February 19, 2023
The Seventh & Last Sunday After the Epiphany
February 19, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
From the Gospel according to Matthew, “…Jesus (said), ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and sustaining Sanctifier. Amen.
Throughout this Season of the Epiphany, our Sunday scripture lessons have been filled with invitations: invitations to embrace a deeper relationship with God, one another, and our neighbor. Invitations to recognize that Christ’s light can illumine our paths, invite us, and show us how to walk in God’s ways no matter what happens in life. Invitations to allow God’s good news in Christ to transform our hearts and minds so deeply that it actually changes how we think, what we say, how we live and act as God’s people, as God’s continuing light in this world, as cities set on a hill for all to see, as the salt of the earth. Invitations that beg us to look deep within ourselves and, as Fr. Jim Reed said so well in last week’s sermon, ask ourselves, “what’s in our hearts?”
Today’s Gospel reading includes yet another invitation. Jesus invites Peter, James and John to accompany him on a trek up a mountainside. There they have an incredible vision as Jesus’ appearance is transfigured – it is a metamorphosis – so that he physically glows with the light of God. And suddenly, John, Peter, and James realize that the Prophets Elijah and Moses are standing beside Jesus talking with him. A cloud appears and a voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved: with him I am well pleased: listen to him!” We heard these same words before. They were spoken at Jesus baptism and here, they are said once again. Listen to him: pay attention to what he says to you. But this time the voice comes as Jesus is flanked by Moses and Elijah and his appearance changed right in front of the disciples. What is going on here and what does it have to do with the Season of the Epiphany? Afterall, the Christian Calendar doesn’t even commemorate the Transfiguration of Christ until August. So why this story now?
The answer lies in the significance of the presence of Moses and Elijah, and where we are in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ life at that moment in time. We know a lot about Moses. Our Old Testament lesson this morning recalls his unique relationship with God. In Hebrew tradition, Moses is described as the Law Giver who performed miracles, led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, showed them the Promised Land and gave them the Ten Commandments he received from God’s own hand. So Moses being present is understandable given his role as the Law Giver. But why Elijah? When it comes to important Old Testament prophets we might think of Isaiah or Jeremiah. But Elijah? He doesn’t even have a book named after him. We know he’s a prophet but why is he in this story?
The answer is found once again in Hebrew tradition. Elijah represents every prophet who foretold of God’s promised restoration of all things, that all will be well, God’s promise that redemption will come. And did so with boldness because they knew in their hearts that God is faithful to God’s promises. Elijah symbolizes God’s promised restoration, God’s faithfulness.
And so, Moses, the Law Giver, and Elijah, the symbol of God’s promised restoration, stand on either side of Jesus. Jesus who will become the fulfillment of the Law and God’s promises.
Yet, there is another – and some might say deeper - significance to the presence of Moses and Elijah. When they began their ministries, God’s people rejected Moses and Elijah. In fact, they ran them out of town. Having been rejected and scorned by the people, they later returned vindicated by God, and through their obedience to God, saved their nation. As advocates for keeping the covenant with God and obeying God’s laws: the Torah, they are icons of God’s divine intervention and deliverance. and both of these men are believed to have been carried up into heaven. The Old Testament mentions Moses’ death but makes no mention of his burial and it outright tells us that Elijah was carried off into heaven in a fiery chariot. It is in their rejection, scorn, vindication, and their roles as deliverers who transcended their world that their relationship with Jesus begins to make sense. See, Jesus, just like Moses and Elijah, performed miracles, proclaimed God’s promises, and was also rejected, scorned, and, in his death and resurrection, vindicated by God in order to deliver and redeem not just a nation, but all creation. But remember, Peter, James, and John had yet to witness the death and resurrection of Jesus that comes a few weeks later – and there’s the importance of the timing of this whole story of the Transfiguration and why it takes place before Jesus enters Jerusalem; before he is revealed as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. For now, these disciples are wondering why Moses and Elijah are talking with Jesus. Then that cloud appears, and the story deepens.
A voice is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved … listen to him.” Listen, or hear in Hebrew, means to obey. This is my son, the Beloved … obey him. Take heed of what he is saying. Apply it to your hearts and lives. That is what the Law and all the Prophets tell us, urge us to do, and it will be through his life and example that Jesus will show us how. Years later, Peter writing to the early Church was concerned that people were starting to question if the disciple’s teaching about Jesus was really true. If I could paraphrase his response as offered in today’s reading from his second letter, it would be, “Look folks. You can’t make this stuff up. We’re not that creative. We have only told you what we have heard and seen for ourselves.” Peter goes on to say that like paying attention to the Prophets of old, we would, “do well to be attentive and obey the teachings of Jesus because they are what? A lamp shining in a dark place.” And that image of a shining lamp brings us back to the recurring themes and invitations of this Epiphany Season – this season of illumination, manifestation, and multiple invitations to realize and embrace who Jesus is and who, as his followers, we are called, we are urged, to be.
You know, our readings this morning began with an invitation from Exodus to “come … and wait” in the presence of God, and they conclude with an invitation to set fear aside and just be God’s people. It all sounds so simple.
Perhaps that’s why I find it not just appropriate, but uncanny, that the invitations offered in today’s scripture lessons are presented to us as the Season of the Epiphany, this season of illumination and transformation draws to a close. On Wednesday we will enter the Season of Lent: that season of self-examination. That time when we are invited to pause and reflect upon and question how we live as God’s people, as Christ’s light in this world; to honestly ask ourselves if we are like salt – a preserving, seasoning, bettering presence in our communities, and does the example of how we choose to live our lives and uphold God’s ways and values stand out like a city on a hill especially when it comes to standing up for justice and standing against evil like the antisemitism witnessed in Boone this past week. Like the Epiphany, Lent invites us to look that much more deeply within our own selves and ask, “What’s in my heart?” and rediscover God’s redemptive, transforming work going on within us. Lent, and the Epiphany, offers the opportunity to answer God’s invitation to grasp what it truly means to be “people of God.” And beloved, God continues to extend that welcome and invitation to everyone still today. How we respond and how we choose to live, is ours to decide alone.
Jesus said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” May God grant us grace to set fear aside and, as we gather together in God’s presence, see the transforming, the transfiguring work of Christ alive and active in each other and within our own selves. May God give us the courage to get up and not be afraid for, beloved, we have not only seen the light of Christ; we are the light of Christ in this community capable, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of illuminating the paths of every person we encounter. We have received the invitation. Now, may God help us to answer. Amen.