Last Stop before Lent
"Last Free Exit" reads a sign before the toll road begins. "Last Stop for Gas" reads a sign before the desert begins. "Last Rest Area for 87 Miles" a sign on the freeway reads. "Better stop here before going on" all of these signs really say, and that's what the Transfiguration says to us.
Really? Why stop here? Why stop to see Moses and Elijah, two big heroes of the Old Testament, talking with Jesus? Don't misunderstand me; I think this is neat. Here we have proof positive that those in heaven know each other; we also have proof that those dying in Christ don't live some bodiless, formless existence till the resurrection. Moses who died and was buried appears no less than Elijah who was taken alive into heaven. And you could take Moses as the representative of the Law and Elijah as representative of the prophets (though why neither Isaiah, Jeremiah, nor Ezekiel who wrote so much were chosen and Elijah who wrote nothing was is a mystery).
As neat as all this is, why does our Lord have us stop here before He starts the journey to the cross? In Mark only a couple of chapters stand between Transfiguration and Holy Week. And these chapters are dominated by Jesus' words about His suffering, dying, and rising. His rejection by the Church and crucifixion by the State ring out like hammer blows in a blacksmith shop in chapters 9 and 10 till the Palm Sunday crowds drown them out with their cheering in chapter 11.
So why before what we know as Lent do Moses and Elijah show up on earth again? Because this ties what Jesus is about to do with the fulfilling of the Old Testament. Listen to the last 3 verses of the Old Testament: "Remember the law of Moses my servant, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse."
Here is Moses back on earth and they are to "remember the law of Moses." Here is the return of Elijah. He's here to turn the hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers so that the Lord will not come and strike the land with a curse. Right before Lent we stop at the end of the Old Testament. Right before Jesus gives the New Testament in His Blood we look at where the Old left off, and it's not a pretty sight.
Remember the Law of Moses? Jesus' ministry showed it broken at every turn. From thinking men did something for God by keeping the Sabbath, to setting aside the Law of God in favor of their own traditions, to thinking they could lust and hate in their hearts all they wanted as long as they didn't act them out, to cleansing their bodies religiously while ignoring the defilement of their souls, Jesus showed the law of Moses convicted them all.
As for Elijah showing up, what a downer that was. On the way down from this mountain the disciples will take that as a positive, but Jesus will say: John the Baptist was in effect Elijah and they did whatever they pleased to him. Far from turning anybody's heart to anyone else's, they chopped his head off. Their chopping John's head off only brought a heavier curse on the land.
So this last stop is kind of like Scourge's. The Old Testament only leads us to the graveyard, to judgment. All the laws of Moses cannot save us; all the miracles of Elijah can't turn our hearts around. That's why at this last stop God almighty takes Moses and Elijah back to heaven, and "They no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus."
Imagine if at the last stop before crossing the dessert they took gas out of your car and water bottles out of your cooler. Imagine if at the last rest area the bathrooms were out of order. That's kind of what happened to Peter. Right before the Transfiguration God the Father had revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the living God. Once the disciples had this truth, Jesus gave them the truth of the cross, the truth of Lent, the truth of ashes, blood, suffering and dying without the alleluias. And Peter said to the theology of the cross what I do, "No way; no how; ain't going to happen." Jesus then called Peter Satan and went on to say not just He was going to the cross but all of His disciples too.
But now the cavalry had shown up. Moses enemies were swallowed up by the earth; Moses plagued Egypt's gods and delivered God's people. He was on the scene now. And so was Elijah the prophet who had slaughtered hundreds of prophets of Baal and put the fear of God into kings. The cavalry had arrived and Peter intended to keep them. No more of this talk of being betrayed, rejected, and crucified, not with Moses and Elijah on your side, but then they were gone. Totally gone; Moses didn't leave his staff and Elijah didn't leave his cloak. Nothing but Jesus only. Some rest stop; some gas stop; some last stop before Lent.
But Jesus only is what I need if I'm to find comfort in the last verses of the Old Testament. Keep Moses before my eyes and all you do is keep my sin and guilt. I don't remember how he plagued Egypt's gods; I remember that I should be plagued for my not fearing, loving or trusting in the true God. I don't remember how he delivered the people of God; I remember how I should be delivered over to death and the devil for my sins against his laws.
And the Old Testament doesn't end pointing me to the many physical miracles Elijah did, but by telling me what happens if Elijah doesn't succeed in doing the spiritual miracle of turning the hearts of men. And I see that he failed. I see how the one dressed exactly like Elijah was murdered by a father for the sake of his child. I see that the land, all land, only deserves more cursing.
So I don't want to be a Peter. I don't want to try to keep Moses and Elijah before my eyes as I head into Lent. I need Jesus only. Who is the only Man ever to keep the Law of Moses? Not even Moses but Jesus only. Who is the only Man the Law of Moses can't accuse? Jesus only. Moses and his law can only fill your mouth, your ears, your eyes, your heart, your soul with you better, you must, you should and with you haven't, you don't, and can't. Only Jesus can not be convicted of breaking even one of Moses' laws.
You don't need Elijah either. You need Jesus only. Our sinful, fallen bodies and souls with their hearts not turned upward to God or outward to others but only inward toward self deserve to be cursed, damned, punished, but that only happened to Jesus. He who didn't deserve to be cursed, damned, or punished because He was pure of heart was cursed in our place. If you're going forward into Lent, you need Jesus only because not only can't you bear the Law of Moses you sure can't bear the curse of Elijah.
But wait; don't go yet. Before you go on with your Lenten journey and see what Jesus does you must be thoroughly grounded in who Jesus is, i.e. before you go on with Lent you must take one last look at Epiphany, Christmas, and Advent. The text itself tells you that; God the Father Himself tells you that straight from heaven by telling you three things about Jesus: He's His Son; He's loved; He's to be listened to .
This flesh and blood Man whom you will see bloodied, beaten, overwhelmed with sorrow, crying, and abandoned by God is God the Son. You're not getting this if you think Jesus is God in some lesser sense than the Father. No this Man is God of God, Light of Light, Begotten not Made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. You got to get this because unless God keeps the Law for you, it's not kept well enough; unless it's God's Blood shed on the cross there is no way your sins can be covered and the curse removed from you.
Second the Father is saying something more than He loves the Son. In the Greek the Father says, "This One is the Son of Me, the Beloved." This not only says that the Father has special affection for the Son but exclusive affection. The Man Jesus who will be given to drink and drain the cup of curses we deserve is the Beloved of God. Even though He won't want to do it the Father wills for His Beloved to do it for you. The flesh and blood Man hanging on the cross suffering an eternity of hell compressed into hours is God's Beloved, and God will turn from Him so He can turn toward you.
One last thing to remember before we continue into Lent on Wednesday. "Listen to God the Son, the Beloved." Don't listen to the accusations of the Law once they've terrified you, slain you, and hell is opened before your eyes to swallow you. Listen to Jesus only. Don't listen to the curses the Law pronounces against the person who sins but once. Listen to Jesus who became a curse for you.
And just where should you be listening for Jesus to speak? Not in your heart which Scripture describes as deceitful and desperately wicked. Not in the world which Scripture describes as being under the power of the evil one. Listen to Jesus in Scripture this Lent. You'll hear Him say such incredible things as: "Father forgive them." "Fear not." "Peace be unto you." "Take eat; take drink; this is My Body given for you; this is My Blood shed for the remission of your sins." Never did Moses or Elijah speak this way. Never did the Devil, the World, or your own Flesh speak this way. The Beloved, God the Son does. Listen to Him.
As we step off into Lent on Wednesday, so carefully will we be listening that we won't even allow alleluias to get in the way. We will be hanging on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, not on our joy or our praising of God's good and gracious works. Nope we leave our joy and our alleluias here at this last stop before Lent and pick them up on our first stop Easter morning. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of our Lord (20120219); Mark 9: 2-9