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Fr. John Allison

Last Epiphany A

Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

February 19, 2023

Christ Church, Hudson


Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany and our Gospel reading is a big jump forward from where we left off last week. As Mother Kathleen and I have been saying throughout this season, Epiphany is about seeing how God is manifest in Jesus and so this last Sunday after the Epiphany is always a reading of the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, the ultimate manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah. Because this is such a big jump forward from where we last left off with Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount a bit of context is perhaps helpful. 

After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus notoriety continued to grow and he healed more people and performed more miracles and everyone throughout the Galilean countryside was talking about him. Gathering his closest disciples together, he asked them, “who do people say that I am?” 

“Some say John the Baptist,” they answered. “But others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But who do you say that I am,” asked Jesus. 

It’s Peter who answers.  “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  It’s then that Jesus begins to explain what that means, to explain what will happen to him. He tells them how he will go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the authorities and be killed and rise again on the third day. As he explains all this, again, it’s Peter who speaks up but this time in protest. You see, Peter had a completely different idea about what the chosen one of God would bring about. For him, as well as most any first century Jew, the Messiah would come to lead Israel in overthrowing the Roman occupiers and liberate Israel—much as generations ago Moses had led Israel to freedom from the Egyptians. But that wasn’t God’s plan, at least not in the way Peter expected. It’s here that Jesus offers his harshest rebuke to Peter: “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter has a very particular idea about what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah and it’s hard for him to let that go, even after Jesus himself offers a new understanding.

It’s after this exchange that today’s reading picks up—six days later to be precise, an echo of the six days that the divine cloud settled over Mount Sinai in today’s reading from Exodus. Jesus takes his three closest disciples with him up a high mountain, again echoing Moses ascent of Mount Sinai and his own encounter with God.  It’s there on the mountain, then, that Jesus true identity as the Son of God is revealed. Our scripture tells us, he was transfigured before them, “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became a dazzling white.”  Since the days of the early church this light radiating from him is understood to be the uncreated light of God, what is sometimes called Tabor Light, referring to the traditional understanding that it was Mount Tabor that they had ascended together. A very old understanding is that the fire of hell is the same uncreated light of God but that the unreconciled soul cannot appropriate it and is burned by it. Through prayer and worship we grow not only to endure God’s light but to be bearers of it, to reflect God’s light and love to the world.

As Peter and James and John look on they see not only Jesus transfigured but Moses and Elijah talking with him, essentially Jesus in conversation with the two greatest figures of the Jewish faith, representing the Law and the Prophets. For Matthew’s original readers this showed Jesus not as a figure at odds with traditional teachings but as the fulfillment of all that had been promised. 

It’s here, again, that Peter’s enthusiasm clouds his understanding. Our text says he offers to make three dwellings, which depending on how it is translated can also be understood to have a kind of commemorative or memorial quality to them, something to preserve the experience. For Peter, Jesus’ identity is confirmed but he still doesn’t quite grasp what it means. Then, as if to clarify, God speaks through the cloud and affirms, “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased.” The same words spoken as the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. But now there is an addition: “listen to him.” 

As these events transpire, the mood changes, from one of excitement and joy at first seeing Jesus transfigured alongside Moses and Elijah to one of fear. “They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” This “bright cloud,” this uncreated light of God is too much for them to bear, too much for them to understand. But Jesus comes and touches them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” The human touch of Jesus allays their fear. It’s in this that we see the two sides of the Holy—the transcendent light of God that overwhelms Peter, James, and John and the immanent touch of Christ, the incarnate love of God, that offers reassurance and comfort and, at the same time, urges action. 

It’s through Christ that we too find not only comfort and reassurance but an urge to action. “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus is speaking to us every bit as much as he spoke to his disciples on the mountain. The wholly transcendent light of God can be too much for us to bear but we are animated, brought to life, called to rise and take action, through the touch of Christ. 

Our passage ends with Jesus descending the mountain with Peter, James, John as he orders them to tell no one about what they have seen until after the Resurrection, which is just what we hear Peter doing in the epistle we read today. They leave the rarefied air of the mountaintop to descend again to the very real needs and concerns of everyday life. 

We didn’t read it today, but as soon as they return Jesus is met by a man whose son is very ill and he heals him. He continues his ministry of healing and reconciliation as he begins to turn toward his fate in Jerusalem. He does not dwell in the majesty and mystery of the mountaintop but gets back to work. 

As I said,  these past six weeks of the season after the Epiphany have been about seeing how God is manifest in the person of Jesus.  Today, as we see the ultimate manifestation we begin to make a turn. If Epiphany was about seeing the Divine manifest in Jesus, Lent is about seeing the human Jesus. In Lent we will see Jesus encounter the same human temptations that we all face. Over the forty days of Lent, which incidentally is the same amount of time Moses spent on the mountaintop, we will be in the earthy wilderness with Jesus facing our own temptations, though perhaps not in such dramatic fashion. We will anticipate Jesus’ suffering on the cross as we recognize and hallow our own sufferings. Most importantly, we will understand that we are not alone through any of it because we have seen who Jesus really is, and we will remember his words: Get up and do not be afraid. Remember his words; heed his words so that we too may descend the mountain changed and transfigured to be bearers to the world of God’s holy light. Amen.