Sermon: Last Epiphany (b)
Last Sunday in
February 19, 2012
Fr. Dow Sanderson
For those of you who have long memories and a sharp recall for detail, you will have noted that this morning's Gospel sounds quite a bit like a mid-season re-run of the Transfiguration. And, of course, you would be right.
For centuries, the events described in this morning's Gospel were commemorated on August 6... and of course, they still are... (for the four or five of us who show up in Starr Chapel for a morning mass in the heat of the summer).
But with the Liturgical Revival that swept through all the churches in the mid 1960s... making its way into the Episcopal Church with the 1979 prayerbook... the scriptures describing the Transfiguration of Our Lord were moved to a more prominent place... on the Last Sunday in Epiphany.
And so, year by year, having celebrated the joyful events of Incarnation, the visit of the Wise Men, the clarion voice from heaven at the Baptism of Jesus, a cornucopia of epiphanies: water-made-wine at Cana, healings, miracles and signs... we come at last to this dramatic finale.
Jesus ascends the mountain with Peter, James and John. We have the very brief description from Mark's Gospel this morning, but you will remember from your reading of other Gospel accounts that Jesus began to pray, and asked them likewise to pray.
Jesus in fact prayed... and they, in fact, slept.
But when they awoke, they were dazzled by what they beheld: Jesus shone more brilliantly than the sun. It was an unimaginable thing to behold... a glimpse of Transcendent wonder more spectacular than any human eyes had ever seen.
With Jesus were Moses and Elijah, in deep conversation... showing forth that this Messiah, this Jesus, this Incarnate Son of God... was the culmination of all the Law and the Prophets.
It is little wonder that all three disciples were stupefied with awe... and it is even less wonder that St. Peter, ever the impetuous one, gave voice to their stupefication: Master, it is well that we are here. Let us build three booths... one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
It is an understandable sentiment. We all want things that amaze us... and things that we enjoy... to have permanence. In fact, I am certain that had Episcopalians been invited up the mountain with Jesus on that blessed occasion, there would be three elegant and exceedingly tasteful chapels there to this very day!
But building a shrine around an experience such as the Transfiguration would be like attempting to build a shrine around a sunrise or a beautiful rainbow.
Such moments of beauty and splendor cannot be captured. In fact, they are cherished and remembered because they are ephemeral.
And as if to remind the awe-struck disciples of this truth, they are suddenly enveloped in a great cloud. It over shadows even the brilliance of Jesus in that moment, and the voice from heaven thunders: This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.
And when the cloud is lifted... Jesus is alone. Moses and Elijah are seen no more. And Jesus appears to them to be as normal and ordinary as he had when they began the journey up the mountain.
Not only that... but as they come down the mountain, Jesus swears them to secrecy, You must tell no one what you have seen, until after the Son of Man has Risen from the Dead.
So what do you suppose went through their minds on that silent walk home? And what did Jesus intend for them to take from this experience... and what does he intend for us... who have witnessed these things from afar... to take from the experience?
In the chronology of events, it is now clear that Jesus had "set his face" toward Jerusalem. This same inner circle of disciples who had just witnessed the glory of the Transfiguration are on the cusp of witnessing another side of the story. They are about to enter a week of mystery and intrigue.. A week of Triumphal Entries and Palm Processions... a week of quiet words spoken over bread and wine, a week of spying and betrayal and denial.... And the awful and lonely night of arrest and mocking and beating and bitter death on a Friday afternoon.
It seems clear that Jesus, in taking Peter, James and John up on the mountain wanted to give them an encouraging sign of future glory that might well sustain them in the more dark and painful parts of their journey.
And likewise for you and me. We hear the encouraging words today... we sing Alleluia and lift our voice in awe and wonder and praise...alsoas a word of encouragement for our journey. For the next word that we shall hear from Jesus is: Remember o man that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.
But there is a deeper word of encouragement for us in the Transfiguration story:
We are called to remember on this day that everything that happened to the humanity of Jesus is also our destiny.
He shared all that you and I experience as human beings: temptation, suffering, and even death...in order that we might share with him an eternal glory...
Even as he was raised as the firstfruit of resurrection... so shall we be raised.
Even as he was Transfigured on the mountain...so shall we be! The Glory that Peter, James and John saw is the Glory that awaits all the saints in Heaven.
But here is the most encouraging word of all... we don't have to wait for heaven to begin to receive this transforming and transfiguring grace.
Earlier this week, I read a report in a Christian periodical about an event that occurred on a college campus. A husband and wife team of college chaplains were working with a group of young people, helping them to learn how to pray more deeply and sincerely. They had a simple suggestion: Imagine that you are standing before Jesus. Look him in the face... look into his eyes like you would with any friend... and simply tell him what is on your heart.
After a few moments of silence, they began to go around the circle asking the students how the exercise went.... And one by one, nearly every student gave the same response:
I couldn't look Him in the eyes.
Because I don't deserve it. I'm not good enough. I am not worthy.
Now, it is true that we live in a very permissive society. And it is very true that young people often make mistakes and sometimes serious and even tragic mistakes.
But I think it is more a failure of the churches that we have a generation of people (and keep in mind that these were the ones who were interested enough to even COME to a Christian ministry!) who thought that their behavior had permanently marked them as damaged goods... and they didn't know anything about a Gospel of grace and forgiveness and transformation.
So isn't that the most important point about today's Gospel? If in fact, all that happened to Jesus will happen to us... then the glory of that Transfiguration can begin right now. There is no sin, no deception, no infidelity, no betray nor denial that disqualifies us. In Christ, we are never the sum of our past... we are always, by grace, what ever our souls desire to become.
St. Peter himself came to know this. In the dark night of tears and regret following those horrible words, I tell you, I have never even met that man!...
...came abundant mercy and forgiveness: Face to face, eye to eye, Jesus spoke tenderly to him, Simon, Son of John, do you love me? Feed my sheep.
And as an old man, St. Peter looked back on that day on the mountaintop... and he could recall it within the whole context of Grace and salvation... no longer just a piece of the puzzle shrouded in mystery... but a moment in Glory past, present and to come...
And it is that aged St. Peter who speaks to you and me this morning: We did not follow cleverly devised myths... we were with him on the Holy mountain. And we heard the prophetic voice.
YOU will do well to pay attention to this...as a lamp shining in a dark place...until the day dawns... and the morning star rises in your hearts.