The Last Sunday after Epiphany-Year A

Given at St. Mary’s Church, Kansas City

Sunday February 23, 2020

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

 

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I love the liturgy! For those of you who know me that’s not a very surprising statement. I’m a liturgical nerd par excellence. I love everything about how the church worships. Why we do what we do, how it’s supposed to be done etc.… However, as much as I would love to stand up here and talk to you about liturgical minutiae this morning (something I am always happy to do) that’s not exactly what I mean when I say I love the liturgy. I was talking with a good friend this week who lost her grandmother a few years ago. They were very close, and after her grandmother’s death my friend got angry with God, as we often do when we’re dealing with grief and hadn’t been back in church since, until this week when she had to go back for a funeral. As the funeral liturgy was playing out and they got to communion my friend told me that she had this experience of warmth and love that was incredibly tangible to her in that moment, in that time and space, she told me she felt as if Jesus was reaching out to her from the cross and embracing her and for the first time in two years she felt God’s presence and knew that he loved her.

That’s what I love about the liturgy of the church, because when we gather for worship, God reaches out to us regardless of whether we’re regular attenders, we’ve been away for a while, or this is our first time through the doors of a church. God is present, and when we celebrate the liturgy, time and space open up and fall away, heaven and earth collide, and when we remember an event we don’t just call it to mind like the fond memories of our childhood but when we remember something liturgically it becomes present through the power of the Holy Spirit and we experience it here and now in an objective way through the Word of God proclaimed and preached and through the means of sacramental bread and wine. So today, as we hear the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a high mountain, we don’t just remember a day, and an event, that happened over two thousand years ago in another part of the world. Instead Mt. Tabor becomes present and we join them in their ascent, and we are there standing beside them as they see Jesus transfigured in glory.

To fully understand the significance of the event we witness with them and to truly comprehend what it means to them, and to us, we have to go back a few days to the scene where Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say the son of man is?” they give him answers they’ve heard in the crowd… “some say you’re John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets. ” But Jesus wanted to know more than that…he wanted to know who the disciples said that he was and Peter in this very great moment entirely uncharacteristic clarity professed “you are the Messiah the son of the living God!”

It is with this proclamation of faith fresh in their minds that Jesus reveals to them his glory on the Holy Mountain. The glory of the living God, the glory that Moses sees prefigured in the cloud on Mount Sinai, the glory that reveals beyond a doubt and confirms who Jesus truly is. And so today with Peter we exclaim “Lord it is good for us to be here!” because, like Peter and the other disciples, we too, over these last days and weeks since Epiphany, have through our participation in the liturgy, been on a journey of revelation and realization. We heard of the wisemen’s visit and with them we worshiped the newborn king. We were there standing next to Mary and Joseph in the temple as Jesus was circumcised and fulfilled the law for us. We were there with Simeon and Anna as they rejoiced and glorified God for the salvation that was promised, the salvation they now held as a baby cradled in their arms. We were there on the banks of the Jordan River as John the Baptist professed that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and we watched as Jesus went down into the waters of chaos to identify with and take upon himself his fallen creation. We journeyed with Jesus as he went from town to town teaching and preaching in the synagogues, we saw him heal the sick and call people of all walks of life, including you and me, to follow him no matter the cost.

Today on the mountain we see Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, and we know from Luke’s account of the transfiguration that they’re speaking of Jesus’ departure, or put rather more plainly, of his crucifixion. Moses and Elijah are there to bear witness to Jesus and to confirm for the chosen disciples, and for us that he is the one of whom all of the law and the prophets bore witness to.  From this time on once they descend the mountain Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem towards the cross, towards his departure from this life and from this world. He knows that Peter, James, and John aren’t expecting what’s about to happen and so he gives the transfiguration as a gift to these chosen disciples, so that the dark days of his passion and death will not make them lose all hope. Saint Leo the great in a sermon on the transfiguration From the 5th century  gives voice to the reason for the transfiguration in this way , and I quote, “the reason for this great transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples and to prevent the humiliation of his voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that laid concealed…” [1] The disciples needed that reassurance because they didn’t know the end of the story, they didn’t yet know that Jesus would have to die on the cross, they didn’t yet know that Jesus’ death wouldn’t be the end of the story, or what amazing things God had in store for them. We on the other hand know the end of the story and we know that the cross is not the end of that story. We know that it’s not something that Jesus was forced to do or something that wasn’t planned but it was the way in which our God who loves us chose to reveal to us who he is and what he is like.  We know that it is through Jesus’ death on the cross that we are freed from the sin and death which kept us captive and that it is through the suffering of the cross that Jesus takes on and sanctifies the fullness of our human experience. We know that the joy of the resurrection comes after the sorrow of the cross, and that in the end everything will be all right and that we have hope for a better world where pain, loneliness, fear and everything that troubles us in this life will be no more.

We know the end of the story, and yet year after year on this Sunday as we transition from Epiphany to Lent, as we arrive at the halfway point between Christmas and Easter the story of the transfiguration is placed before us to hear again, and experience anew, not because we need it to strengthen our faith but because it is, in the words of our opening hymn this morning, a vision of the glory that the church may share, and as we prepare to enter once more this holy season of penitence and self-denial, we are invited to journey up the mountain with Moses and spend forty days in the presence of God, we are invited to spend forty days face to face with Jesus in the desert, and to walk with him the long and lonely road to Calvary where on the cross  we see the fullest revelation of who God is and what God is like. And walking with him to Calvary It is for us to  “follow him with all speed, yearning for the heavenly vision that will give us a share in his radiance, renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness making us forever sharers in his own  godhead and raising us to Heights as yet undreamed of.” [2]

This is the goal of our entire Christian life, not just in lent but every day.  In Baptism we are called to enter into union with the Triune God, to be transfigured and to grow in God’s love and service. In the season of lent as we remember in a particular way our own sinfulness:  both as individuals and as a society, and as we place before ourselves our need for a savior, and take up practices of self-denial and penitence it is the perfect time for us to “retire from the world, stand aloof from the earth, rise above the body, detach ourselves from creatures and turn to the creator.”[3] We attempt to set aside those things which hold us back and make us afraid to behold God’s glory in doing so we are better able to encounter the glory of God revealed on the mountain to us today, we are better able to see Jesus and only Jesus, as Saint Matthew tells us the apostles did.

As we prepare to enter this holy season of lent let us keep the all that we have seen and heard these past weeks fresh in our memories and through our participation in the liturgy of the church…coming to this altar day after day and week after week… let us encounter again and again the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ who gives himself to us in the forms of bread and wine. Through eating this heavenly feast let us be transfigured into his image and likeness and be brought into full and perfect union with him who is the very image of the invisible God, which we saw on Mt. Tabor. Let us descend from the mountain to the mundane and often boring realities of our day to day lives, boldly proclaiming with Peter that we have been eyewitnesses of his glory. And knowing the end of the story and the hope that is ours through the resurrection, let us share with all those around us the good news what God has done. Let us tell a broken and hurting world that the God of the Universe, the God of Glory became one of us and gave his life for us on that other holy mountain, and that he wants them too to come to know him…That he loves them and is reaching out from the cross to embrace them in a warm embrace, an embrace which sets everything aright if we allow ourselves to be transfigured.

Amen.

[1] Leo the Great Sermon 51

[2] The Chapters of Anastasias, Abbot of St. Katherine’s: Letter 1

[3] Ibid