Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Transfiguration
RCL Yr. A Mt. 17:1-9 and Ex. 24:12-18
March 2, 2014
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr
Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI
Today is the last Sunday before we begin the season of Lent, a major turning point in the Church year, when we turn our focus towards Jesus’s journey to the cross. Today’s Gospel reading recounts the same moment in Jesus’s journey, when he turns towards Jerusalem and his upcoming suffering.
Up until this point, Jesus’s ministry has focused on healing the sick and combating demons and teaching a deeper understanding of God’s desire for God’s people. But now, dark storm clouds are gathering unmistakably on the horizon. It is clear Jesus is headed into a final conflict with the civil and religious power structures.
A week earlier he had asked his disciples “Who do you think that I am?” and Peter had replied, “You are the Christ.” Jesus then began to teach them what that really meant—that he must suffer and die. Peter hadn’t been able to hear that part, and Jesus had to rebuke him. Now he and his disciples continue onwards.
In last week’s sermon we thought about how we are able to do things we never thought ourselves capable of, if the person leading us is someone we truly admire, someone who we know has our well-being at heart.
Imagine a group of hikers following a guide. For the first several miles of the hike, the terrain is beautiful and fairly easy. But now they find themselves facing a steep rocky cliffside edged by deep chasms. One missed toehold, one slip, would be fatal. But there is no other path. The only way to go forward is to trust their guide’s knowledge and skill as he leads them up the face.
It is crucial that the disciples know who Jesus really is and whether he is trustworthy. They need to know that he is not just a good teacher, not just a wonder-worker or a healer, one among the many who walked the Judean countryside. He is all those things, but he is much more. He is God, the creator and savior, the Messiah, the Liberator.
So Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples with him as they head up an actual mountain.
When we know ourselves to be supremely loved, when we are confident that love surrounds us and upholds us, we are much better able to withstand difficulties and to respond in love and confidence, rather than reacting out of fear or defensiveness or anger.
On the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus is once again reminded that he is in fact the Beloved One. And the disciples are reminded too. This is who Jesus is—the Messiah. This is my Son, the Beloved, LISTEN TO HIM. In other words, he is a trustworthy guide, even though where he is leading you is not where you thought the Messiah would go.
Seeing Jesus’s glory shine forth, seeing Moses and Elijah, hearing the Divine Voice thunder—the disciples are overcome with fear. They fall down as if dead.
And then God speaks again. Not as a thundering voice surrounded by blazing light. But in the gentle familiar tones of the one they have come to know and love. For,
Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Literally the Greek is, “Be raised up and do not be afraid.”
As one pastor writes in a meditation on this passage:
“This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven, but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, “Do not be afraid.” God comes to us quietly, gently, that we may draw near and not be afraid. God’s glory is majestic and so far beyond our capacity to receive it that we can take just so much of God’s glory as a human hand can hold.” (1)
As we stand at this turning point of the church year and this turning point of of Jesus’s story, like the first disciples we may need reassurance that the one we follow is trustworthy, that we can attempt the very demanding things he asks of us: to love without measure, to forgive, to be willing to suffer and give up our lives—and that even in the midst of the challenges and suffering, we will find ourselves raised up.
Lent calls us to take extra time to focus on ourselves as we truly are and on God as God is in Jesus. We are invited to prayer, self-discipline, generosity, reading, and study.
This is the opportunity that Lent presents. It is a season to pay special attention to our relationship with Jesus, to answer again for ourselves, “Who do we say he is?” To know him both in his shining beauty and in his gentle reassuring touch. To experience him as trustworthy. And thus to also be able to look at ourselves as we truly are, and to know that, even in our sin and failures, the times we fall short, that we are still God’s beloved, to whom God says, “Be raised up, do not be afraid.”
The writer I quoted earlier finishes his mediation with these words:
“Some would say that God is much too much to be contained within the walls of a church. Of course they are right. Some would remind us that God is so great that neither the earth below nor the heavens above can hold God. Certainly we must agree with them. God is certainly so great that God can never be contained in something as small as a crumb of bread or a sip of wine. We nod our heads, yes; but we must hasten to add, furthermore, God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, that God deigns to come to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, just as much of God as a hand can hold.” (2)
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￼1. Patrick J. Wilson, commentary on Mt. 17:1-9, Last Sunday After the Epiphany, in Feasting on the Word. Louisville: WJKP, 2010. Vol. A:1, p. 457. ￼
2. Patrick J. Wilson, as cited.