Sunday, February 19, 2012

Transfiguration, Series B

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 19, 2012 (The Transfiguration of our Lord, Series B)

We are a fairly small church.  That goes without saying.  Now, there are advantages to being a small church, such as you get to know everyone better and the congregation is a much more close-knit group.  I personally prefer it that way.  But there is a certain amount of embarrassment that sometimes goes along with being a small church, too.  When you talk to certain church officials and certain pastors of larger churches, there is often an implication that if a congregation isn’t growing by leaps and bounds, that church isn’t doing its job and probably ought to change the way it does things in order to attract more people.  Of course, getting warm bodies in the pews isn’t the point, bringing them Christ is the point, and often what some churches do to attract people, meeting felt needs and so on, focus attention away from Christ and on the people’s own selfish desires and tastes.  But it is tempting to be jealous of their numbers, and to feel shame when the pastors of such churches brag about how “successful” they are, by the world’s terms anyway.  And of course, many of you remember that there have been times when our congregation had considerably more members than she does now.  But in this old sinful world there are good times and bad times, and this congregation has seen its share of both.  Even though we long for a return to the “good old days” when many more people were coming to Church than are right now, we can’t go back in time.  We can only go forward.  We can work to see to it that more people join our congregation; we can confess our faith to our friends and neighbors and invite them to come and see where it is that our faith and confidence in Christ is strengthened and nourished.  But rebuilding the numerical size of a Church in a healthy way is usually a long, slow process, one in which there is no guarantee of success, because only God can turn a person’s heart, and in the meantime our lack of numbers and our lack of growth can sometimes be depressing, especially for those who remember days gone by.

But we see in this text that we need not be depressed or discouraged about our church.  For Christ is with us.  And where Christ is, there are the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  There are more Christians here today than any of us realizes.  In fact, the number of those who worship with us is more than anyone can number.  Even if there were only two of us gathered for worship, myself and one other member, Christ would still be with us, because where two or three are gathered in His name, He is in the midst of them.  And that means that the whole Church and all the hosts of heaven are also with us when we gather around His real presence.

In today’s text, we see Jesus choose His three closest disciples and lead them up onto a mountaintop.  This is the point in Jesus’ ministry when He sets His face toward Jerusalem.  He begins the long, slow journey that will eventually result in His death for our sins.  This journey would be a depressing and confusing one for the disciples, since to them it would seem like their Lord had gone crazy.  He is heading toward the one place where human wisdom and common sense tells them He absolutely must avoid.  He is heading straight for a sure and certain death at the hands of the chief priests and the Roman government, and that’s suicidal madness as far as worldly thinking is concerned.  And so the disciples would be sorely tried and tested over the next months, as they will have to face a series of events that will seem like the defeat and collapse of everything their Master has being doing throughout His ministry.

To prepare them for this, to strengthen them for this, Jesus undergoes the transfiguration we see in today’s text.  Because to the disciples it will look like their church is falling apart and being destroyed by their leader’s supposed mistake of going to Jerusalem, Jesus strengthens them and reassures them by letting them see the heavenly reality of Who it is that is with them.  He lets them see some measure of what He looks like to those who have been glorified in heaven.  He lets them see two of the saints who are with Him in eternal life, Moses and Elijah.  He does all this because the disciples need to know that there is more going on than what they will see with their own eyes.  They are not being misled or betrayed by Jesus when He gives Himself up into the hands of the authorities.  Instead, all these things are happening according to God the Father’s plan.  Jesus cannot truly be defeated because He is God the Son.  The cross is not a defeat for Christ, even though that is what it looks like.  Instead, death is swallowed up by death.  It’s sting is lost forever.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, it may be tempting for us to be troubled when things aren’t going as well for the Church as we would like.  It may be tempting to feel that God has turned His back on us or that we are somehow doing something wrong in terms of the way we worship or the way we live as Christians.  It can be tempting to think that God has abandoned us.  But make no mistake about it, to think this way is a temptation is from Satan.  No one else but Satan would want us to think that God has abandoned us or is punishing us in some way because our congregation isn’t outwardly as strong or as healthy as we would like.  God has not abandoned us, even if we aren’t where we would like to be as a congregation right now.  He hasn’t abandoned us, any more than He abandoned His disciples.

There is one thing needful in our lives as Christians and as a congregation.  That one thing needful is Jesus Christ.  And with Christ comes a multitude of blessings.  With Christ comes the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.  Giving us these things is the purpose of the Church, and so if we receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation from God here, our church is doing what it is supposed to.  Yes, it would be good to see more people here, especially younger people, and we should all encourage our friends and neighbors to join us here so that more do come to receive God’s salvation.  But if even only one person comes to faith through the preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments here—even if only one person is transferred from the realm of eternal death and hell into the blessedness of eternal life, our Church is serving its purpose.  Even if we don’t gain any new members, simply the fact that this Church is helping those members we now have to continue to be strengthened in their faith and kept on the narrow road that leads to the kingdom of God—this fact itself indicates that Christ is present with us and doing His work among us.  And that’s all we need to know.

And as I mentioned before, there are far more here than you can see and count.  The true number of those gathered here today is greater than anyone knows except for God alone.  For where Christ is, there all the saints are present as well.  Where Christ is, there are Moses and Elijah.  Where Christ is, there are Peter, James and John.  Where Christ is, there are Augustine, Luther, and all the other great theologians of Church History.  Where Christ is, there is the incredible number of nameless ordinary Christians who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith over the course of the centuries.  Where Christ is, there are our own loved ones who have died in the faith.  Where Christ is, there are our loved ones who are still living and continuing in the Christian faith in other places.  Where Christ is, there are the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven.  And Christ is present among us now, as we have gathered in His name.  He is present not only in His Word but also and especially in His body and His blood.  We gather here to be strengthened by Him in their presence.  We join with them in their songs of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.”  We join them as they celebrate the victory feast of the lamb who was slain.

So, are we a small Church?  I’d say that, no, we aren’t.  For there are thousands upon thousands worshiping with us today.  We all gather around the true altar where the Lamb makes Himself both the host and the meal in the victory banquet which is held in His honor.  This heavenly reality is revealed to us through God’s Word in order to strengthen us as we face the trials of life in this sinful world, where we cannot see or hear this great cloud of witnesses.  Our congregation is nothing less than a visible manifestation of the otherwise invisible one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church which we confess in the Nicene Creed.  Are we a small church?  Of course not!  How can our Church be small, when all the host of heaven can fit in here with us?  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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