On February 22, 2009, I preached for the Sunday morning service held in connection with the WELS School of Worship Enrichment (SoWE) at St. Paul’s First Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, California. The SoWE is a weekend seminar at which several WELS congregations gather to study the purpose of worship, to explore a variety of worship concepts and musical styles appropriate for Lutheran worship, and to make short- and long-term plans for worship in the local parish.
I served as one of the four consultants at the SoWE in North Hollywood on February 21-22. Part of the SoWE weekends involves three special services — including the “regular” Sunday morning service at the host congregation — in which the principles and ideas discussed in the seminar are put to use in actual services. The sermon that follows is the sermon I preached at the Sunday morning service.
JESUS’ TRANSFIGURATION SHEDS LIGHT ON GOD’S WORD
It reveals why we trust in the Word
It reveals why we gather around the Word
Text: 2 Peter 1:16-21
“Jesus died to take away your sins, not your brains.” I have heard that rather crass statement made by people who were ridiculing traditional Christianity and traditional Christians — Christians like you and me. There is an assumption among Christianity’s critics that the Bible is not a historical record, but a collection of religious fiction. If you believe that Jesus was really born of a virgin, that he actually performed miracles, and that he factually rose from the dead, your brain might not be running on all cylinders — so modern thinking goes.
I don’t think Christians should hide from those challenges. I think we should address them directly. The event we remember in worship today has something to say to those who either skeptically or sincerely question the Bible’s accuracy. Today is the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, and each year this particular day in the church calendar is set aside to remember the transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus’ transfiguration was a grand display of his divine glory. The event occurred about six months before his crucifixion, and it was witnessed by three of his closest disciples. You heard about the transfiguration in the Gospel for today (Mark 9:2-9), and in the Second Lesson one of those eyewitnesses, Peter, talks about the transfiguration. Peter’s words in the Second Lesson explain what he saw at Jesus’ transfiguration, but they also address the questions of skeptics who think Scripture should not be taken at face value. We probably wouldn’t have made the connection between transfiguration and defending the Word of God on our own, but St. Peter will teach us this morning how Jesus’ transfiguration sheds light on God’s Word. It reveals why we trust in the Word, and it also reveals why we gather around the Word.
John Shelby Spong. Elaine Pagels. John Dominic Crossan. Bart Ehrman. Do any of those names sound familiar? Those are the names of liberal religious scholars today who dismiss the idea that Scripture is the true, factual Word of God. Maybe you haven’t heard those names, but you probably have heard the theories that they and other similar scholars have proposed. A fairly common consensus about the Gospels is that they do not contain literal, factual stories of Jesus’ life, but that they contain religious portraits designed to show how Jesus, the first-century Jewish teacher, profoundly impacted and transformed people’s lives. If these modern theories are correct, then traditional Christianity has got a big problem supporting its beliefs.
Before we either jump on the latest theory’s bandwagon or bury our heads in the sand and ignore the challenges, it would make sense if we actually checked out the Bible’s record. After all, any theory is only as good as its evidence. So what evidence does the Bible’s record give us? Peter said in our Second Lesson, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
Talk about prophetic words! Peter was writing for his first-century audience, but his words certainly address the challenges and debates of the twenty-first century. Peter knew that some critics of Christianity assumed that it was like any other religion of his day, concocting fictitious stories with a moral message as its basis. Peter attacks that theory head-on. He and his fellow apostles saw Jesus with their own eyes. They witnessed the feeding of the 5,000. They saw Jesus cast out demons, make the lame walk, the blind see, and raise the dead to life. They saw Jesus’ divine power. They saw his physical presence among them. And despite anything ancient and modern critics say, they knew that what they were writing was historical fact, not religious fiction. Peter and the apostles provide eyewitness testimony that would stand up in a court of law, not the hearsay of people who never interacted with Jesus or his close followers. That alone should demonstrate that we aren’t shutting down our brains when we trust the Word of God.
Peter offers a specific example of Jesus’ power and glory that he saw with his own eyes. It’s interesting that he cites Jesus’ transfiguration. He could have cited one of the many miracles of the Messiah’s ministry. He could have cited the resurrection from the dead or the ascension into heaven. But Peter chose to cite the transfiguration. “For [Jesus] received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”
Peter cites an incident from Jesus’ life that he saw with his own eyes and that revealed Jesus’ divine glory as the Son of God. And Peter also cites an incident that came on the heels of an embarrassing incident from his own interactions with Jesus. Just before today’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples that he was about to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die for the world’s sins; then Peter told Jesus that this wasn’t going to happen if he had any say in the matter. Peter’s plans of selfish self-interest did not persuade Jesus. But before heading to the cross, Peter, James, and John saw one glorious glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory and one divine declaration of approval from the God the Father.
What do you suppose Peter wants us to conclude from his eyewitness testimony of the transfiguration? Despite what other world religions claim, despite what the critics of Christianity claim, Jesus’ transfiguration sheds light on God’s Word because it shows why we trust in the Word. God’s Word is fact, not fiction, and that’s reason enough to trust it fully.
With such a compelling reason to believe, why don’t we? Maybe that question shocks you. “Pastor Strey, if there’s any church that believes the Word of God, you know that it’s this church. We stand for a factual, literal, ‘face-value’ approach to the Word of God. How can you say that we don’t trust in the Word?”
One WELS theologian has observed that we have an interesting allegiance to the Word of God. We will defend it to the death. We will defend the virgin birth, the factual record of the miracles, the vicarious atonement at the cross, and the literal resurrection from the dead. But do we always trust that the gospel message alone is the power of God to convert the lost and strengthen the found? Do we believe that proclaiming the gospel facts are enough to bring new souls into the kingdom of God? Or does the Word of God suddenly lose its power, at least in our own minds, when it comes to converting souls and strengthening faith?
If we replace the gospel with pop psychology as the way to get people in the church, we might get them in the church building, but will they be in the Holy Christian Church? If we replace the gospel with practical advice about parenting or relationships or finances, we may bring people to the church for an event, but will they be brought to Christ? If we think we will retain our youth with fun activities, will we be retaining their souls? If we think that our fellowship is best built with potlucks and church sports leagues, could we end up neglecting the real way our Christian fellowship is established through the gospel of Jesus Christ? If we think that they key of worship renewal is all about the style we like, be it new or old, will we inadvertently put ourselves on the path to neglect the substance of the gospel? Certainly there is no sin in youth outings, fellowship events, or musical exploration, but if these things become our way to grow the church, doesn’t that say something about our failure to trust the Word of God?
Thankfully, our Lord Jesus did not rely on our opinions when it came to our salvation. He did not listen to Peter’s advice to avoid the cross, but went down from the mountain of transfiguration and resolutely headed to the cross to be the Savior of the world. Jesus did not worry that our sinful nature would be scandalized when he shed his holy blood and offered his righteous life to redeem us from hell and cleanse us from sin. And Jesus did not fret about what the critics would say when he performed his greatest miracle of all at his resurrection from the dead, which has opened the kingdom of heaven to you and to me. So put your faith in those facts, and trust that the Word will do its work.
If you are a confirmed member of this congregation or another WELS congregation, you went through some version of Catechism class once upon a time. Maybe you went to youth Catechism class during seventh and eighth grade, or maybe you attended an adult Bible Information Class like the “JARS” course offered here at St. Paul’s. But at some point you had a course of instruction in basic Christian teaching. In that course, you probably learned this term: verbal inspiration. Verbal inspiration means that the Holy Spirit directed the Bible writers to record the thoughts and words God wanted them to record. Peter talks about verbal inspiration at the end of our reading: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Earlier, Peter explained that the New Testament Scriptures were reliable because eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry recorded facts from Jesus’ life, not fiction of their own creation. Now Peter adds the Old Testament into the equation and points out a stronger reason for Scripture’s reliability. This is the concept of “verbal inspiration” you learned about at some point in your Christian instruction. The Old Testament Scriptures did not originate with the Old Testament prophets; rather, the Old Testament prophets recorded the words and thoughts that God the Holy Spirit directed them to write. And the same could be said about the New Testament. The apostles didn’t write down their own philosophies and ideas, but they recorded God’s words and thoughts.
If the Bible records facts, and if the Bible is the Word of God, we have every reason in the world to listen to the Word carefully and to gather around the Word regularly as a Christian congregation. Peter said, “We have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Peter wanted his readers to understand that the message about the Light of the world scatters the darkness of sin and unbelief from our hearts. And that’s a message that Peter’s readers today need to hear as much as his original audience.
St. Paul’s is hosting the WELS School of Worship Enrichment this weekend, and this event puts us in mind of worship. So let’s think about what Peter’s words say in respect to worship. Why is it that we gather together for worship each week as a Christian congregation? To get some good moral tips and practical advice for everyday life? To pay our dues to God with a weekly appearance in his house, complete with our offerings and our praises? Worship can become about us all too easily, but our weekly gathering in God’s house should never be about us. If all our righteous acts are like filthy rags before God — to say nothing of our sin! — we do our souls no favors if we focus on even the best intentions of sinful people.
Remember what Peter said about the Word of God in our reading? “We have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it.” Peter knew all too well how easy it was to talk big around Jesus only to shamelessly deny his Lord around others. But he knew that the Scriptures had a message of comfort for sinners like him, and he knew that sinners like us need to hear the very same message.
What better reason do we have to gather in God’s house each week than to hear the Word of God that testifies to Jesus, the incarnate Word? What better news could we announce that the Son of God came into this world to be our brother, our substitute, and our Savior? What better reason do we have to worship than to hear and be strengthened by the message that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, cleanses us from sin? What better news could be proclaimed from this pulpit than the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the proof that our sins are forgiven before God and that eternal life awaits God’s people after this life?
You will never find a greater reason to worship than the story of salvation recorded in the Scriptures. So gather around the Word! Marvel at the miracle of forgiveness that comes to you each Sunday when God’s called servant announces the Lord’s absolution. Wonder at the mystery that Christ is among us as his Word is read from the lectern and as his work is preached from the pulpit. And as we gather around the spoken Word, we also gather around the visible word — the sacraments. Rejoice when the Word of God is combined with the waters of baptism and another soul is brought to repentance and faith. Celebrate the tangible expression of God’s mercy at his altar where Jesus gives you his own body and blood that won your forgiveness and now delivers forgiveness to your own soul.
It has been eight and a half years since I last preached here at St. Paul’s. I left here in August of 2000 as a newly married vicar, and today I return for a visit as a pastor with a wife and two daughters. Last week I told my oldest daughter that daddy was going to preach at a different church this morning — a big, beautiful church with stained glass windows on every wall that tell the story of Jesus’ life. In fact, there’s even a transfiguration window in the balcony. And just like the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, these beautiful windows remind you why we gather here each week. I doubt the members who built this church would have wanted these windows to tell the story of Jesus Christ if they had thought that the Word of God wasn’t trustworthy. And I doubt the members who built this church would have put the story of Jesus in the windows if that wasn’t the main reason we gather. As we say farewell to our Alleluias and follow Jesus’ cross into Lent this week, keep this truth in mind: We come together to gather around the Word — the Word that calls us to follow the cross in Lent and in life, and the Word that alone can inspire true worship from God’s people. Amen.