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Sunday February 18, 2007
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Stafford

Luke 9:28-36

A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Today, we conclude the Epiphany season with Luke’s account of the Transfiguration; a mystical occurrence in the life of our Lord, familiar to most Christians. Today’s Gospel of the Transfiguration is part of a long series of revelations/manifestations/unveilings of Jesus as the Christ that began actually with the angelic announcement of the Incarnation to the shepherds, and continued after his birth, with the official beginning of Epiphany being the visit of the magi, twelve days after Christmas. Then, followed the Gospel of our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan; and, thereafter, the Sunday gospels presented a weekly Scriptural chronicle of a variety of miraculous acts. With the events of the Transfiguration foreshadowing Christ’s passion and resurrection in Jerusalem, we are brought therefore to the threshold of the Lenten season, which begins on Wednesday of this week. Traditionally, Epiphany is understood as being the season of light; what I would term, a new vision for the familiar landscape of daily life – the people, places, things, and events which compose the kingdom of this world. And, today, this theme of light is an important part of the meaning of the Transfiguration story.

Like the account of Christ’s baptism, the Transfiguration, also, is exceptionally rich in image, jam-packed with teaching. It is, in this multi-layered sense, a scriptural word picture encouraging the reader or listener to make what Hugh of St. Victor (12th c.) terms “a pilgrimage in place” (perigrinatio in stabilitate, L); which is to say, a journey/exploration into the mystery of God, the same God that John the Evangelist tells us is light Jn 1.1ff). It is my purpose in this sermon to undertake such a pilgrimage with you this morning; a walk, as, it were into the mysterious light of God. So, let me put introduction aside, and let us begin this journey together!

Both Matthew (17.1-9) and Mark (9.1-10), who predate Luke, write, as well, of the Transfiguration. Remember that no one of these authors is actually a witness to the unique and peculiar event about which he writes. Each, therefore, is an interpreter, much like an impressionist painter concerned not with literal fact but with atmosphere, light, and mood. Mark writes first, and, subsequently, both Matthew and Luke, who “borrow” from Mark. The three accounts, if we use the Jewish iconography deployed by each of these Jewish authors, tell a common story, a particularly Jewish story; how the light of the Unknowable God descended on Jesus. This divine light, if we examine it, that anoints or washes over our Lord in his Transfiguration, brings with it clarity and new vision, as well as renewed identity, revealing Jesus to be greater than Moses, the Law Giver, and greater than Elijah, the Prophet of Israel, who proclaimed and foretold the Kingdom of Heaven.

A Jew familiar with the details of the lives of Moses and Elijah, would therefore in reading this account make a quick but important deduction about the deaths of these two individuals. Moses, according to the Book of Deuteronomy (34.1ff), dies and is buried in the land of Moab, across from the Promised Land, which he was not permitted to enter. However, pious Jewish belief held that Moses after his death was taken up into heaven. And, the II Book of Kings (2.11) reports that Elijah ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire and whirlwind. So, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in their Transfiguration stories are each constructing a parallel between the raising of Moses and Elijah into heaven and Jesus, whose death, resurrection, and ascension we already know, because we are privileged to the entire Gospel story.

Furthermore, as was true at his baptism, Jesus is also today proclaimed the Son of God by a voice from heaven. Now when we encounter in Scripture this voice from heaven phenomenon, it is a signal for us to pay especial attention. A light should go on, a buzzer go off. The voice from heaven is a device similar, I think, to hearing the fat lady sing at the opera; which is to say, something important is happening; something is being said in a way designed to command our utmost attention. But, unlike the opera, where the act ends or the curtain comes down at this point, this other-worldly disclosure of the Father’s voice, is to be understood as a peculiar/unique end that is also a beginning; a re-beginning as poet e e cummings would say; the time and place where a new story is emerging from the old. Lest there be any doubt or question as to the divinity of Jesus, his messianic status is here, in the voice of the Father, put before the witnesses to the Transfiguration event in the same way as was true at his baptism, by verbal confirmation and blessing of the Lord God of Israel. In other words, Jesus has the Father’s approval. He is, thus, the Word of God made flesh. And, in him, heaven and earth unite. This union will prove significant to understanding the fuller implications of the Transfiguration: so, we shall need to remember that in Christ, heaven and earth are “one’d;” a term I borrow from the mystic Lady Julian (14th c.).

Let us continue our pilgrimage further, deeper into the light. If we look more closely at the details of this morning’s iconography; beyond the familiar images of the cloud (shekinah, Heb.), a reference to the presence of God which first hovered above the Ark of the Covenant during the Exile; and, beyond the shining/glorification, a reference to Moses on Sinai, his visage transformed because he stood in the presence of the Almighty, seeing God, as Scripture puts it, face to face; the Transfiguration is, I think, a borrowed story with roots deep in the Jewish festival of light called Dedication or Hannukkah (II Macc 10.1ff). This is a feast which celebrates the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem from the profanation of pagan worship and the miraculous occasion when the light or presence of God returned to the Temple, nearly three centuries before Christ’s Transfiguration, at the time of the Maccabees. In making this claim, I am not trying to overturn your faith! I am, however, trying to encourage you to see the Transfiguration as part of a larger Jewish theological construct or interpretation that would be familiar to the mind and experience of a first century Jew. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I think, are reworking not only parts of the Exodus story but more especially the Maccabeean account of the cleansing of the Temple and the restoration of true worship for the nation and people Israel: the point being, that the same Holy Cloud and Light which came upon Moses, and which accompanied Israel throughout the exodus, the same cloud and light which also escorted Elijah into heaven, and the same Light of God’s grace and favor which miraculously once returned to the Temple bringing hope to a renewed and redeemed nation, has now come upon Jesus, the new Temple of God, the messianic one, in whom heaven and earth are joined; Jesus, Son of God, the long awaited one, whose purpose it is to cleanse or to liberate creation from its captivity to fear, violence, and death and restore the true worship of the God now revealed in surrender, mercy and forgiveness. This God, heretofore, Unknowable, is in Jesus revealed/unveiled as being the eternal God of love; the God we now see face to face in the Christ. Therefore, on our pilgrimage this morning, Jesus is a doorway, a gateway to something new; that being, the mystery of God’s saving grace; God’s identity, and what Scripture refers to as Divine Love; which is also the coming of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of the kingdom of this world; ours a loveless world hostage to fear, violence, and death; an old world which is passing away, and a world in desperate need of intervention; what the Church calls salvation or redemption. This is, I am saying, an ancient story with a new twist; new light, as, it were, on a familiar landscape; Christ bringing and being that new and transfiguring/transforming light for Israel and the gentile world.

God, I am saying as revealed in today’s Gospel of the Transfiguration, is now amongst us in a new way; God as never before; the Divine made flesh, Jesus, the Christ; the God-Man unveiled in sacrifice, freedom, and blessing; Jesus, paschal lamb of God; apocalyptic light for a world darkened by fear, violence, and death, a world now coming into final judgment. Like the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan, God’s victory has now come upon all in the kingdom of this world and for all time. An old story, therefore, has ended, and the final age, a new story of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven is announced. And, we this morning, are witness to that victorious truth; just as the disciples were who accompanied Jesus on that mountaintop of Horeb, which has all the familiarity of being a new Sinai; a place like the Jordan, or like the cross, or bread and wine at the Eucharist, all being places of transformation/holy change; metamorphosis not of the superficial but of the inner and deepest reality of the truth of all that is; because they are places where heaven and earth are joined, places where the mystery and grace of God break through the limits of flesh and time to change the history and destiny of this our planet home and the hearts and lives of men and women, as well. Here, in this Jesus of Nazareth, where heaven and earth are now one’d, we enter the mystery, or, more aptly put, God enters more fully into us!

For example, before his martyrdom, Thomas a Becket says to his priests in T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, that “I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper…all things proceed to a joyful consummation” (p. 209, Complete Poems and Plays). And, since as Lady Julian reminds us, that “seeing God in this life cannot be a continuous experience” (p. 78, Meditations with Julian or Norwich), Becket’s remarks to his clergy serve to inform us, as well, that a tremor, a wink, a whisper of the divine may be all that we may ever hope for in this mortal life in unraveling the eternal mystery that is God. Our direct experience of the living God, I am saying, is perhaps much like John Irving’s comment on grief in his book, A Prayer for Owen Meany; that it is something we don’t experience as a whole but in parts. Jesus may have fully experienced God in the miracle of the Transfiguration, but, we, like his disciples, must wrestle with partial knowledge and unanswered questions. Yet, in these incomplete and fleeting spiritual awakenings, which are often little more than tremors, winks, and whispers of what is to be the glory of the fullness of revelation ahead, we can be certain that as Julian also famously noted, “all shall be well.” All, indeed, shall be well, says the Transfiguration; for all creation, time, and event of history are now prepared and purposed in the love of God to come to a joyful consummation; which is to say, that the power of fear, violence, and death - the ancient nemesis and the source of our disfigurement, the power that holds all captive in the kingdom of this world - has been overturned by the grace of God, in whom, as Christ fully reveals, there is no fear, no violence, no death. This is the God, in whom, (and perplexingly so, perhaps), there is only love; love manifest in surrender, mercy, and forgiveness; love secured in sacrifice of the blood of His spotless Lamb, in whose light we are washed and lead to a new Promised Land. This is our Christian joy, the Good News!

Not long before his torture and grizzly death at the hands of his captors, the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell that our joy is hidden in the suffering and life we ultimately share with Christ. “In Jesus [he writes], “…God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand” (Letters and Papers from Prison , p. 391). These are words, I think, that issue from a life that intimately knows the tremor, wink, and whisper of the Love of God; transfigured life; the ground of our being as Bonhoeffer terms it; a way of seeing and living the familiar landscape of daily life – its people, places, things, and events - in new light; a faith that is our ultimate hope and destiny; the light of saving love which claims us forever as God’s own; the light which is the joyous revelation of a new creation and the renewal of all that is therein.

Joy said C S Lewis is “…the central story of my life” [which] “…is about nothing else” {Surprised by Joy, p. 17). And, his friend Tolkein, said that he found joy to be “a sudden and miraculous grace…beyond the walls of the world” (“On Fairy Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, p. 81) Thus, I am saying, the Transfiguration is about the central story of our lives, because it is about the mystery of the Incarnation, tidings of great joy come unto this world; a joy so wondrous, its light can make the walls of fear, violence, and death come tumbling down, like those ancient fortifications of Jericho before the might of God! This gracious light which makes us thankful is a sign of the kingdom of heaven; the surrender, compassion, and forgiveness of the Love of God revealed in the Christ, God’s Yes and Amen, the ground of our being, the alpha and omega, beginning and end, of our pilgrimage yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Following Luke’s record of the Transfiguration, Jesus performs a healing miracle (9.37-42); teaches about discipleship (9.43-45); resolves an argument as to who was the greatest (9.46-48); legitimizes the man who casts out devils (9.49-50); and, then, we are told, “…he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9.51). With this same steadfastness, Jerusalem is where we, too, are invited to follow in the upcoming forty days of Lent, which conclude in the events of his most holy passion and death. But, a word of warning; it is a pilgrimage that will change us, trouble us, ask of us surrender, mercy, and forgiveness with perhaps no wink or whisper of heaven! But, that is another journey for another day.

Our pilgrimage into the transfiguring mystery of the light of God this morning is now ended. We have learned that with God there will always be ambiguity and encounter with that which is unknown or indecipherable. Furthermore, seeking/searching is as important, if not more so, than finding and arriving. Yet, we can be certain, that “love’s function” [as e e cummings would say] “…is to fabricate unknownness” [#278, op cit.}; therefore, in God, we discover the unknowness of our truest selves; which is to say, that part of us eternally hid with Christ (Col 3.1-4) and simply waiting for the grace and light of a new day, a day that is now dawning. “`Arise, shine’ […says the Prophet Isaiah], `thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee!’” (60.1).