The Last Sunday after Epiphany: Transfiguration

Preached: February 14, 2010

Remember What's Ahead
Psalm 73:1-28

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit stirs our hearts is Psalm 73

A psalm of Asaph.

Surely, God is good to Israel, to the pure of heart.

But as for me, my feet nearly went out from under me. My life's way was poured out as nothing.

For I envied the arrogant boasters. I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For there weren't any chains leading them to death. Their bellies were well-fed.

They didn't toil like men. They weren't stricken with the rest of humanity.

So pride was their necklace and violence covered them as a garment.

Their eyes bulged out looking for more, and conceited schemes ran through their heart.

They mocked and spoke wickedly. They used their high position to threaten and extort.

They placed their mouths in heaven; their tongues strutted on earth.

So his people turned there, and abundant waters are guzzled by them.

They say, “How does God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

See! These are the wicked. They make their wealth grow while always at ease.

Surely, I kept my heart pure and washed my hands clean for nothing.

I have been stricken all day long and rebuked every morning.

If I say, “I will speak like this,” behold, I would betray the generation of your children.

I was contemplating how to know this. It's a toil in my sight, until I went to the sanctuary of God. Then I understood their end.

Surely, you have set them in slippery places. You make them fall into ruin.

How they waste away in a moment! They completely come to an end from destruction.

O Lord, when you awake, you despise their images like a dream on awakening.

When my mind soured and I was pricked in my heart, I was a brute and did not know. I was like cattle toward you.

But I am always with you. You hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you take me into glory.

Whom do I have in heaven besides you? Besides you there is nothing on earth I delight in.

My flesh and my heart fail. God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever.

For look! Those who are far from you will perish. You put an end to all who commit adultery against you.

But as for me, it is good for me to be near God. I have made the Lord God my shelter to recount all your works. (Psalm 73:1-28)

This is the Word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

1. What troubling question did Asaph face, just as we do?

He was a mid-west boy born in Iowa, growing up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, his parents now living in Duluth, but he was in Haiti helping the poor. Young and full of life, only twenty-five years old, but he, along with Renee his wife of two years and his cousin Jonathan, was in Haiti to help. That morning he had assisted a nurse in caring for the needy in the slums of Port-au-Prince. That evening he lay crushed under the collapsed ceiling of St. Joseph's Home for Boys. Another fatality of the earthquake of January 12. (adapted from
http://www.webfh.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=289870&fh_id=10527 and
http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/02/08/loss-in-haiti/ both retrieved on 12 Feb 2010).

That's but one story. We could come up with many more stories of bad things happening to good people or good things happening to bad people even though they only continue in their wickedness. Our times are no different from any other era of history. God's people have wrestled with that age-old question. Why follow God when the wicked prosper and the faithful suffer?

As we stand before Jesus with Peter, James, and John on the mount of Transfiguration today, we find comfort in our struggle with this question and strength to persevere, as we remember what's ahead. It's the same comfort and strength that Asaph received from God as he struggled with that question in Psalm 73. This comfort and strength does not come from receiving a reasonable explanation to satisfy our human sense of fairness. Rather these words of comfort plummet to the depths of our being to underpin our faith with the Lord's promises. They bring a depth of comfort and a richness of strengthen that reason cannot fathom. May the Holy Spirit be our guide as we mine the word of God recorded in Psalm 73 and through it remember what's ahead.

Asaph was a temple musician at the time of King David. As he writes this Psalm, he recalls how he almost fell from faith. He writes, “But as for me, my feet nearly went out from under me. My life's way was poured out as nothing. For I envied the arrogant boasters. I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:2, 3).

Why did the evil prosper while God's people suffered? They strut around like fat cats. There bellies full and their life's just one good time after another. Even the prospect of death doesn't chain them down. They don't have to work hard or suffer in the ways the rest of us do. Their always looking for more, dreaming big, taking what they want, no matter who or what gets in their way. They boast and brag strutting around with their tongues, even challenging God. And they get away with it. They just keep guzzling more and more. Always living at ease and growing bigger.

Why bother following Jesus? Why struggle against sin? Why keep our hearts pure? Why face guilt day after day? Rather embrace the good life. Grab what you can for yourself. Claw your way past others. Ignore the guilt. For look at how successful those people are who so ruthlessly put themselves first!

That's what Asaph saw, and he felt himself pulled into that kind of thinking. Trying to figure out how the wicked prospered while God's people suffered was too much for his mind. It was a wearisome burden. It was too much for him. Yes, it was too difficult until he went into the sanctuary of God.

2. Where do we meet our God when troubled by such questions?

Where do we go to meet our God? What is the sanctuary we enter to find his wisdom? It's the pages of Scripture, isn't it? Through the words of the Bible we encounter our God. He brings us into his presence and speaks his word to us with letters written in ink. “Sanctify them by the truth,” Jesus prayed, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17 NIV). That's the sanctuary we enter to meet our God.

As you see Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus at the Transfiguration, remember that these were men God revealed his Word to. He used them to record and proclaim his Word. Their testimony still sounds out today through the Scriptures. Through his written Word, God reveals himself to us. He reveals what we could never learn or discover on our own. He reveals what's ahead.

3. What's ahead for those without God?

What did Asaph learn? That without God, all is lost. Yes, those arrogant boasters might appear as if they have it made. But even if they make it through this life with earthly wealth and pleasure, what's waiting for them? Even the richest and most powerful die just as the poorest pauper does. And without a Savior, death brings hell and damnation, torture and torment, fire and fury.

It might not look that way to human sight. They might be praised in death and even remembered for generations to come. But God's Word clearly reveals how lost they are. The Son of Man, when he returns in glory with his angels, will say to them, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 NIV). How true what Asaph wrote in Psalm 73: “Surely, you have set them in slippery places. You make them fall into ruin. How they waste away in a moment! They completely come to an end from destruction. O Lord, when you awake, you despise their images like a dream on awakening.” (Psalm 73:18-20).

Heed the warning, dear friends. Don't be deceived by the appearance of happiness and success. Don't look on like a dumb cow chewing its cud, wondering how to satisfy your appetites. How often the Lord's way seems so hard and blending in with the world so easy! Could it really be all that bad? Couldn't we compromise just a little? Couldn't we just sample its pleasures sometimes?

But what happens when you're driving on icy roads and you take that curve just a little too fast? It doesn't take much, and you're spinning out of control. “Surely, you have set them in slippery places” (Psalm 73:18). Don't be foolish toward the Lord and his ways, pushing the limits as if you didn't know better. “When my mind soured and I was pricked in my heart, I was a brute and did not know. I was like cattle toward you” (Psalm 73:21).

4. How does God comfort us with his presence?

Rather, dear friend, see how much you need your God. My learning, my effort, my trying all slip and fall. I am lost without my God. But our God has come to us. He came in flesh and blood, born from Mary, the virgin. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” The disciples saw him, watched him, heard him, touched him. They have testified through the words of the Holy Spirit. Their testimony brings our God, Jesus Christ, to us. And you yourself touch your God as you eat his body and drink his blood in the Supper. He is with you and me in that marvelous, miraculous, sacramental way as well. Through faith in Jesus, we can pray like Asaph: “But I am always with you. You hold me by my right hand” (Psalm 73:23).

So even though in our weakness and ignorance we still stumble and slip, yet we will not fall. For your God holds your hand, just as a father or big brother holds the hand of little child so that she does not fall on the ice. Remember that when you face the troubles and difficulties of life, when you wonder why bad things happen to you, when you wonder why those who hurt you seem to get away with it, remember dear friend, dear child of God, remember your God is with you. He holds your right hand. What comfort! What strength!

So walk in his word. That's how we stay with him. Walk in his Word as you take it to heart. That's how he leads us through this life, so that we pray with Asaph, “You guide me with your counsel” (Psalm 73:24).

5. Describe what lies ahead for those who follow Jesus in faith and why it's so wonderful.

And what comes next for you and me who follow Jesus in faith? Not the slippery slope of the boastful that slides into hell, but what does Asaph say here? “And afterwards you take me into glory” (Psalm 73:24).

In heaven, dear Christian, we will stand before the throne of the Lamb who was slain but now who reigns forever and ever, the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ. We will stand in the presence of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We need no sun or moon to light heaven, for the glory of our God envelopes us in light supernal and the Lamb is our lamp. God himself wipes every tear from our eyes.

Not even the myriads of angels or seeing loved ones who died in the Lord will make heaven seem any more blessed to us. For in heaven we will see God face to face. That will be all that matters. That's all that matters not only for the life to come but for this life as well. By faith we call out to our God, "Whom do I have in heaven besides you? Besides you there is nothing on earth I delight in” (Psalm 73:25

Is that what Peter tasted for a brief moment as Jesus was transfigured? Is that why he said, “Master, it is good for us to be here” (Luke 9:33 NIV)? Yes, it was foolish for Peter to think he could make this last by setting up shelters. How could Peter or any of us enter heaven, unless Jesus descended from the mount and carried Peter's sin, your sin, my sin, the sins of the world to the cross and lowered himself to death under the curse of god-forsakenness we have earned? But Peter's desire, his all-consuming longing, forgetting all earthly concerns, wanting only to be with God -- there was nothing wrong with that.

Rather to the contrary, how far we fall short! How often I get caught up in earthly business or happiness and heaven becomes a secondary thought. Or when we think about heaven we wonder, “How could I really be happy in heaven unless I'm able to do this (whatever you're favorite thing is) or unless a certain good friend or loved one or even a pet is there.” And even when we long for heaven, are we longing to be with God in his glorious presence or is it more of a desire to be free from earthly pain or the mess we're in at the time?

How far we fall short even in our desire for heaven! How much we need a Savior from our sin! In Jesus' cross, in his blood, in his sacrifice you, dear friend, are fully and freely forgiven. And in his resurrection we have the seal of our forgiveness and the foretaste of our own resurrection. That Good News alone purifies our desire for heaven so that more and more we can say with Asaph: "Whom do I have in heaven besides you? Besides you there is nothing on earth I delight in” (Psalm 73:25 NIV). Then more and more we can pray, “Lord, you I love with all my heart; I pray you ne'er from me depart; With tender mercies cheer me. Earth has no pleasure I would share; Heaven itself were void and bare If you, Lord, were not near me. And should my heart for sorrow break, My trust in you no one could shake. You are the treasure I have sought; Your precious blood my soul has bought. Lord Jesus Christ, My God and Lord, my God and Lord, Forsake me not! I trust your Word.” (Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, “Lord, You I Love with All My Heart” 434:1).

That young man, Ben Larson, who was working in Haiti -- as his wife called to him trying to find him in the earthquake rumble, she heard him singing. She recognized the melody but figured he was making up the words. She remembers two lines she heard, “Lord, Jesus you bear all the sins a world away. God's peace to us, we pray” (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/02/08/loss-in-haiti/
audio at 4:14-4:30, retrieved on 12 Feb 2010). No death while trusting that Jesus has taken away your sins is a tragedy, but a victory. No pain or sorrow of this life can rob you of that victory. For through faith in Jesus, the Lord God is your everlasting shelter. Remember what's ahead. Please give your attention to Psalm 73.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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