February 19: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for February 19, 2023 was preached in response to Matthew 17:1-9 based on the manuscript below.

Our passage from Matthew today
is so weird, isn’t it?
Maybe it’s overly familiar
since the three synoptic gospels
all record it.
Six days after Peter professes
that Jesus is the Christ
God’s anointed one,
Jesus goes up on a mountain
and takes three companions
three of his disciples
with him.
Six days after Peter professes
that Jesus is the Christ
God’s anointed one
and six days after Jesus tells Peter and the disciples
that he will be handed over
and will be put to death
he’s transfigured.

What does that even mean?
The Greek here
is very, very difficult to render.
Matthew tells us that
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes
became dazzling white.
Then with him are Moses and Elijah
the embodiments of the Law and the Prophets
which Jesus has come not to abolish
but to fulfill.
Peter, sensing God’s true presence,
wants to build dwellings for them.
Knowing that God is there
he wants to make habitations
to keep Jesus, Moses, and Elijah
safe from the elements
but also to keep those around them
safe from the awesomeness
that is being with God.

As he starts to suggest building —
with what supplies or tools I don’t know —
a bright cloud overshadows them
and a voice booms from it.
We hear the words we heard at Jesus’ baptism
“This is my Son, the Beloved;
with him I am well pleased”
but it adds
“Listen to him!”
Beyond seeing God’s presence
hearing the voice of God terrifies the disciples.
They fall to their knees in awe and fear.
Jesus, their friend and teacher,
goes to them,
touches them,
and comforts them saying
“Get up,
and do not be afraid.”

The disciples have had an ecstatic experience,
both seeing God’s representatives
and hearing God’s voice.
That’s not what the voice emphasizes, though.
Something happens on the mountain,
but that’s not the end of the story
for Jesus or his disciples.
While Matthew does not write about
God becoming flesh
and dwelling among us in Jesus
Matthew does write about
God with us,
God in the mess of things in Jesus.
Something happened on the mountain
where God confirms that Jesus
is God’s anointed and chosen one.
Something happened on the mountain
that can be too extreme
or just too fantastic
for us to understand,
or even think about.
Yet after Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ,
and Jesus predicts his death,
his willingness to be a part of the cosmic plan
God shows up
and confirms it.
This is my Son, the Beloved;
with him who is willing to suffer at the hands
of those he’s come to redeem
I am well pleased.
Listen to him.

Listen to him.
Jesus and the disciples
after the disciples are struck with fear
after Jesus comforts them
after Moses and Elijah are gone
Jesus and the disciples
leave the mountaintop.
Despite the text’s suggestions
the best-guessed at mountain
isn’t really that big.
Nonetheless, it’s a thin space
a place where heaven and earth meet.
After the meeting of heaven and earth,
these four come down from the heavenly realm
and go back to the valley
where there are needs to be met.
Next week we are fully in Lent
and hear about Jesus’ temptation.
What happens in Matthew’s narrative
after Jesus’ transfiguration we hear today
is Jesus healing a boy with a demon
then continuing to teach
before healing blind men
on his way into Jerusalem.

This is my Son, the Beloved;
with him I am well pleased;
listen to him!
For the disciples through time
Peter, James, John, us,
mountain top experiences
may be a part of our story.
We may deeply encounter God at camp
or Cursillo
or in our private prayer
or at a revival.
Those are beautiful and holy experiences.
They can knock us off our feet
and bring Jesus to us offering us comfort.
Matthew and God make clear today
that those are the end points.
They’re not the objective,
they’re not what is to be sought.

In adding “Listen to him”
to the pronunciation of God’s being pleased
God is directing us in how to live.
As Anna Case-Winters puts it,
“the ascent
to the heights of the mountain
and ‘peak’ experiences of encounter with God
is followed by descent into suffering and service
in the valley of need
where God’s calling beckons.”
If our lives are not transformed by meeting Jesus the Christ
by encountering the true and living God
the encounter is for naught.
In seeing Jesus’ transfigured body
in holding him in our hands as Bread
God admonishes us to listen to Jesus.
Mountain top experiences
going to thin places
are for the good of the world
not just the good of our feelings.

As we keep going through this year with Matthew
into Lent next week
sorting out that which separates us from God
and building up that which brings us closer
listen to Jesus.
Reflect on what we’ve heard these last few weeks
from the beatitudes
to the “you have heard it said,
but I say to you.”
Listen to Jesus.
We’ll get into more parables
and more direct teaching
in the summer.
I hope that at the Easter Vigil
or Easter Day
we have a mountain top experience!
Those aren’t the end point.
They’re weigh stations to build us up
to be God’s agents of transformation
in the suffering valleys around us.

While Peter was still speaking,
suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them,
and from the cloud a voice said,
“This is my Son, the Beloved;
with him I am well pleased;
listen to him!”

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