Sermon: The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany (A) – 2nd March 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

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

Celtic Christianity speaks of “thin places”, spots where the divine and human touch each other in life-transforming ways. However, every place and time reflects God’s presence and purpose in partnership with human creativity and freedom.  Every place can be a thin place; every encounter a theophany, or revelation of God, in which God calls us to arise, shine and act, for our light has come.

Some moments, however, may more fully reflect God’s intention in the dynamic divine-human call and response.  As the season of Epiphany portrays, God can choose to be more present in some places than others: for example, the birth of Jesus, the encounters with Jacob and Moses, the call of Mary and Joseph and the dream of the magi.  However, even here in these life-defining experiences, human response is still needed.  Even when we are “moved by the Holy Spirit”, those who are moved experience the Spirit from their own unique vantage point.  Still, all places and encounters can reveal something life-transfiguring about God and us.

Transfiguration captures the spirit of Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany begins with a world transforming star, guiding the magi from the East, and concludes with glory abounding on a mountaintop.  The mood of Epiphany, perhaps more than Christmas, is a time of wonder and glory, radiating from a humble dwelling to encompass the whole earth.  During Epiphany, we are given vision to experience God in our individual vocations and gifts and then in all persons and places.  This truly is a transfigured world.

During Epiphany we have been immersed in Jesus’ message.  This message focussed on the Commonwealth of God that through his work was beginning to appear, and on the radical character of the life it was calling into being.  We have seen that his message both continued the prophetic tradition of Israel and also how it transformed it.  We are called to understand we must spread the news that Jesus announced and show how he enacted the fulfilment of that tradition.  It was about him that the prophets spoke.  He was God’s King: The descendant of David.  He inaugurated the Kingdom of God for all humanity.  It is still in the process of completion but Jesus is the King now and forever.

Today our attention is called to the person of Jesus and how the true God was revealed through him.

For the second time in Matthew’s account, God breaks in to tell us who Jesus is.  The first time was at Jesus’ baptism by John.  If we wish to get to the root of the question of who was Jesus, we should pay attention to God’s recorded statement about him.  In today’s passage, God repeats the words he spoke at the baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.  This time God adds: “Listen to him”.

On one hand the gospel writers affirmed that we are all children of God.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that peacemakers would be called “children of God”.  To declare Jesus to be God’s son would not necessarily separate Jesus from others who serve God faithfully.  Clearly those who heard God speak understood the words involved to be more significant than that.  Jesus is God’s “beloved son” in whom God is well pleased.  God’s declaration certainly singles Jesus out as bearing the title in a unique way.  Jesus is not just one among many “sons” of God.  Jesus is uniquely beloved, uniquely pleasing to God.

On the other hand, we cannot read back into the words he attributes to God the supernatural ideas of later generations of Christians.  Like Moses and Elijah, he is clearly a human being.  Like them he is a truly extraordinary human being with an extraordinary message and mission.  For most Jews, equality with Moses was virtually unthinkable.  Yet, here, in the midst of a vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, it is Jesus whom God singles out for recognition.  This singling out of Jesus from among all the spiritual giants of Jewish history as the one to whom we should especially listen continues to be appropriate for us today so that we can apprehend God.  Matthew shows that through Jesus God is fulfilling all that the Old Testament prophets spoke about and predicted.  That was sufficient for Matthew.  Listening to Jesus’ words over the years has too often been blocked by mystifying disputes, the Gospels reveal Jesus.  The church would be renewed if believers once again really listened to him.

Today is the anniversary of Wesley’s death.  We who sing Wesley’s hymns are fortunate.  We sing two of his hymns this morning.

“Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.”

And,

“Author of faith, eternal Word,
Whose Spirit breathes the active flame;
Faith like its finisher and Lord,
Today as yesterday the same.

To Thee our humble hearts aspire,
And ask the gift unspeakable;
Increase in us the kindled fire,
In us the work of faith fulfil.”

More than the other Reformers he put listening to Jesus ahead of speculations about his nature.  For Wesley listening to Jesus opens us to listen to others as well.

Of course singling Jesus out as the one to be listened to involves beliefs about him.  One must believe that he was peculiarly free from the distortions of race and gender, nationality and culture, social role and economic class that block the understanding of all of us.  We can see that from his dealing with the people of his age; Jews and non-Jews, women and men, adults and children, sinners and saints, that that is so.  We believe that his openness to God attained a truly extraordinary purity.  God is in all of us, but in Jesus, God becomes uniquely visible to us.  We need an exalted view of Jesus just because he was truly and fully human.  Matthew gives us that.

It is interesting, however, that in Matthew’s account Jesus forbids the three disciples who were with him to speak of their experience until after his death.  One may wonder that once again Jesus wanted to avoid using marvels as an argument for supporting him.  He wanted people to respond to the truth of his words on their own merit.

In the passage from 2 Peter we see the alternative approach at work.  After his death, the story of God’s confirmation of Jesus in the transfiguration is used as an argument supporting the teachings of Peter.  The resurrection appearances were more often appealed to in this connection.  None the less, Jesus would have preferred that we believe these stories because we listen to him rather than listen to him because of these marvels.

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus invites us to think further about the relation of Jesus to Moses and Jewish tradition.  In the Sermon on the Mount we found Jesus both affirming the Mosaic Law and transforming it.

In Exodus God speaks to Moses.  God’s words are as follows: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there, and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction”.  God has singled out Moses for an enormously important role.  It is he who is to take God’s written words to the people and demand their obedience.  Much as Jews admire and appreciate Moses, it is the law mediated to them from God by Moses that is the focus of their spirituality.  They have learned over the centuries how to refine, develop and apply this law in ever changing circumstances.  The person of Moses and the law given through Moses are quite distinct, even separable.

It is different with Jesus.  We are to listen to him.  His followers wrote down some of what they remembered.  This enables us to listen.  But our listening is bound up with what we know of his person, his life, his transfiguration, his death and his resurrection; listening to him giving careful attention to what he is reported to have said.  But none of this is separable from his person.  We interpret what we believe he said in light of what he did, just as we interpret what he did in light of what we believe he said.

God’s call to us is to listen to Jesus.  To do so is dangerous.  It is also saving.  It transfigures us.[1]