A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 26, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
Six days later than what? If you look at the Gospel of Matthew, a lot of things happened in the day that immediately precedes this statement. The lectionary puts in an introduction that wants us to focus on the very first part of that passage, which is the confession of Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But there is a lot between that statement and when the Gospel says “Six days later.” Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and this same Peter takes Jesus to the side and starts to lecture him that he should be a little more upbeat and appropriate—and what did Jesus say? “Get behind me, Satan!” And what he said to his disciples was:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
So that is the context when the Gospel says “Six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”
This is the story of the Transfiguration, and it can’t be separated from Jesus’ journey to the cross, of how he would be betrayed, of how religious and government people would be threatened by his witness and kill him.
They went up on the mountain and they saw the glory of God. And in it they saw Jesus’ face shining in the glory of God. It makes no sense of course as a simple image. Any movie maker can do shiny. And all that shines and glitters in this world contributes nothing to the goodness or salvation of this world or to our knowing about God. But in this context, Moses and Elijah appear. The two key prophets of Israel, who brought truth to God’s people. Our lesson from Exodus tells us about Moses. He went up on the mountain with his assistant Joshua. And for six days—notice that, SIX DAYS—they were on the mountain, covered by a cloud and the Glory of God appeared on them like a devouring fire.
The truth and holiness of God is not so much shiny as terrifying; overwhelming; purer than our impurity can handle. This passage doesn’t mention what happens down the hill at the same time—the Israelites get nervous and scared, and while Moses is on the mountain getting the law directly from the all-holy, all-pure and all-wise God, they are leaning on Aaron the priest to make an idol for them, made from all their shiny jewelry, to assuage their fear by worshiping the graven image.
And Jesus is on the mountaintop with the two prophets most known for opposing and defeating idolatry, the three sages speaking, here in this context when Jesus and all his followers knew he was on his way to Jerusalem. And this same Peter guy, he sees it, and he volunteers to step in and do something.
I love Peter. His responses are so real, even when he’s doing the wrong thing, you know in your heart that his goof-ups resemble our own. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here, if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That’s not necessarily a goof-up. To dwell with the three prophets, to wait in the presence of the glory of God. Really, what aspiration could be better? There is no rebuke of Peter.
However, while Peter is still speaking a cloud comes down—just like the cloud that covered Moses and Joshua for those six days. Peter, James and John heard the voice and they hit the deck. This was the real deal. What did the voice say? “This is my beloved son—LISTEN TO HIM.” Listen to him. The whole scene clears, and that is what they are left with: “my beloved son, Listen to him.” “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus told the disciples to say nothing, because the image makes no sense until it is lived out through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. People are apt to confuse God’s glory with shininess, or the messiah with success, or the prophets with some sort of memorial. We do that. But for Peter and James and John, this was real, and it wasn’t about shininess, it was about Jesus and the journey they were taking with him.
Today is the last Sunday before we embark on the journey of Lent. The season of Lent has been, since ancient times, the season of preparation for baptisms which were normally done at Easter. While many of us were baptized years ago, we are preparing to own our own baptism, our death with Christ and resurrection in him. It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and I invite you to a season of reflection. The Gospel lessons during Lent guide us through the catechesis, or preparation for baptism, and my sermons will be about that. On Monday evenings there will be a time of soup and study in Martin Hall. On Wednesdays, we will have Eucharist at 10 a.m. followed by a Bible study on the Virgin Mary, and at 4:30 p.m. we will have Evening Prayer at the Orchard Creek Lodge in Lincoln Hills. I encourage you all to prepare to own your baptism and walk with Jesus by living a joyful and holy Lent. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and we will observe it at the 10:00 a.m. Eucharist and at the 4:30 Evening Prayer at the Orchard Creek Lodge.
Let us pray once again our collect for today:
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that 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.