Sunday, March 2
Last Sunday after Epiphany
Attentive to Mystery and Prophecy
O God of the covenant, the cloud of your splendor and the fire of your love revealed your Son on the mountain heights. Transform our lives in his image, write your law of love on our hearts, and make us prophets of your glory, that we may lead others into your presence. Amen.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
All readings for this week
Exodus 24:12-18 with Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
1. What do you think most folks need in order to believe?
2. Why do you think Jesus took only three of his disciples up on that mountain, and not all of them?
3. What is the connection between the bright light, and the coming suffering Jesus will experience?
4. Would you have wanted to be up on that mountain with Jesus, or would you have been too afraid?
5. What are we called to do, once we return from mountaintop experiences? Is the life of faith about the mountain, or the work "below"?
Reflection by Kate Huey
We've come to the close of the season of Epiphany, the season of light, and stand now on the edge of Lent, a time of preparation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So it seems fitting to end the season of light with one more light, one so bright that no one on earth can produce it, a flash of brilliant, blinding revelation that illuminates not only who Jesus is (just in case that wasn't clear by now), but also Jesus' mysterious words about his coming suffering, death, and rising again (when it will be especially important to remember who he is).
The passages just before this one are edgy exchanges between Jesus and the religious authorities, among the disciples, and between Jesus and his disciples. Things are indeed getting tense on what Thomas Long calls a "death march" to Jerusalem, as Jesus enters "the gloomiest season of his life."
Jesus has encountered contention and challenge from the Pharisees and Sadducees who, ironically, ask for "a sign from heaven" (16:1), but he turns them down. Even the disciples, who have witnessed some remarkable things in their travels with Jesus, are trying his patience. He has to review what they've seen, to refresh their memories, and doesn't sound too happy that they haven't made the connections. They're too busy having a little theological debate about yeast, but at least they're trying.
By the time Peter responds with a "good answer!" to Jesus' question about who he is, we can sense Jesus' urgency in getting these disciples ready for what is to come. And if Peter is their leader, along with James and John (they would later be seen as such in the early church, even before the Gospel was written down), it must strike Jesus as important to solidify their understanding. The Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign from heaven, but Peter, James, and John are the ones who actually receive one.
Jesus as victor, on his way to suffering
Jesus asks his disciples, in Chapter 16, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They answer with the names of great prophets, figures of faith from the past, names that would evoke respect and loyalty among their people. Then Jesus asks them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter gets the answer right, even without the sign from heaven: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" (16:16). Jesus connects all of this to his coming suffering, and on the mountaintop, for just a few moments, his three disciples get a glimpse of what's really true: Jesus, in a brilliant, blinding light, with a heavenly voice once again proclaiming him God's Beloved Son. In this light, the face and clothes of Jesus "gleam with the favor of God," Long says; Jesus is "not a victim, but a victor; not the one despised and rejected by the world, but the one beloved and well pleasing to God." No matter what the disciples are about to witness and experience, this glimpse is something so powerful that they can hold onto it and the truth it imparts about the identity of the One they follow. "Look! This Jesus of splendor is who he really is," Long writes: "When Jesus is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, it is a pulling back of the curtains of time to show that Jesus is continuous with all that God has promised and given in the Law and the Prophets." It can't be insignificant that one of the figures with Jesus, Elijah, is also one of the prophets that the crowds have identified with him.
The connection between suffering and glory is subtly but powerfully made by Matthew in the way he tells the story of both the transfiguration and the crucifixion of Jesus; Dale Allison says that each story is the "twin" of the other. For Allison, and for us, these "two scenes represent the extremities of human experienceÖJesus is the great illustration of both pain and hope; he is humanity exalted and humanity glorified."
The "otherness" of Jesus
Allison's reflection seems to bring the "otherness" of the Jesus of the Transfiguration onto our radar screen. When asked, we say who we believe Jesus is, but we really couldn't bear such a bright light if it were always there before us. And yet, when our own experience of suffering and loss is brought under the shelter of Jesus' own life lived here, as a man who also suffered and died, who was tempted and betrayed, then we can go on, even "to Jerusalem" and everything that awaits us, everything we have to face in our lives. Just as surely as we know that Jesus experienced pain and loss, and rose again, we know that we too will share in that new life. We live our lives "in pain and hope." We may not get the dramatic visual confirmation that Peter got after his passionate proclamation of Jesus as "the Son of the Living God," but we have our glimpses, here and there, now and then, throughout our lives, of who this Jesus is. And we can proclaim that truth, Allison says, "only in the light of Easter."
Peter, James, and John may have had their bright, shining moment with Jesus, and we too have our mountaintop experiences, but all of these are just an indication, a hint, of what is yet to be. Perhaps Allison is right to compare this to "a movie preview": an early church document saw it as the promise "of what heaven will be like and an illustration of what awaits Christians." In the meantime, while we trust in that future, we live in this ordinary present, with its extraordinary moments and experiences. Each time we turn from those moments of brilliance, we turn back to the work, the ministry, that awaits us. Jesus, who often touches people in need, reaches down and touches the disciples, raising them up to return down the mountain, and set out to Jerusalem. Lent approaches, and we are invited to join them on the way.
Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we could see past outer appearances and witness the bright inner beauty of each person, each child of God? What would happen if every Christian saw, in everyone, including those "despised and rejected by the world," a beloved child of God, shining and radiant on the inside? What effect would that have on the world?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles and additional materials for preaching during Women's Week 2014) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/march-2-2014.html. Also, you're invited to join the conversation on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Jean de la Fontaine, 17th century
"There is no road of flowers leading to glory."
William Shakespeare, 17th century
"Glory is like a circle in the water, Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught."
Thomas Merton, 20th century
"By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet."
Origen, 3rd century
"But the Wisdom of God, which is His only-begotten Son, being in all respects incapable of change or alteration, and every good quality in Him being essential, and such as cannot be changed and converted, His glory is therefore declared to be pure and sincere."
Franz Kafka, 20th century
"Life's splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come."
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Attentive to Mystery and Prophecy
Sunday, March 2