On the holy mount

Last Sunday after Epiphany

St. David’s Episcopal Church

DeWitt, NY

Dan Handschy

Last Epiphany A(RCL); Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-20; Matthew 17:1-9

     The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is a very tightly packed little story.  The whole of Jewish tradition up to that time comes to focus on Jesus.

     The story begins, “After six days” or “Six days after these events.”  The six days refers to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.  Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain.  The passage we heard from Exodus tells us that when Moses went up the mountain, the cloud of God’s glory covered the mountain for six days.  Matthew wants us to think of the Exodus story.

     When Jesus is on the mountain, Moses and Elijah join him.  Both Moses and Elijah had mountaintop experiences themselves, one of which we just heard.  When Moses went up the mountain, he received the law.  In Exodus 24, which we just heard, he ratified the new covenant with God.  God had told the people not to come up the mountain, and instead build an altar at the base of the mountain.  The people then stayed on the plain, and ate a meal.  Seventy elders went up on the side of the mountain and ate, while Moses himself alone went to the top of the mountain.

     This is exactly the scheme of the Temple.  The people stay outside in the court, where the altar is.  The priesthood (the seventy) stays in the inner court, and the high priest alone enters the holy of holies.  Also, while Moses in on the mountain top, he receives the plan for the tabernacle – just this same scheme.  So, Moses represents both the law and the Temple.

     Elijah also had a mountain top experience.  You may remember the story.  Queen Jezebel had imported the worship of Ba’al into Israel.  Elijah challenged the 450 priests of Ba’al to a competition on Mount Carmel.  They set up an altar, and he set up an altar.  They prayed all day, but no fire descended.  He soaked his altar with water, and then prayed briefly, and fire descended and consumed his offering, whereupon he immediately slaughtered all 450 priests.

     Then he ran away, because Jezebel was going to kill him.  He came to Moses mountain and hid in the same cave where Moses saw the divine backside.  There was a storm and an earthquake, but God was in neither.  Then came a still small voice, saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”  Elijah made his complaint, and God said, “Return and anoint Hazael king of Syria, and Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha your successor.  Whoever Hazael does not kill, Jehu will kill, and whoever Jehu does not kill, Elisha will kill.”  Jeez, what a pleasant message.  So Elijah represents the prophetic and dynastic strands of tradition with Israel’s history.

     A cloud overshadows the three while they are on the mountain, just like the pillar of cloud overshadowed the tabernacle in the wilderness.  So we have the desert tradition represented here, as well.

     And then when the voice comes to Jesus, it quotes Psalm 2, which is a coronation psalm.  Ugh.  We are told that the nations are rebelling against the subjugation by God’s anointed, but God derides them.  The new king will smash them like an iron rod smashes pottery.  Here is the hope of vindication that runs throughout so much of Israelite literature.

     But the voice also quotes Isaiah 42:  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.”  All of these traditions come together on the mountaintop.  And when the cloud lifts, only Jesus is found alone.

     In the wake of the destruction of the Temple under the Roman Empire, the question for Jews was “Who are we now?”  There was no more Temple to hold the traditions together.

     The little band of Christians, who were first of all Jews, answered this question is a very surprising way.  They were followers of Jesus, and saw in Jesus the fulfillment of all the various strands of tradition that made up the Judaism of their time.  They were saying that everything we can know about God and God’s interaction with us humans is revealed in this Jesus, who comes down from the mountain and heads straight to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified by the Roman power.

     So, what does it mean for us to say that everything we can know about God, we learn from this Jesus?  What do we know about God that no longer works?  What strands of tradition come together for us in this Jesus?

     We have not lived through a crisis as catastrophic as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but I think we live through events every day that challenge our orthodoxies.  We used to be able to think that this nation was a beacon in the darkness, that America represented the best hope for the world.  Given the turmoil on our southern border, given the way we treat the descendants of the peoples we enslaved, given the damage that we are doing around the world, in terms of climate change and economic colonialism, I don’t think we can think that any more.

     I think there are crises in our personal lives in little ways that challenge our orthodoxies.  If we live good lives, we think, God will be good to us.  Nothing bad will happen to those God loves.  Yet, we can see in our own lives that this is not always true.  Illnesses, deaths, grief of one kind and another happen all the time.  We might be inclined to ask, “Why, God?”

     What the transfiguration tells us that all we can know about God’s interaction with us messed up humans can be known in Jesus, who died on a cross.  God chooses to enter the human arena, the created world, in order to love it, and will accept into the divine self the very worst that we can do to another.  “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  This Jesus, who will go to Jerusalem to die at our hands.

     All of this is revealed in blinding glory on the mountain top.  If we are to know God at all, we must make that journey to Jerusalem with this Jesus, the summary of all the theology in the world.  That’s why we read this on the Sunday before Lent, to draw our focus to this Jesus, who gives himself for us, so that we can know God.  There is no other way.