When I get to heaven, I’ll say “thanks be to God,” and greet loved ones already there. Then I want to ask the disciples what they thought about Jesus before Good Friday. After all, they had no Christmas stories of angels and shepherds, no Sunday school songs or pictures, no stirring hymns about faith and life-long devotion.
Their calendar was not divided before the birth of Christ and after the birth of Christ. They could not look ahead to Resurrection morning. Certainly they thought when he died, they would put his body in a tomb and walk away. But before that, what did they say when he was not around, when he went off alone two or three days or more? They saw him as a rabbi, one more good teacher, but still, only that.
There were other miracle-workers and magicians who could do mind-boggling wonders, some similar to the miracles of Jesus. Maybe he was not all that outstanding, at least not until he raised Lazarus – but that was in the same week he was brought to trial. Maybe Jesus was after all, another great prophet.
So when I get to heaven, if it seems important, I want to ask them: “When did you suspect Jesus was different? Did you think he had tapped into eternal life, so that no matter what happened, he would survive? Did you suspect before Easter that because of him, death might not be a disaster?”
As Christians, we look at death differently. There is a lovely and delicate phrase in the funeral service which describes the result of living in faith. We pray for God to give us his aid so that we see in death the gate to eternal life. Isn’t that a lovely way to talk about death – the gate to eternal life?
But before Resurrection, the disciples did not seem to grasp who he was. Now he was headed for Jerusalem. He had told enough stories, re-interpreted the prophets, and taught them how to pray. They had been in the boats when he directed them to put down their nets again, for that great catch. They’d seen him give sight to the blind. He raised the widow’s son at Nain.
They heard him talk about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you, and still they did not know how he and the Father were related. Now the authorities were after him. They had heard more about him than they wanted to accept. He had violated every code and custom, including eating with tax collectors and sinners.
With all that talk about the kingdom of God, he was guilty of insurrection and treason. He must be silenced. He knew his end was near. So before the final act of his life, something more was needed. He took his three most trusted disciples apart on the mountain.
As he prayed, his face became bright like the face of Moses when he carried the commandments down from Mt. Sinai. Suddenly, here stood Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets personified in the greatest characters of God’s unfolding drama with his people! And the light! There was silence, and poor Peter was so overcome he made remarks that were just out of place. Then, the moment was over.
If the disciples had missed everything else, could they misunderstand God’s voice saying here was his Son? Beneath all the suffering that was still ahead of him, there was a hidden glory. He was at least equal to Moses whom God had appointed to bring his people to the Promised Land. He was at least equal to Elijah and other prophets who had promised the God would send a deliverer. The transfiguration announced to the world that God has broken into his world again, saying, “Now I have intervened. I live in both heaven and earth.”
Sometimes we might imagine God in the director’s chair while our real-life story is being filmed. And like actors, we call on the director to re-write these lines, cancel this or that scene, to make us more prominent. We wish God would stop the rain and turn on the sunshine, or the reverse, depending on whether the crops need sun or water. But I don’t think the Bible intends us to think or believe like that. Instead, God’s intervention in history gave us Jesus Christ. Through him, we have a new awareness of God’s glory at work in the world. I rather think we would profit from taking the example of Moses to heart.
He had struggled with his people 40 years in the desert. Sometimes against their will and certainly against all odds, he brought them to the last mountain before the Promised Land. But he was to be denied that final step.
He went up on Mt. Nebo and looked over into the land of promise. He came down satisfied in his heart that he had fulfilled God’s purpose for him. It was enough for him to see that what he had dreamed of, was out there. He held in his heart what he did not have in life.
The land was out there for his people, and that was enough for him. God takes care of his own. Somebody sent me a birthday card which had golf clubs on the front. I gave up golf over 30 years ago, but I could still understand the sketch inside. Here was a golf bag attached to its little pushcart, next to the flag on the 9th green. And the ball was six inches from the hole. Not good enough Underneath was the 19th verse from the 4th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”
In so many ways so much greater than getting the ball into the cup, God is in charge and will take care of his people. When we are in trouble, do we remember our faith? Do we remember that we are people of God? Do we remember that God is with us?
After all, we ought to have something of an edge on the disciples. Most of us have been with Jesus for a lifetime of teaching and learning, of worship and response, of receiving gifts from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We have had a lifetime of participation in Word and Sacraments, the treasures of the church. But when something turns us around and we’re moving in the wrong direction, when good health suddenly disappears, when temptations overcome us and we doing something inappropriate for a Christian,when guilt and frustration suggest that things will never work out – do we act as though we have not known God? And do our works reflect our faith?
Someone put the question this way: If being a Christian were outlawed and you were accused of being Christian and put on trial, would you be able to give enough evidence to be convicted?
When Bea and I attended the newcomer’s class at First Lutheran, in Greensboro, we met a man whose devotion and piety left no doubt that he is a believer, although we are worlds apart in explaining the faith. Don had enormous trials and troubles in life, illness of his wife, depression, divorce and death of his children, unwelcome career moves, disasters of all kinds too numerous to catalog. He has worn out several Bibles.
When I was awaiting heart surgery a few years later, I sent word to a certain pastor, asking him to come to the hospital and do what pastors are supposed to do. He selected Psalm 34 to read. I heard it in a new way. I asked someone to make a copy so I could have it with me throughout. It is still on my desk.
The verse that meant the most was this: The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in Spirit. Shortly after I returned home, I heard that Don had suffered another domestic tragedy. I phoned him, and after we talked a while, I said, “Don, let me give you a verse.” I quoted from the 34th Psalm. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” Then I waited for him to reply.
There was a long, long silence. Finally he said, “I became a Christian in 1964. In every Bible I have bought since then, I have written that verse on the title page.” We were both absolutely speechless over the coincidence that the same verse meant so much to each of us.
We were overcome by the power of God’s word – of which God himself said through Isaiah, “As the rain and the snow comes down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth,
“Giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating, So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, But it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Such is the power of God’s word to give us strength in life, to give us a vision in our darkness like that bright light on Jesus while he was on the mountain. God alone can sustain us in this life, day after disastrous day and night after troubled night. One of these days will be our last, but on that day, we will see in death the gate to eternal life.
In the meantime, to light our darkened path, God has given us a glimpse of the life and glory on the other side.
Jesus Christ lives in two worlds at the same time, and so do we. By the power of God, so do we.