A Clouded Message

Text: Luke 9:28-36
Date: Transfiguration + Epiphany Last + 2/14/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

“And as [Peter] was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them.”

Clouds can be beautiful, or they can be threatening. When there are no clouds we can look forward either to a wonderfully warm day in the summer or a chilly cold night in the winter. There are fair weather clouds and storm clouds. When clouds hang low, hugging the ground they are called fog and make for dangerous travel. In Michigan we are more familiar with clouds than in many other areas of the United States: a “beautiful peninsula” surrounded by Lake Superior on the upper north, Lake Michigan on the lower west and Lakes Huron, St. Claire, and Erie on the east, statistically it is said five out of every seven days on average is cloudy in the Wolverine state.

Of course clouds can also symbolically express states of mind. When one’s memory becomes clouded it means confused or forgetful. A hopelessly idealistic person is said to have his head in the clouds. Clouds hide or obscure things. Or they can signify destructive power as a mushroom cloud indicates a nuclear explosion.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord closes off the light and revelation of the Epiphany season with a cloud. This cloud signified the presence of God and the recollection of ancient Israel’s desert wanderings after the Exodus being led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and of God’s appearances with Moses in the tent of meeting. As with ancient Israel, Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, spoke with Jesus concerning His “exodus.” Luke is the only evangelist to use this word here, as he is especially interested that his Gentile audience “catch” the significance of things “Jewish.”

And we are interested, too, that the world around us today hear the truth about what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really all about. So often, it seems, however, our message gets clouded over either by our confusing things with unimportant details or even with things not even related to what we really should be proclaiming, or clouded by the cares and concerns of this world in the minds of people.

I recently got into a discussion with someone about how Christians do not grieve the death of a loved one in the same way that an unbeliever might. The lady I was talking with was pretty correct with most of what she said. There was just a little confusion here and there, but nothing that negated the main issue. Nevertheless, you wonder to what extent you ought to clarify any cloudiness in her thinking if for nothing else than the greater comfort of the truth.

But then, as I was driving my car, I saw an electronic sign outside of a church flashing the announcement of their exercise/weight loss class, and I immediately wondered, “Is that a church?” “Is that what the church’s main message or service should be about?” But then I thought of the history of at least the Lutheran Church especially in our country; how it tends often to lose its edge and forget what its main message and work is to be about, and how, when the church forgets that it is to be about proclaiming the Gospel of Christ for the salvation of souls, it tends to turn into only a social work institution of good works or community service providing things like child care, baby sitting, exercise classes, food and clothing banks and so on.

Here is Jesus, with His inner circle of disciples, revealing the glory of His divine nature in the bright, gleaming light shining through His flesh and even His clothing. The eyes of the disciples were closed in sleep at first. But even when they were opened they did not fully realize what they were looking at. That they knew who they were looking at—Moses and Elijah with Jesus—remains a mystery unless you know that it is only God who reveals to sinners His Word. And so it is that the full truth about Jesus must be revealed from above. When people confess it, they simply are saying “yes” to what God has revealed.

The truth about Jesus must be revealed. This means, first, of course, as we say in the explanation of the Third Article of the Creed in the little catechism, “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or (even) come to Him, except that the Holy Spirit call me by the Gospel, enlighten me with His gifts, sanctify and keep me in the one, true faith.” What? On the one hand we are not to wonder why a person does not or cannot believe in Christ. On the same hand we should not be surprised that a person can even be surrounded by Christians or have heard the claims of the Gospel and still not believe. On the other hand, when and as soon as a person says “I believe,” we are not to doubt, but to give glory to God and welcome that person as a member of the family of faith, even amid any remaining doctrinal confusion. Then, with further instruction, that person can grow in faith with us.

Peter proved himself to be the original “theologian of glory.” That is, using Luther’s Biblical categories of the theology of glory and the theology of the cross, Peter was, obviously, impressed with the magnificent, moving, exciting sight of Moses and Elijah and Jesus in holy, heavenly conversation. However, emotions tend to cloud the clear Word. Have you ever had a so-called “mountain top” experience like that? I had one on a retreat in my college days, and then again when I first attended the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University while I was a seminary student. You have a new, inspiring insight into the REALITY of the Gospel and of the worship and fellowship of the Church. And you immediately want to share that new insight with everyone. But, as you share your enthusiasm, you realize something is missing…in the other person. It’s like when telling a joke or a story that “doesn’t work,” you conclude, “well, I guess you had to be there.” Peter was there! “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Then he adds, “and let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah,” in other words, “Let’s hold on to this experience!” Luke comments, “he didn’t know what he was saying.”

You know, it’s okay to share your enthusiasm once in a while. But know that your enthusiasm, your inspiration is not what will communicate the truth, enthusiasm or inspiration to someone else. It is only the Word, through which the Holy Spirit works in His own mysterious ways that a person can receive the gift of this thing called FAITH.

Saints Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus told His disciples to tell no one what they had seen until after the resurrection. That had to be tough, at least at first. But Luke agrees that “they were silent and reported to no one anything of what they had (there) seen.”

We will now lead people into the days of the Lenten season. In doing so, we are telling the world that there is more than the occasional flash of glory that is the Gospel of Christ. In fact, that “more” is, of all things, the cross; death and resurrection. It is only faith that can see the true glory centered in the cross of Christ’s crucifixion. Even the Easter message of the resurrection remains a mystery and hidden if you have not first gone through the cross. There is no glory without first going through the cross. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

That is because our problem is deeper than just a little confusion. Our problem is sin and its wages, death. Christ did not come to put a little cosmetic smile on your face or to cover up our real problem. He came to take on sin, our sin, and death, our death, in order to break its power over us. It took nothing less than His suffering, bloody, sacrificial death to atone for the sin of the whole world. Because of that death, however, God now can look at us, His wrath against sin being satisfied, and declare the sinner righteous for the sake of Christ.

The voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Chosen One; listen to him!” As we remain hearers of the Word, then, faith is built, strengthened and preserved; faith that sustains our hope all the way as we wait for that Day when all “will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mk. 13:26).

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for ev’ry sinner slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of His train:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign. (LSB 336:1)