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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Happy Saint Valentine’s Day! Yes, there it is. I know what you’re thinking, poor Pastor Haug, he’s caved in to the Hallmark lobby- the hopeless romantic. But I’m not apologetic. Humorist and newspaper columnist, Franklin P. Jones once said, “Love doesn’t make the world go’ round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile.” And it’s true. Love makes a difference in every one of our lives. So why shouldn’t the Christian Church celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day- especially on a day when the temperature is 17 below? We can all do with a little warmth and cheer of love before we enter into penitential season of Lent.
Besides, there is nothing wrong with romantic love and gift-giving, maybe even a piece of chocolate or two before we give it all up for Lent. We can even smile at the words of small children and their perceptions of love, such as, “Love is foolish,” said little Jill age 6, “but I still might try it sometime.” Dave, age 8, commented, “Love will find you even if you’re trying to hide from it. I have been trying to hide from it since I was five, but the girls keeping finding me.” Regina, age 8, stated honestly, “I’m not rushing into love. Fourth grade is hard enough.” But, my friends, the love that Christians are called to share is more than mere romantic feelings. In scriptures, we are told by Jesus that “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for his friends” That is at the heart of the story of the real Saint Valentine.
In truth, the exact origins and identity of St. Valentine are unclear. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna and the third Valentine was a physician in the Roman province of Africa. Whoever he was, Valentine really did exist, if not as one man, but as the collective witness of the martyrs who could not deny the power of Christ on their lives. It was a love that was stronger than death.
According to one tradition Valentine was a priest in Rome during the two year reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus II, also known as Claudius the Cruel. Emperor Claudius was fighting a war at the hinterlands against the Goths which required a strong army. Unfortunately the Emperor’s wars were unpopular and many soldiers spoke of his cruel treatment of soldiers and animals. Claudius believed that men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families. So to end the drought of young soldiers, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that the priest be arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, where he condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and then beheaded. The sentence was carried out on February 14, 270 AD.
In the Legend of Aurea, the great collection of medieval stories of the saints, it was written that Emperor Claudius in a gesture to the ancient Roman gods defeat the Goths had ordered all Romans citizens to worship the former gods, and he made it a crime to associate with Christians. Valentine, however, could not be intimidated to turn away from God and so he was imprisoned. During the last weeks of his life, a jailor for the Emperor knocked at Valentine’s’ door clutching his blind daughter in his arms. He had learned of Valentine’s medical and spiritual gifts of healing, so the jailor appealed to him to treat his daughter’s blindness. The little girl was examined and given an ointment for her eyes, and in the process Valentine told her the story of Jesus Christ. On the eve of his death, Valentine wrote a last note to her. He urged her to trust Jesus Christ and to remain steadfast in her faith, and he signed it “From Your Valentine.” He was executed the following day. When the jailor went home, he greeted his little girl, with the note from Valentine. The girl opened the note and discovered a yellow crocus inside. And as the girl looked down upon the crocus that spilled into her hand she saw the brilliant colors for the first time in her life.
My friends, as every generation that has gone before, like that of St. Valentine, Christians are called to listen to God’s beloved Son and to him only. We are invited to see and experience his glory and cherish his love for us. And like every generation we will be forced to ask and answer the question one day, “Will you choose to stand and walk in the footsteps of Jesus or will you flee and deny any knowledge of him?” I believe that the story of the transfiguration is a gift to strengthen us for the hour of trial.
We could certainly say that the message of the transfiguration was intended to build up the faith of the disciples. Peter, James and John wouldn’t recognize the significance of that moment then, but they would soon enough. Jesus’ transfiguration was God’s promise to the disciples that there would always be hope. They would see Jesus sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane; they would see him arrested, and beaten and left to die. Yes, they would see the worst happen to him, but in the moment of his transfiguration, Jesus was offered them a glimpse what God’s glory would look like, and not even Jesus’ own impending death could rob him of that dignity and nobility “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
We could say that the message of the transfiguration was also intended for to strength Jesus’ will and confidence. Of course, our master could have avoided life’s darkest valleys. As he stood atop that lonely mountaintop transfigured before his three disciples, Peter, James and John, he could have turned his back on the world. He could have gone on alone and ascended into heaven. This scene of transfiguration, however, was a pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus. From that time on, Jesus’ identity would be unquestionable and his march to his death unstoppable. From the mountain of his glory, and its unparalleled vistas, he would descend back into the struggles of the valley. But he would do so with the affirming words of God ringing in his memory. He left his seat of glory, to serve at the feet of the weak and lowly. He left it all atop the mountaintop, to journey to another hill called Calvary. And nothing could detour or distract him from his mission-not even death.
Why would Jesus act so foolishly and selflessly? Why would he so willingly die upon a cross? Why? You may ask. For one reason: because of his great love for you. This Jesus, you see, loves you, and longs for you to live abundantly in his care. He loves you, and longs for you to enjoy his mercy and grace. All this he does out of his desire for you to live life to its fullest and for you to share that life with others. And nothing will prevent Jesus from following his course, not even his transfiguration on the mountaintop and the adoration of his disciples. And so Jesus “ordered them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” And that my friends, is Christ’s Valentine card of love to each one of us. The message of the mountaintop is intended for you and me, so let us listen to Jesus, and him only. And trust his promises even when the walls are crashing down around us. For one day, you too may have to make a choice.
There is a story I remember from my childhood about a high school football player who was the team captain and quarterback. He was to lead his team in victory in the state finals when word came that his father had died. The funeral was scheduled for the same day as the big game and everyone just assumed that the boy would not play ball. After all, it was his father’s funeral. So the back-up quarter back was suiting up to play when the boy walked into the locker room. The room was silent- no one knew what to say. Finally, the coach took the boy aside and said, “You can’t play today. You should be at the funeral.” The boy looked the coach in the eye and said, “You don’t understand. My father was blind. He never saw me play. This will be the first game he sees.”
What a difference it makes in the way you face the challenges and disappointments in life when God’s love guides your decision making. What a difference it makes when you believe in Jesus’ promises and trust that your loved ones have been reunited with him and are now cheering you on from the great bleachers in heaven. And what a difference it makes when you choose to serve the world because of Jesus’ great love for you. That was the faith of the apostles, of St. Valentine and of the early church martyrs. That is the transforming power of God’s word when you too choose to believe that “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” What a difference love can make. Yes, love can change, transform and indeed transfigure the world. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.