St. Matthew 17:1-9
January 25, 2015 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peter, James, and John responded to the vision and sound of the Father’s glory by falling on their faces, full of fear. They had not been listening to Jesus. Instead, they had been hatching their own plans as to how they might remain on the mount and avoid Jerusalem. The Lord then touched them, told them to rise, and said: “Stop being afraid.” When they looked up, they saw Jesus only.
Sadly, to their shame, their response to the vision and sound of the Son’s glory was less appropriate. In response to the sight of His silhouette suspended between the earth and sky, His life draining away, and to the sound of the priests mocking, the soldiers gambling, the women weeping, and His own cries, they did not fear the Lord and fall upon their faces, but again, not listening to Jesus, they ran or hid for their lives.
Jesus had told them to stop being afraid, but they didn’t stop. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That fear is to be inculcated and continue. The fear that Jesus told them to stop was fear for themselves, fear that they would be destroyed and handed over to the enemy, fear that somehow the sacrifice of the Christ would not be enough and they would be next. He was calling them to look upon His power and see mercy, to trust that His forgiveness would protect and shield them from His wrath, to listen and hear that He is good and would keep His Word.
“In heaven, love will absorb fear; but in this world, fear and love must go together. No one can love God aright without fearing Him.” Self-confident and ignorant sinners, who do not know their own hearts, do not fear God. This is not because they love the Gospel or have taken Jesus’ words to heart, but because they do not hear His Law and its threats. They do not listen to Him. They think this is because they love God or because they have the modern virtue of “not judging” or they boast in their Gospel freedom. But they are deluded. They are not listening. They only love themselves. For to love God is to love His Word and His Law, to desire to keep His Law and do good works.
Hardened sinners are much the same. They don’t love God or His holy Law so they do not fear Him. They only fear what men can do to them.
“True devotion to God consists in love and fear.” Since we are fallen beings obsessed with ourselves we hold what we do not fear in contempt. We cannot love a superior that we do not respect and admire. We cannot understand Christ’s mercies until we understand His power, His glory, and His unspeakable holiness. In light of that we see our own weakness and unworthiness. We cannot understand His mercy and love until we first fear Him. Before we can say “amen” we must listen.
It is not that fear comes first and then love. Rather, they proceed together. They are, in fact, in a sense, the same thing: they are faith. For in faith out fear is softened by our love for Him and our love is sobered by our fear of Him. He draws us on with an encouraging voice amid the terrors of His threats with constant application of Law and Gospel. He rebukes and He absolves. He corrects and He comforts. In the case of Peter, James, and John He showed His Divinity partially and they were overcome with love. Then He showed them the rest and they were terrified and realized they were not listening. Then He touched them, spoke kindly to them, restoring them to His fellowship, and told them to not be afraid.
This is also how He acts toward us. He speaks to us harshly in the Law and sweetly in the Gospel. Here we learn to cherish the full experience and ever remember that He is the Lord and we are not. The Gospel has not made us His equals. He hides Himself from us, yet He calls us on, that we may hear His voice as Samuel did, and, believing, approach Him with trembling. “Listen to Him,” says the Father. “Speak, O Lord, thy servant hears,” say we. Fire and brimstone and pillars salt are followed by visions of gardens planted by streams and lions lying down with lambs.
This may seem strange to those who do not study the Scripture, to those who do not know what it is to seek after God. But for those of us who have been killed and raised in Baptism, who confess and are absolved, in whom the old man is daily drowned and the new man raised, who are at war within themselves, doing the things they hate that they do not want to do, for us there is untold and surpassing pleasure in this reality: God cares about us as a Father cares about His children. He wants what is best for us which means that He wants us to be virtuous and will not ignore us or look the other way. He is interested in the details of our lives. He loves us enough to chastise and instruct us, as well as welcome and forgive us. God’s Law and Gospel are bitter and sweet, strangely tempered, one with the other. This is not a Hallmark movie where everything works out beautifully in the end, happily ever after. He does not speak in platitudes, slogans, or clichés. He is our omnipotent, omniscient Father who is also omnicompasionate, omnimerciful. His harshest law is that we have disappointed Him and His greatest grace is that He is proud of us. The life of the Christian is Law and Gospel, threats and forgiveness, which sting and heal, sadden and fill with joy.
God’s Law and punishments are harsh, but not so harsh as to be loathed, though they do take us often to the brink of despair. Nor is His Gospel, as is more the lie of our age, some insipid, phoney sweetness and the false camaraderie of the salesman, which might be flattering at first but quickly becomes wearisome. God does not set us up either to be hedonists or ascetics.
This mixed feeling is the feeling of conscience, which is a gift of God. How painful it is! Yet who would lose it? It is the burden of being a son. “I opened my mouth and panted, for I longed for Thy commandments.” says David (Ps 119:131). Most famously, did Solomon thus declare: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Indeed, and we might say that it is also the beginning of joy, of love, of faith. What the Christ does for us on the place of the skull outside the city is fearful, but let us listen to Him and not look away. Let us look up and see only Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, our way, truth, and life, our Good Shepherd and Savior. So it was for those imperfect disciples before us. Their wisdom was beginning. Their fear was a blessing. May God in His mercy bestow the same upon us.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Taken in large part, sometimes word for word, from part of a sermon entitled “Reverence, A Belief in God’s Presence.” John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 5 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1868), 13ff.