Lessons for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; and, Matthew 17:1-9.
Do you have any dimmer switches in your house, the ones where you can adjust the amount of light that will emanate from the fixture. They can be useful, especially when turning on the lights from pitch black. There was a little chapel in which I prayed, and when I would go in the early morning, I would feel inside the door for the dimmer switch. I would dial it down to its lowest setting, and then push the button. At its lowest setting the lights were only a little brighter than candlelight. At its highest setting those lights blazed away. The highest setting was a little much in the morning darkness, but at the lowest setting there was just enough light to allow my eyes to adjust without shock. And then, ever so slowly, I would dial it up, letting eyes adjust, until little by little the chapel would be dazzled by the full blazing brightness.
Maybe that’s an odd image but I am drawn to remember that dimmer switch on this last Sunday after Epiphany. It’s an illustration that reminds me of what has been happening in these days of and after Epiphany. On the feast of Epiphany (January 6th), we heard the story of the magi, about how they journeyed from the East to by the feeble light of a single star to pay homage to the newborn king. This Sunday we heard the narrative of the Transfiguration, when Jesus went up the mountain to pray, and his face shone like the sun and his clothes were a dazzling white. In between these two remembrances, Epiphany and Transfiguration, the dimmer switch is gradually dialed up. We recall the beginning of Jesus ministry, as his person and purpose are being revealed. We remember what he says and does, unveiling or enlightening a little more clearly who he really is.
Jesus now stands there on the Mount of Transfiguration in a blaze of glory, with Moses and Elijah standing on either side of him. The dimmer switch is dialed up to full. The disciples are in a blinding light wondering what to do. Peter blurts out,
Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.Matthew 17:4
He doesn’t know what to say or do. But no sooner are the words out of his mouth than a cloud settles on the mountain, covering them in a thick fog, shot through with beams of brilliance. The disciples are terrified, clinging to each other and quaking with fear, when they hear a voice,
This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!Matthew 17:5c
It is the epiphany of all epiphanies!
Just a few verses before this episode, Jesus has asked his disciples what people are saying about him (see Matthew 16:13-20). And they reply,
Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.Matthew 16:14
Then Jesus asks them who they say that he is. And Peter’s response is a good answer, and maybe even the right answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ, God’s anointed. The dimmer switch is being dialed up, and it’s getting a lot clearer who Jesus is. Then, here, at this moment on the mountain, a voice calls out from the cloud that had overshadowed them, “This is my beloved Son!”
Could it be any clearer!? This is that place in the gospel when God says to the hearing church, “This one, this Jesus of Nazareth, is my Son. You don’t have to wonder about it anymore!” But now, having this information, there is something we must do: “Listen to him!” God doesn’t want us to fight over who loves him the most! God doesn’t want us to argue about who knows him the best! God doesn’t even want us to wonder who worships him the best! God wants the hearing church to “listen to him.”
Jesus has said a lot and will say a lot more in the gospel of Matthew, so we can’t possibly be reminded of it all in one sitting. So maybe I’ll just go to what Jesus said in the episode immediately before this one.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.Matt 16:24
Jesus has just asked his disciples who they believed he was. Into the midst of this crucible of questions and exhaustion, Jesus posed this question to the disciples. And Peter answers but even though Peter had used all the right words, it turned out he still hadn’t really understood what they meant. Because when Jesus began to talk about a cross, Peter crumbles. He is no longer a cornerstone but a stumbling block. “Blessed are you, Peter son of Jonah” quickly becomes, “Get behind me satan.” How could someone save and liberate God’s people if he was killed? It just didn’t make sense.
The road to Jerusalem will be a difficult one. Jesus had been trying to tell his disciples who he really was and why he had come; He had been trying to tell them what it would mean to be the Messiah. Jesus then tells his disciples that they too must bear their own crosses. But Peter didn’t want to hear this. He was expecting something different. The Jesus Peter knew and loved and wanted to hold on to was slipping through his fingers.
Still, when Jesus began to make his way up the mountain, Peter joins him, along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They stood with Jesus at the top and looked back over all that had happened, remembered being called become his followers. And now, as the stand at the top of the precipice, they look across the valleys ahead to Jerusalem. What will happen? Where was Jesus leading them?
Have you wondered where Jesus is leading you? Listen to him.
Blessed are the poor in spirit….Blessed are those who mourn….Blessed are the meek….Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness….Blessed are the merciful….Blessed are the pure in heart….Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.cf. Matthew 5:3-9
You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world.Matthew 5:13a, 14a
Jesus, maybe, is leading us to reflect on what persons and actions we consider blessed, and his words challenge us to reflect on our significance in the world.
Be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.Matthew 5:24b
First, take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.Matthew 7:5
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:44-45a
Jesus, maybe, is leading us to lives of reconciliation, reflecting a Trinitarian love between Father and Son and Holy Spirit that we might form holy and righteous relationship with our neighbors, our community, and the whole world.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.Matthew 9:13
But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…Matthew 5:39b
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.Matthew 6:10
Jesus, maybe, is leading us to lives that build God’s kingdom in the here and now, with the upbuilding of peace and seeking of justice.
Follow me.Matthew 8:22
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’Matthew 26:19-20
Have you wondered where Jesus is leading you? Listen to him.
The fourth-century mystic Gregory of Nyssa said,
“The knowledge of God is a mountain, steep indeed, and difficult to climb.”Gregory of Nyssa
As we grow in our faith there are moments when we feel as if we have been climbing for years, still unsure whether we are heading in the right direction. There are times when we find ourselves on the wrong path and we must turn around and backtrack in order to find our way. And there are moments when we find ourselves at the top of a beautiful vista, given a glimpse of the world as it truly is, as it ought to be, only to find that the trail continues on, calling us ever forward.
“Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” (That’s a Dominican or maybe Puerto Rican or maybe Hatiian or maybe Italian proverb (I don’t remember where I first heard it!) Jesus is already on his way back down the trail. Back into the crush of people waiting for healing, for vision, and for hope. Back into the middle of all that need and all those questions. Moving forward to what lies ahead. He has put his hand out to us. Told us to rise up. Told us not to be afraid. He has invited us to come and follow him once more. We better be on our way.