Last Epiphany 2008
What we have this morning is the ultimate Epiphany. It is the story of the Transfiguration.
Last week we talked about Epiphany as a season of contemplation–and disruption. On the mountain we have both.
This remarkable event most likely took place on the mountain known as Mt. Tabor outside of the city of Jerusalem. You know the story well. This is an endorsement of the highest kind pertaining to Jesus’ identity and his mission. Here he is endorsed by Moses, Elijah, and God the Father himself.
The scene echoes Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai after receiving the Law from the finger of God. Moses’ face shone with the glory of God and the children of Israel could barely look on his face.
Mt. Tabor becomes the new Sinai and Jesus shines, not from an outside glory, but from a glory that is within. When the people ask in Matthew 7, after Jesus has preached the sermon on the mount, who is this? He speaks with authority, not as the scribes and Pharisees! This text is an obvious answer to that question.
If the readers of the gospels have any doubt as to who Jesus is, Moses reminds them that Jesus transcends the Law. Elijah reminds readers that Jesus transcends the prophets. Elijah is also the penultimate sign from the writings of the prophets that the end is near, that in Jesus the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Remember that when Moses died, only God knew where he was buried and Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire–having escaped death. Both of these figures in Jewish tradition are figures of their own time, but are also figures of the Kingdom to come. Here they are, talking to Jesus about his ‘departure’ or his Exodus (using more Old Testament imagery), which is Jesus’ journey where? To the cross.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all emphasize Peter’s confusion as to what is going on here. This is important because the Transfiguration occurs after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It also follows Jesus’ prediction of his own death and his teaching that all who would follow him would have to take up their cross as well. Peter, of course is rebuked because he doesn’t want Jesus to face the scandal of the cross. Matthew records Jesus’ words to Peter, “Away from me Satan, you are an offense to me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
The Transfiguration is a scene of irony. Jesus’ exodus for the salvation of Israel and humanity began in a manger and ended on the cross. Most of his life he had nowhere to lay his head and lived in humility. The Transfiguration is a glimpse of Christ’s divinity amidst his poverty, of his glory amidst his lowliness. It shows us the heights that he has descended for the ultimate Exodus, the salvation of all who would put their trust in him.
There are two themes we need to concentrate on this morning they come directly from God the Father himself within the cloud: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
First, the first part of the phrase: ‘This is my beloved Son.’ The imagery around the Transfiguration is very important. A cloud envelops Jesus. This kind of cloud in the Old Testament represents God’s ‘Shekinah,’ or his ‘Chabod,’ that is, his glory. For Moses, the glory came from above, for Jesus, the glory comes from within.
One scholar says that glory, in the OT, ‘implies more than a disclosure by God of who he is. It implies an invasion of the material universe, an expression of God’s active presence among his people.” The cloud of glory is often associated with the Temple or the tabernacle, the presence of God among men.
Jesus transcends the tabernacle and the Temple, the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah. Jesus does not ask for a booth alongside the others. God’s presence is most evident in Jesus Christ because he is God become human flesh. ‘This is my beloved Son.’
We have a familiarity around Jesus that is not good. He is a commodity in our culture just like anything else. Chris saw a bumper sticker the other day: ‘I found Jesus: behind my couch.’ He sells shirts and movies. He is too familiar–even among Christians. What did the disciples do when they say Jesus in all his glory? They said, ‘whassup JC?’ No—they ‘fell face down.’ They were terrified. Peter stumbled and bumbled because he was afraid.
Mid 20th century there was a push to talk about God’s stern-ness and his judgement. Then, late 20th century and early 21st century, there is a push to talk about the milktoast, teddy bear savior.
In the Scriptures, people weren’t afraid of God because they were afraid he didn’t ‘like’ them. They feared God because God transcends our categories and understanding. He ain’t like us. A glimpse of the glory of Jesus ought to be terrifying–not because he is not loving, but because his love is on a different plane and in a different category. He is light shining in a dark place and everything else is dark in comparison.
‘This is my beloved Son.’
The second point. ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’ Whenever you read a story in the gospels, it is important to read and study how things are arranged because then you will learn what the gospel writers are trying to emphasize. The question you should ask is ‘what, in particular, should we listen to?’ Of course all of Jesus’ teachings are indispensable, but in this context, God the Father is pointing to Jesus’ teachings about the cross and more specifically, Christ’s teachings about discipleship.
Discipleship is an overused word in church circles, what does it mean? It is rabbinic language from the Jewish tradition that means, to follow and to emulate. If the master, the rabbi, the teacher say ‘jump,’ you jump. If he says ‘go’ you go. Where he goes, you go. If there is any doubt in the disciples minds that Jesus is worthy of listening to and following, the Transfiguration dispels those doubts. But they and we, must open our hearts to the greatness of this master, this rabbi, this teacher. In fact, we need a new heart to follow him. One writer says, “to fathom the Transfiguration requires something other than words, it takes a new heart. A new heart leads us to sit at Jesus’ feet, ready to learn and listen…our walk with God requires a different way of assessing the world and expects a distinct perspective on moral values…” To listen to Jesus is to change our heart and to change our life. Jesus said as much.
“If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily, and follow me. For whoever desires to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will save it. For what profit is it to gain the world and lose your soul?”
‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’
Jesus’ words are more than love and tolerance. They are a disruption! They are an invasion on all of our values and all of our instincts. ‘Take up your cross, lose your life.’ To hear his words we must have a new heart and a new life. The secularism of this world is not only non-Christian, it militates against all that is Christian. British thinker Os Guiness says, ‘Americans with a purely secular view of life have too much to live with, too little to life for. Everything is permitted and nothing is important.’
Because of this secularism, we need to, as the late Russian priest Father Alexander Schmemann has said, ‘…to see once again what we have forgotten how to see; to feel what we no longer feel; to experience what we are no longer capable of expressing.’
‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’
Our goals as a parish should be: to be committed followers of Jesus who train committed followers of Jesus who make committed followers of Jesus. But it takes a new heart and new lives to do so. We cannot pass along what we ourselves do not have. We cannot ask anyone to take up the cross if we have not taken up the cross ourselves. We cannot ask anyone to have a relationship with Christ if we don’t have one ourselves.
This Jesus ought to give us a new world-view altogether.
Lent begins this Wednesday. It is not 40 days of guilt or giving up Mr. Goodbars. It is an opportunity. Easter is the feast of feasts in our Christian Tradition. But you can’t feast unless you fast. This Lent is our opportunity to ‘listen.’ We have New Testaments on MP3s for everyone in our church and it is a chance to listen to the whole NT in 40 days, 28 minutes a day.
We can’t listen to Christ if we are not in his word. I had a spiritual formation class as a part of my doctoral studies and we were challenged to memorize a large portion of Scripture. I memorized Luke 6:20-36 and I would recommend that you try something like that as well. It is amazing that memorizing Scripture allows us internalize it in a way that nothing else can. I don’t mean a verse here and there for fighting others, I mean a chunk–10 to 15 verses at a time to make it yours.
I read your surveys and beginning next week will have a class called ‘The whys and hows of Lent’ to maximize our practice of Lent. I also have a couple of guest speakers to come to both services to challenge us to think of Lent as also a time to consider the needs of others. No one will be asking for money by the way.
Another way to ‘listen to Jesus’ is to consider what he is doing in our community…