Up on the Mountain

3 02 2008

Texts: Exodus 24: 12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

My Rector at the Church of the Immaculate Contraption in NYC said to me while we were cleaning up after the Christmas Day service that preaching on Christmas and Easter could be very difficult. On these days, the preacher’s challenge is to try and explain great theological truths that we as Christians believe to those who happen to wander in, perhaps for the first time, or perhaps after a long absence from a worshipping community. Not only that, but you have to reach those who are faithful week after week who come and expect to be spiritually fed with something really meaty. Indeed, most of the Christian ethos can be distilled to the phrase, “Be nice to each other and treat them as you want to be treated.” The story of the Transfiguration then could be considered another one of those difficult days, because here we are talking about a specific revelatory event in the life of Christ. While this is not nearly as heavy as it is along the lines of trying to explain the Incarnation or the Resurrection, it is an event which eludes a simple description or moralizing. The preacher’s challenge today is to reflect on the significance of this event without getting bogged down in trying to explain everything.

Many of us have had we can be called mountaintop experiences. These are moments when we feel really close to God and his presence feels so near we think that if we were to speak to him, he would speak back in an audible voice. Many times, we do not want to leave that space or we hope to carry that with us for a while and are always somewhat sad when it starts to slip away and we are faced with returning to a mundane reality. We get a glimpse of what it will be like when God fully redeems our world or carries us home to be with him, and at the same time, we understand that the Kingdom of God is not yet as close as we would like. Perhaps this is something similar to what Peter, James and John experienced when they ascended a literal mountain with Jesus to pray and they found themselves surrounded by clouds and saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Incarnate God speaking and chatting with two people who represented in Jewish thought what is the highest understanding of Law and what it means to be a Prophet.

This Sunday is one of the pivotal moments in our Church year, the last Sunday of the Epiphany, also known as Transfiguration Sunday. During Epiphany we hear of the calling of the disciples, the baptism of Jesus, and about Jesus’ miracles and first teachings. Epiphany is the season of light, and indeed we learn what happens in the lives of the disciples and John the Baptist as the Light of the World is revealed. In the Gospel narratives, the Transfiguration is also a pivotal moment for it begins the long journey to Jerusalem, to the Passion and to death. Today’s Gospel account is full of visual imagery: glistening faces, dazzling clothes, heroes of old talking with Jesus, and a great voice. Peter’s reminiscence of the transfiguration (told in today’s epistle) actually focuses on that voice which says, “This is my beloved Son…,” which confirms what was said at baptism (it’s as if the Father were saying, “No really! I mean it! This IS my Son!”

Of course, Peter, being so focused on words starts babbling himself talking about tents. It’s typical of much religious talk … ill-timed and diversionary. But what does God do? He just interrupts and says what is important. “This is my Son.” No one is judged or berated. After this event, there are only words of reassurance: “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

The Transfiguration on the mountaintop shows us a few things. First, it identifies and confirms once again who Jesus is. It is a positive assertion that this event is a moment when Jesus is exalted and we get a glimpse of the reality of God in Christ as the veil between heaven is earth is pulled back. The appearance of Moses and Elijah link Jesus with Israel’s history, and in a larger context with the great scope of the story of redemption. At the same time, it points us to the future for we see the exalted and glorified Christ, a sight which we shall see when the Lord comes again. Peter’s account of this story gives authority to Christian witness, and grounds us in that history. As NT Wright is quoted as saying in one of his works “Christianity is something that happened.” As Peter says, we can rest assured we are not following “cleverly devised myths,” but he, James and John saw for themselves the glorified Christ on the mountain and will later see the Resurrected Christ.

If is fitting that before we move from the Light of Epiphany to the shadows and wilderness of Lent in a few days time, we are given one last glimpse of the majesty and glory of God. This light will indeed be our lamp as the shadows deepen during the heaviness of Holy Week and Good Friday, guiding us through and pointing us towards the empty tomb. It is also a reminder that we are not the one’s doing the guiding, but we are guided by the One who led Israel through the wilderness. If we look at the story of Moses ascent to Mount Sinai, we see that this entire scene has been initiated by God. At first he brings the elders of Israel with him, as well his heir to leadership, Joshua, but later we find that they cannot accompany Moses all the way. We have all of these moving parts, but in the end, it is God who says to Moses, “Wait.” And at the end of waiting, we move to an awesome moment where God reveals Himself in a cloud. Moses was changed as a result of this meeting. In a sense, he was transfigured as well, for his face shown with the glory of God as he came down the mountain to lead the people of Israel through the wilderness to their new home.

Much like the rainbow was to Noah, the Transfiguration is a pledge and a promise. As much as we want to stay in this happy and wondrous place on the mountaintop, we must leave it and begin our long journey into the valley of Lent, our long journey to Jerusalem, our long journey to death. But, as Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” The road to death leads to resurrection and renewal. The Transfiguration is a reminder and a promise of deliverance, just as the presence of God and the giving of the Law was a promise to Israel, and the call of the prophets to a life of grace and obedience. Past, present and resurrected future meet on this day. This last Sunday before Lent, it is appropriate to know that the journey to the Cross is not full of doom and gloom. Even when things are at their darkest, it is reassuring to know that there is One who is guiding our way.




2 responses

5 02 2008

Is this post an ordering of your thoughts or did you deliver it as a sermon? Either way I say, and not for the first time, that you have a real skill in making theological ideas accessible.

5 02 2008
Reverend boy

I write these things as a type of spiritual discipline and for my own enjoyment. I have never delivered a sermon, though i look forward to doing so one day! If this were going to be an actual sermon, I would expand on a couple of things here and there.

Thanks for the compliment! Gives me hope for the future that i won’t be blowing smoke or putting too many parishioners to sleep.

Thanks again


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