The Extra Piece
I have a print of a painting that has bothered me for years. I remember it hanging in my grandmother's house when I was a boy. It made it's way to my parent's home when I was a young teen. It has been in my home since 2000. All of this time it has bothered me. A weak, anemic looking young man is playing chess with the devil. The devil is beating him handily. The man looks faint and despairing. A disgustingly fat spider is about to crawl up on the table. Stone lions creep down from the walls. Terrible gargoyles with open mouths standby. And watching all of this is an angel, doing nothing to help but with his head cocked to one side in sympathy.
Peter, James, and John had to be somewhat despairing as Jesus took them away from the other disciples. Six days earlier Jesus had begun to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the church leaders, and be killed. Peter had declared that such a horrible thing would never happen to Jesus. Jesus had rebuked him saying Peter was none other than Satan for trying to keep Him from the cross. So the disciples are trudging up the mountain dispirited if not despairing.
Luke tells you that Jesus was praying on this mountain. Suddenly, Jesus was transfigured before their eyes. His face shone like the sun. His whole body glowed because even His clothes became as white as light. Amazing! Stupendous! Then why is it reported so ordinarily? You can even see this in English. Jesus took these 3 disciples up alone on a high mountain. "There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as light." There is no expression of surprise, or fear, or worship. Just a, "Will you look at that? Jesus is glowing."
Go home and read this account in your King James Bible. It preserves for you what really caused the disciples to sit up and take notice. Not Jesus showing His divine glory in His flesh, but the showing up of Moses and Elijah. The text, after reporting in simple narrative fashion that Jesus was transfigured, says, "Behold! There appeared before them Moses and Elijah." That was exciting! That was Good News! Jesus had been talking so negatively about going to Jerusalem. He had been talking about suffering and dying at the hands of the organized church. That was a real downer, but Moses and Elijah are an upper. Neither one had ever lost a battle. People wanted them dead, but no one ever succeeded in killing them. Moses stood toe to toe with world powers and won; Elijah went head to head with a corrupt church and won dramatically. Peter is just sure everything will be all right if he can just keep Moses and Elijah down here with Jesus.
A transfigured Jesus is no big deal, but Moses and Elijah come from heaven certainly is. So is the appearance of the shekinah, the Cloudy Presence of God. This is the Cloud that went before the Church in the wilderness leading them to the Promised Land. This is the Cloud that dwelled above the mercy seat. This is the Cloud that indicated the visible presence of God. This is very impressive so the text says, "While Peter was still speaking, behold! a bright cloud enveloped Jesus, Moses and Elijah." The Cloudy Presence of God is powerful. It defended the Old Testament Church against Egypt. It led the Church by day and night in an impressive manner. When it descended to meet Moses, it left his face glowing. No one could look at that Cloud and not see God's power. By contrast, when people looked at Jesus, they only saw Mary's Son, the carpenter from Nazareth.
A transfigured Jesus is nice but it doesn't compare to the heroes of the Old Testament Church, Moses and Elijah or to the Cloudy Presence of God. Still there is more. "Behold!", it literally says, "A voice from the Cloud." "When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground terrified." They had been hearing Jesus' voice for 2 years now. Never had that voice terrified them. In fact, on more than one occasion, the disciples had flat said the voice of Jesus was wrong. That's what Peter was saying when he denied that Jesus would ever go to the cross.
The cross is before us too. We grow older not younger. We get sicker not healthier. The world appears poised at the brink of war not peace. And all we have is Jesus who clothes Himself in the Waters of Baptism, in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion, and in the Words of my Bible printed by men or preached by men. What good is Baptismal Water against the fires of lust that are ever-burning in my flesh? What good is Jesus who shows up in Bread and Wine against a devil who shows up in disease and death? What good is the Word in my ears when I have pain, fear, and worry in my body?
I feel no different than that guy in the painting. Everywhere I look on the chess board of life, I'm loosing. Death takes my loved ones and advances relentlessly on me. My Baptism feels as useless as holy water against movie monsters. And Christ feeding me with His own Body and Blood doesn't change the fact that the devil and the world feed on me. Give me someone who is powerful against the enemies of God's people; give me a Moses or an Elijah. Give me the Cloudy Presence of God which no one can deny, not just God in Water, Words, Bread and Wine which everyone can deny. Give me the powerful voice of God, which I am sure sounds like James Earl Jones, not the weak voice of a pastor.
I, like the disciples, feel Jesus is crashing and burning in the world, and I'm going down with Him. I'm the guy in the painting: hopeless, despairing, sure that this life can end in no other way than my defeat. The devil is too cunning, too powerful, and he has more of my pieces than I do of his in this chess game called life.
The other night I was pondering this painting once more sharing the utter despair of the Christian depicted there. Then I started counting chess pieces. The devil had taken more and more important pieces than the Christian. In fact, at the moment captured in the picture, it seems the devil has taken the most important piece. Like myself, all the Christian in the painting had managed to capture was a few weak pieces of the devil's. My victories over against Satan feel that ineffectual. In the midst of this shared-despair, I started counting chess pieces. I had to count them at least a half-dozen times, but there is no doubt about it. The losing, despairing, miserable Christian had an extra piece! The devil had less pieces than the Christian. Yes, that's it. That's the point of the picture, I think. The Christian is in the depths of despair, all but giving up, because he has forgotten that he has more pieces.
So it is with the disciples in our text. They forgot they had an extra piece. It was none other than the Jesus who appeared to them to be so weak, so discouraging, so negative. Everything that happens on the mountain is to bring them to the point of seeing Jesus as their extra piece, their ace-in-the-hole. When Moses and Elijah arrive from heaven, what are they shown as doing? Talking with Jesus. When the Cloudy Presence of God arrives it doesn't just engulf Moses and Elijah, but Jesus too. When the Voice of God speaks, what does it say? "Jesus is My beloved Son. Listen to Him!" When the incident is all over, what do the disciples see? "No one, except Jesus." No heavenly guests, no Cloudy Presence, no Voice of God. Just Jesus.
Jesus is the extra piece that they had been missing, looking past, and the Voice of God convicts them of their sin. It wasn't just the thunderous sound of God's voice that set these disciples to trembling. It's what the voice said. The text says, "When the disciples heard this," that Jesus is the beloved Son and they were to listen to Him, they fell face down terrified. Why? Because they hadn't been listening to Him. They had paid more attention to Moses and Elijah, than they did to what Jesus had been saying. They were more impressed by miracles than they were by the Person of Jesus. They hadn't trembled at and they had even contradicted the words of Jesus. God had to be mad at them. God ought to punish them.
Can we conclude any differently? God calls our Baptism, a life-giving water, rich in grace, but we don't call on it for salvation, do we? God calls His Word pure, powerful, a hammer, and a fire, but we don't hear it that way do we? We filter it through what makes sense, is reasonable, is acceptable to us. God calls Holy Communion the Body and Blood of Christ given and shed for us, yet we think of it as mere bread and wine, an outward symbol, no more powerful than ordinary food and drink. Jesus is the extra piece we have. Jesus is what God the Father gives us to guarantee our victory over sin, death and the devil. Yet, Jesus comes to us in weak Water, Words, Bread and Wine, even as He appeared to the disciples in our text as a weak Man. So both the disciples and us overlook Him.
This is big sin people of God. To treat the holy things of God: Holy Communion, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion as ordinary things, is to profane the holy. To treat the holy things of God according to their outward form rather than according to what God says they are is to deny their power. O if only Holy Baptism glowed with power; if only the holy preaching and teaching of the Word sounded like James Earl Jones; if only Jesus was visible in the Holy Communion, then we would see them for the powerful resources that they are.
But it is the way of God to hide Himself under meek, lowly things, so that He is only seen by Holy Spirit wrought faith. It takes a miracle for us to trust in our Baptisms. It takes a miracle to hear the Word from the lips of a man as if Christ our Lord spoke it Himself. It takes a miracle to bow and kneel before Holy Communion when all that human eyes can see is bread and wine. Live from the miraculous people of God. Live from where the Holy Spirit points you: to Water, Words, Bread and Wine. Know that in them, Christ your Extra Piece, which guarantees your victory is found.
What then of our sins? What then of our overlooking Jesus, our turning our nose up at the Extra Piece, our blatantly not hearing Him? With the disciples we are left trembling on the ground. We've just been directed back to Jesus, to listen to Him, and what does Jesus say to us," Get up; don't be afraid." Here is your forgiveness people of God. Though we haven't used His Means of Grace the way we should; though we haven't trusted in them like we should and even despaired while using them; though we have treated them like Jesus is not really in them. Jesus says, "Get up: Your Baptism is still here. The Absolution is still here. The Communion is still here for you."
You know why that angel is so sad in the painting? I use to think it was because he felt sorry for the Christian who is losing. Now I think it's because the Christian hasn't noticed the extra piece. He's on the verge of utter despair when there's no need to be. Likewise there was no need for the disciples to despair even though they were heading for Jerusalem where Jesus would suffer and die; their powerful God was right there with them in the flesh and blood of Jesus. That's how it is with us too. Should we despair even though our powerful God is on our bodies in Baptism, in our ears by the Word, and in our mouths by Holy Communion? Should we go to pieces when we have all these extra pieces? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Transfiguration (2-10-02) Matthew 17:1-9