A sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany, February 26, 2017, by The Rev. Brad Toebben.
No. You are not losing your mind. It has not been a year since you’ve heard today’s Gospel. It’s only been six months, because we celebrate the Feast of Transfiguration in August. But I guess these days, when the months seem to be like years, time may be in a different place.
Time: Our best friend and our worst enemy. It’s either going too slowly, or too quickly; we’re either waiting to get somewhere, or wanting to stay where we are. One indicator of time is given to us over and over in today’s readings: after six days. You heard it in the Exodus story, you just heard it in the Gospel. And you should know, after hearing me repeat myself over and over and over, that this phrase is always an indication of Sabbath. The day that follows is the seventh day, and the seventh day, in our scriptural tradition, is the day of God’s absolute presence. That is the story that runs through all of these lessons. It’s really a story, not about Transfiguration, or being taken up into a cloud, but a story about how it is that we’re to spend our time, and that we’re to understand time by being in covenant—a covenant with God that brings us into the very heart and experience of the being of God.
This is what’s happening in this story of the Exodus. Moses has been given the commandments, and now he is going up to the mountain to receive the tablets from God. He’s going up to enter into the covenant, and what it is those ten commandments are going to mean. If you look at this Exodus account, you’ll know there are far more than ten commandments by the time you get through this whole story. The laws and explanations keep coming. Finally Moses descends the mountain, carrying the tablets. But as he sees the people on his return, and sees that they have not spent their time in covenant with the God that’s being revealed to them, he smashes the tablets. They are not worthy to inherit them. Eventually, the tablets will be restored and given to the people, and the story that follows through the rest of Exodus is the building of the Ark, all of the regulations of worship, and of the people transiting further and further toward the promised land.
It’s a story that is repeated in a very different way in Second Peter. They are a people trying to live in that covenant long after Christ, but awaiting His return. The issue at hand for this community is that people are saying, “He’s not going to return. This is done.” And so, when this letter is written, and what we still hear today, is a reaffirmation that the covenant is real and that Christ will return. The reason is even more explicit: in the first few verses of this letter, the author writes, “Jesus Christ, divine power, has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these he has bestowed on us precious and very great promises so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature.” You may come into this covenant, this very being of God, as Jesus has, as Moses has. And now we await that experience for that community and for our community.
“After six days” we’re taken into this story in today’s Gospel of the Transfiguration. Transfiguration is the word that we use, but I don’t know that it conveys the reality of what’s happening. The Greek word is “transformation”. Jesus is not just lit up so that everyone can see. He is transformed. He is transformed into the very reality of the divine nature. And that creates great fear for the disciples, especially when they hear the voice of God endorsing it. It’s probably the fear that the people in Exodus had, and why they turned back to dancing and things that brought them comfort, because this covenant was a difficult reality to embrace. It’s that same fear that’s guiding and holding together the community of Second Peter, awaiting that return to be filled with that presence again.
In this story of Jesus’s transformation, the image that becomes important is not so much Jesus’s transformation, but the vision that the disciples have of him conversing with Moses and Elijah. These two figures that represent all of the law and all of the prophets are now together in the very presence of God in Jesus. For these communities, the stories around what happened to Moses and Elijah remain shrouded in mystery. What happened when they died? What was that experience? So it’s fitting that in this story they’re conversing with Jesus about that very reality.
We’re a little bit more than halfway through Matthew’s Gospel, where we find this Transfiguration story. And we know that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. During the weeks of Epiphany, we’ve been hearing what that reality of covenant, and what that reality of God’s presence was like for Jesus. For the last few weeks it was around law, not that any of those laws should be taken away, or that “I’ve come to abolish them”, but “I’ve come to show you what they are all about”, and how to authentically live in that presence of God, and how that law is the guide to that kind of fullness of life.
But, just like disciples always do who are afraid, Peter wants to stay in this place of comfort, and build three tents. Time is not going slow enough; we don’t want to move from this spot. But Jesus has come to that place knowing that it’s only the beginning of the entry that he must make, and so he forbids them to tell anyone about this until the Son of Man has been raised. Because the Transformation is not enough: it’s not the end of the story, but only the beginning. It’s only because Jesus is transformed and radiates the absolute reality of God that he can march forward into Jerusalem with conviction, and in the face of death.
That’s what our covenant is really about: it’s holding on to that baptismal covenant in which we enter into that death with Jesus, and we walk through it into the reality of God. In this last Sunday, before we begin our Lenten pilgrimage into God, we’re given this wonderful story that brings us back to center and tells us how we’re going to mark time, now. Through the psalm, and through all the communities that surround these readings, you hear grumbling about how the nations are at odds with this kind of covenant. We know that is a reality that we live in today: the grumbling about security, the grumbling about fear, the grumbling about being right.
This last week, I heard a commentary on politics that was probably the best. And the Transfiguration is a story about politics, the true sense of politics: around which pole is your world going to revolve? Not which party, which pole? What kind of understanding of justice, what kind of understanding of law is going to make God’s reality be present in the world? That’s what politics is about. I think this community knows me well enough to know that I’m not on a party bandwagon, but it happens to be the case that the week before last, I heard an introduction by President Trump to a member of his club in Mar-a-Lago. What was disturbing about it had nothing to do with his presidency or politics, it was a statement he made in reference to a woman whose daughter was being married there. “She’s giving me an awful lot of money”. What is disturbing about that was the reaction of the woman who laughed in acceptance, as if this were something that is a good thing. Not that you’re giving money to Donald Trump or anyone else, but this idea that our status is somehow established by vast amounts of money that can bring us into relationships that we think are important to us. That seems to be the very opposite of what all of these weeks of Jesus’s teaching has been about. It’s equally important in this story today, because this Transfiguration that the disciples witnessed is situated in the middle of them asking exactly those questions to Jesus: who is the most important in the Kingdom? Who will sit at your right, and who will sit at your left? Peter’s disbelief that a Messiah could suffer, and immediately before this story today, being told that he is Satan, and that he has to step out of the way so that Jesus can enter into this covenant.
That is what Lent will call us to consider: how are we going to walk, how are we going to measure time, how are we going to experience God so that we can calm an anxiety in the world that revolves around those images of security?
I suggest this passage, this wonderful phrase “after six days”, can become a spiritual practice for you through Lent. That after six days you’ll come back into this very place, and the week after, and the week after. After those six days of living in the world and listening to different opinions and trying to discern how best the reality of Christ can be known in the world, you’ll be exhausted. You might be afraid, like the disciples. But you will be picked up, and you will be nourished, and you will be sent back for the next six days. Our Lenten journey can be what it is intended to be, and what all of these stories today model: a journey to the place of meeting God in God’s self, and the transformation that will happen as a result. If we go to that place and we know that reality, we won’t want to stay there, but rather return to the world for the next six days. After all of that, maybe we’ll be prepared for what the experience of Easter really is about. After six days, Jesus will take you up the mountain and into the very heart of God.