Feast Day: The Last Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
O God, who didst command the light to shine out of darkness: We pray thee to shine into our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of thy glory in the face of Jesus Christ; to whom be praise and honour for evermore. Amen.
God wants to make you like his Son Jesus Christ. This is the goal of your life, that in all things—joy and sorrow, health and suffering, life and death—that in all things you might be conformed to Jesus Christ. That you might become a true human being, like him. Some of the early Christians put it this way: God became like us so that we might become like him.
And this happens not by any great exertion of your will, this isn’t something you accomplish on your own strength, this is something that God works in you by his grace. And he will do it and he has already begun to do it and he will bring this work to completion. All we have to do is set out eyes upon Jesus and listen to him. Because seeing him and hearing him transforms us.
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Mountains are important places in the Bible. They are places where people meet with God. You might think of Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah, Moses on Mt Sinai, or Elijah on Mt Carmel. The tradition also tells us that Eden was a mountain and that our Lord was crucified on the mount of Calvary. The mountain-top is the place where God shows his people something extraordinary. If you want to be an eyewitness, if you want to see the glory of God for yourself, you have to ascend the mountain.
In the first reading that we heard from the book of Exodus Moses went up the mountain didn’t he? And what happened? We’re told that a cloud covered the mountain and “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.” This cloud was “like a devouring fire” and the Lord called to Moses out of the cloud and he entered it and was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Moses went up the mountain alone and entered the cloud of the Lord’s presence. But in the gospel Jesus, the new Moses, brings the three disciples up the mountain and into the cloud with him. It’s important that they were there and that they saw and heard. Because this is what Jesus has come to do, he has come to give us a share in God’s glory and so to transform our lives by the power of the living God. This is the destiny of every human creature. This is your destiny.
Everything that happens on the mountain that day is for the disciples. It was for them that the appearance of our Lord was changed and the glory of God shone in human flesh. It was for them that Moses and Elijah appeared speaking with Jesus. It was for them that the cloud descended. It was for them that the voice called out. Everything was for them, so that they could see and hear and be transformed. And so Peter writing later on can say, “we [were] eyewitnesses of his majesty,” (2 Pe 1:16f).
The season of Lent which begins on Wednesday is an invitation to ascend the mountain with Jesus. It is an opportunity to resist the dictatorship of noise (Cardinal Sarah) and enter the silence of the Lord and traditionally Christians will do this through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Take prayer for example. Prayer is an inner peak (Pope Benedict XVI) by which we ascend to the Lord. When I was in Jerusalem in November there were a few days when I got up early, long before the sun rose, and made the walk from the college into the old city to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where I prayed from the foot of the cross on the mount of Calvary. And this is true in a mystical sense every time you pray whether at home by yourself or gathered here on a Sunday morning with others. Every time you pray you ascend the mountain to the foot of the cross where our Lord reveals himself in glory. Indeed, the liturgy that we pray this morning is a mountain of prayer at the peak of which is the blessed sacrament, the bread and wine of the Eucharist transfigured, become Christ’s flesh and blood for our spiritual nourishment.
And so the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help position us to see the risen and living Lord and to know his glory and to prepare a home for him. A home not made by human hands but rather a home in the inner sanctuary of our hearts.
Returning more closely to the text, the disciples have ascended the mountain and seen Jesus transfigured. Then comes the cloud. It’s a bright cloud, like a devouring fire. Rather than cast a shadow and obscure this cloud shines and illumines and brings clarity. It is the cloud of God’s presence. It led Israel in the wilderness, it overshadowed Moses on Sinai, it overshadowed a young virgin and miraculously generated life in her, and now it overshadows Peter, James, and John. And from it comes the voice of the Father in heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the joy of every Christian. This is the way of life that we heard about last week. Not just to see Jesus but to recognize him. Not just to hear him but to listen to him.
When the disciples heard the voice from the cloud what did they do? They fell down with their faces to the ground and were overcome by fear. You know those times when someone is like, “Fear the Lord? I don’t like the sound of that!” and you’re all like, “Oh it doesn’t mean fear as in ‘be afraid’”? Well this isn’t one of those times. The disciples are afraid and they are overcome with fear.
I’m reminded of that scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when the children learn of the great Lion Aslan from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver: “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
This is a good and healthy reminder: God isn’t safe. The author of Hebrews writes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” (10:31). The sun is 150 million kilometers away but if you stare at it for long enough you’ll burn your eyes out. Yet how casually do we sometimes come into the presence of the living God who made the sun and all that is? If the Lord were to reveal his glory to you here now this morning don’t think for a second that your response would be anything other than to fall down on your face before him. ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.
There are the disciples sprawled out on the ground when Jesus comes and touches them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” The Greek word here translated “touches” means “to fasten to, adhere to.” That’s what Jesus does. He mercifully draws near to we who cannot rise by ourselves and attaches himself to us so that our fears might be put to flight and our bodies raised up with him, transformed by the glory of God.
This Lent, even now this morning, may we ascend the mountain with Jesus. May we resist the noise of the world and enter into the silence of God’s presence. May we behold his beauty and goodness and listen to his voice. May we become like him.