God’s Word is rich. I just love it.
One of the main thrusts of today’s celebration—the Transfiguration of Our Lord (which, because we follow the Historic Lectionary, comes to us at Our Savior in Hartland a little earlier than the churches that use the Three-Year Lectionary)—is the importance of listening to the Word above all other things (Matthew 17:5). In fact, the Heavenly Father turns the disciples’ combined attention away from the Lord’s glorious display to the simplicity of listening to Jesus. And why? Not only because Jesus is the Word made flesh, but because it’s by the Gospel that He chooses to engage with and save His world (Romans 1:16). Spectacular light shows and wowing performances might inspire awe, but they’re impact is easily dulled by sinful human forgetfulness—as all three of these disciples will continue to prove time and time again not long after the Transfiguration. James and John will run away in fear when the Lord is captured. Peter will deny three times that even knows Him.
“Listen to Him,” is the Father’s Word. That will always be more important.
One of the things I love most about God’s Word is that the more you study it, the more it reaches into you and equips you for seeing things in ways that you didn’t before. An easy example of this comes from what I read this morning in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. Essentially, Saint Paul sets the stage for us to keep our senses attuned to how God operates, writing plainly that He often does so in opposites. He chooses the weak things instead of the strong. He chooses to work His powerful victory among us through what appears to be the brutal defeat of His Son on a cross.
Of course, I knew these things already. Still, taking Paul’s lead, I began contemplating the familiar opposites I experience in life, specifically success and failure.
Like you, I experience victories and I suffer defeats. The old saying “You win some and you lose some” is not lost on any of us, and neither are the feelings of joy and sadness that come with winning and losing. But digging a little deeper into these opposites, what’s really at their centers? What’s really driving victory’s joy? What is it about defeat that induces genuine sorrow? Because God is big on opposites, I wonder if He has in mind for us to understand that the midpoint for winning or losing is in some way relative to what’s at stake for its opposite. In other words, it’s not necessarily the victory that delivers the joy, but also the knowledge of what was almost lost. The same goes for losing. It’s not so much the defeat that stings as it is the knowledge of what remains out of reach, of the inaccessible value of what was almost won.
I preach and teach fairly regularly how these deeper perspectives matter to the Christian Church. If you don’t know the value of what God says is good, how can you truly care to steer clear of the bad? If you don’t know the deeper significance of what’s at stake for eternal life, how can being connected to the One who can rescue you ever really rise to a place of genuine prominence in this life?
While many of us might not want to admit it, part of the problem is that we’ve retooled our spirituality to match the world’s spirituality, believing that there will always be another opportunity for everything, that there will always be a next season. We do this with our favorite sports teams. We do this with our jobs. We do this with so many things in life. Unfortunately, we also do this with marriage, making it disposable, and figuring we can always try again with someone else. We do the exact same thing with churches, friendships, and even our children. Far too many in our world are now doing this with Natural Law and human sexuality, thinking they can change the unchangeables and live as somebody new. And while we may get away with abusing these things in this life, we ought not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that there will be a next season for winning eternal life. When you breathe your last, or if the Lord returns again in glory, all seasons will have passed. All opportunities for running a different play, taking another shot, or trying a new pitch will have ceased. The buzzer will have sounded, and the divine Referee will have declared the winners and the losers for an unending future.
This is it, folks. Everything is on the line. Everything for the world to come matters right now in the world of today.
Come to think of it, I suppose another reason any of this might come to mind is because I learned this morning of a friend’s recent passing. It appears he was killed suddenly in an auto accident. Having met him at a side job in my college years, and getting reacquainted online through comments he’d sometimes make on my posts, he was the kind of guy who was betting on making it to old age, to a stage of life when he’d be able to see his own death on approach. And assuming he’d know when he was in that inevitable season, it was then he’d start to “get right with God.”
But time ran out. He was killed instantly.
Admittedly, our gracious Lord does sometimes move within the framework of a person’s final moments. He gives a little insight into this possibility in Matthew 20:1-16, which, by the way, is the Gospel reading appointed for next Sunday, Septuagesima. But if you take a moment with the parable Jesus tells (which is another example of opposites), you’ll notice that our Lord insists on doing things His way, not ours. In that respect, I’m reminded of a short video clip of Rev. Dr. David Scaer (https://wp.me/aaCKV0-1Be) in which he talks about how we like to hold up various examples of deathbed conversions, usually only doing so to justify believing that our delinquent loved ones made it into heaven. But Scaer admits we all know: it rarely happens this way in reality. Not everyone goes to heaven. People do actually end up in hell.
There’s value in admitting this.
Changing gears only slightly (or, perhaps, getting back around to where I started, which was the topic of listening to the Word), Bishop Hardy and I had a conversation this past week about the challenges of being pastors, namely, dealing with the kinds of people who appear to thrive on accosting us. I remember us needing very little back-and-forth when it came to one particular aspect of the calling, which is that every day brings new opportunities for being someone’s villain. The message we believe and bring, both Law and Gospel, all but guarantees this. In short, the point of the conversation, and an opposite of sorts: Why do we stay in a job that so often feels like defeat when we certainly could be doing something else that enjoys greater success? We agreed that whether we’re received as heroes or villains, neither of these opposing titles outweigh the value of the message we bring and its inherent power to change us—and to equip us—for the long haul. It makes us into men who are content to do what the Father commanded—which is to listen to the Word. In the end, we continue in the combat because the Word is everything to us. I’m guessing other pastors keep at it, enduring the same things for the exact same reason. The Word has made them into men who, like them or hate them, simply believe what Jesus says, and are quite well with taking any flak His words are guaranteed to stir.
I should add one more observation. It’s also likely pastors stay in the game because they want this endurance for more than just themselves. They want it for you, too. I know I do. Interestingly, and again keeping Paul’s theme of “opposites,” that encouraging thought also bears a word of warning to the wolves among God’s people. Or better yet, a clarification. Against pastors and people devoted to God’s Word, your troublemaking better have stamina for the long game, and not to mention lots of help, because those who embrace, believe, and stand on the Word—again, like them or hate them—are not only emboldened by God through His Word, but they are empowered. That means they aren’t quitters. They won’t roll over so easily in the face of devilry.