Here we are on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. This season has been all about seeing Jesus and where he shows up at the beginning of his ministry and in the world around us. As you can see, it ends with a bang. We can see Jesus all right, in all his heavenly glory. It’s almost like what you’d expect Jesus to look like when he rises from the tomb. But here he is with his “pillars,” Peter, James, and John, standing on a mountain (this is Matthew’s Gospel, after all and all the godly things Jesus does happen on a mountain top), shining with dazzling light, talking to Moses and Elijah. When they come down from the mountain, Jesus will heal a boy that no one else has been able to heal, and shortly after than, he will be arrested, interrogated and crucified. This is story is definitely one that would make a great movie, with all its razzle-dazzle, but it confounds me. I find it so hard to answer the “Why?” and “So What?” questions that I always ask the Gospel readings.
Why would Jesus do this? Is this something that he will need to strengthen him for the brutal, exhausting, humiliating work ahead of him? Or is it something he wants his best followers to see to strengthen them for the trials they will be called to endure? The text doesn’t really tell us, although Biblical scholars have spilled much ink giving their educated opinions and pulling together all the pieces of the place, and Moses, and Elijah, and all that.
None of that answers the “So What?” question for me. After all the discussion about who and why, this story feels so far from my own experience, so like a spectacle it’s hard to relate to. How is this story going to tell me something I can use in my struggle to live a life of faith and be a follower of Jesus. Two things that catch my ear: The voice from heaven “Listen to him,” and Jesus raising them up with, “Don’t be afraid.”
The disciples are so enthralled by the glory opened before them. If they had any doubts about whether or not Jesus was really God’s only Son, this would certainly put them to rest. Peter would like to stay forever. Who wouldn’t want to stay there, basking in the glorious light of Jesus’ face, with all of your history played out in front of you? But when the cloud envelops them, the voice that declares Jesus “the Beloved,” insists that they must listen to him. It’s not only the vision that’s important, it is hearing in Jesus’ words and actions God’s will for God’s people that changes lives and changes the world. I don’t know about you, but I have had moments in my life when my faith was aflame, when I felt that God was breathing right on me, and I wanted to stay in that moment forever. But that never happens. You have to come home from retreat, get up from your prayer, close the Bible, and go do the dishes or go back to work. That’s where what you saw on your mountain top experience sustains you, and reminds you that you are beloved, called to be God’s own person in the everyday. The words you remember when you are slogging through your ordinary life are the ones that make a difference. And the words of Jesus come down to this: love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Devotion leads to compassion. How that love is shown will be your own personal call to ministry as a follower of Jesus. Your kindness, your testimony to the difference your faith makes, your discipline of prayer or reading or study will be the place where your mountain experience will unfold, where your “listening” will sustain you and those around you.
At the end of this story we see Jesus’ own gentleness. His disciples are stunned, freaked out, faint with fear. He says to them, “Don’t be afraid.” These words are always the sign that you are about to see God come to bring good news. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, meeting the full power of God and God’s messenger terrifies people, and the first words are “be not afraid.” It means something amazing is about to happen. Think about when you hear it: the angel comes to Mary, the heavenly host appears to the shepherds, the angels in the empty tomb tell the women that Jesus is risen. It also grants the strength and courage to live out the changes that will be the consequences of God’s coming. Jesus raises them up with these quiet words and they see only him, the teacher that they know and love. So often I need to hear those words when I am challenged to live into a new way of living faithfully.
We may not be up on that mountain with all the flashing light and crashing thunderous voice – so like the terrible presence of God on Sinai – but we have had to live through changes and losses and challenges that make us have to turn again to Jesus and to his words to find our courage to be what we feel is our call to be God’s people now. We, too, can use this story to remember the power of Jesus to stand against all that terrifies us, and his gentle touch to banish our fear of the unknown that awaits us. We, too, can come down from our mountain of exaltation or terror to find our real work, the work of being Jesus’ hands and heart in a weary, anxious, polarized world. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.