A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany
February 19, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
Today we come to the edge of Lent. We get in our final alleluias before we enter the penitential season. We soak up the last of Epiphany before entering the forty-year wilderness with the children of Israel to hear and live the calling to covenant with God. And before we journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, with Jesus and the disciples, Jesus takes us, along with Peter, James, and John, up a mountain. Here, at the edge of Lent, we catch a glimpse of the far side: Easter morning.
Each of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tells the story of the Transfiguration, our gospel lesson. But each one tells it slightly differently, emphasizing certain things, preaching the same message but with a unique focus. We read today from Matthew. Matthew wants us to see the connection between Jesus and Moses. Just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to commune with God and his face shone with God’s own brightness, so Jesus ascends a mountain today with his disciples. Like Moses, Jesus shines, radiating light. But unlike Moses, Jesus shines with the uncreated light of who he is, of his very nature, his own divinity. Matthew shows us that it is Jesus, the light of the world, who lit up Moses’s face long ago.
But in every account of the Transfiguration–in Matthew, Mark, and Luke–we are presented with the same sequence of events leading up to the mountain. Our gospel today begins, “six days later.” We should ask, later? After what? In each account, the Transfiguration happens after Jesus has sat down with his disciples and asked them, who do you say that I am? In each account, Peter speaks up for the bunch, saying, you are the Messiah. In each account, Jesus then tells them about his coming suffering and death, and Peter will have none of it. Jesus rebukes him: Get behind me, Satan. It is in the context of that confession of Jesus as the Messiah, and the subsequent revelation that he will be crucified and that he will rise again, that Jesus takes his select disciples up a mountain to see him transfigured in the glory of heaven, revealing not something new, but something that had always been there. He shows them that he is not only 100% human, but also 100% God.
Jesus knows what will happen in the coming days as he sets his face toward Jerusalem. He knows of the cross, the torture, the pain. He knows of his desertion, of his disciples fleeing in fear. He knows the trial yet to come. And so, in mercy, he takes them up the mountain to give them something to hold on to in their darkest days. He shows them his inner nature, that he is God. He takes them up there to reassure them. And as they hear the voice of God the Father thunder and fall on their faces, Jesus will reach out and touch them. He touches them just as he touched the sick and diseased, and he says, do not be afraid.
These disciples don’t know they need all of this now. But in the coming days, as their teacher is arrested and led to a cross, as the sky turns black and Jesus breathes his last, as they cower in fear in the backroom of a safehouse, Peter, James, and John will remember this moment. They will remember that Jesus once shone with the uncreated light of divinity. They will remember that he is not just a great human, but that he is God. They will remember that touch from Jesus, that touch of compassion that pierced their souls, and they will hear his words again, do not be afraid.
The Transfiguration, then, is not only an encounter for revealing Christ’s eternal divinity, but it is also an encounter of grace and mercy, an encounter of strength to help the disciples through their darkest hour, their trial yet to come. I wonder if Jesus has come to you in that way? Like Peter, James, and John, it’s only something we can see in hindsight. Maybe it wasn’t a mountain top experience of radiating heavenly light like the disciples’ experience. Maybe it was more ordinary. Maybe it was in the words of a friend. But in your darkest hour, in your time of trial, something from that encounter, that experience, echoed and reverberated in your soul, strengthening you to bear your cross.
Like a man in Fayetteville who fell into a coma after an accident. He was in a coma for a week at least. When he woke up, he told his family what the coma had been like. It was dark, he said, but it wasn’t silent. There was music, simple music. The music of the Eucharistic prayers of the Church being chanted by the priest. As he heard those notes flowing up and down in praise of God, he said he knew he would be alright. He didn’t know what would happen–life or death. But he would be alright, because he was in Jesus.
Maybe you’ve heard of that happening with folks who suffer from dementia? They are locked away in the prison of their own mind. But then the notes of “Amazing Grace” are played, and they pierce the prison walls. A light they once saw pierces the gloom of their cross, and they know they are going to be okay, if but for a moment.
Or maybe it’s a small conversation, something that somebody said in passing, quite innocently. But in the time of trial, their words echo in your mind. It’s the light of the Transfiguration shining on your Good Friday, pointing you to the coming Easter morning.
Here, at the edge of Lent, Christ gives us a vision of who he is as a grace, as a solace for the trial to come, as food for the wilderness ahead. He is telling us that when we go through the unimaginable, remember–remember who he is. When we are faced with darkness, remember–remember his light shining. And when the cross stands in our lives, with its shame and curse and death, remember–remember that Christ Crucified has already won at Calvary, and Easter morning will dawn. Alleluia.
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