- The Rev. Fr. Samuel Hartman
Sermon - Last Epiphany
From ancient times, mountains have been part of the story of our faith. Mountains are places of encounter with the divine. Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jerusalem, Mt. Zion; Jesus’ preaching on the mountain side.
In these high places, the air is clearer, the world is quieter. We are removed from the noisiness and distractions of everyday life; the internet fails and cell phones don’t work. We able to see a horizon far greater than the narrow, restricted views of our lives in the lowlands. We feel the sacredness, the holiness of the world; we can hear with clarity, see with vision and light. On the mountaintop, and often in what we call a “mountaintop experience,” we meet God.
Today we hear about an extraordinary experience in Jesus’ ministry, a “mountaintop experience,” literally. The Transfiguration, we call it. Jesus’ face shines like the sun. Jesus’ clothing becomes dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Law and the Prophets, stand next to Jesus, miraculously, centuries after their deaths. And God’s voice echoes with the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, my beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Let’s get our contextual bearings. In the passages immediately prior to Luke’s telling of this event, Luke suggests that the disciples are probably not much in the mood for a happy hike with Jesus in the mountains. Jesus has just miraculously fed 5000 people; Peter has just made a courageous commitment to Jesus, telling him that he is the Christ, the Messiah. But Jesus has told his friends that these events will lead to his great suffering, his rejection, death, and ultimately his rising from the dead. Follow me, Jesus says; take up your own cross of suffering and death in whatever form which God gives them; lose your life for my sake. And now, off to the mountain, Jesus says.
So, as spectacular and moving as the Transfiguration of Jesus may be – for his friends and for us - already we see the shadows of the Cross. No wonder Peter wanted to stay on the mountaintop – who would want to go down into the valley of the shadow of death and the Cross?
But - the brilliant light fades. The miracle is over. Jesus and his friends have to go back down the mountain. Back to everyday life, everyday routine, the ordinary, the mundane. And back to the way of the Cross, far, it seems, from the holiness and light of God.
But those parting words spoken by God: “This is my son, listen to him,” still are with us. “Listen to Jesus.” That’s it.
Listen and follow. This the meaning of the Transfiguration, the purpose, the future that Jesus’ call to us. Suddenly we see what it means to listen and follow. As Jesus leaves the mountain, he confronts the powerful unclean spirit possessing a boy, the only son, not of God, but of an anonymous man in the crowd.
And here, the Transfiguration continues – not in brilliant light but in a powerful, confrontation with evil. Jesus, the Son, the Beloved, to whom we are to listen, whom we are to follow, confronts the shrieking, convulsing demon, an incarnation of all that is evil in the world. He reveals the healing power and presence of God, even here, in the midst of suffering and evil. Jesus heals the boy – transfigures him we might say with the saving health and salvation of God.
Listen to Jesus, the beloved of God. Watch him, follow him to Jerusalem, follow the way of the cross - experience the grace of the resurrection, the power of the Spirit. Then we will “get it,” Jesus promises. Then we will make the connection, we will see the unity; we will see how the brilliant light of God is also present, just as powerfully, in the pain and suffering of the possessed boy and in the whole world.
God is not just “up there;” we are not just “down here.” God is present with us in life and in death, on the mountaintop and in the valley of the shadow.
Jesus is the light of the world – and the transfiguring light of God, the life of God is here with us and the whole world, now and always.
All creation, all humanity is transfigured by the light of God. God becomes flesh and dwells with us in Jesus. We simply must look and listen and follow.
We are about to start out on our annual Lenten journey. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday when, in the wisdom of the church, we are reminded of our mortal nature, and the brokenness of our lives and our world. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
In Lent we are asked to see, and listen to Jesus, and to follow Jesus in new and deeper ways. We are called to see that through the grace of the Holy Spirit, if we look and listen, we can discover that all things – even suffering, even evil, even death - are luminous with the resurrection light of God.
Ugliness, sin, sorrow, brokenness, death – that is all painfully real. With Jesus, we confront all that. If we are to follow Jesus, we must heal the lepers, cast out the demons of our world, and do battle with the greed and corruption and violence which infect our lives like a plague. And, we have to live with the consequences of our sin.
But in the midst of it all, we discover beauty, forgiveness, joy, healing - and that is all real too. Jesus walks with us both in the suffering way of the Cross and also the way of Resurrection. In the words of Rowan Williams, past archbishop of Canterbury, “…God’s life is compatible with every bit of human life, including the inner terrors of Gethsemane (fear and doubt) and the outer terrors of Calvary (torment and death)….” And, of course, God’s life is compatible with the beauty and joys of human life also.
In other words, the good news is that all things, good and bad are transfigured by the power of God. All life, all reality, is filled with the light of God.
And as we walk with Jesus, both to the Cross and to the Resurrection, we, as follow Jesus, the Son of God, we witness the presence of God, the light of Jesus, in all things: in sin and sorrow, in joy and beauty, in death and life.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou are with me.”
The way of the Cross, just as much as the way to the mountaintop, leads us into God’s light and presence.