The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Last Sunday after Epiphany—Year A (video link)
II Peter 1:16-21
Here we are—the last Sunday after the Epiphany. And what an interesting group of scriptures we have as we take one last look around before descending into Lent.
Lots of mountains today. In Exodus, Moses has said “yes” to God’s invitation to come on up the mountain where God will give Moses the law and the commandment which God has written for their instruction. It’s interesting, but the first instruction that God gives Moses is to come up the mountain and wait there. Simply wait. After instructing the elders to wait at the bottom for him and his assistant Joshua, Moses heads up the mountain and waits, and the cloud covered the mountain, thicker than Blowing Rock fog. The glory of the Lord had descended upon that mountain, and the cloud covered it for six days.
Sometimes the glory of the Lord descends upon us in a way that we can’t see the nose in front of our face. It is completely disorienting, and we can’t tell which way is up or down or east or west. Sometimes, God has to completely disorient us, so that God may completely reorient us. On the seventh day, God called Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. To those below, the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire—lots of light and heat. To Moses, it was just the disorienting cloud. But when Moses emerged from that cloud, he was ready to receive what God had to give him. And yes, it would take 40 days for Moses to hear, and receive, and understand the instruction.
Our lives and world are swirling these days. It may feel like me are being tossed to and fro on a sea, completely unmoored. This is not a comfortable space to inhabit, and far from promising us peace, God calls us to come on up the mountain and intentionally place ourselves in the cloud where we intentionally lose all our bearings. God calls us to wait there, so that we can receive the law and commandments, so that we can receive instruction, without trying to manipulate it to our own ends. In urgent and anxious times, God says, “Wait, this is going to take time to unpack—maybe 40 days or so. You cannot rush this. Patience, Moses. Patience, Cyndi. Patience, brothers and sisters. Clarity will come, but not necessarily on your timetable.” Oh, this is hard work.
And then we skip over to II Peter where we hear this: 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.
Be attentive. Focus on the lamp shining out in a dark place. Again, patience. Yes, it is dark, but our instruction is to wait in the dark, to be attentive to our hearts, to trust that the day will dawn there, that a morning star will rise there, and then, it won’t matter how dark it is outside because the lamp will be burning bright in our hearts, and that light will follow us wherever we go. And Peter reminds us, quite rightly, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. The prophets do not act on their own will, but speak from that place of alignment with God. The prophets are the mouthpiece of God to speak God’s comfort and compassion and steadfast love and challenge into the circumstances of our world. It is always a slippery slope; it is easy to confuse the interpretation that arises from my will with the one that is arises when I put in the hard work of waiting with open hands and open heart and open mind and open spirit. Do you get the nuance? One is pushed from my end—it has that energy of forcing and urgency; the other arises; the other is received like a gift—it may still possess the energy of action, but that action will be arising out of solid, grounded place; an action arising out of alignment, instead of agenda. It’s tricky, which is why Peter counsels us, “Be attentive.”
Then we come to the mountain in the gospel. It’s six days later. Six days after what? Six days after Jesus has had that exchange with the disciples up in Caesarea Philippi about who they think Jesus is, and though Peter gets the “A” for saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God;” Peter flunks when he rebukes Jesus when Jesus spells out that being the Christ, the Son of the living God means suffering at the hands of the religious people that should have gotten his mission, and being killed by them, and then, just when he might have gotten some peace and eternal quiet in the tomb, lo and behold, he would have to rise again.
Peter didn’t like the scenario that Jesus had spelled out, and Peter told Jesus to knock it off about such things. Jesus held his ground—called Peter “Satan” and went on to say that anyone who would come after him would have to take up his cross and follow him—that those who try to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for Jesus’ sake will find it. And Jesus then posed a piercing question, to Peter and to us, “For what will it profit if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?”
It’s six days after that exchange. And the first interesting thing to notice is that while Jesus told Peter to get behind him and called him “Satan,” Jesus didn’t banish Peter to outsider status; Jesus didn’t shame Peter, make him sit in a corner, or demote him to lesser discipleship status. He told Peter to get behind him which put him in a position to follow him up the mountain, along with James and John.
And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “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.”
Oh Peter, he’s so trying to get this right. So trying to get this nailed down. He got the Christ thing right, and then he got it wrong when he tried to limit what it means to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. He gets that the law, Moses, and the prophets, Elijah, are central to Jesus; he gets that Jesus has a particular relationship with these two strands of the tradition that is holy, and he wants to do the only thing he knows to do, enshrine it in even more holiness. The english says three dwellings, but it’s three booths, three tabernacles to be exact, three tents to hold the holiness of God. Peter is blown away by the holiness before him, and he wants to fix the location, contain it, locate it in time and space. Why? Why do we human beings always try to contain holiness? I don’t know, but in tumultuous times, maybe we try to contain it so we’ll always know where to find it when we so need it.
But while Peter was still speaking, 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!” God was on to the game, so it’s time for a little cloud-time, throw Peter and James and John into the cloud to completely disorient them, so that God can completely reorient them—“Peter, don’t try to fix, contain, the law and the prophets, even Jesus himself. He is a living, breathing, beloved Son—listen to him, listen to his life, listen to what he does and what he says and who he eats with and who he heals and who he lifts up and who he challenges. Don’t turn him into a monument—be in relationship with this beloved Son of the living God.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
It’s an awfully scary thing to let go of our tried and true containers; it’s scary to let go of getting God located in our time and space so we know right where to find God when we need God; it’s a whole other thing to know that Jesus is going to be on the move and that our relationship with him is going to be constantly changing and evolving and pulling us deeper, deeper, deeper than we ever thought we go could go. Moses, Elijah, law, prophets, even Jesus—known quantities. Beloved Son of the living God quite free of our tabernacles—ooooh, that throws us in uncharted territories.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
And not only are we being thrown into uncharted territories, but Jesus is going to ask us to sit with this vision a good long while before we post it on our facebook pages. Just like God with Moses, Jesus asks us to wait. We won’t be ready to act on this vision of transfiguration, we won’t know what to do with this radiant Majestic Glory of God, as Peter calls it, that completely changes the countenance of Jesus until we understand what it means to die for the sake of love, and to rise for the sake of a love that is stronger still.
Jesus will not let this go—we have to make the journey that starts this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and see it through Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday, all the way to the Easter dawn—only then, will we understand that transfiguration changes us from the inside, out and once that glory’s grabbed ahold of us, there’s not a tabernacle holy enough to hold that glory in. It yearns to shine for everyone to see, but only when it’s been tempered by a good healthy understanding of the suffering that comes when you go all-in with love, even loving those who would rather nail that love to a cross than to see a love that could extend its arms that far and that wide. There is something in us that has to die and rise again before God can trust that kind of Majestic Glory in our hands.
So, where is God calling you to come on up the mountain? Where is God calling you into a place of complete disorientation where nothing is clear, so that God can completely reorient you? Where, in your anxiety, are you wanting to get all this law, prophet, Jesus, God stuff nailed down and contained so that something will be exactly where it’s supposed to be when you need it the most? And where is God calling you to let all that go and trust this relationship with Jesus who is living and breathing and always evolving? And then, can you sit with this vision until you come to a deeper understanding of what life in relationship with him really means?
If you feel yourself in a fog these days, know that something deep, something mysterious, something that will take time to comprehend may well be afoot. If you’re afraid, know that Jesus is going to touch you in a way that a booth, a tabernacle, never will. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And what is the first thing that Son says? Actually, it’s an enfleshed word—with that gentle touch, and those words that can calm our heart and still our swirling anxieties, he says, “Do not be afraid.”
Take those words in, sit with the vision, follow him on the journey that stretches ahead—die with him, rise with him, and then, you will understand, it never was just about Jesus’ transfiguration, but it was also, always, about our own. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 26, 2017