February 26, 2017 – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Matthew 17:1-9 – The Transfiguration
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Today is a day for mountain top experiences! First Moses and then Jesus, with Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John.
This morning’s lesson from the book of Exodus is a portion of many chapters describing the law given by God to Moses for the guidance of God’s people. God summons Moses to climb Mount Sinai alone and to wait for God to give him the two tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written. Once Moses was on the mountain we read that “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day [God] called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.”
In the Hebrew Bible the visual form in which God appears to human beings is usually described as fiery or as enveloped in cloud or fire. You will remember that God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. And during the exodus from Egypt, God led the people through the wilderness by going before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21).
Scripture records that “Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” Moses entered the presence of God and remained in God’s presence for a long time. We read further on in Exodus, “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29).
Now let’s turn to our gospel lesson. Each year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent we hear an account of the Transfiguration of Christ. Today we heard Matthew’s record of the event. The transfiguration occurred shortly “after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then took three of his disciples – Peter, James, and John – up the mountain with him, and “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
This sounds like what happened to Moses on Mount Sinai, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. If you’ve been here in recent weeks or have read my sermons, you will know that Matthew wants us to understand Jesus’ relationship to the law and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and his religious tradition. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus had come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. We have looked at how Jesus affirmed commandments that had come through Moses – such as “you shall not murder” – and then took them further, for example, with warnings about anger and contempt of others.
When Jesus was on the mountain, transfigured in the presence of his disciples, he talked with Moses and Elijah. As you know, God gave the Ten Commandments, the essence of the law, through Moses. Elijah was one of the greatest of the prophets. He lived in Israel in the 9th century and was a great healer and miracle worker. In one sense, at the Transfiguration Jesus was having a conversation with his peers, for he was also appointed by God to teach God’s ways and to demonstrate the power of God through miracles and healing.
But Jesus was essentially different from Moses and Elijah. The radiance the disciples saw in Jesus’ face was not the reflected glory of God, as it had been for Moses. The radiance was within Jesus. The divine was within him and shining through him. What happened at the Transfiguration was that for a brief time Jesus’ divine nature was visible to his disciples. He was not changed. He was revealed. His face shone like the sun because he was – and is – the beloved Son of God, different from all others, both human and divine. Matthew wants us to understand that Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets – were forerunners of Jesus, all part of God’s plan that was ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
Just before the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem “and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Matthew 16:21). “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’” (Matthew 16:24-25). And then Jesus walked on to Jerusalem and the cross, healing and teaching people on his way.
This week, on Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent begins. It is a season surrounded by glory – the glory of Christ’s transfiguration and the glory of Christ’s resurrection. In this season we are called to listen to Jesus. Remember that at the Transfiguration God spoke these words: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The beloved Son of God has said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Now is a good time to think and pray and plan how we will keep a holy Lent. How will we give our lives for Christ in this season and beyond? What will we do to turn away from selfish pursuits and habits? What burdens of others will we voluntarily share through our prayer and our action? How will our lives, as individuals and as a parish, clearly show that we are followers of Christ? God has called us to be Christ’s body in the world, “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns” (2 Peter 1:19). Let us pray that, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, the light of Christ will burn brightly in our hearts and in our lives, for the good of all God’s people and God’s creation. In Jesus’ name. Amen.