From Clark Kent to Superman...and Back
Superheros are frequently hidden under the guise of the ordinary. The Mighty Morphen Power Rangers are everyday high school kids before they morph. Batman is the ordinary if wealthy Bruce Wayne. Spiderman is just another scientist named Peter Parker, and of course the most long lived of superheros, Superman, is the bespectacled, unassuming Clark Kent. All of these superheros go from the ordinary to the extraordinary to right the wrong, defeat the evil and then they go back.
In our text, we see Jesus, the Superhero of superheros going from the ordinary to the extraordinary. What a change comes over Jesus! The text says, "He was transfigured before them." The Greek is literally, "He was metamorphosed before them." There is another Greek word to indicate a change between, for example, a Dutch garden and an Italian one. The word in our text, however, indicates an almost unimaginable change, changing a garden into a city. The disciples at last SEE the truth that all of the fulness of the godhead dwells bodily in the Man Jesus. The transformation reaches to His earthly garments; they are made dazzling white, white as a lightening flash says another Gospel writer.
But that's not all. All of sudden Jesus isn't alone on the mountain. There appear Elijah and Moses talking to Him. Fantastic! At long last the Jesus who had been hounded from city to city by the church leaders is in the company of Moses who had never been run out of anywhere. At long last the Jesus who had been continually criticized by the church leaders for being against Moses has Moses on His side. At long last, the Jesus whom the scribes say could not be the Messiah because Elijah must come first is hobnobbing with Elijah. Jesus is right! Jesus has the superheros from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, on His side!
The change we see going on here is much greater than Clark Kent racing into a phone booth and coming out as Superman. Clark Kent has his glasses, and people shove him around, but even kids can see Superman's muscular chest under his clothes, and his rugged good looks behind his glasses. Not so with Jesus. There was no form or beauty about Him that anyone should desire Him, says the prophet Isaiah. He got tired and hungry sooner than other men. Jesus sleeps in the boat the others do not. Jesus stays at the well hungry and thirsty while the others go into town. He cries at Lazarus's grave, and is sorrowful unto death in Gethsemane. We don't read of the disciples being broken up that much.
But now look. He comes up to this mountain, His phone booth, and BAM! The disciples see that this Jesus is no ordinary man. He glows with heaven's power and light. He radiates a brightness that not even angels can bear. He is in the company of the greatest heros of the Old Testament. This is more amazing to the disciples than a man who is faster than a speeding train, able to leap tall buildings, and stop bullets with his chest. The change from Clark Kent to Superman is like changing a small garden to a big garden. The change that comes over Jesus is like seeing a garden change into a city!
We, or at least, I want the superhero Jesus. I don't want one who goes back to being Clark Kent. I want a Jesus who shows all of His power all of the time, not a Jesus who hides it. I want a Jesus who will show that we are right and all of the world is wrong. I want a Jesus who transfigures His people with all of His heavenly glory, so that everyone far and wide can look and see that the people of God are right here. I don't want a Jesus who hides Himself in the words of an ordinary sinful person like myself. I don't want a Jesus who hides Himself in Water and in Bread and Wine. It isn't even special water or special bread and wine for crying out loud. The water comes from the City of Austin; the bread comes from a bookstore and the wine from Mogen David!
I do not want a Jesus who is always loosing. He was pushed and chased around while He walked this earth visibly, and He doesn't do any better today. People who want to close our streets to have a road race during our service can do it. People who don't want to believe in Him are free to and nothing bad happens to them. People can say evil things about Jesus and His people, and no lightening strikes, no thunder rolls. Read what happened when people didn't show proper respect to Moses and Elijah. The earth opened up and swallowed those people or fire came down out of heaven and burnt them to a crisp. That's the side I want to be on!
I do not want a Jesus who apparently is at the mercy of sin, death, and the devil. He didn't shake the sins of the world off and come down victoriously from the cross; that's what Superman would have done. When faced with a sinner's death in Gethsemane, what did He do? Cried like a baby and begged His heavenly Father to have this cup pass Him by. I've seen Superman faced with death, and he didn't cry or beg. That's something Clark Kent would do. You see the problem isn't that Jesus went from Man to Superhero, but He went back to Man hiding His super powers. If only He had kept showing His power and might. If only He had quit humbling Himself and not reached the point of a miserable death on a cross.
But wait a minute. While Superman might do pretty good in the face of death, He isn't any good against sin and the devil. For that matter, not even Moses and Elijah were any good against sin, death, or the devil. O sure Moses had all those laws against sin, but did they stop sin? No, according to St. Paul they only multiplied sin. And wasn't even Moses Himself kept out of the Promised Land by sin? He sinned when he didn't believe what the Lord said about water from a rock. Was Elijah any good against the devil? O sure he was magnificent when he stood up to the 850 demonic prophets, but all the wicked Queen Jezebel had to do was threaten him, and he was ready to give up in the battle against Satan.
But I suppose you think that since Moses and Elijah are standing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, they defeated death. No, they didn't the Scriptures plainly say Moses died. While it is true that Elijah was carried to heaven in a whirlwind alive, he certainly didn't do anything to defeat death. Had the Lord left him on earth he would have died. So not even superheros Moses and Elijah are a match for sin, death and the devil. Now you know why the Father sweeps them back to heaven in the Divine cloud. They could be no help in the Lenten days ahead. But guess what? Superhero Jesus is no match for sin, death, and the devil either, and that's why He goes back to being Clark Kent.
I can see by your troubled faces, that I had better explain. Of course, God in flesh and blood can take on sin, death, and the devil. We see this clearly in the Gospels. With just a word He sent the sins of the paralyzed man away. He touched the dead and they came to life. The demons could not help but bow before Him. So Jesus is certainly able to take on sin, death and the devil in His power and might and defeat them totally. But if He did that, you and I would be totally damned.
The issue as we head into Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday is not Jesus defeating sin, death and the devil for Himself but for us. For that we don't need a superhero but a Clark Kent. We need someone who can take our place, and in case you haven't noticed, our place is not that of superhero but Clark Kent. We are at the mercy of sin, death and the devil. We cannot stop sinning. We are no match for the devil, and we die by simply stopping our heart beat. We need someone to stand in our Clark Kent shoes and bear the punishment we deserve, die our sinful death, and defeat the devil. Sin, death and the devil can be defeated for the Clark Kents of the world only by a Clark Kent keeping the holy Law for them, yet dying for their sins. By a Clark Kent who is innocent dying the death of us guilty Clark Kents. If Jesus had overwhelmed Satan with His divine power and might, Satan would've been overcome by God, but our sins would still need paying for and our death still need dying.
So before Lent we do not see Jesus rushing into a phone booth and coming out as Superman. We see Him rushing into a phone booth, coming out as our Superhero, but going back in only to come out as Clark Kent. We need to know that the Jesus who suffers and dies for us is our Lord. His life and suffering are holy enough to keep God's Law perfectly. His blood is rich enough to really cover our sins. But we need to see that Jesus suffers all of these things as a Clark Kent, just like us. There can be no doubt in our mind that it is Him for us. That He lives in our place. He suffers in our place. He dies in our place.
Our focus during Lent is on Clark not Superman, on the God-Man under the cross. That's why today we are burying the alleluias. This is a custom dating back 900 years where the Church foregoes singing any alleluias for Lent. Alleluia is our Easter song of victory, our song of joy. We mute our joy during Lent. We won't sing the Triple Alleluia before the Gospel reading. We won't sing the joyous song of the Christmas angel, the Gloria in Excelsis either. Furthermore, we add another service on Wednesdays to our already full schedules just so we can give special attention to those precious last days of our Lord's life.
In the old custom of burying the alleluias, they were physically buried. A banner with several alleluias was paraded around the church during the singing of the Alleluia hymn on Transfiguration Sunday. Then it was buried in a small coffin. The small coffin was either placed under the altar or somewhere else where the congregation could see it during Lent. On Easter morning the congregation arrived to find the coffin open and the alleluias out.
Why this custom? To emphasize the fact there is a time to remember our sins and what our Savior had to go through to deliver us from them. To recognize that while our Savior was in the depths of the dark valley of our sins, no one sang alleluias to Him. No one sings the praises of a Clark Kent, do they? Praises and thanksgiving belong to Superman not Clark. Ah but even as we are not singing our alleluias, even as we are watching each step Jesus takes to our cross, we know He is really the Super Man who is God. We know that He is going to be nailed to the cross as helpless Clark Kent, but He is coming out of that grave as Superman never to be weak, humble, subservient Clark again. You see He only goes back to being Clark on Transfiguration Sunday for us and our salvation. Once that's done He's forever our Super Man who is God.
As in many other things, the Christian truth is the opposite of what the world thinks. The world thinks Power Rangers must morph and Clark must change into Superman in order to defeat evil. In Christianity, the Super God must become an ordinary man in order to defeat evil for us. For that we sing our alleluias. For that we mute them for a time. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of our Lord (3-5-00) Mark 9: 2-9