A Sermon preached at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden on Sunday March 2, the Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9, Psalm 2 or 99
Helau! I am a little disappointed. I was hoping to see a church full of costumed people, to look out over a sea of ‘Pappnasen,’ so to speak. At least I’m in costume! Is it perhaps because of carnival, this time of joy, merriment, dressing up and changing our outward appearances, that we heard the story of the Transfiguration today? About how Jesus is changed, about how his very appearance is transformed, and how he seems to be wearing a “costume” of dazzling white clothes? Well no – the same passage has or will be read even in more sober parts of the country. And anyway it is not really Jesus who is being transformed, but his disciples who are now ready to see him as he is, in his glory, as the Son of God. This experience on the mountain simply opened their eyes and hearts to see Jesus as he was and always had been.
But let’s take a step back first. If not because of carnival, why now? Those of you who know their way around the prayer book, or have read it during a boring sermon, not that we have those here, might know that we celebrate the ‘Feast of The Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ’ on August 6. So why do we also always have readings about the Transfiguration on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, just before Lent begins?
For one thing because it is an Epiphany story, it describes quite literally a sudden and striking realization of a truth previously hidden – that Jesus is the Son of God. And perhaps also because we need this vision of light and hope, this confirmation, this certainty about who Jesus is before we go into Lent. Before we enter that long season of penitence and self-denial when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and which ends, initially, with Jesus’ death and suffering on the cross.
I think it helps us to understand the meaning of the event of the Transfiguration if we look at the similarities and differences between the two ‘mountain top’ events we heard about this morning. When the gospel authors were writing their accounts of Jesus’ life they did not just focus on the events as reported to them, or perhaps in some cases even experienced by them. They also wanted to integrate these events into Israel’s history and scripture, as they were convinced that Jesus’ story was the fulfillment of the salvation-history that had begun with Abraham and Sarah. Many Jews hoped for new great prophet like Moses – and one purpose of the Transfiguration story is to show them that Jesus is this figure – and much more. So we should not be surprised about the parallels:
- Both events take place on mountain tops – one on Mount Sinai or Horeb, the other, according to tradition, on Mount Tabor in Galillee. Mountains stood for proximity to God. In this morning’s psalm you heard Mount Zion, the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, described as god’s Holy Hill.
- After six days waiting at the bottom of the mountain God calls Moses out of the cloud, and Moses goes up the mountain. “Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain.” So both encounters with God take place on the seventh day.
- God’s presence is like a cloud, a bright cloud, and the glory of the Lord like a devouring fire. In Matthew it is Jesus, God’s glory, who shines like the sun and there is no more devouring fire than the sun.
- And look at the people’s reactions. In Exodus – after the passage we read – the people are first afraid, the mountain is shrouded by cloud, they hear thunder and see lightening, and then impatient: Moses is up there for 40 days! The get so impatient in fact that, while Moses is receiving instructions on how to build a dwelling for the living God, they are already making and then worshiping false gods: the golden calf. Peter, James, and John are also fearful and nervous. In fact Peter is so nervous that he just needs to do something and so he offers to build dwellings or shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This is probably a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles, a seven day holiday recalling how the Jews built small fragile huts or booths as shelter in the desert and later in the fields during harvest.
- In both events God speaks directly to representatives of humanity, Moses or Peter, James, and John. He gives Moses the law and the commandment for instruction. In the Transfiguration God gives a person: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” Jesus’ word is therefore more than the Law, his life and teaching are God’s instruction.
- And that is also the big difference. God is not giving humanity a new set of binding instructions, ones that got ignored pretty quickly the first time round anyway: the “ink wasn’t even dry” before they were being disobeyed! Instead God is giving of godself. God’s gift is Jesus: God’s Word, God’s Glory, and God’s Son. If you want to find the way to God, then listen to Jesus.
Why did Jesus want Peter, James, and John to see him transfigured? Well, very soon Jesus and the disciples will be in Jerusalem and Jesus will be arrested, tried, condemned, and executed. The disciples will fear for and run for their lives, their dreams and expectations will be shattered, they will see their leader die. Today’s event or vision – we might call it a ‘sneak preview of the resurrection’ - is meant to confirm what Peter had already said, that Jesus is the Christ and God’s Son – even if that will soon seem difficult to believe. It is meant to strengthen the disciples’ resolve and to sustain them. Thanks to this experience, they will, eventually, be able to recognize the Glory in the Cross and to look back and see the Cross in the Glory of the Transfiguration. It will help them recognize that the shamed, naked Jesus, raised up between two thieves is the same as the Jesus on the mountain glorified, clothed in white, standing between the two great Jewish heroes.
And what does the Transfiguration say to us today? It’s a similar message I think. We too need a vision to hold on to. We need to have something to sustain us, not just during the season of Lent, but also during the long, difficult and arduous task of transformation we are called to as Christians: the transformation of self, our communities, and the world, which is a tough, difficult, and sometimes seemingly impossible task. Both the Transfiguration experience and even more Christ’s resurrection strengthen us to bear our cross and remind us why and for whom we do it. Without vision and faith in that vision we can easily get lost. Without a vision we tend to let our own busy lives interfere with being open to God’s presence and God’s Spirit. Like the Israelites we are tempted to build and worship idols, or like Peter we get distracted by less important things, like the temporary buildings he wants to put up for Jesus and his visitors. God does not need buildings, God needs us! Without faith, we can soon get frightened by the commitment we are being asked to give and the seeming enormity of the task we have been set.
That’s why we too need to remember and trust in the message of the Transfiguration: “This is my Son, the Beloved... Listen to him!” Jesus is our vision and guide. For the disciples on the mountain Jesus’ touch and presence took away their fear: "Get up and do not be afraid," he said. We need Jesus’ presence in our lives to take away our fear. In a short while, you can also experience that presence and reassurance in the Sacrament of Jesus’ Body and Blood knowing that after receiving it, you can get up and not be afraid.
I encourage you to use the season of Lent to think about what idols or distractions, what barriers we might have put in the way of God and the other, about what might be separating us from God – because that’s what sin is. Pray for Jesus’ help to remove these barriers, pray that he will open our hearts so that we can listen to him and to one another, pray that through listening we can know Jesus better, and through knowing him, be transformed into his likeness.
In fact use Lent to practice “clothing yourselves with Christ,” (Galatians 3:27) clothing yourself “with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24). It’s much better than any costume you can get for carnival, it’s much more than a change in your outward appearance; instead it will transform your whole being!