This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
When you hear the word “exodus,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the book in the Bible by that name. Makes sense— we’re in church after all. Maybe it brings to mind the event that gives that book its name: the mass migration of the Israelites out of Egypt to escape slavery and receive the land that God had promised them through Abraham. Maybe it doesn’t bring to mind Biblical scenes at all, but rather Bob Marley and the Wailer’s brilliant 1977 reggae album and its hit single of the same name. Or if you’re more of a video-game connoisseur, it might make you think of the new release in the post-apocalyptic Metro series. But all of these allusions point to the word’s original meaning. “Exodus” comes from the Greek word meaning “the road out” or “departure,” and so we think of an “exodus” as a mass going-out.
But there’s another kind of exodus, and it’s an exodus that is very different from these. When Jesus converses with Elijah and Moses in this morning’s Gospel reading, an exodus comes up in their discussion, but it’s not a mass migration made by a group of tribes from one place to another, nor is it a song about the “movement of Jah people.” The exodus Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are discussing together is a specific kind of exodus— today we might even call it an exit. This exodus is not one that we often like to think about. It’s scary and seemingly final. It is the exodus of death, and here, specifically, Jesus’ death.
Oh to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation— hearing the Son of God conversing with two of the greatest prophets of Israel! Luke tells us that when Jesus went up onto the mountain— either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon, we’re not sure— and Moses and Elijah appeared there with him, they “were speaking with Him about His exodus, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:38). What, specifically, about this exodus, we don’t know, but we can guess that it might have been some kind of ongoing conversation, continuing from what had been spoken of in heaven about the salvific work of Christ through his passion and death. Moses and Elijah, after all, both represent the law and the prophets, and it is through them that Jesus’ work had been foretold prior to his coming. Remember what Jesus says in the parable of “Dives and Lazarus”— the law and prophets attest to him. But I imagine that the fact that Jesus was going to die as part of this exodus made up an important part of their discussion, perhaps the central part of it.
And then Peter and the others wake up and see them speaking. As always, poor Peter doesn’t understand what’s going on. “Master, oh how good it is for us to be here! Let’s set up some tents for you and Moses and Elijah!” Peter wanted to keep the conversation going; he probably wanted to ask Moses and Elijah all kinds of questions about their lives, what speaking to God is like, what it’s like to spend eternity with him. It might have been that he was overwhelmed by the confluence of greatness that had appeared on the mountain top and felt he had to do something for these honored guests. After all, these were great men, and hospitality being so important as it is in ancient Near Eastern culture, it was only good manners to serve them. But from what Peter says to Jesus, it doesn’t seem like he really cares about what’s going on or what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about. He, and presumably James and John, haven’t heard what Jesus and the prophets are saying about his exodus, or if they have, those words are being ignored, perhaps actively.
This kind of ignoring-the-elephant-in-the-room (or more properly, the “exodus-in-the-room”) seems to be par for the course for Peter and the other disciples. Just ten verses prior to this, Luke recounts Peter and the disciples’ confession of faith. Jesus asks them, “who do you say that I am?” and they reply (with Peter as spokesman), “The Christ of God”— which is to say, God’s Messiah. And immediately after they confess this, Jesus tells them that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the authorities, die, and be raised again. And Peter, as it is recorded in Matthew’s version of this account, answers emphatically, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). How does Jesus answer him? “Get behind me, Satan!….For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
All throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells the disciples about his impending death and resurrection, and they continually ignore him, misunderstand him, or desire that it would not be so. On the one hand, you can’t really blame them. Nobody likes to think about death and its implications.
But on the other hand, by ignoring Jesus’ words about his redemptive mission or wishing that they were not true, the disciples (Peter foremost among them) sin because they are trying to assert their wills and desires over Christ’s will and mission. The uncomfortable fact that they have to accept is that Jesus is indeed going to die in order to complete his work. Their vision of a great future with their leader, perhaps one where they share power in his kingdom, substitutes a Jesus of their own design for the real God-man. They pin their hopes to a false future rather than accept the reality of what Jesus, their savior, tells them must happen. They reject the truth of what Jesus must do for them to save them from their sins because they would rather be comfortable with their own visions of a glorious life with Jesus here and now rather than taking Jesus at his world and believing what he says must happen.
You and I struggle with the idea of death, too, and we don’t like to talk about it. Death is an inherently bad thing. It isn’t natural, and it is not what God desired for his Creation from the beginning. He wanted us to live forever in harmony with him. However, through man’s sin, death came into the world, and now we all live with it hanging over us, the wages of our sin. Everyone dies; death is now an unfortunate and terrible fact of life. It is an all-too-common thing, death, and it is terrible. Speaking for myself, I’ve attended at least ten funerals in the last twelve months— in fact, just yesterday, I attended two funerals, one for a member of my home congregation at Good Shepherd, and one for a long-time friend and neighbor. At death, body and soul are torn asunder. A whole being is broken, and with it, families and friendships are also disrupted and shattered, and no one ever completely heals from it. Death ends more than just the life of the deceased, it harms those left behind. It leaves gaping wounds in our hearts. So when death comes our way, we don’t want to contemplate it, and we don’t want to think about a life without the people we love. We want Mom and Dad to live forever. We can’t imagine not having Grandma and Grandpa there to visit every summer. And the realization that we may outlive our children in certain circumstances is abhorrent to all of us. But these are the wages of sin.
And we also struggle with the idea that we, too, will die, and we do our best to distract ourselves from it or hide it from ourselves. We sequester our elderly in nursing homes where they live out their last years with other people in a similar stage of life, but no young people around to cheer them or learn from them. We use our money on makeup, supplements, injections, and plastic surgery to hide the fact that we are aging, getting closer every day to our own exoduses. One man in the Netherlands recently even tried to get his age legally changed from 69 to 49 because he figured that he’d have a better chance at picking up younger women if the age on his driver’s license was twenty years younger. Few of us would try something this drastic to convince ourselves that we aren’t getting older and daily moving toward the end, but we still put it off in our heads, or we focus on our glory days in order to pretend that death won’t come to us. Like Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico, we keep replaying our old grid-iron triumphs on the lawn by the camper van rather than accepting that life changes, we age, and die. This is the wages of sin.
By putting off death in our minds, we, like the disciples, also act as if Jesus’ death and resurrection did not happen for us, or that its promise is not for us. We do not take hope in it when we fear death and deny its realness instead of accepting it. When we fear death like this, we seem to be thinking somewhere inside ourselves that death is stronger than the One who promised to save us from it, who promised that he would suffer many things, die, and rise again on the third day in order to destroy death’s grip on creation. In a way, it’s a kind of unbelief. Now, to be sure, being afraid of death is understandable. We don’t know what it feels like; it’s a plunge into the unknown because we’ve spent so much time living. But when we act like death is our end, then we are saying that Christ didn’t die for us, that we won’t listen to what he tells us. That what he’s saying about himself and his work can’t be true. That we would rather despair.
This is possibly where Peter and the disciples have been. Jesus keeps on telling them about his impending death and they keep deflecting. Here, rather than hearing about what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were talking about, or why Jesus literally radiated with glory, Peter wants to make tents for everyone so that he and the others can focus on the presence of these two great, departed prophets. But God has a way to re-center Peter’s focus and remind him that what Jesus is saying is true and cannot be ignored or sidestepped. God comes in the cloud and speaks to the disciples. “THIS IS MY SON, MY CHOSEN ONE. LISTEN TO HIM!” Jesus has been telling Peter and the rest of the twelve that he is going to die, but they’re hearing only half of the story. Jesus’ death is going to defeat death. He is going to die and then rise again, and more than that, his death is going to destroy the hold of sin, that cause of death and condemnation, on humanity. If Peter and the disciples actually listen to him and trust in what he says, they’ll know that Jesus’ death won’t be the end of him, and that through his death, as cruel and violent as it will be, they will receive life. He has been telling them this all along, and they will fully understand it at Pentecost. But they have been told the promise all along, the exodus has always been in the room. Jesus’ death will defeat death. His death will be like the exodus of the Israelites so long before, but Jesus, the faithful Son over God’s house, undertaking it alone, will bring all of humanity with him out of death’s Egyptian slavery and into the promised land of new and eternal life with God.
And this is what we ought to remember when we fear death or try to ignore our own exoduses-in-the-room. Death is bad, but it is not the end. Jesus has defeated it, and we will live with him. When we trust what he told his disciples, and when we see that he indeed triumphed victoriously over death and hell, then we can face our own exoduses in confidence knowing that, despite how frightening the idea of death may be to us, he has us in his care. His death has delivered you from the wages of sin! His exodus through his passion, death on the cross, days in the tomb, and resurrection has brought us all from slavery of sin and its wages into new life with him in freedom. When we trust Jesus’ word and work, we can die well knowing that we will be raised in glory, appearing like Moses and Elijah together with Christ on the last day. We can go on our exodus, knowing full well that it is not a final trip, but that we will be back to live in harmony with him, just as our first parents were intended to so long ago.