A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A, February 19 2023
There is a temptation on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany to look forward to Lent. The foreshadowing is there in the forty days and nights that Moses spent on the mountain, and in the Collect, the warning that we will need strengthening for the days to come, the days of the Cross.
But Peter says something, on the mountaintop, that is often brushed away but, whether he knew it or not, contains some wisdom. “It is good for us to be here; let us dwell in the moment a while longer.”
Forty days and forty nights Moses remained on the mountain, and that after he had been summoned into the cloud on the seventh day. But the people had no patience, and by the time Moses returned to them, although they could see his congress with the Lord, in lightning and in fire on the top of the mountain, they had made themselves a golden calf, an idol because they could not bear to wait upon God, to stay in the moment that God had created in that cloud covering the mountaintop.
I don’t know how long it felt to Moses, whether the time passed slowly, or whether he opened his eyes as though from a brief dream; either way, the come-down was brutal. No doubt, he wished he could have stayed a little longer in the cloud.
So instead of looking towards Lent, let’s dwell in the season of the Epiphany, God’s self-revelation, just a moment longer.
Just before Moses enters the cloud, the elders of Israel, the people of the Exodus, encounter God. In an astonishing theophany, God allows Godself to be seen by the likes of Aaron and at least seventy-two other elders. They eat and drink in the divine presence, proving perhaps that they have not given up their mortality, their humanity, in order to gaze upon God.
It is this generosity of God’s unveiling that makes Aaron’s participation and even precipitation of the golden calf debacle all the more cynical.
Just before Peter, James, and John find themselves enveloped in the cloud of glory with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Peter has had an epiphany of his own, realizing out loud that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And still, such faith does not free him yet from quailing at the spectre of the Cross.
In fact, it takes repeated exposure to the truth and glory of God’s incarnation – law, prophets, transfiguration, resurrection, the transformative power of Pentecost – before Peter is fully ready to live into his calling as the Rock, the bedrock of the church.
It takes time for the glory of God to sink in, to make our bones tingle with it, to make our hearts glad of it, and our spirits ready to respond in kind.
It is good to dwell in it a little longer.
At the foot of the mountain, people are making golden calves, idols out of metal and their own hands. They are worshipping gold and making sacrifice to that which cannot give life.
At the foot of the mountain there is disease and terror, and the helplessness of the disciples who have no clue how to make it right, until Jesus should return, descend, and cast out the demons for them.
At the foot of the mountain lies the road to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the tomb, to the emptiness of the next day.
It is good to dwell a little longer in the foreshadowing, the fore-brightening, of the resurrection.
You may have seen or heard on the news or the social medias something about a “revival” taking place at a small Christian college in Kentucky. For two weeks, they (whoever they are) have kept the chapel service going around the clock, dwelling in moments of prayer and spiritual song, conversation and hopeful conversion. Responses to the event have ranged from excitement to bewilderment, even suspicion. How long, some wonder, can these students and others remain on the mountaintop, while in the foothills earthquakes happen, disease, death, and rampant unrighteousness with idols and metal that cannot offer life?
It is good to dwell in the glory of God, but even the President of this evangelical college, Timothy Tennent, warns, “Despite the endless coverage in social media and the regular media which is calling this a revival, I think it is wise to see this, at the current phase, as an awakening. Only if we see lasting transformation which shakes the comfortable foundations of the church and truly brings us all to a new and deeper place can we look back, in hindsight and say “yes, this has been a revival.” An awakening is where God begins to stir and awaken people up from their spiritual slumber. … But, we must keep our hearts and eyes fixed on Jesus and ask for him to complete the work he has begun so that, over time, there is a lasting transformation in the lives of those who are being touched by God.”
It is good to dwell in the glory of God, but only if by doing so we are awakened to the presence of God in all the world, in our daily lives in the foothills of glory, in the cloud of everyday unknowing, in the dilemmas and desperation of all that assails us, and those around us. If we have seen Christ transfigured into the image of resurrection, can we see our neighbours transfigured into images of the living Christ, whom we seek to serve on every available occasion? “For the glory of God is a living human; and the life of a person consists in beholding God. For if the manifestation of God … affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God.”[i] If we have seen the glory of God, can we see a better way of life than the idolatry of the world toward gold and metal that cannot offer a single breath?
When Moses became aware of the transgressions of his people, how they had turned from the true God to the worship of gold and metal that cannot give life, he could not leave them to their folly or their fate. He came down from the mountain with the tablets of stone in his hands, and he confronted them with the anger of righteousness against such abominations. And he interceded for the people before God, because he had, in those forty days, imbibed something of the compassion of God.
When the disciples heard the voice of God coming from the cloud on the mountaintop, they were terrified. Their legs crumpled, their faces fell. But the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him,” and Jesus said, “Do not be afraid,” and led them trembling down the hill toward everything that was to come next, beginning with the healing of a child.
O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; and by this beholding may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory. Amen.
[i] Irenaus, Adverses Haereses 4.34.5-7