The Last Sunday of the Epiphany – March 2, 2014
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Good morning, and Happy Texas Independence Day! On March 2, 1836, settlers in Mexican Texas officially broke from Mexico, creating the Republic of Texas. Today is a holiday in the Lone Star State.[i] Since you have two priests who hail from Texas, I didn’t think we should let this day pass without at least a nod of recognition.
As a young adult in Texas, I discovered one December my favorite guilty pleasure: Church Christmas pageants. The bigger the better – remember, I was in the opera business for years; I like spectacle!
My all-time favorite was the pageant at the Second Baptist Church of Houston, which was televised every year. They always began with all the church’s various choirs singing in expensive matched outfits—I’ve never seen more sequins in my life. I fondly remember hip-hop carols sung by teens.
And then, in the second half of the program came the real meat of the program: The telling of the Christmas story. The year I remember best featured one of the gospel writers, traveling around to interview various players in the Christmas story, in order to get the story right. He interviewed shepherds, king’s pages (the kings, presumably, being too busy), and even Mary. Now, this gospeller had a distinctive Texas twang, which made it even better. The first apex of the show was a magnificent live nativity, camels and all! (I understand that they had built the sanctuary specifically with access for camels in mind.)
But that didn’t end the show. We then saw highlights of Jesus’ life and ministry. Interestingly, while all the other characters spoke in their natural voices, Jesus was voices from somewhere else, in stentorian radio announcer tones—like an audio red-letter edition of the Bible. This action led to the real climax of the story: the crucifixion, and then the resurrection, complete with lasers and soaring music. It was, in a word, epic!
I have always wondered at the fact that they weren’t content to just tell the nativity story; they had to go all the way to the cross and the resurrection. But lately, I am beginning to think that maybe, just maybe they are on to something.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Every year, on the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, we remember this story of Jesus going up the mountain with a few of his disciples. We hear the strange story of Jesus changing, right before the disciple’s eyes. The text says, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” I think that, had this been written in our era of artificial light, it might have read something like, “He began to glow as though he was lit from within, such as no compact fluorescent, or halogen, or even warm incandescent bulb could light him.” This brightness emanates from Jesus himself, not just from his clothes. He is transfigured – he takes on a different appearance.
The best-known earlier example of such a dazzling transform is Moses, in the 34th chapter of Exodus. After Moses converses with God about the future life of God’s people, he descends from the mountain so reflecting the light of God’s glory that he has to cover his face to keep from frightening the people.[ii]
Now, who should appear at this sacred moment, but Moses and Elijah, who converse with Jesus. This helps the reader understand the stature of Jesus, and that he comes not just as another preacher, but rather as the next step in the history of the Jewish people—truly, the successor, or even fulfillment of the law, represented by Moses, and of the prophets, represented by Elijah. And because the death of these two great leaders was mysterious (Moses dies in sight of the promised land, but not in it, and his grave was never found, and Elijah is simply carried up into a whirlwind), these two are understood as available to return to earth—and their appearance here, beyond being a sign of the passing along of the mantle of the faith, can also be understood as a sign that the end times are nearing.
All of these plot points confirm for the disciples, and for us, that this man is who he claims to be. He is clearly the Messiah, chosen by God. But if they accept that he is the Messiah, they must also believe what he has been telling them about his own fate. Right before this passage, in Chapter 16, Jesus tells the disciples clearly what he has only hinted at previously in Matthew’s gospel: That he will go to Jerusalem and be killed.
To accept that their teacher is the Christ means they must embrace not just this amazing moment of Transfiguration, but also the chaos, the death, and ultimately, the resurrection to come. So, it seems, the good folks at Second Baptist have it right. As much as we might like to, we can’t have only the glory; we must also accept the cross.
But perhaps this realization holds for us the key to dealing with the ups and downs in our own lives. The high points, the moments of transcendence provide for us the clarity to see God, and to understand who we are and whose we are. And those moments can give us the strength to weather the low points, when we need faith most.
C.S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia series provides this final word from Aslan in the book The Silver Chair:
Here on this mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.[iii]
Of course, it is no mistake that this scene from the Chronicles of Narnia, and our gospel story of the Transfiguration take place on mountains. In the stories of the Bible like the one we heard this morning from Exodus, mountains are places of encounter with God. Peter, James, and John should have known that something amazing was going to happen; their history provides the indicator. Mountains are higher up – they give us the ability to see a bigger picture, to perhaps understand better the world around us. They are also liminal places – that is, places on the edge, or the threshold. The air is thinner; the elements of the sky are clearer, closer. The people of the ancient world understood them to be holy.
And yet, the disciples seem wholly unprepared for their mountaintop experience. I suspect that some of you might have been taken unaware by your moments of clarity and light. Have you had such a mountaintop moment in your life? Perhaps you experienced the mountaintop in an extraordinary event like the disciples—in a transcendent experience in nature, or in a country half-way around the world.
But it is probably more likely that you have experienced God in more ordinary, yet all the more precious ways. Maybe in the love you have given to and received from another—a spouse, a parent, a child, or even a dear friend. Or perhaps in the pursuit of knowledge in a classroom, or in pursuit of God in the pews. Or maybe your mountaintop moment came in service to others in a place like our Saturday Kitchen.
God prepares us in the mountaintop moments for the rest of life. And ironically, the mountaintop moment can also come in the midst of great suffering. One of the great privileges of work as a priest is the opportunity to be a companion to others in the highest moments, and in the lowest. In the short time I have been at St. Michael’s I have had several opportunities to visit with parishioners who are passing through the valley of the shadow of death. I have noticed that they have often experienced a close encounter with God in these low moments. In moments of suffering, one often finds holy ground. As one theologian says, “These are the moments when we realize God is present in suffering and sacrifice, just as God is present in the promise and potential of our lives.”[iv]
As we prepare to enter into the season of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, we may find that the inevitability of the cross creates a shadow almost too great to bear. Let us remember that there is nothing we can do to change Christ’s fate, and there is little we can do to allay suffering in our own lives. “Will we be ruled by stoicism, or will we risk the price of weeping and suffering, celebration and surprise when life is somehow redeemed?”[v]
Let us pray:
God, be with us as we walk through the solemn days of Lent. Help us to move forward, daring to look for you in the darkness and shadows of our lives, attentive to you as “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our] hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19) Amen.
[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Independence_Day, accessed 02/21/2014.
[ii]Henrich, Sarah, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/19/2012&tab=4, accessed 2/16/2012.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperCollins, 1981), 25-26, as quoted by Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 454.
[v] Ibid, 452.