone or something other than the true God. Even the outward success of the church itself can become a false god if it is achieved by compromising what the Scriptures say.

Our Lord overcame these temptations using the Means that God had given Him to use, namely the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God. This is our defense as well, against all the temptations which come against us. God’s Law is clear, and the better we know it, the better we will be able to remind ourselves of it when we are faced with temptation. But in this text Jesus stands, not merely as a good example of how to overcome temptation, but more importantly He stands as the One who overcame temptation for us. Adam and Eve gave in to temptation, and so all of their descendants, including you and me, have been infected with the disease of sinfulness. But in our baptism we were adopted into Christ, and so we have become part of the new family, the descendants of the new Adam, namely Christ Jesus. He overcame temptation, and we overcame those temptations in Him. Because of this we can be declared righteous and holy, which is what happens when your sins are forgiven.

Through the Word of God as we live daily in our Baptism, the Holy Spirit works in us to overcome the temptations we face. It is only because of His power through the Word that we are able to overcome temptation. This is especially true since we have so often fallen to temptation in the past, which makes it easier to give in again. Only by the Holy Spirit are we given the courage and strength to overcome temptation. Even Jesus needed to be strengthened by God’s messengers after facing the devil’s temptations. God sends the Holy Spirit to you through Word and Sacrament preached and administered by pastors such as myself, pastors who are His messengers of forgiveness and eternal life to His people. This is why it is vitally important that we are regularly in Church to hear God’s Word and receive His sacramental gifts.

Christ overcame temptation, not for Himself, but for us. He is the new Adam who won the victory over temptation where the old Adam fell flat on his face. He now comes to us in His body and blood. By partaking of His body and blood we receive everything He won for us, including His victory over temptation. This means both that our failures to resist temptation are forgiven, and that we are nourished and strengthened by Him to resist temptation in the future. We do not need to rely on the rocks of our own inadequate spiritual resources when we face temptation. We have the true living bread from heaven. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 9, 2011 (Ash Wednesday, Series A)

Why do you come to Church? Why do you volunteer your time and money and effort to see to it that God’s Word is preached and His Sacraments administered? Why do you come not only on Sunday morning but also on Wednesday evenings during certain seasons? Why do you give of your time, talents, and treasures for the projects and programs of the Church? This is the question that Jesus asks us in the Gospel lesson for this evening. Tonight we stand at the beginning of the season of Lent. During Lent many people give up certain types of food or drink or other things they enjoy in order to remember that our Lord gave up everything for us. In Church, we give up the Alleluias and certain other, more joyful, parts of the liturgy. In most congregations, Lent is also marked by an additional number of services, with the Wednesday night Lenten services being added to the Sunday morning Divine Services. Now, the fact that all of this takes place is good and helpful. But we still need to ask ourselves what our motivation is for doing all of this. Why do we do what we do during Lent? Why, for that matter, do we do what we do in relation to the Church the rest of the year for that matter?

Our old sinful natures have an answer to that question. The answer that we by nature would give to that question is, “Because it will impress others, and maybe even God, with how holy I am.” We like others to think well of us. Our old selves are always concerned about our own reputations. In the realm of religion, that means that we like others to think that we are pious and holy. We like others to look up to us, to see how much we are doing for God. That’s the way the Old Adam deals with things relating to the Church. If he can’t stop you from participating in the things that have to do with God’s blessings to us, he’ll warp your motivations and your thoughts about what your are doing so that you end up doing these things, not for God, but for yourself, to show off and get praise from others. That’s how sneaky the Old Adam in us can be. He doesn’t just try to do bad things, he also tries to put the wrong motivation on good things. And so Jesus warns us today, at the beginning of this season, that what we do, what we give up, in order to observe this Lenten season, is not for others to see. It is for God, so that we can remember what Christ our Lord gave up for us, and so that the message concerning Christ’s journey through death to life will have fewer thorns and rocks to contend with as it enters our hearts and begins to sprout.

But when I say that whatever you do during Lent, or during any season of the Church Year for that matter, is “for God,” I don’t mean that you are doing something to try to impress God. That would be just as bad as trying to impress other people by your actions. God doesn’t need your good works. Rather what I mean is that what you do for the Church, and whatever you may do as part of your Lenten discipline, is just that: discipline, outward actions that help you be a better disciple, a better hearer of God’s Word. It’s all for the sake of being able to hear and be nourished by God’s Word free from the distractions of the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh.

And so Jesus exhorts us not to lay up treasures on earth, not to try to impress other people, or God for that matter, with our own outward actions, but rather to lay up treasures in heaven. But what does that mean? After all, if nothing we do is going to impress God or cause Him to give us any rewards, then how can we lay up treasures in heaven? What treasures are there to accumulate? The answer is, those treasures which come to us as a free gift. First and foremost among these is the forgiveness of sins won by Christ through his pain and suffering. Any other treasure we may have in heaven is only ours because we have this primary treasure, Christ Himself and the forgiveness of sins that He grants unto us. And having that treasure, we have all the other riches of heaven as well, riches which will not rust nor fade away nor be stolen by any thieves, which don’t exist in heaven.

As I said, this treasure comes to us as a free gift. It comes to us, however, not through feelings, not through God speaking in our hearts, but through God speaking in our ears, through God washing us with water comprehended in and connected with God’s Word, through the bread and wine which are His body and blood. Because this treasure comes to us through such ordinary-looking Means, and we can’t see the effects of this treasure with our physical eyes, it is tempting to despise it and instead focus upon things we can see. But that’s part of the reason why Lenten discipline is helpful, because it keeps our eyes focused on those treasures in heaven, especially when we give up, or at least temporarily give up the enjoyment of, some of our treasures here on earth.

After all, as I hinted earlier, the events that we are leading up to through our Lenten journey are events in which Christ our Lord gave up everything for us. His entire state of humiliation, from his lowly birth in a stable in Bethlehem, through His rejection by the religious leaders of the day and ultimately even by the people, and finally His painful and unjust persecution, suffering, and crucifixion, were all for us. We take this journey through Lent to Easter because He took that journey for us. He didn’t just give up meat on Fridays as many folks do, not that there’s anything wrong with that. He didn’t just give up alcoholic beverages or desert or what have you. He didn’t just give extra money to the Church or come to an extra service per week; He gave up everything. He, the Lord of heaven and earth, subjected Himself to a human life that involved all of our poverty and sickness, all of our little pains and hurts, all of the anger and bitterness that sin has created between us and our fellow men. He went through all of that, lived for more than thirty years a life in the midst of that sin and sorrow and trouble, and then gave up even that life so that we might be saved. That’s why we give up certain things for Lent, so that the treasures in heaven, which He won for us by that sacrifice, can be more fully and completely appreciated. After all, since we have those treasures, we have it all, and so the pains and sorrows of this world, including whatever Lenten discipline we choose, will not truly affect us, since our heart is with Him and not with the things of this world. We have Christ. Our hearts are lifted up to Him, and He is with us. That’s all that matters. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Transfiguration, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 6, 2011 (The Transfiguration of Our Lord, Series A)

How often have you looked around while you were in Church and said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here?” Probably not all that often. If your old sinful nature is anything like mine, I bet when you come here on Sunday mornings your thoughts more often go like this: “I sure could use a few more hours of sleep.” “(Sigh) Pastor chose that hymn that has 15 stanzas . . . again.” “Well, so-and-so is here. It’s been a while. Wonder what made them come.” “That whole section of the pews is empty. I wonder where everybody is this morning.” “It sure was cold this morning.” And so on. I’m sure all of you could name a thousand different things that go through your minds while you are here that go against what Peter said in this morning’s text.

When we read the story of the Transfiguration, often our first reaction to what Peter says there is to say, well, he’s being silly. After all, his suggestion is pretty dumb. Moses, Elijah, and even Jesus are really in heaven, discussing Jesus’ upcoming death at Jerusalem, and the disciples are merely being allowed a glimpse into that glorious reality. They don’t need tents because they are in the Father’s mansions. But even though Peter’s suggestion is kind of silly, the reason why he suggests it is right on the money. Lord, it is good for us to be here.

It is always good to be where our Lord is, where He has promised to be found. Of course, He is everywhere. But He has not promised to be found everywhere. He has promised to be found where His Word is rightly proclaimed and His Sacraments rightly administered, that is, in the regular worship services of a Christian congregation. Thing is, we can’t always see the glorious reality around which we gather Sunday after Sunday. The disciples couldn’t always see the glorious reality into which Jesus gave them a short peek in this morning’s Gospel. Usually we walk by faith, not by sight, because what sight shows us isn’t so glorious many times. I’m sure many of you have experienced festival worship services that so moved you that you wish every service could be like that. But of course it cannot. This world continues to be an imperfect, sin-filled world, and so therefore what we experience with our senses doesn’t always live up to expectations. Christ Himself could not stay on that mountain, but rather He had to go down and go to Jerusalem so that He could go up a different hill, called Golgotha, and be nailed to a cross. The disciples had to follow Him and endure hatred and persecution from those who killed their Lord. We may not suffer the same things they suffered, but we have a multitude of pains and sorrows and troubles in this world. Even in the Church, where heaven itself comes to meet us in the person of Christ, what we sometimes experience is conflict and turmoil instead of joy and peace. While we remain in this life, the heavenly realities we have in Christ will more often than not be hidden under the earthly pain and sorrow that comes from the sin that lives in every one of us.

But we can take comfort in the fact that Christ has won us the victory over this sin-filled world. The conversation of heaven, which we hear on the lips of Moses and Elijah in the presence of their God, and which St. Luke records for us as being a discussion of Jesus’ upcoming death at Jerusalem, is the same as the content of the Holy Scriptures, and it is what we preach. Christ suffered, died, and rose again for us. Christ won the victory for us by His death, and proclaimed that victory over sin, death, and the devil to the whole world by His glorious resurrection. It is precisely because Christ suffered on the cross that our sufferings will eventually have an end. It is precisely because He bore the guilt of our sins and endured the punishment we deserved that we can stand in the presence of God. Peter had quite recently asked Jesus to go away from him because he was a sinner. Now Peter wants to stay with Christ forever. This transformation is only possible because of our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection. It’s no wonder that even in heaven, the redemption that Christ won for us will be the focus of our conversation and our worship, even as it was, and still is right now, by the way, for Moses and Elijah. Even the Father tells us to listen to the One who was Crucified. St. Paul sets the example for all pastors when he writes to the Corinthians that He knows nothing among his congregations except Christ, and Him crucified. This stark and gruesome execution is in fact the most glorious reality in a heaven full of wonders and glory, because it was precisely through this event that we are able to enjoy the bliss of heaven.

The glorious vision of heaven ended. Christ’s clothing no longer looked like the sun. Once again he appeared to be an ordinary man. Moses and Elijah were no longer visible. We can imagine that Peter and the others were somewhat disappointed. But they need not have been. They were still in the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth. And because of that the glorious reality they had just seen was also still with them. Where Christ is, there is heaven. The important thing about being in heaven is being with Christ. All the other blessings we will enjoy there are mere side-effects of His glorious presence. And in fact, He is with us right now. Wherever there are two or three gathered in His name, there He is in the midst of them. Through Holy Baptism He has taken up residence in your heart and remade you into new creatures, who will stand with Moses and Elijah before His throne and sing His praises forever. Through Holy Absolution and through the preaching of the Word He is speaking to you the words of eternal life, the words which the Father exhorts you to hear in our text. And through Holy Communion He is feeding you with Himself. The communion liturgy teaches us that where Christ is, there are the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” Moses and Elijah are here with us because Christ is with us, and so are all the other saints, including our own loved ones who have died to this life and who are right now experiencing the joys of eternal life. We may not be able to experience this glorious reality with our five senses. But it is real. What really happens to us on Sunday morning may not be visible to our five senses, but it is in fact the same thing that happened to Peter, James, and John on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured. Heaven itself comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The one who died on the cross for us now gives us Himself, and with Him comes everything else that He has won for us. Where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. How good, Lord, to be here. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +