Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Last Sunday after the Epiphany Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

When you attend seminary and are trained to be a priest, one of the classes you have to take is homiletics, the study of writing and giving sermons.  There were many sage pieces of advice, like being wary of ending your sermons with a salad…as in ‘lettuce’ (let us) do this or that.  Another piece of advice was never lift the curtain and let people see how it’s all done.  Don’t say things in your sermon like, “on my drive here this morning” or “while I was writing this last night”. 

One piece of advice that I found particularly helpful was that one did not necessarily need to address all three of the biblical readings in your sermon every Sunday.  Before that I would try and find the common thread, thin as they often are, that the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary had, in their great wisdom found between all the readings chosen.  In fact I believe the advice was that I had a lifetime of ministry ahead, and plenty of opportunities to write sermons on the same readings, so really I ought to pace myself.

That advice is solid, and I have found that addressing one, maybe two at the most, of the readings we hear on a Sunday offers an opportunity to focus richly on one topic.  But today’s readings are different.  Today’s readings are all so blatantly related, that it’s hard not to weave them all together.  Our lessons offer three distinct but related aspects of God’s covenant with humanity, and the veracity with which the Gospel is ultimately preached. 

All three readings point to the transfiguration of Jesus, which is always heard on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, and act as a transition moment between Jesus’ ministry and his passion.  This is not to be confused with the actual Feast of the Transfiguration, which falls on August 6th.  We ourselves are pivoting from the season that comes after Christmas, where we focus on the ministry of Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea to beginning the last journey, the journey to the cross.  In Jesus’ life, the transfiguration is the moment where everything changes, where the last days for his earthly ministry are set, where he is in sight of his death.

I’m getting ahead of myself a little.  Let’s start with Moses.  I think most of us have a concept of Moses and his time on Mount Sinai formed by Charlton Heston and the 1956 film ‘The Ten Commandments’.  But what might be lost is how terrifying this ordeal really is for most of the Hebrews.  The God that they worship is not the, “Jesus is my buddy” idea of God we have today.  There is very little that feels friendly or ‘nice’ about God.  This is an entity to whom blood sacrifices are required, and recall that the more formalized style of temple worship hadn’t been established yet.  There is a wildness and danger to this early time for the average Hebrew traveling with Moses and those who have fled Egypt.  They don’t know if Moses is coming back down.  He’s disappeared for over a month to the top of this mountain where a God that has demanded blood is dwelling.  What sort of mountain top experience is this going to be?

Ultimately though, this experience establishes the covenant between God and the Hebrew people and begins a more formalized relationship.  This ties of course to our Gospel lesson not only being on a mountain top again, but also as appears with Jesus during the transfiguration this is a direct connection to the experience on Mount Sinai, and a clear reference of that relationship which was initially cemented with Moses.  This time is different though, unlike with Moses no blood sacrifices are necessary to ascend and stand in the presence of God.  This relationship with God shifts.   No longer is this the remote and terrifying God but the God who touches his disciples and says, “do not be afraid.” 

Before the voice from above, the disciples, Peter and James, see Jesus first transformed into this blinding radiance.  The author of the Gospel tries to convey the intensity of this by saying that Jesus’ face, “shone like the sun”.  I don’t think this is metaphor.  I think they are trying to convey how incredibly bright and blinding this light was.  The disciples then see Jesus standing there with Moses and Elijah, two key figures in the covenant of the Law, which Jesus has come to fulfill.

I used to think that Peter was just acting the fool here when he suggests that he build huts for them to stay in.  First of all I’ve been to the top of the Mount of Transfiguration and let me tell you something…it’s darn cold!  There is no way I would want to stay up there permanently.  Second, surely Peter knows they can’t just stay there forever.  But as I reflect on this, I wonder if this isn’t the point where Peter is finally really excited that Jesus is about to the messiah they had hoped for.  Now that he’s all sparkly, maybe Jesus is going to start doing the things the Hebrew people expected of their messiah, like tearing down the kingdoms of the oppressors, running the Romans out, setting God’s chosen people back on top.  Maybe Peter is just so caught up in his own hope and expectation that it is finally going to happen when he suggests they make this place their base camp. 

Which brings me to our epistle reading.  The reading from the second epistle of Peter is his own recalling of the experience of the transfiguration and the affect it has on Jesus’ followers.  In the film roll that always plays in my head I would see Peter, sitting down to write this section of his epistle, and then the screen would go all wavy and we would do a cut scene to a flashback of the Transfiguration as we then hear it from our Gospel reading.  But what Peter is writing isn’t just a retelling of his experience on that mountain.  Besides, he clearly leaves out the part where he says they should build huts and stay there!

What Peter is writing hits at the core of the veracity of our faith.  When this epistle is being written, the author is surrounded by cults and religious traditions rooted in myths of the ancient world.  I recently read a commentary on some of the cults that existed, and let me just say that some of the things that were required of followers is only appropriate to discuss during prime time.  Here Peter is saying that the Good News of Jesus Christ is not, “cleverly devised myth”, it isn’t something some folks made up to build a structure of control and wealth.  He was there.  He saw the transfiguration.  The root of proclaiming the Gospel is in the real experience of Jesus’ own followers.

As we turn our attention towards Lent, towards celebrating and confessing and acknowledging our mortality, in the midst of all that, recall what Peter offers us in his writing today.  None of what we do is founded on clever myth.  Our faith is built upon the real experiences of people like Peter who bore witness to incredible life changing events in the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Whether it is shouting it from mountain tops or living it out day to day, carry with you the conviction of what we know: that God shared our very human nature, through baptism, through transfiguration, and in the end stood as the final and ultimate redemption of the Universe.  Peter saw it.  He told us about it.  Now it’s our turn to go share it with everyone else.