Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

At least since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday has been a commemoration of the Transfiguration, the last and perhaps greatest manifestation of Jesus. The Transfiguration is also separately observed on August 6. It's traditional on this day to sing lots of Alleluias, since the "A-word" is not used in Lent at all, so we have to get our fill of them today. Today we heard an account of Moses going up onto the mountain to receive the Torah, and also from St. Paul about keeping one's eyes and one's heart on the goal of Jesus Christ. And of course we heard Matthew's account of the Transfiguration itself. I finished up my stint of supply at St. Thomas's Episcopal Church in Vernon today, and here's what I offered at the sermon. Comments always welcome, and never mind the typos:

St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Vernon

Last Epiphany 2008 (BCP)

Exodus 24:12-18; Ps 99; Phil. 3:7-14; Matt 17:1-9

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr.

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.”

May these words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

So what’s with all the secrecy? For a month now we’ve been hearing about how in Epiphanytide that the whole point of the season is to manifest – show, make known – Jesus to the entire world. And so it makes a lot of sense to have the Transfiguration as one of the images we have. In this story Jesus goes up on a mountain and is somehow amazingly changed. His clothes become dazzling white and his face shown like the sun. And then, just in case somehow someone still didn’t get the memo, a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” It’s the exact same pronouncement as at Jesus’ Baptism at the River Jordan, that we heard about just a few weeks ago. If you haven’t figured out yet that Jesus is someone very special indeed, then today’s Gospel should really remove all doubt from your mind.

So this is what I don’t get. Why, after that tremendous experience on the top of the mountain, would Jesus tell Peter, James and John to be quiet about it? Isn’t the whole point to make Jesus known? Again, what’s the secrecy?

There are all kinds of secrets in the world. Perhaps you remember growing up and taunting a classmate, “I know something you don’t! Neener Neener Neener!” It really didn’t matter what the secret was. It could have been as simple as what the snack was that day, because you saw the teacher take it out of her car. Maybe it was something someone told you, possibly about another classmate. Maybe you knew about a present that someone was going to get, and you were just bursting to tell, but you couldn’t. I’m not even sure I can remember anything that I knew that I wanted others to know I knew. But secrets were kind of fun. It was fun to have one, and it was excruciating to know someone else had one and I didn’t.

As we got older, sometimes secrets became a bit more serious. There was an initiation into the Scout troop that you were never supposed to talk about, but of course you knew something was going on; what was with all the whispering, anyway? Or maybe a best friend swore you to secrecy over a crush she had, and you had to promise cross-your-heart-hope-to-die that you would never ever tell. Of course, you later found out that your friend was telling all sorts of people the same thing, so it didn’t feel quite so special any more.

There are some secrets in our lives that seem so painful, so scandalous, that we feel like we can never let out. Awful things like abuse or addictions come immediately to mind. We never want to tell others what has happened or is happening, because of the shame that society has built up around the victims of such behaviors. Those are the kind of secrets that, left unaddressed, can tear a family apart, and can damage individual souls almost beyond repair. Even something as relatively benign as adoptions can be something fraught with difficulty, a secret whose revealing one never really knows will be welcome or not.

And of course, as a priest, I deal in secrets too. Anything, anything at all, that I learn from someone during a pastoral call or confession I can never reveal, even to the bishop, and I am charged with carrying that to my grave. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it so well, “The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.”

So back to the mountain. Jesus undergoes this truly miraculous alteration. He becomes like some sort of angel or something, but even brighter in some strange way. I’m not even sure what modern words to use to describe it. It’s very obvious that Peter, James, and John are supposed to see what is going on, because it’s clear that Jesus took them up the mountain. It’s not like they were just walking along a hillside and happened to see this event take place. Rather, it was intentional. And yet, they’re told not to tell anyone at all. And the word for “command” here is the same word that God uses in the reading from Exodus as Moses receives the Torah. Jesus commands the disciples with the authority of God Himself not to tell anyone what just happened.

Think for a bit about what those three must have been going though. Here they’ve just seen something they really can’t explain. In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples aren’t present for Jesus’ baptism, so it’s the first time they’ve heard the awesome pronouncement, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well please. Listen to him!” So now they have this secret. Presumably they’re not even supposed to tell the other disciples. Think of the most burning secret you’ve ever had. And you aren’t supposed to tell anyone. That’s what James, Peter and John must have been going through. They’ve just gone through one of the most amazing experiences of their lives, and now this.

But listen again to what Jesus commanded them: “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Ah. So this secret isn’t one of those forever secrets. They don’t have to keep it to the grave. They only have to do so until, what? The Son of Man, that’s Jesus, he’s used that title for himself before. Raised from the Dead? What’s that about? Put yourself in their sandals. Here Jesus is apparently predicting that somehow he will come back to life. Now although it’s not clear how much learning Peter and the others had, they still might have known that it was a common belief that God would come in glory and restore all things to his will, and at that time all the dead would be raised. Maybe they believed that as well. So even though Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the son of the Living God, and even though they heard a voice from heaven declaring Jesus indeed to be the Son of God, they still might well have not seen the connection, or even had a clue there might be one. We know there’s a connection because we know the whole story. But the disciples didn’t know, might not have known, and presumably didn’t see the big picture until much later.

You and I, however, aren’t the disciples. We’re disciples of Jesus, sure, but we’re not Peter, John, and James. We know what’s going to happen next. In our lives, Lent comes before Easter. On Ash Wednesday we will begin the period of 40 days, not including Sundays, before Easter. We will, with Jesus, enter our period of 40 days in the wilderness, a time of contemplating what we’ve done and what we hope to do, and a time to prepare ourselves spiritually for the climax of our year, the festival of the Resurrection. But it’s a long road ahead. We have much to do and to contemplate before we light the new fire of Easter. And that’s where, for us I think, the Transfiguration comes in. Notice that Jesus said, “tell no one until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Keep the secret, think about it, Jesus says, until you can clearly see that there is a new time, a different time, than what you’re used to now. Keep it for that long, but no longer.

My friends, Lent can be easy or it can be hard. It’s up to you what you make of it. The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. Your Lenten disciplines, the things you do to strengthen your spiritual lives, can be strenuous, or they can be light. You may choose to give up one or more things - to perform a fast, in other words. You may decide to take on something positive, perhaps a daily prayer discipline, or reading the Bible, or working once a week at a local service ministry or something like that. Whatever you do, though, do it in the spirit of what Paul wrote for today: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.”

The secret that Jesus charged the disciples to keep was only until the Resurrection. Even though they perhaps had no idea what Jesus was talking about, though he tried to tell them, we do know. And as we consider the beginning of Lent, we know what comes after. And so as we press on through Lent on the journey to Easter, I invite you to use this final manifestation of Jesus as a means to strengthen and uphold you. Hold the vision of Jesus in your minds and hearts as Lent wears on. Don’t keep this final manifestation a secret, especially from your own soul. That vision, you see, is not only what happened once to Jesus with only a few disciples to witness it. It’s what you and I look like too. Our image may be tarnished a bit with the wear and tear of the world, but Lent is the time to fix that vision up, to get out the spiritual silver polish and remove the dirt and grime we’ve accumulated since last Easter.

I imagine Peter, James, and John talked a lot among themselves on the road to Jerusalem about what they had seen and heard on the mountain. They held that vision in their own hearts and called it to mind when things were getting tough. And they got tough! The Transfiguration was God’s way of saying, “See, this is how Jesus really is, and this is how you will be too. Keep on a little longer and see how my spirit will transfigure you as well.” And God says it to us today as well. We, too, will be transfigured. We, too, will commune with Elijah and Moses, and with Jesus and James and Peter and John. We will get a preview of that in just a few minutes as we celebrate the Holy Communion right here at this altar. And we will take that vision of Jesus into our very selves in the Body and Blood, and then take it out into the world with us. As we begin the season on Lent on Wednesday, do not forget all the ways that Jesus is manifested to you and most importantly, in you. We don’t have to keep the secret, because we know how it will all end. But we do have to get to the end first. Like St. Paul we press on, but we have a sure and certain vision to press on toward, and that is the real Good News of the Transfiguration.



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