A sermon for Epiphany Last
Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9, Psalm 2 or, Psalm 99
In a story filled with powerful visual images: “ high mountain, shone like the sun”,” dazzling white”, “bright cloud,” it is quite possible that the key phrase is listen to him. But to get there we should understand all the visual clues.
Jesus and core crew go up on a high mountain; knowledgeable Jews catch the implications to God & Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah’s divine encounter on a high mountain. [i] Matthew’s audience knows
[a] high mountain symbolizes the border zone between earth and heaven, between the material and the spiritual. [ii]
Jesus is suddenly all lit up; knowledgeable Jews know that glowing with glory is a characteristic of heavenly beings; [iii] and any one hearing Matthew’s Gospel read, as was the custom of the day, would recall that just a chapter ago, in explaining the parable of weeds in the wheat Jesus concludes saying:
The appearance of Moses and Elijah certainly get a Jew’s attention; as Matthew places Jesus in continuity with God’s continuing
work [vi] revealed in what we call the Old Testament Eugene Boring writes
Matthew pairs Moses and Elijah … because they were both prophets who were initially rejected by the people but vindicated by God, both were advocates of the covenant and the Torah, both worked miracles, and both were considered by first-century Judaism to be transcendent figures who did not die but were taken directly to heaven. [vii]
Perhaps the least understood image is the three dwellings. Skēnē (skay-nay’) [viii] is interpreted as dwellings, or tents, (NSRV) tabernacles, (KJV) booths, (YLT) or memorial. (MSG) Many of you have heard of the connection to the festival of the Booths. What we are unlikely to hear is the verbal similarity to ‘Shekinah’ the fiery presence that symbolizes the continuing presence of God among the people. [ix] Perhaps Peter wants to prolong the heavenly presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. [x] It would be a very Jewish action.
The final image is a bright cloud that overshadows them. I always associate shadows, and certainly overshadowing, with dark clouds. You’ve noticed that when it suddenly gets darker; you look up and see a dark cloud, not a bright cloud. It must be me, because no one mentions it, and to be honest, I’ve never noticed it before. Oh well.
So Peter, James and John are on a high mountain top, the boundary between heaven and earth between spiritual and the worldly; they see Jesus lit up with righteousness like a heavenly being; they see him speaking with Moses and Elijah in continuity of God’s redeeming work; then Peter, for better or worse, connects it all with the fiery presence in the Temple And then they/we hear God’s voice:
This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!
We all know listening is more than hearing; how often has your child answered I hear you! and you know they haven’t a clue what you said. It gets more complicated. In the Old Testament to ‘hear’ carries the connotation to ‘obey.’ [xi] Douglas Hare notes that ‘word’ or hearing has priority over vision. [xii] He also writes listen to him! emphasizes Jesus’ role as teacher who is revealing God’s will, [xiii] which I believe implies emphasis on moral and ethical lessons. Hare concludes:
Seeing Jesus transfigured has value only if it leads the disciples to listen obediently to his divinely authorized teaching.
We live in a time and place where it is hard to see the divine presence; it is hard to see miracles, hard to see the glory of God, hard to see God’s presence. Many take the lack of visions as evidence that God is absent, or that God doesn’t exist. This logic equivocates God with the Ivory-billed woodpecker. And if today’s gospel teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t come to understand scripture through the usual and customary methods of historical criticism and/or the scientific method. [xiv] But have you ever noticed that people who listen to the Word, see God’s Glory; that when we listen to Jesus, the Spirit, we see Glory we otherwise miss? A couple of weeks ago David Lose encouraged preachers to ask their congregations to ask each other when they saw God this week. Today I’d be tempted to ask you: When you listened to the Divine this week?
Perhaps we should be; no we really should be. We know that listening to God will make us uncomfortable, will challenge us to go where no one has gone before, and it frightens us. No one likes to get out of our comfort zones; but that is where Peter, James, John, and the rest of the disciples go, it is where we are called to go. [xv]
But, as a colleague of mine experienced this week, Jesus will not leave us alone. After he really stretched himself to speak from a highly technical rules point; as he sat down, a good friend gently laid a hand on his shoulder, until my colleague calmed. His friend brought him back, not to comfort, but to where he was no longer afraid.
I have laid out for us goals of: Welcome Home, Friday Families, Brewing Faith and Stephens’s House. They are anywhere from simple to complex, from no-big-deal to audacious. No matter what, they will take us out of our comfort zone. However, as we listen to Jesus, we will see not only his presence, but the path opening for us to follow. We will know the calming touch of friend. And who knows, perhaps we will be transformed into a people who, by our very existence, proclaim God’s Kingdom on earth.
Epiphany, the season we dedicate to divine light is drawing to its close. It’s time to listen for the voice of God. It may be in a bright cloud, it may be in dark cloud, it may come from unexpected places, no matter it will lead you to glory beyond imagination.
By the way, when did you listen to Jesus this week?
[i] Judith Jones, Workingpreacher.org , Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9, 2/26/2014
[ii] Douglas Hare, Interpretation, Matthew A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
[iii] M Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew, Introduction, Commentary and Reflections
[iv] Matthew 16:43
[v] Hare, ibid
[vi] Boring, ibid
[viii] Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary
[ix] Boring, ibid
x] Hare, ibid
[xi] Boring, ibid
[xii] Hare, ibid
[xv] Paul Daniels, episcopaldigitalnetwork.com, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/02/07/last-sunday-after-epiphany-world-mission-sunday-a-2014/, Last Sunday After Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (A) – 2014