Sermon for Last Sunday of Epiphany B (Transfiguration Text)
The Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor!
How I wish I could share what we experienced there last January, thirteen month ago on our Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Mt. Tabor was our first stop, it was our first Eucharist together outdoors as a group, so it made a great impression on me. I can say that the basilica, the church built on this mountain in the 1920s has shaped my thoughts about the Transfiguration and a theology of what it could be about.
First, I enjoy every year this Transfiguration text as it functions as a conclusion to our season of light, of the revelation of light: Epiphany. Transfiguration has its own feast day on August 6, so I have been corrected more than once, especially in seminary, of calling this Transfiguration Sunday. In truth, it is NOT that! We only read the transfiguration account on this Sunday. So why on earth would I make that mistake? As I was saying, it concludes the flexible season of Epiphany appropriately, a season when we are focused on the revealing of Jesus to the world and focusing again and again on the Light of Christ! So this passage in which Jesus garments glow brighter that any earthly bleach could make them glow makes sense. We conclude the season of brightness with a glimpse of the eternal brightness of Christ.
More than that, however, this passage is wisely put here to function as it does most clearly in Mark, as a midway point, a hinge in this Gospel. Notice we are on chapter 9 in a Gospel that is 16 chapters long; just past the mid point. Before this, Jesus has done most of his teaching, healing, preaching; traveling throughout Galilee. Here he takes Peter, James and John up to the mountain for some time away from this ministry and they have this transformative experience. After it happens, they then descend the mountain, destined for Jerusalem, for the death and then resurrection of Jesus and he clearly points this all out to them as they descend the mountain. He also invokes them to tell no one about their experience until after his death and resurrection. After that, the Transfiguration and all that has happened will make sense to them; and it does. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they move from broken followers of a Rabbi of Nazareth to a force of God’s Goodness and Grace throughout the known world. So this Transfiguration, this moment will inspire them, enlighten them and prepare them for the journey ahead, a journey leading to things they cannot know are coming, but we do! For us, they lead us to Lent and to events we will celebrate together known as Holy Week and Easter. I think of all the readings of this story in the life of the church, in the Liturgical Year, this one from Mark fits so perfectly because it functions in that same way in the Gospel itself!
Now about what we saw and the basilica there. It is on the top of the Mt. of Tabor, about 1900 ft. above sea level (so not that high a mountain, some would say a hill), but the only way up is a winding two lane road, so right away, we needed to abandon our touring bus for 12-14 passenger vans that shuttled us up. And the drivers of these vans do nothing but drive people up and down to the site all day, back and forth, so you can imagine the gusto and abandon they take on these turns, on the journey up and down! When we get there, a beautiful newer building is surrounded by the ancient walls of other churches and structures that have occupied this venerated site. So we wander through the old walls of the former building, with ancient oil presses and other things here and there, and we anticipate the new church waiting to receive us. Its design is not unique, but a deliberate one with three definite high points and inside, we find on entering, three different churches or chapels.
But these are not dedicated to the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but to the three people encountered on this mountain, Jesus, Moses and Elijah! Of course, the bigger, more elaborate center space is the main church, with wonderful mosaics and a large fresco above the main altar with the vision of Christ at the center and Moses and Elijah on his left and right, hovering in the sky. Peter and the two brothers, James and John, stand in awe and fear, firmly standing on the ground, viewing this extraordinary event. Along the way, in a narrow passage, we encounter a unique thing: four Mosaics that portray what are called the four, not one, transfigurations of Jesus in his life. But, open to more exploration to the north and south of the main church are two chapels, each dedicated to Moses and Elijah. To the north, the Moses chapel with a beautiful fresco depicting him, seated with the two tablets; in the background rushing water and the burning bush on either side. In the south chapel, for Elijah, who is also seated, there is a pillar of fire consuming the sacrifice to his left, the gifts he offered, while untouched lie the altar to right, offered by the followers of Baal. How remarkable in this building to have chapels devoted to these Prophets of the Old Testament, but also how appropriate. But, like others before us, we wonder why these two?
In this Transfiguration, all three, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have Jesus encounter the same two figures. What is happening here; why is it important? Many theories and ideas abound. Perhaps it was a pre-resurrection glimpse of the glory of Christ. Perhaps Moses and Elijah are chosen because they represent the two major parts of the Hebrew Scriptures; The Law and the Prophets, so perfectly. They are also figures whose deaths are recorded in unusual ways. Moses views the Promised Land, but dies on the other side of the Jordan, not going into it, instead staying behind as those he lead go forward, into this promise. Elijah is taken up after literally passing his mantle on to the next prophet, Elisha, as we heard in our First reading. They are figures whose deaths are not certain, but their union with God is.
All these things are true, and I like them all, but as I studied this building and its chapels I thought of this idea: what if Moses and Elijah stand in the place of guides all of us need on our journey, to help bring us to the fullness that Jesus shows for us. Moses does represent the law, but more than that. Remember, Moses did deliver the Ten Commandments, but he did so much more. He first challenged the ‘powers that be’ of his time, to bring his people out of slavery into freedom; forward, out of a land they knew, to a new place. Moses had to first fight the system that enslaved his people, then be the leader of thousands as they journeyed away to a place they did not know. His life, his journey from favored, adopted son in Egyptian aristocracy is an epic tale, so it is no wonder that epic movies, even a recent one, have grappled to tell this story. It is one of inspiration, of the lowly working to overcome oppression and walk forth into a new day, a new dawn. Of course, for Moses, once they are free, the real work of leading, guiding and managing this group begins, and it is not easily. He must learn to delegate responsibility when he cannot do it all. He even tries to settle all disputes, all differences himself and his father-in-law, Jethro, comes along with the idea that he is wearing himself out! He won’t make it! So 70 elders are appointed and even they can’t get it right: only 68 come out to the tent of meeting to receive the spirit. The two forgetful or defiant ones get the spirit anyway, back at home base and scare people with their new found ‘power in the Spirit’. So I believe Moses represents more than just “the Law”, but also our need for guidance; both in written form, but in human form, as well, through his example. And from this guidance, we learn not just what the rules should or should not be, but the long journey of leadership, of enlightenment toward the completeness that Jesus represents. Moses is an example of persistent hope and leadership toward becoming like Christ.
Elijah, for most of us, is a less known figure. There are not many (if any) biblical blockbusters that come to mind to give us a glimpse of who Elijah did and what he endured. We have no thumb nail sketch at our command about him. However, there are so many episodes in his life that are inspiring, even events that mirror Jesus own ministry. Elijahs life and deeds are recorded in I and II Kings and happened in the divided North Kingdom of Israel, with him fighting against the corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Israel now divided, the north kingdom abandoned worshiping at the Temple, now in the south Kingdom of Judah, and instead turns to local shrines and worship to the local god, Baal for imagined protection. Elijah rails against the dishonorable leadership of his time (like John the Baptist and Jesus will), but he is on the losing side of this battle. Still, he is shown to have a close relationship with God, who shelters him and protects him, even when all seems lost. Elijah predicts a terrible drought will come on the land it and effects everyone, including himself. God guides him to a widow, preparing a last meal for herself and her son. Instead of a last meal, by taking in and feeding Elijah, she is provided an unending supply of oil and flour for herself, her son and the prophet. After this event of unending bread (much like loaves and fishes), we meet the widow next when her son has died, leaving her alone and with almost no future. Elijah raised the son of the Widow of Zarephath, just like Jesus would later raise a widow’s son, as a sign of mercy and love. Elijah leads no group of people, but instead is steadfast to the prophetic vision of calling God’s people back to worship and trust in his promise for them.
I like to envision that Moses and Elijah, perhaps for Jesus and for us, represent Guidance and Prophetic vision. We need guidance, written and in example, that helps us to know what boundaries are, what we can live within and move toward. At the same time, we need the kind of heroic, determined prophetic vision that Elijah lived, even when the way seems hopeless, against overwhelming forces. We can never know what these two said to Jesus or if they even said anything at all, but their presence, their encounter with him moved him forward, toward the most difficult part of his life. We can understand why Peter, on an impulse, wanted to build shrines to capture this moment and the impact of these Holy figures. On our pilgrimage, I encountered such a shrine, and it did inspire me. But rather than remain there, in inspiration, those of us on the pilgrimage moved outside, to share our first Eucharist, the meal together and journey on, down the mountain. And so shall we all in this place, as we gather around the table of bread and wine, to be sent into a world that needs guidance and vision, and into a season of Lent, that will focus and direct us toward death and resurrection and renewed hope. Amen.