A sermon for the last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2022
The Transfiguration is one of those gospel events which puts our scepticism to the test. It challenges us to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Beloved, the Messiah, as he appeared to be on the mountaintop and as a voice from heaven attested. It confronts us with the truth of his divinity in the midst of his humanity. It shows us the consistency of God’s intervention in the world, God’s merciful attention to us, God’s children, through Moses and the prophets, through Jesus. It tells us that God has, indeed, drawn near to us: Emmanuel.
It is the bookend of the season after the Epiphany, which began as the Magi made their way home by another route to avoid the machinations of Herod. The revelation of a Messiah is not always welcomed.
At the beginning of this chapter of Luke, word has spread to Herod’s eventual successor of Jesus’ power and preaching, and the king was disturbed, and wondered who this might be, confronting the status quo with healing and mercy and turning the established order around and around. Some said that this was Elijah returned, some another ancient prophet. Some said it was John the Baptist, whom this Herod had beheaded, come back to haunt him.
Jesus asked his disciples what they thought, and Peter told him plainly, “The Messiah of God.”
Then Jesus began to tell them what being the Messiah really meant, and that they would need to be ready to take up their own crosses, too. “But truly I tell you,” he said, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Cyril of Alexandria connects all of this to the moment of Transfiguration, when the three disciples see Jesus clothed in glory, flanked by Moses and Elijah, to remove any confusion that Jesus was his own man, and consistent with God’s story of salvation, God’s steadfast loving kindness to those whom God has made. This, Cyril said, this brightness, this epiphany was the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus promised his disciples; but it was not the end of the story. Even on the mountaintop, with Elijah and Moses, he was discussing his imminent death in Jerusalem. The whole episode, as blindingly bright as it is, takes place in the shadow of the Cross.
Moses and Elijah gather with Jesus not to congratulate him but with words of solidarity and comfort. They know, these prophets, what is in store, and they have come to lend their support, the strong staff of the law and the prophets, God’s consistent intervention in the world that God loves, to sustain Jesus in the crisis that is to come. He has been speaking with them of the Cross when the voice from heaven commands, “This is my Son: hear him.”
We want the revelation of the Christ, the epiphany of the Messiah, to be the brightness of the cloth, but it includes the cloud of the continuing conflict between Herod and the Magi, the worldly and the wise, the kingdom of heaven and the pursuits of a lesser form of majesty. And it is the promise that in all of these things, wherever we find them still active in the world, Christ is at work transforming them through the power of the Cross and the Resurrection that it engendered.
We are at the intersection of competing crises and compelling emergencies. The cruel and unusual invasion of a sovereign nation by one drunk on the vision of empire, is terrifying. I’ll be honest: it frightens me. And, it is one of many wars or conflicts currently being waged in the world. That spectre of war, the names we hoped never to hear again, are set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the continuing violence of racism and its offshoots, the violation of our contract with creation, a world on fire. Why is Jesus still talking about crosses when the world is already twisted like a pretzel?
Well, it turns out that the reason is that God loves us. God loves us so much that even though we rejected Moses and the prophets, even though we are still more likely to fear Herod than to follow John the Baptist, even though we fail at loving our own neighbours, let alone our enemies; even though we still suffer war to happen, blinking at the slaughter of the innocents: nevertheless, God has not given up on loving us. God knows why; perhaps that is simply part of who God is.
And when Jesus said that there were some standing before him who would not taste death before they saw the kingdom of God, it may be that what he meant is that seeing God’s love in the world transforms everything; that God is able to turn even the shadow of the Cross into the pathway to Resurrection, even as the seed that falls is transformed in time into a sunflower.
It may be that in taking Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him, Jesus was giving them that foretaste of glory that they would need to sustain them through the days and weeks to come: that they would need to draw upon to find hope even when all hope seemed lost, to find faith when they heard the incredible stories of the women who found the empty tomb, to find the strength not to fall apart, even though martyrdom finally claimed them.
Jesus gave them what they needed to endure: the message of God’s consistent loving kindness throughout the generations. The cloud which guided the children of Israel through the wilderness. The glimpse of glory from within its shadow.
The fact that the world still turns to Herod as often as to hope, to Pilate as often as to peace; the fact that innocents still suffer and that we still falter and stumble, not knowing even what to say – these are not signs that the kingdom of heaven is far from us, but reminders of how close it could be, if only we knew where to look. The child born in the bomb shelter should be visited by Magi and receive their strange gifts.
If instead of lights from Herod’s palace and guided missile systems the world would follow the star, looking for God among the humble places, the children in need of protection and stable shelter. If instead of looking to sit at the right or the left hand of power, we sought instead to carry the cross of those who were stumbling beneath its weight, as Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus. If, instead of being merely dazzled by Jesus, we listened to him, as the voice from heaven suggested, then we might begin to see those glimpses of the kingdom of God among us.
The vision, though, is not the end of the story. It was in the cloud that God drew close to Moses, and in the silence at the eye of the storm that God spoke to Elijah. On that mountaintop, it was not out of the brightness that the voice of God spoke, but out of the cloud that surrounded them.
We have the brightness of the Resurrection. And even in the cloud, Emmanuel: God is with us.