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Last epiphany C – February 27, 2022

St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Last epiphany C – February 27, 2022

Luke 9:28-43a (references to parallels in Matthew and Mark)

The Rev. Rachel Endicott

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, we live in the shadow of looming mountains. We are surrounded by a number of smaller local peaks as anyone who has climbed up to Oyster Dome knows. But we also remain in awe at the prominent peaks which form part of the Washington and Oregon skylines: Baker, Glacier, Stuart, Rainier, Adams, Hood, Jefferson, and South Sister. Mt. St. Helens, having less prominence in terms of feet, is a continual reminder of the powerful forces that have pushed up, yet also destroy, the parade of volcanic peaks.

It is not only physically, but also symbolically, that mountains are indeed high places. They take our breath away. They are places of stunning beauty. And they are places where we come close to God.

Today, our readings take us to both Mount Sinai and the unnamed mountain on which Jesus and his disciples ascend and rest. It’s interesting that in contrast to the reading from Exodus with Mt. Sinai, all three Gospel writers simply refer to “the mountain” or a “high mountain” with no name attached. That lack of specificity has enticed years of debate. Origen put in a plug for Mt. Tabor being that mountain, but other mountains put in the running for this passages geographic place have been Mt. Panium, Mt. Meron, Mt. Nebo, and Mt. Herman.1 I wonder if, in some ways though, that we don’t need a name because it could be any high holy place. It could be any place where Jesus and God meet and change happens.

That noted, today I want to do more of a biblical text review type of sermon than I usually do, to walk us through the commonalities of the parallel Gospel accounts concerning the Transfiguration, to look at what happened and why. I want us to follow the strand of movement through the text, and then to think about why this event, the Transfiguration, has become a cornerstone in our understanding of who Jesus is. Lastly, I’d like to have us then think about what it might mean for us.

So, what happened? In all three Gospel accounts, accounts from the synoptic Gospels of Luke, Matthew (17:1-9) and Mark (9:2-9), we find surprisingly similar accounts. And this spectacular event is not only referred to in the Gospels, but also in 2 Peter (1:16-18). But let’s look at the setting, what comes before. Prior to heading on his mountain climb, Jesus had a foretelling of his death and engaged in discussion about discipleship, about following him. Then we’re told that after a pause of – six days in the other two Gospel versions and – about eight days in Luke’s version, Jesus sets off with Peter and James and John, the close-knit core of Jesus’ band of followers. Luke notes that they went up to pray. He sets the tone for the intimacy between God the Father and Jesus the Son being in relationship.

And we hear of change. In the midst of prayer, Jesus’s face changes. I keep thinking that although in our world faces don’t become dazzling white, have you ever noticed someone flushed with the first blush of love, how their faces glow. And at this point, I keep thinking Peter realizes this isn’t a quick up and down trip to the mountain. And he settles in for the long haul. He suggests making a temporary dwelling for not only Jesus, but for Moses and Elijah who appear. But the scene changes and there is a cloud that comes upon them and – realizing that the cloud is surrounding God – fear comes to the disciples and we’re told “they were terrified”. Remember how there is a longstanding sense from the Hebrew Scriptures that the one who comes face to face with, or sees God, dies.

And from this cloud, there is the voice of God: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This sentence confers two significant things: acknowledging the relationship of Jesus to God as son and telling the disciples that he has authority when he speaks. They are to listen to him, about what he has already shared and about what he will share in the future. His words carry the authority of God Almighty.

But the story doesn’t end here. In Luke, the text continues to say, “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain”, not definitively stating, but implying that perhaps they were indeed on the mountain overnight. I can’t help but think of this as a time of an overnight spiritual quest, maybe something like a vigil or – in Native American belief – a vision quest where often transformation and clarity about what is going on in the world outside is sought.

And, yet, one can not stay on a mountain. One is always called to return to the “real world”, to come back down out of the rarefied air. And so Jesus and the disciples come down. Yet there are two notable things we find upon the return. First, Jesus orders those with him not to speak of what’s happened. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have had this experience, this closeness with God, the new vision of the teacher they followed, and yet to not be able to share about it.

And the second notable thing upon return, in all three Gospel accounts, is that Jesus heals the child who has seizures. He reaches out to one who is small and hurting, one who is left out of the norms of society because of his illness. He goes about doing what he has always done, teaching and healing.

So at some level, we have that which can’t be spoken of and that which is viewed by all the people and at some level is so ordinary, both of which speak of the authority and power of Jesus. If you notice, the passage ends up with all being astounded at the greatness of God. Even as they’ve not seen the cloud, not heard the voice of God, yet they are astounded. We hear nothing more about Jesus’ face being dazzling white, yet the people are dazzled.

So, as noted earlier, this event in the life of Jesus and his close disciples has become a cornerstone in our understanding of who Jesus is. This event, along with others reinforces to us that Jesus is indeed God’s son. “In Christian teachings, the transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.[10] Moreover, Christians consider the transfiguration to fulfill an Old Testament messianic prophecy that Elijah would return again after his ascension (Malachi 4:56).)”.2 This event is also notable in that the miraculous change happens to Jesus versus many other events where the miraculous change or healing happens though Jesus’ agency to other people.

So, moving to this day and time… Where have you found God on a mountain, symbolic or otherwise? How have you understood Jesus as God’s son? Have you taken time out of your life to sit with the Holy for an extended period of time: perhaps a Lenten retreat, a weekly or other periodic sabbath, or an unexpected time of astonishment that fell upon you? How have you encountered the holy, particularly within the open spaces of our created world? How might you have been changed by that touch of God?




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