A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 7, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.
Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.
The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.
The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. In other words, as, in Moses, God set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being his people, living in his resurrection, is not cost free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own righteousness or entitlement.
But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence, not what we tell God, or what we think we want.
God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face. So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets, Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.
Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one, the Chosen.
And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.
There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”
Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It’s common to think of Lent as a time of sadness and self-denial. But it’s not a time to worry and think glum thoughts and miss some luxury you are “giving up for Lent”—Lent is a time to listen. It’s that quiet when we know the Glory of God in Jesus, God’s chosen one. That Glory manifests itself at Easter, but God’s Glory is here, at every moment. Listen to him. Leave off the noise that distracts us, the things that take our attention. See his face, the Love of God come for us. Live in God’s blessing, live your Lent in the presence of God’s Glory. He is right here.
This month we are also celebrating Black History Month. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to listen to Jesus, and what it was like to see the prophets. What it was like to live in God’s presence in incredibly difficult and dangerous times. In his last address before he was assassinated, he said:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Let us pray:
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain; Grant to us the we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen