Last Sunday of Epiphany: A Sermon

RCL Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

As both geographical locations and symbols, mountains play an important role throughout Scripture. Growing up as a grandchild of Dutch immigrants to Southwestern Ontario, mountains were the stuff of fantasy – the big hill my siblings and I used for tobogganing was a mountain in our eyes. So, when Natalie and I moved to Japan and found ourselves living in the middle of the Japanese Alps, I discovered that what I thought was a mountain as a child did not even count as a foothill. Even for those who grew up and live around them, mountains evoke a sense of wonder and grandeur. No wonder that mountains play an important role throughout Scripture: they are the place of God’s revelation, the place where God speaks and shows Himself.

In both of today’s readings, mountains are front and centre as the place of God’s revelation. But you may have also noticed that mountains are not the only connection and similarities between these two passages. There are supernatural clouds from which God Himself speaks, the presence of God’s glory, and, strangely enough, Moses plays a central role in both passages. What is going on here? Are these parallels merely coincidental?

At this point, I must confess that I read the Bible in a very ancient way, that is to say, in the way that the early Church Fathers read the Bible. One of the best ways of summarizing this way of reading the Bible is from St. Augustine: “The Old Testament is the New concealed and the New Testament is the Old revealed”. What this means is that we read the Bible as a unified whole with Christ himself as the key to unlocking its meaning. After all, on the road to Emmaus following his resurrection, Jesus said that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets, which is to the say, the Old Testament, are about Him. Jesus speaks through every page of the Bible to those who have ears to hear.

Therefore, there are no such thing as coincidences in the Bible because God providentially orders Scripture to His own ends. In other words, when we see clear parallels and connections in the Bible, we can be sure that God is saying ‘Pay attention to this – this is really important!’ So, the parallels in today’s readings are not coincidental; God wants us to pay especially close attention to what is happening on these mountains. Mountains are the place where God most clearly reveals who He is.

In the Old Testament, Mount Sinai is the place where God makes a covenant with His chosen people, providing them with the Torah – the ordinances God’s people were required to keep, you know, the stuff that we tend to skim over when reading the Bible because it seems so dull, so historically dated and culturally backwards. It’s not – but that is a sermon series for another time. In this morning’s reading from Exodus, we are right in the middle of God giving His Law to Moses. But then, God shifts gears for a moment and tells Moses to come up to meet Him on Mount Sinai. This is reminiscent of Moses’ first encounter with God on Mount Horeb when God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and identities Himself as “I Am”. It is in this first encounter that God commissions Moses to speak to pharaoh on God’s behalf, demanding that the Hebrew people be freed from slavery. Now, Moses is once again preparing to meet God. This time God is going to give Moses the tablets of stone which contain the Law, including all the instructions for building the tabernacle. The people stand in awe at the foot of the mountain because “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (Ex. 24.17). Moses is standing in the midst of God’s devouring fire. After this second encounter, Moses’ face is shining “because he had been talking with God” (Ex. 34. 29).

In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew is making a clear reference to Moses’ mountaintop encounter with God. However, the Transfiguration is not “merely an episode in the story of Jesus”; it reveals something true “about the whole of who he is, of all he does”.[1] Who is Jesus? He is the one about whom Moses himself prophesied when he said “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you” (Deut. 18.15). Just as Moses called for the sacrifice of the lamb at the first Passover as God’s people prepared for their Exodus from Egypt and journey into the Promised Land, Jesus is the Lamb of God who will deliver God’s people from bondage and into the Kingdom of Heaven. Like Moses, Jesus’ face shines with the glory of God. But Jesus is more than just a prophet, a new and improved Moses; He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets because He Himself is the glory of God the Father. Moses and Elijah stand as representative figures of the Law and Prophets, representatives of God’s covenant relationship with His people. Jesus is revealed as the promised Messiah who inaugurates the New Covenant; Jesus alone completed “the work of redemption that [Moses and Elijah] foreshadowed”.[2]

People can only know God through God’s self-revelation. Just as God revealed Himself to Moses and the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai in a cloud and a devouring fire, now God reveals Himself to Peter, James and John through Jesus, His Son. Jesus is the One of whom the Father, speaking from a cloud, says “this is beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Matt. 17.5). God reveals Himself most clearly and definitively in Jesus Christ. To see Jesus is to see God (cf. Jn. 14.11). However, humans have a tendency to try to fashion God into our own image, to domesticate God. Awestruck by being in the presence of God’s glory, Peter’s impulse is to try to contain God’s glory, to keep it within easy reach. Time and again God’s people wrongly think Jesus is such another prophet and teacher and that we can somehow manage God’s glory and holiness. However, God’s glory and holiness are “God’s utter uniqueness; the majestic, undefeated freedom in which [God] is who he is”.[3] In the Transfiguration, we see that God is this one: light from light, true God from true God, the Son who took on human flesh and invites us into reconciled fellowship with God, the crucified and risen one, the one who makes it possible for us to participate in God’s glory. Like Moses, Peter, James, and John, to see God, to hear God, to be in God’s very presence is to be devoured by fire. One cannot see God or hear God’s voice and remain unscathed and unchanged.

But what about us today – how are we to see and hear God? How does God reveal Himself now? The clue to this answer lies in clouds and fire. Throughout the Bible, clouds are visible manifestations of God’s presence – shekinah – say it with me – shekinah. The same cloud that lead the Hebrews through the dessert was the same cloud that appeared on Mount Sinai was the same cloud that entered the tabernacle and, later, the Temple, is the same cloud that appeared at the Transfiguration. This cloud was almost always accompanied by holy fire – the devouring fire on the mountain, the fire that did not burn the bush, the fire that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice and altar on Mount Carmel and took him to heaven in the form of a chariot, the same fire that came with gushes of wind at Pentecost. This fire is a visible manifestation of God’s presence. This fire is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate who empowers us to see Christ through the eyes of faith.

So, how does Christ reveal Himself today? Where can we expect to see and meet Christ?

First, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who did not immediately recognize Jesus after his resurrection, we see Jesus in the opening of Scriptures and in the breaking of bread. We read the Scriptures with the expectation that God will speak to us and reveal Himself through Jesus Christ. The cup of blessing and the bread that we break are, in the words of St. Paul, a participation in the body and blood of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10.16). Both Word and Sacrament are visible manifestations of God’s presence among His people. Therefore, if you want to see and meet God, go to Church. Communal worship – the opening of Scripture and the breaking of bread – is the mountain where God meets His people, feds them, and transforms them into the image and likeness of Christ through the fire of His devouring love.

Second, we, Jesus’ disciples, go into the world as Christ’s body to seek the lost and proclaim the good news of God’s reconciling love. The mission of the Church is to bear Christ’s image, to reflect the glory of God, to have our very lives shining with His light. The Church is central to how God reveals Himself to the world. Like Israel before us, we, the Church, are called to be a distinct people – a holy nation and a royal priesthood. Our distinctiveness is not about self-protection or becoming more ‘religious’ or spiritually enlightened; rather, our distinctiveness is meant to be a witness to the way of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are called to invite anyone and everyone to come and meet Jesus, to be consumed by the refining fire of the Holy Spirit.

Third, we go into the world to seek Christ with the expectation that He will meet us in the stranger, the poor, the sick, the lonely, and yes, even our enemies. In describing what will happen upon His second coming, Jesus reminds his disciples that when we serve others, we are serving Him: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt. 25.35-36, 40).

As God’s chosen people – holy and dearly loved – may you see and know God in Christ Jesus.

May you be completely devoured by the passionate and transforming embrace of Christ.

May the Holy Spirit empower you to see, hear, and know Jesus in the opening of Scripture and in the breaking of bread.

May your lives reflect the light of Christ to everyone you meet. And may you meet Christ in those whom you are called to serve.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, p. 114.

[2] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, 218.

[3] Webster, 201.

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2 thoughts on “Last Sunday of Epiphany: A Sermon

  1. Thank you, Jason. This is the most comprehensive sermon on The Transfiguration I have heard in a very long time.

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