Pr. Eric Swensson
March 2, 2014
The Transfiguration is one of the very rare occasions that God appears to mortals in the Bible. In a way it is a double-theophany because not only was the voice of God heard plainly by Peter, James and John (“This is my Beloved Son, listen to Him”), but also Jesus was revealed to be God to the same men. However, the reason the church tells this story every year is it is also about the transfiguration of the believer. This news, this gospel, coming to all who hear it, has the potential to radically change believers.
After making such a big claim, I will call for help from a great theologian to back me up, Henric Schartau, chapel preacher at University of Lund for decades. A whole generation of seminarians and Doctors of Philosophy filled his chapel and this at a time when the Enlightenment had made deep inroads into academia and preaching to a packed university church was unusual. One particular sermon, "Jesus Only," is featured prominently in the classic novel The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. If you have not read it, do not read another book until you get your hands on it. It is actually three novellas written about pastors of three different eras in the same area in rural Sweden. There have been revivals in the area and the author does a wonderful job to show what is good and not-good about what is called “an awakening,” that is, where there is such a blossoming of religious life in so many different individuals in a parish that the whole congregation and countryside is said to be in a revival. I am borrowing freely from his sermon in order to talk about sanctification and transfiguration/transformation.
The key text for us is the last line in Transfiguration Sunday’s Gospel reading and the first line in Schartau’s sermon, “Lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only.”
As heard in Matthew 17, Jesus desired to get away and pray as His ministry was attracting crowds that we can be sure were mobs at times. He withdrew with a few of His disciples to a mountain. While Jesus was praying, he was transformed from the "form of a servant," which He had taken upon Himself at the Incarnation. His humble humanity was transfigured into a royal glory earthly kings and tyrants have reached for but none ever attained.
The disciples, Peter, James and John, suddenly found Jesus in conversation with none other than Moses and Elijah. It had to have been an immensely brilliant sight, they would have had to shield their eyes, and surely what they did was prostrate themselves, falling to their knees and bowing their heads to the ground. They found themselves infolded in a cloud and possessed with great joy, but when they again came to themselves and "lifted up their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only."
This is Schartau speaking here: “When a sinner first opens the eyes of his understanding, they are turned down upon his unsaved soul and lost condition.” The point, as true for us today as it was back then, God’s law as found in the Holy Scriptures forces us to look at ourselves. It urges us to compare our wrong with God's right-ness, our obvious guilt with His holiness. Schartau’s sermon ‘Jesus Only’ works within the framework of that time, justification and sanctification as well as his treatment of “the awakening” of what we call “the new person”, that is, one who has through faith received a new heart.
You know what justification means. We are justified by grace through faith. God declares us righteous for the sake of Jesus, and it is just-as-if-we had not sinned. Justified by faith we are free to live a new life, no longer bound by the chains that had us weighed down before. We are now free to live for Christ, who pledges to be our life. Come to Me, all you who labor, my yoke is easy and my burden is light!
You know what justification means, but what does sanctification mean, and what is the relationship between sanctification and transformation? In briefest of explanations sanctification means the life of a Christian. Schartau uses it in the technical theological sense, but mainly in the practical. It is a vital subject that should interest everyone. For example, youth know that their whole life is ahead of them and there are many questions about where they will go and what they will see who they will encounter and what will be asked of them. Is there anyone who can answer these questions? Yes, many will claim to have the answers, but it is Jesus only who actually does. Once people have settled into a career, they get used to having many demands out upon them, and sometimes we cannot help but wonder if there is a way, you know, an easier way. Yes, there is, but it is Jesus only. We all live in what is called an information age, and almost all of us work on computers connected to the Internet, we have cell phones and smart phones, when we get to work and when we arrive home there are messages to listen to, and it goes like this relentlessly. Is there perhaps in all this busy-ness a way to stop and be quiet and have the time to think through some of the tough decisions? Yes, but it is Jesus only. How?
“It is in sanctification that the power of our Lord Jesus Christ is best shown, for it is Jesus who provides the power to put off the old man and put on the new.” If you are to get a change in your thinking, if you are experience a change in what you desire, if you are to succeed in overcoming old habits and patterns and get your wheels out of the ruts, the truth is there is no other help for this in heaven or on earth than that provided by Jesus only. Here is the answer to “Why Jesus Only?” Jesus Christ is the only one who has conquered sin, and as St Paul says in Romans 8, "in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us." Sanctification is the result of His redemption. In other words, His redemption beats your temptation.
Schartau writes, “If you were unable to resist sin, and compelled to fall again, then the forgiveness would be useless and the atonement in vain. But His merit is complete and perfect, and He has arranged that the merit imputed to you at once and immediately in justification shall also gradually be wrought in you in sanctification. Jesus has not only stood in your stead as a just man who has had His delight in God's commandments and whose righteousness is imputed to you as though you had always been just, but He has also brought about that you actually become just and obtain more and more delight in God's law according to the inner man.”
People really do get new hearts and there really are revivals for which we have massive historical proofs of societal transformations, and these were not just silly people getting very happy or very religious or whatever. Much of the positive developments in the church from 1700 onwards came out of revivals. I studied it and could relate many stories. For example, there was a powerful revival that spread across Wales in 1904. At its height all the chapels were filled with nightly prayer meetings. You know what happens to a pub when people quit drinking? They close down. They say that police in Wales had to find something else to do since there was no one doing anything to get arrested for. I don’t know if you know this or not but they have a powerful tradition of choral singing in Wales with most men taught from an early age to love singing in a group; therefore, many local police forces just became choirs for a while.
What about the not-so-good? Revivals are not meant to last. They burn red hot and have to die down. When people experience this increase in their love for God and it is true love than they also experience love and compassion for their neighbor and when this is change is happening, it is a conversion, and people change, they adapt new and higher standards of behavior, they set high goals, they begin to actually love the law and instead of seeing it as an impossibly high bar it is just a new standard. They do this in their families and they see the people they know in their prayer meetings do it and so it becomes as it were a new law. But revivals do not last, and the love begins to fade a little and moralism comes into the picture. This is why pietists have such a bad reputation. However, they are judged too way harshly for being judgmental. They were much more than narrow-minded hypocrites. On reflection, it seems to me that the harsh judgment many Christian scholars and clergy have of pietists is the same that non-church people have of all of us Christians, so one might just think about what is going on here.
Will we ever have another revival in this country like the Great Awakening? Will Wales have another Welsh Prayer Revival? Widespread revival is beyond us. Instead of trying to look at the panorama of the present culture of the United States as a whole, if you want revival, focus on Jesus Only. Revival can not be ginned up; no one can organize a revival either. Revivals only occur when many individuals experience receiving a new heart at the same time. You know the question, “Have you been born again?” It is a legitimate question. It’s right there in the third chapter of John. My answer is “Yes.” And if the follow up question is asked, “When?” my true answer is “On a cross 2,000 years ago.” His death. My death. His resurrection. My resurrection.
For many, once they experience the love that comes when we realize for the first time that Jesus really did die for our sins, my sins, they experience an infilling of His Spirit part of this is a realization we really had no idea how to live. This love for Jesus, as Schartau says, “Makes the most pleasing sins abominable and the most grievous duties light. It is love for Jesus that enables us to love all men…It is love for Jesus which opens our heart so that we may have confidence…It is love for Jesus which quenches our anger when we are offended, kills hatred and enables the believer to love his enemies, since Jesus has loved them too, precisely as He loved us even while we were yet His enemies.
We have to learn how to walk in this love and freedom. Worship, God’s Word, pastors, Christian friends and books are all vehicles, but the Spirit is there helping in a thousand ways known and unnoticed. Sanctification. I can think of nothing more practical than to learn what the Bible and sound-teaching based on Scripture tells us how God promises to help us live the life we want to live.
It is Jesus only whom faith embraces and on whom it relies. We seek for Jesus, come to Him, long for His righteousness, pray in His name, and hope in Him alone. His Holy Spirit can enable us to press on and trust Him with more certainty and with greater boldness.
Transfiguration. How much was he changed? From God to the form of humanity and through the cross, exalted for all times, the Name above all names. Your transfiguration? The possibilities are many but the one recommended is to take the same route through the cross. Daily that is. The cross will remove, will crucify, our false notions of what it is to be successful, what kind of help we think we need. The journey through Lent is to the cross, but let me say clearly that a successful Lent will be a journey through the cross. Daily. Every day we have the opportunity to be born-again again. The old Adam in us is to be drowned by daily repentance that a new person should daily come forth and arise, sanctified.
Thus transfigured, I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.