Glory Or Cross?

Matthew 17:1-9

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

St. Matthew 17:5  While [Peter] was still speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!”

Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… The voice from heaven instructed Peter, James and John to do one thing: listen to Jesus.  Forget your own thoughts and plans, Peter.  Listen to Him.  He is My Beloved Son.  Above all else, “Hear Him”.  And while they are lying there, quivering with fear, Jesus touches them and says “do not be afraid.”

And the vision is over.  The prophets are gone.  Our Lord’s clothing appears normal.  His face isn’t glowing any more.  The visible glory was gone.  And then Jesus tells them: “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”  There would be no building of tabernacles, but there would be a rising from the dead.

But this implied something that would not sit well with Peter and the others.  It implied that there must first be a death.  Indeed it was that very death that Jesus was speaking about to Moses and Elijah.  In St. Luke’s account of this story the bulk of the conversation took place when the disciples were asleep.  Luke records that Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and spoke of His death which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  This death was the central point of the prophetic word, and now the prophets speak of it once more with the One who was going to fulfill their prophecies, with the One who was about to die.

But where the prophets anticipate the event, the disciples, and especially Peter avoid it.  This talk of death did not sit well with them.  Immediately before this, Jesus had spoken with the disciples about this very thing.  As Matthew reports: “Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.  Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’”  (Mt. 16:21-22)  Peter and the others did not want to hear about suffering and death.  They did not want a cross for Christ; they wanted glory.  But not only would there be a cross for Jesus, there would be one for the disciples as well.

Glory or cross?  That’s always the question.  That was the real issue for Peter and the other disciples, and it is for us too.  The crucifixion of Christ is always very difficult to deal with.  It just doesn’t fit that well with how we want God to be.  I’m not saying that we deny that Jesus died for our sins, but we would rather get past that death, wouldn’t we?  We want to put the cross behind us and get on to more glorious things.  Most Christians prefer an empty cross to a crucifix, as if the crucifixion were just sort of a pit stop between the Transfiguration and Easter.

But there is no such thing as a cross-less Christianity.  The cross is not only one of many events in the life of Jesus.  It is THE event.  But so many want to put it away, so many do not want to consider that the cross is at the center of our Lord’s work.

And when it comes to taking up our own cross, well, that is even harder for us to deal with.  But let me tell you something you already know: there are crosses in life.  There is suffering, there is self-denial, there is persecution, trial, difficulty, sometimes even death.  It is part of what Martin Luther taught us about our baptism being a daily dying and rising.  But that kind of talk just doesn’t seem to fit to most Christians today.  After all, doesn’t God promise blessing and glory to those who believe and who dwell in faith?  Yes, but that is not the only part of the picture.

We chanted these words from Psalm 84 earlier: “For the Yahweh is a sun and shield; Yahweh will give grace and glory.”  We tend to over-focus on these words and thereby see suffering as contrary to the grace and blessing of God.  We sometimes reason that either there is something wrong with the person who suffers – some sin or weakness of faith – or worse, that there is something wrong with God.  This kind of faith threatens to crumble and collapse if cross and suffering are not quickly removed.

I don’t think anyone enjoys a cross.  It certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience for our Lord Jesus to die on the cross, and neither is it pleasant for us to bear the relatively minor crosses that God sends us.  But ask yourself this question: what would have happened had Christ chosen to follow a path of worldly glory rather than the road to Jerusalem and death?

Jesus is God in the flesh.  I suppose if He had wanted to He could have walked around transfigured all the time.  Can you imagine how differently things might have gone?  Perhaps more people would have believed.  Jesus might even have won over the priests and Pharisees.  Heck, He probably would have won over the whole Roman empire and could have taken His throne as ruler of this world.  I mean, who is going to resist a man who shines like the sun and wields the power of divinity on earth?

But what would all this have accomplished?  Would humanity be any better off?  Oh sure, I suppose people would have believed in Jesus.  But would they have been faithful to Him?  Would they have been able to obey God’s will perfectly now that they knew Him and saw His divinity?  Who knows…

But here is the important truth: if our Lord had remained on that mountain, if He had not proceeded to Jerusalem to die, we would all still be bound by our sins and under the sentence of eternal death.  If Jesus had avoided the cross, we would have no Savior, no forgiveness, no true joy, no life, no hope.

And that, dear friends, is why we must be weaned away from the path of glory.  If our life were all success and glory, where would Christ fit in?  What need would we have for His grace and help?

We so easily and naturally think that we can make progress against sin.  If we can just make little improvements along the way, if we can just say enough prayers and do enough good things, if we can just fight a little harder, then we will overcome it.

But when we think that way we are dead wrong.  Sin is stronger than all of that.  It is a prison that cannot be escaped from within, but that must be burst open from the outside.  But still people think they can beat it.  We need to understand that crosses in life are really blessings from God, because they shatter those illusions of strength and independence.

Any strength we have is not our own; rather, it is of Christ.  If we are allowed to pass through this life depending on our own strength, then we will never seek the strength of Christ, and we will never depend on His grace and blessings.  It is from Him that we receive our salvation, not from ourselves.  Without some sort of cross in our lives, it is doubtful we would ever feel, recognize or appreciate the need for that salvation and help from Christ.

St. Paul says, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  (Gal. 6:14)  Our Lord was not interested in gaining this world as it was.  He was offered it, to be sure.  The Devil offered it to Him as you might recall in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  But Jesus wanted something far better.  He looked forward to the world to come which He would create.  And now having risen and ascended, He will come again one day to bring that world completely into being which He has begun to create in His Holy Church.

And we, too, are separated from this world and its version of glory.  You were crucified to this world – crucified with Christ – the day you were baptized.  There God put you to death, and your sins were nailed to the cross of Christ, and you were raised up to a new life with Jesus.  In the baptismal font you were changed, not in appearance, but in soul.  And that may not appear glorious to our world or even to us, but it is – glory through death and resurrection – glory through a cross.

And the Christian life which flows out of Baptism is dominated by this cross.  For there is to be an ongoing death and resurrection in the Christian, an ongoing struggle against one’s self and a clinging to Christ’s grace given in Baptism.  Luther explains in the Small Catechism when asking, What does such baptism indicate?  “It indicates that the old Adam in us, should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

And at the same time Luther counsels in the Large Catechism that though there is a daily cross, as it were, flowing out baptism, there is also strength from Christ.  He says, “To appreciate and use Baptism aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and we must retort, ‘But I am baptized!  And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’” (LC IV: 44)  That is the bold confession and strength that comes from baptism.

Out of the cross applied in baptism comes victory and glory, though the world does not see it.  And to His baptized children the Lord God gives a glorious meal, the fruits of the cross: Christ’s real, true body and blood.  These gifts are accompanied by our Lord’s glorious promises – promises of forgiveness, of salvation, of eternal life, all won not by worldly glory, but thorough death on the cross.

And so, our Lord moved down from the Mount of Transfiguration and onward toward Jerusalem where He would be lifted up on a different hill and die.  And there He would gain real glory, the glory of saving this world from its sin, of banishing death and of conquering the devil.  So we too must move forward, bearing our crosses in faith, trusting not in our own self or efforts, but in the grace of Christ to see us through and to bring us at last into His glorious kingdom.  He has loved us enough to die for us.  And that is enough.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.