Last Sunday after Epiphany—Year A; Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Someone asked me this week, “I thought the Feast of the Transfiguration was in August, so why do we get this story today?” It’s a good question. Every year, on the last Sunday after Epiphany, on the Sunday before we march into Lent, we get this story, why? And I think there are several answers to that question.
Way back on January 6th, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany—a feast that is full of light, and the Sundays that follow are all about all the ways that Jesus is made known in the world, all the ways that he is made manifest. And so, now, as we close out this season after the Epiphany, we get this scene that is full of light and radiance—Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white.
And, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we hear all about Jesus’ baptism, and we hear that incredible proclamation, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then today, we hear again, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” So, today is kind of a bookend to what was proclaimed at the beginning of this season.
And finally, there is this sense of movement in the gospels. Up to this point, we have been climbing. It is still very much an ascent theology, almost a belief that Jesus is the ONE, and he’s going to lead us to these incredible heights, and it’s all going to be great. And today we reach the pinnacle—this is the quintessential experience, this is the epitome of “the mountaintop experience” literally. And yet, at the end of the passage, as they [are] coming down the mountain, Jesus [orders] them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Uh oh, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” which means that the Son of Man is going to die, which means this is not going to go as we thought this was going to go. This is not going to be a perpetual ascent until we are all sitting on top of the mountain enjoying our panoramic view of life. No, the journey with Jesus is going to be about descent. He is going to drag us off this mountaintop all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to Good Friday, all the way to the cross. And so, it makes sense that we go to the mountaintop today before we start our Lenten journey to Jerusalem on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.
Just a couple of other things about this story, places where we might connect. First, treks up mountains aren’t easy—climbing up mountains can be a slog. It may be easier with Jesus leading the way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy work. Sometimes, walking the journey is just plain hard.
Next, there is this element of surprise, of things not going quite like you had envisioned. Peter and James and John may have been excited at the prospect of getting some alone time with Jesus. I mean, after all, there were always those crowds wherever they went, and if not the crowds, there were always those other disciples—Peter, James, and John probably craved some time to have Jesus all to themselves, some time to hangout with Jesus with just a few buddies. And lo and behold, Moses and Elijah come and crash their party. No doubt they were shocked and stunned to see Moses and Elijah there, but they might also have felt a little jealous. One thing is to be sure, the journey with Jesus is always full of surprises and will rarely go how we think it will go in any given situation.
And what of Moses and Elijah? Why Moses and Elijah? Well, they are the premier icons for the law and the prophets. Because of all the passages that we have been hearing the last several weeks from the Sermon on the Mount about Jesus not coming to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them, it seems even more important that it is Moses and Elijah who come to stand next to Jesus, one more way for us to see that Jesus stands in continuity with the law and the prophets, not apart from them. But just as the “but I say to you” passages in the Sermon on the Mount reinterpret the law and the prophets and take us beyond the “letter of the law,” so too what happens on that mountaintop takes us to a new place.
So, Peter, bless his heart, once he gets over his shock that his afternoon picnic with Jesus has just been crashed by Moses and Elijah, Peter sets out to do what he does best, give voice and action to our most human inclinations. “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.” So, Peter grabs ahold of the fact that the law and the prophets are right there with Jesus, and he wants to immortalize it, box it in, concretize it, fix it in a place. And what happens next is fascinating! Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
And now, the words from II Peter today start to make sense: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
We can’t fix the law and the prophets in one place; Jesus pushes them always further…“you have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” And now, we get an even deeper interpretative lens—“the Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” Everything we hear in scripture, all the law, all the prophets, it has to run through the Beloved One; it has to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus, his life, his love, his healing, his provoking, his dying, his rising. You can’t fix it in a place; you have to let it grow and evolve and move and breathe as he lives and moves in each situation we encounter. We have to listen continually for his voice in each situation. None of this is static; it is always evolving.
Finally, there’s the really odd command to tell no one. As [they’re] coming down the mountain, Jesus [orders] them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” As we noted earlier, a part of this is pointing us toward what’s coming, but there is another piece to this as well. Sometimes, an experience is simply beyond words. Sometimes, you just have to sit with the experience without words, without trying to process it, without trying to talk it out. Sometimes, you just have to let the vision swirl around in your soul, resonate at deeper levels of your being. There will be a time to talk about it, but it will be later, for now, just be with the experience and let it continue to teach you from the inside.
So, today, we get to go to the mountaintop and see Jesus in a new light and wrestle with a different set of temptations—it’s good for us to know that temptations don’t always come in the dark, sometimes they come with the light. And as we face our desire to fix things in a certain place, as we hear that voice point us in a different direction, as we confront our fear, and as we understand that we have to leave this mountaintop and start our descent, Jesus [comes to us] and [touches us], “Get up and do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid.” Fixed dwellings here won’t help us on the way to Jerusalem, or anywhere else that life might take us—we have something so much better, and we hear Jesus say it in the very last sentence of Matthew’s gospel. This is after Jerusalem, after the cross, after the resurrection, Jesus says, “You have me. Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We have the presence of our Lord, before us, beside us, within us, meeting us, moving with us, always, to the end of the age. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 2, 2014