Sunday, March 02, 2014

Getting All the Way to Easter: The Vision and Grace of the Transfiguration

How are you getting to Easter this year?

Year A • The Last Sunday After Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18 • Psalm 2 or 99 • 2 Peter 1:16-21 • Matthew 17:1-9

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon
All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, 
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; 
for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
                                                                    — 2 Corinthians 3:18

Getting All the Way to Easter
Good Morning. I have a question for you: “How are you getting to Easter this year? How are you getting from here all the way to Easter?”
     Today is the Last Sunday of Epiphany. It is also known as Transfiguration Sunday because on this day, on this last Sunday before Lent, we are present with Jesus up on the Mount of Transfiguration. And we are looking across the valley that lies under the shadow of death, the valley in which we live our lives. And as we look south across this darkened landscape, in the distance we can see the glimmer of Easter, but only faintly because it’s largely hidden from view. Darkness looms in the distance, and a dark shape rises out of the shadows and obscures Easter. It’s very dark, but if we look closely, we can see the faint outlines of three cross-like structures against a sun-eclipsed horizon. That dark shape, of course, is Calvary, the place of the Skull, the place where our Lord gave up his life. Some people call it a hill, but it’s really a mountain. After all, mountains are places where heaven and earth meet, and heaven and earth certainly met on Calvary, long ago, on a dark Friday, we call Good.
     But again, I wonder, “How are we getting to Easter?” I pose this question because it is the same question that is confronting Jesus’ disciples in the events leading up to today’s Gospel reading.

The Lead Up to the Transfiguration
Today’s episode that takes place on the Mount of Transfiguration is situated along a fault line in the narrative of Matthew’s gospel. It is part of the turning point, for it is at this stage in the story that Jesus sets his face like flint toward Jerusalem. After today’s episode, Jesus will walk off the mountain of his glory and begin making his way down into the valley, the valley that will funnel him toward his death.
     But let’s step back and take in some of the events that lead up to today’s gospel reading. We are at the midpoint of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is at the height of his popularity. His ministry of healing and teaching, of proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom in word and deed has generated quite a buzz. Jesus has fed crowds of 5000 and 4000. He has cured hundreds people, delivering them from all manner of trouble, sorrow, need, and sickness. He makes the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, the blind to see. He makes the lame to walk and the maimed whole (Matt 15:31).
     But all of this popularity has attracted the attention and sparked the suspicion of the powers that be. The Pharisees and Sadducees confront Jesus. They question him. They lay traps for him. So Jesus withdraws from public life for a time. Taking his closest followers with him, Jesus heads North. He leaves his familiar Jewish homeland behind and makes his way deep into Gentile territory.
     While there, Jesus interviews his disciples. He asks them, “People are talking about me? Who do they say I am?” The disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The crowds are getting close, but they don’t quite have it yet. Jesus is a prophet, to be sure, but he is more than a prophet. Jesus turns the question on his disciples, “So who do you say that I am?” Without hesitation, Simon Peter—the spokesperson for the Twelve—stands up and announces, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). It’s a glorious moment. Peter and the disciples have finally recognized what we readers of the Gospel have known all along, that Jesus is the Lord’s Anointed, the very Son of God.
     But the moment is short-lived. As soon as his true identity becomes known, Jesus swears his disciples to secrecy. And from that point on, Jesus begins to talk openly about the fate that awaits him. He must go to Jerusalem and endure great suffering at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and they scribes. He will be killed, and on the third day he will rise. But poor Peter is not having any of it. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (16:22). Peter’s rebuke earns him an even harsher rebuke in return. For in Peter’s words, Jesus hears the voice of the Evil One trying to discourage him, trying to divert him from his vocation. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23).
     Jesus then calls all of his disciples together, and begins to instruct them on the nature and cost of discipleship.
If any want to become my followers, he says, let them deny themselves and 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 (Matt 16:24-25).
Servants are not greater than their masters. If the Son of God has a cross in his future, so do his disciples. No doubt, this all came as quite a shock. After all, Jesus has been doing all manner of wonderful and powerful things; God was clearly with him. So how is it that he will be rejected by God’s people and be killed? And, if this is his fate, how will his disciples follow him? How are they going to make it to Jerusalem and beyond? In short, how are they going to make it all the way to Easter?

The Transfiguration of the Disciples
That’s where today’s episode comes in. Six days after all of this talk about crosses and death, Jesus takes with him Peter, James, and John, and he leads them up on a high mountain, by themselves. There, they see Jesus transfigured before their very eyes. His face shines with the brightness of the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. And, as if that were not enough, two ot celebrities suddenly appear out of the past: Moses, who represents the Law; and Elijah, who represents the Prophets. These two extraordinary figures share something in common. They both had encounters with Yahweh—the God of Israel—on the top of a mountain, and here they are again on a mountaintop speaking face-to-face with God in the person of his Son. The message is clear. Jesus of Nazareth is the One who fulfills all the Law and the Prophets.
     But the revelation of Jesus’ glory does not stop there. Suddenly, a bright cloud overshadows the disciples, and out of the cloud, they hear the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the same voice that was heard at Jesus’ baptism, and it is speaking the same words. Except for that last bit; that last bit is new. Listen to him!... Listen to him!... Those words are meant for the disciples. In fact, the whole transfiguration of Jesus was for the sole benefit of the disciples. Just look at the pronouns that are used. Seriously, when you go home today, take a bulletin with you. Then, this afternoon, read through the transfiguration story, and highlight the third-person plural pronouns, the “theys” and the “thems.” This is a technique that we teach at my school; it’s called marking the text.
     When you do this, when you mark the text, you will see that what take place on the Mount of Transfiguration is directed at the disciples. For example, the text doesn’t just say, “Jesus was transfigured,” it says, “Jesus was transfigured before them.” Likewise, it doesn’t just say, “Suddenly there appeared Moses and Elijah,” but rather, “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah.” And the episode continues in this vein, “a bright cloud overshadowed them,” “Jesus came and touched them,” “And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”
By the way, that is an assignment. Next week, I want to see some highlighted bulletins. You can place them in the offering plate. Just make sure your name is on it so that you can get full credit.
So what’s the significance of all of this? Why does it matter that the Transfiguration was put on solely for the benefit of Jesus’ disciples? And how exactly does it benefit them? Let me answer the first question first. When Jesus is transfigured before the disciples, it isn’t Jesus who is transfigured so much as it is the disciples who are transfigured. Jesus isn’t becoming the Son of God; he already is the Son of God. When he is transfigured on the mountain, Jesus is not becoming something that he wasn’t before; he is revealing himself to his disciples. As one author put it, “The transfigured Jesus is changed, not in essence, but in the way he is seen.” In other words, on the Mount of Transfiguration, it is the disciples’ vision that is being transfigured. Jesus’ disciples are being given the gift of sight, the gift of seeing Jesus in all his glory, the gift of seeing Jesus as he truly is.
     But why is that important? How does that benefit them in their discipleship? Because that is how the disciples are going to get to Easter, and that’s how we are going to get to Easter.

Getting All the Way to Easter
As we all know, Easter is the time when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. But Easter is not only about Jesus’ resurrection, it is also about our resurrection. Easter is about our participation in the resurrected life of Jesus, our participation in his victory over death. Yet, there is no Easter without Calvary; no resurrection without death. And that’s the purpose of Lent. Lent is a journey to Easter, but a journey that necessarily takes us through the valley of deep shadows.
     But how can we make that journey? Where can we find the strength and courage to take up our cross and follow in the footsteps of our Master? If only we could see the light of Easter at the end of the tunnel, then we might be willing and able to make the journey. But Easter is hidden from view by Calvary; Calvary dominates the landscape, so much so that, as we get closer and closer to Easter, all we can see is the outline of our own cross coming into focus.
     On Ash Wednesday, we will hear these words from the Book of Common Prayer:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word (BCP 264–265).
Sin, self-examination, repentance, penitence—those are not exactly inspiring words. I mean if you were to pick up a travel brochure, and a vacation was described as being filled with prayer, fasting, and self-denial, who would want to go? So again, where do we find the strength and courage to make the dark and difficult journey of Lent? We find it on the Mount of Transfiguration. When our vision of Jesus is transfigured, when our eyes behold the brilliance of the Son of God, when see Jesus as he is (if only for a moment) and we bask in the light of his unconditional love and forgiveness, then we can do almost anything. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, for we will know that our Lord is with us. And we will find that even his rod and his staff are a comfort to us because he cares for us.
     We find encouragement and empowerment on the Mount of Transfiguration because it is there that we are granted a vision, not only of who Jesus is, but of what we become as we follow him to Calvary, a vision of what we become as we take up our cross and engage in the work of self-examination, repentance, and prayer. “The transfiguration of Jesus offers a glimpse of what is possible, not only for Jesus, but for all humanity.”[1] As one author puts it,
Who is Christ? Who am I?... The dazzling light that shone from the face of Jesus reveals to us his true stature as the eternal Son of God. It reveals to us also the highest potentiality of our created nature, our ultimate vocation as human beings.”[2]
So beloved, “I invite you,…, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” It can be a long journey so travel light, that is, travel by the light of Christ who loves you, who empowers you, and who will guide you all the way to Easter, all the way to the resurrection life that awaits us on the other side of Calvary.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Lori Brandt Hale, “Luke 9:28–36 (37–43):  Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, Volume 1 (eds. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor; Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 454.
[2] Andreas Andreopoulos, This Is My Beloved Son: The Transfiguration of Christ (Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete, 2012), from the Forward by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Delivered on Sunday, March 2nd, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

The Scriptures
Click Read More for the text of the Scriptures
RCLEE • Year A • Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

The Collect
O God, who before the passion of your only­begotten 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. Amen.

Exodus 24:12–18
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to 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..

Psalm 2 • Quare fremuerunt gentes? • BCP 586
   1      Why are the nations in an uproar? *
                  Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
   2      Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,            and the princes plot together, *
                  against the Lord and against his Anointed?
   3      “Let us break their yoke,” they say; *
                  “let us cast off their bonds from us.”
   4      He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
                  the Lord has them in derision.
   5      Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
                  and his rage fills them with terror.
   6      “I myself have set my king *
                  upon my holy hill of Zion.”
   7      Let me announce the decree of the Lord: *
                  he said to me, “You are my Son; this day have I begotten you.
   8      Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance *
                  and the ends of the earth for your possession.
   9      You shall crush them with an iron rod *
                  and shatter them like a piece of pottery.”
10      And now, you kings, be wise; *
                  be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11      Submit to the Lord with fear, *
                  and with trembling bow before him;
12      Lest he be angry and you perish; *
                  for his wrath is quickly kindled.
13      Happy are they all *
                  who take refuge in him!

Psalm 99 • Dominus regnavit • BCP 728
   1      The Lord is King; let the people tremble; *
                  he is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake.
   2      The Lord is great in Zion; *
                  he is high above all peoples.
   3      Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
                  he is the Holy One.
   4      “O mighty King, lover of justice,
           you have established equity; *
                  you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”
   5      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
           and fall down before his footstool; *
                  he is the Holy One.
   6      Moses and Aaron among his priests,
           and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
                  they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
   7      He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
                  they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
   8      O Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
                  you were a God who forgave them,
                  yet punished them for their evil deeds.
   9      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
           and worship him upon his holy hill; *
                  for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

2 Peter 1:16–21
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
     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

Matthew 17:1–9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 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.” 5 While he 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!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

     9 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.”

No comments:

Post a Comment