Monday, February 4, 2008

Last Epiphany

February 3, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, North Dakota

Matthew 17.1-9

In this morning’s Gospel, we get that wonderful vision—the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor. And it is a vision. It is a vision that even we, all these many ages later, still struggle to make understand.

The Transfiguration is a special experience. The Transfiguration is a glorious event. It is that moment in the lives of Jesus’ specially chosen apostles—Peter, James and John—in which there could be little doubt regarding who he was and what he came to do.

It must have been frightening. It would fill any of us with fear. Over and over again in the scriptures, whenever God makes God’s self known in such a way, the reaction is almost always fear. And think of the fear you would feel if you were there. Think of how frightening it would be. This man we know—this friend—this person we have walked with, ate with—is now shown to us as something much more than we thought he was.

Certainly those apostles knew from the beginning he was different—that he was special—that he was touched by God in some unique way. But now, it is clear he is more than just different, more than just special. It is clear, on the mount, that he is more than merely touched by God. Here is Jesus glorified—glowing with the light of God.

And he is standing before them flanked by Moses and Elijah. Why Moses and Elijah? Why not Abraham and Ezekiel? Why not David and Isaiah? The reason becomes clear when we look at this event with the eyes of other Christians. Although we in the Western Church look at the Transfiguration as important, I think we might not fully understand the significance of what happened on Mount Tabor. But the Eastern Church sees the Transfiguration as one of the most important events in the life of Jesus and in our understanding of him.The Transfiguration is seen by the Eastern Church in much the same way they view Epiphany or Advent. For them, as for us, we find everything coming together in the event of the Transfiguration. The Eastern Christians help us to see why Moses and Elijah were so important to this vision. Because Moses is more than just the historical figure in this story. Moses represents the Law of the Old Testament. And Elijah, the great Prophet, represents all the prophecies that heralded Christ’s coming among us.

As the great Father of the early Church, Origen, wrote,

“And then the Word touched [the apostles], and as they lifted their eyes they saw Jesus standing alone, and there was no one else. And Moses (The Law) and Elijah (Prophecy) were become one with Jesus (Gospel). And everything had changed: they were not three, but one single Being standing alone.” (Comm in Matt. XII, 43)

What the Law anticipated, what the Prophecies foretold have found their fulfillment in what stands between them—Jesus. We also see a vision similar to what we experienced in the Gospel reading a few weeks ago, when we read about Jesus’ Baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. There we saw the Holy Trinity at work. We had Jesus, of course, being baptized. We had the Voice of God the Father and we had the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus as a dove.Today, we also have a vision of the Holy Trinity on Mount Tabor. We have the glorified Jesus, shining in all his brilliance. We have, again, the Voice of God the Father. And we have the Holy Spirit, which we see as the form of the cloud. This image of the cloud is significant too because it calls to mind, no doubt, the pillar of Cloud of that led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus. Just as God’s Spirit led the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so the Cloud of the Spirit’s presence on Mount Tabor leads us through the wilderness of our understanding to the Promised Land of Resurrection and Life.

For the Orthodox Church, they view the Transfiguration as a “small epiphany”--a small but complete manifestation of God. And so, we finish the season of Epiphany with an epiphany—with a beautiful manifestations of God’s presence among us. Everything has come together, there on the mount. In that blinding, brilliant, beautiful Light, the whole of creation has come together and has been made whole. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place. All of it makes sense. All the difficult passages of the Law find their meaning and purpose revealed. All those strange prophecies—those wild, sometimes terrible visions the prophets had—have been fulfilled. In that one moment, it all makes sense. In this one person—in Jesus—we find humanity and God come together.

In Jesus, we find the hinge event of all existence. Everything up to that point had found completion. Nothing would ever be the same again in our spiritual history. The light we see on Mount Tabor is the Light that burns away all confusion. We can see clearly now how God has been working in creation from the beginning to the end. We can now understand how that sometimes confused past—that past of God’s chosen people betraying God, of God’s forgiveness of those people, of the longing of God’s faithful and obedient people for God to send to them hope and joy—has been made clear.

But what we also see today is something of the future. This week, on Ash Wednesday, we begin the long, gray days of Lent. We begin the season of self-denial and turning our attention to the events of Holy Week—that week in which Jesus will be betrayed, will suffer and will die.

But what we see today, as we begin this season of Lent, is a glimpse of the glory that awaits Jesus and us as well. In that glorious vision of Jesus on Mount Tabor, we see a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus as well. For Jesus, who stands on Mount Tabor, part of the holy Trinity, the fulfillment of Law and the Prophecies, is the resurrected Jesus. This is Jesus in his fullest glory.

It is an almost blinding vision we can take with us into the gloom of Lent and it is a vision we can cling to and hold on to during the days that are coming. Yes, there will be hard days ahead, but, in the end, it all will be well. The hope and joy we find on Mount Tabor is that ultimately our sackcloth will be turned into gowns of gold, our ashes into crowns.

For those first apostles they couldn’t quite see that. For them, it was frightening and bewildering. And, in the midst of that frightening and bewildering experience, it is the voice of Jesus that speaks to them, and to us as well. He calms their fears with his most repeated commandment—“Do not fear.”

As uncertain as the future might be—and it IS frightening—the vision of Jesus transformed on Mount Tabor fills us with hope. There we see that despite the confusion and fear of our experiences here on earth, God puts everything into a perfect order. The Law is fulfilled. The prophecies have been met. The darkness of death is overcome by the glorious Light of God. Confusion and misunderstanding will be replaced with knowledge and certainty.

And Jesus is there, through it all, from beginning to end, telling us, simply—beautifully—“Do not fear.” What more can we ask for? What more do we want from life, than to know that everything will, ultimately, be all right?

So, as you go from here, go with the light of the Transfiguration, burning within you. Go, knowing that the past and the future have met, here in your midst. And go, heeding the words of Jesus,

“Do not be afraid.”

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