Last Sunday of Epiphany Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13, Luke 9:28-36
I’ve lived in America long enough now that I understand that most people have their favorite president. For some its John F Kennedy, who in his brief time helped make Roman Catholicism a mainstream identity in America; maneuvered through the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and advanced the Civil Rights movement towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Jimmy Carter was I believe the first President to describe himself as a born-again evangelical, elevating the grassroots movement of fiercely personal Christianity into the sphere of national leadership, and had a remarkable presence around the world for speaking up about human rights in other nations. Perhaps the President who you can the President is Regan, who oversaw a period of enormous prosperity for many Americans.
It seems that it is often a particular person, a particular era, a particular Administration which defines for us the hopes we cling to, and often, with our chosen President as standard-bearer we spend the rest of our lives wishing for a return to those heady days, that gilded era.
For many George W Bush shines as he stood up to a confusing international cartel of terrorists prepared to murder civilians in their thousands. Today our political discourse cannot escape the pull of many who long for a fulfillment of all the hope they had placed in Barak Obama.
I have lived in America long enough to know that there are many who, for all sorts of intuitive and legitimate reasons, will see these men as complete failures, whose legacies are best left in the pages long form journalism and dust-jacketed memoirs, and forgotten forever.
What I mean to say, is that for almost everyone I’ve met there was the leader. the moment. the movement. The leader, the moment, the movement, whose time was over too soon. If only things were like they were then. If only she had won the election. If only he hadn’t been assassinated. If only… If only…
These are words of hope as much as they are regret. Regret, surely, for something we believe we lost, but also hope that those desires could still find their fulfiment. It is these regrets and hopes which fuel our social media posts and new articles and docu-films. And so often they seem to be proclaiming some variation on the theme:
“Couldn’t we have just stayed where we were?”
In our Gospel Lesson today, we encounter Jesus at a moment of revelation. He has delivered his Sermon on the Plain, he has healed the man with the legion of demons, he has cleansed the woman with the issue of blood, and he has fed the 5000. In other words, he has revealed that he has power to deliver from the powers of evil, to make people whole, to provide for the hungry. In other words, all that he said he had come to do when he announced his mission all the way back in Luke 4: Good news to the poor, liberty for captives, Sight to the bind.
And these wonders, this amazing reversal of all the things which had crushed God’s people, caused Peter to confess: You are the Christ, which means the Messiah or Anointed One, of God.
These are the glory days, and all that Jesus had proclaimed has come and is continuing to come to pass.
The season of Epiphany, which is the this period between Christmas and Lent, is a time when we have been exploring some of Jesus’ moral teachings. The Epiphany itself is the traditional word we use to remember that Jesus as an infant was revealed to foreigners and gentiles, who came from a land far in the East to worship a child on Mary’s knee. They were guided by a star, and the excellence of that star drew people who were not Israelites to come and recognize Jesus as the king promised of God. And in that same spirit, we understand that all the wonderful things Jesus did and taught are a shining light, as he gently encounters the pains and desires of our hearts and tenderly ministers to them.
This is why Peter would call Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, of God. He and many of the people of Judah had long looked forward to a figure who would be like the great ones of old. Like Moses who liberated them from Egypt, the Messiah would liberate the people from the things oppressing them. Like Elijah there would come a person who would restore true faith to Israel and reprove wicked kings.
And after Peter places all his hope in Jesus, rightly identifying him as the Messiah, Jesus invites all who have been listening to him to join his way of doing things: He tells them to “take up your cross daily”, to throw all-in for Jesus, to lose their lives for his sake and so find that they have been saved.
This is it. This is the leader. This is the moment. This is the movement. Take up the cross and follow.
And yet Jesus decides to show Peter, James, and John something more.
Just when everything has come together in the eyes of human understanding, Jesus reveals himself in a way that Peter’s idea of “Christ” was surely too feeble to comprehend. For in Peters usage, Christ could really have meant anyone upon whom God’s hand reseted to deliver God’s people. But this Christ, this Jesus of Nazareth has more to reveal.
And so in a pattern familiar to those with a knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures Jesus ascends a mountain with a few of his disciples. It was upon a mountain where Abraham offered up his son, where Moses met God in the cloud of glory and heard the words of the Law, where Elijah saw God burn up the offering and defeat the priests of Baal, and later heard the profound silence of the voice of God.
In this place, in these circumstances, Jesus chooses to reveal the peculiar glory of God. Peter and James and John had fallen asleep but quickly awake in this brilliance of what they are surrounded by. Jesus shows his cosmic might, the splendor of his eternal majesty, and in a profound humility chooses to let his disciples see and hear him speaking with Moses and Elijah about his path. Perhaps the Disciples had thought Jesus was being metaphorical when he said that those who follow him should take up their crosses?
No, this moment of transfiguration, this glimpse through the veil, where we see Jesus for who he truly is, is also the moment where he foretells of his death, not only as a consequence of human history, the sad reality of being a religious leader in Roman-occupied Palestine, but as a divine plan, set in motion long ago. This is why he shows himself speaking to Moses and Elijah. He wants his disciples to understand that the things which are going to happen to him are not accidental. His betrayal, his suffering, and his murder are not mistakes. Moses and Elijah, and with them all the other voices of the Old Testament sing in agreement that this is the path which must be trod by God’s Christ, by the Messiah.
Peter, James, John: You must understand. You know me as the Christ, but you do not yet understand what this means. But now you have seen me as I truly am, I have removed the veil from my face for a moment and you have seen the glory shining from me, and you have heard me say that I am going to Jerusalem to die.
But Peter cannot understand, or will not. He jumps into this revelation, he interrupts the vision. Master! It is good that we are here! Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah!
Peter cannot bear to comprehend the things his ears have just heard. No, the Messiah can’t just die. No. We have only just realized that this Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, is the one sent from God to save us. He cannot leave! We have the leader, we have the moment, we have the movement. This is the golden age. This is the great reversal, when justice and righteousness will rule and evil and oppression shall cease.
Please, just stay here. Please, do not leave us.
Surely this is enough. You have revealed your glory. You have given us new commandments, and even power to work miracles. Jesus, surely this is it.
Moses gave the law so long ago, and we couldn’t keep it. And Elijah defeated the cruel deity Baal, but so many kings since then fell away from the worship of the true God. But Jesus, if you stayed with us, if you stayed it would all be different!
And here in this moment of Peter’s fear and confusion, as he sees behind the veil, seeing that Jesus is the central character of a story eons in the making, that cloud which surrounded Moses and Elijah appears once more.
This cloud of the glory of God speaks, with a voice rarely heard by any human ear, interrupting Peter, leaving his anxiety stuck in his throat.
“This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”
Peter is silent after this, for what words can follow God’s speech?
Pete was right, or half right, when he called Jesus the Christ of God – the Chosen One.
But he was all wrong about Jesus too. For, God does not choose someone because of their worthiness: Moses and Elijah are testimony enough of this. Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the chosen one, when he had seen his excellence, power, holiness, and purity. Yet God declares Jesus the Chosen One because he is God’s Son. This is about love, the love between the Father and the Son. And for this reason Jesus has no need to prove anything, to earn his right as Messiah. He is the Beloved of the Father, and for this reason will always be his Chosen One.
But why should Peter and James and John be the ones to see and hear this? Upon this mountain, where the curtain is pulled back for a moment and we see the heaven-side plan for the salvation of all people, which has been prepared for many generations, where the cloud of God’s Presence covers them? Why should they see this wonder, when they have already become Jesus’ disciples, and they have already identified him as Messiah, and have pledged to follow him.
They needed to see this, because despite the “yes” which came from their lips when they became his disciples, they had no idea truly what they were getting into. They said “yes” because Jesus was worthy of following. But upon this mountain, that “yes” is as transfigured as the face of Jesus Christ.
For on the other side of the mountain, Peter and James and John can no longer imagine that Jesus is some sort of pious human being, who through devotion has gained his insights and power.
That was the person they said “yes” to following, but now they understand that they are following the beloved Son of God, who has purposed to go to Jerusalem to die.
Peter and James and John ascended the mountain with certainty: Jesus of Nazareth is like the Prophets of old, who will be with us to guide us through these troubling times. He will speak to us God’s word and we will try our very best to understand and obey.
They descend with no certainty at all. Jesus is going to die, and soon.
And Jesus is the Son of God so we should listen to him.
What on earth could his death possibly accomplish, that his living here with us on this mountain could not?
The Golden Age of Jesus’ earthly ministry is short lived. It does not take long for people to cease being charmed by him. They become angry when they realize how serious he is, how inconvenient and obstinate, and they plot his murder.
And yet this was always the plan. For after his death, he rises again from the dead, so that he might never leave us abandoned to our flimsy hopes of a golden age, bound up in half-memories of fallible human leaders, and ambiguous moments when some people got what they wanted, and movements which have corroded into rusted institutions.
I wonder when I am old, which period of my life I will be tempted to look back on as the “golden age”, to which I will long to return as though all the hopes of the world rested upon it. Will it be a Prime Minister in England, or a Monarch, or an American President, or even a particular Priest or Bishop?
May it be that in that day, when my faith is weak, that I will remember that Jesus is the Son of God who has risen from the dead, and through him alone all the hopes of the world are met.
Today let us listen to the Christ of God, take up our crosses, and follow him this Lent so that we may be partakers of the peculiar new way of things, on the other side of Easter.