Monday, February 4, 2008
This is the final Sunday of Epiphany. This season we have heard of wise men and guiding stars, the baptism of Jesus, the calling of disciples and today we hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top. This story is filled with all kinds of symbolism that we, who were not raised Jewish, might miss.
Many Jews would have caught on that Jesus was going up on the mountain to pray, just like Moses did. Jesus took his important leaders, just as did Moses. While he is there he takes on a luminescence, just as Moses had when he went up to Mt. Sinai to receive the Law. When Peter says he will make dwellings, any good Jewish boy would know that he meant the ‘booths’ or ‘tabernacles’ that were erected at the Festival of Sukkoth to remind the people of the time before the building of the Temple when God was present to the People of Israel in a tent in their midst.
Everything in this story designed to tell Matthew’s followers that Jesus is not only the New Moses but the law that he gives is a new law and that the Temple which has just been destroyed, is not necessary for the people to know that God is present to them.
We, who hear the story of Jesus today, do not understand the kind of upheaval the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem was in 70 AD. It brought about the development of Christianity, to be sure. But it also brought about the development of modern Judaism. Judaism in Jesus’ day was a religion that was centered on the sacrificial acts held at the Temple in Jerusalem. And even though the Pharisee Party which becomes Rabbinic Judaism, had a religious practice that was not centered in the Temple, most Jews still saw the Temple as the center of their faith. Following the Jewish Rebellion from 65AD to 70 AD when the city of Jerusalem fell to the Romans, there was no longer a center for the Jews to gather, to offer sacrifice, or to remember the God of Israel as the great national relgion of Israel. Judaism became a religion that was centered on the ethics of righteous living with celebrations centering in the home or synagogue (the schools) of Jewish people. No longer was God the God of the People of Israel, God was the God of those who had faith, who lived in the light of the Law of Moses.
Christianity, however, became a religion in which Jesus was honored and emulated. Christ was the new giver of the law, a law of love and peace became the gospel for a people who were seeing the need for an expansion on their old faith moving into a new era. But at first, Christianity was merely a denomination of Judaism. Some continued to follow Mosaic Law or some kind manifestation of it. The followers of Matthew were certainly Hellenistic Jews--those who had taken on the culture of the Greeks and Romans, but worshipped the God of the People of Israel.
The transfiguration was a story to not only show how Jesus was the direct descendent of Moses and the prophets, it was to help all who followed Jesus to understand that transfiguring was part of the Christian journey—that what Jesus did was open to those who followed him.
To be transfigured—the word in Greek is metamorphosis means to change in character—or completely change. It is not some kind sci-fi shape shifting. It is the act by which one changes by the grace of God from one lost in sin to one who is aware of one’s liberation. It is what happens when one is finally gratefully aware of what God has done for them in the Cross.
When I lived in CA, I was a member of an all-women’s fly fishing club. We were a zany group of women who enjoyed going on fishing junkets with one another. One woman’s boy friend had never been baptized, she said, and his mother who had Lou Gehrig’s disease always felt she had done something disastrously wrong by not having baptized her son. I told them I would baptize him if he came on one of our fishing trips. He was not a church goer, but I believe that the desire to be baptized is one that one should not ignore. So I baptized him in a small ceremony at the stream’s edge in the dark with his girlfriend and a couple of others present. I then told the man that all the sins that he had ever committed were gone. He looked at me in disbelief and then he broke down and cried. It was the kinds of deep seated sobs that come when we know we have sinned but God is so generous to have forgiven us.
At that moment he knew the power of the Cross. At that moment he knew that liberation that God gives when we turn our lives over to Christ and submit ourselves to the law of love. That fall he went home for Thanksgiving and was able to tell his mother that he had been baptized. It was an enormous gift to his mother who died that year.
I do not know what has happened to the man. My friend and he broke up and I never heard of him again. It doesn’t matter. For a moment—for that brief moment of transfiguration, the man knew the power of God in his life as he had never known before. It changed his life if but for a moment. I pray that he has found faith in Christ that he was obviously looking for. All I can do is but provide the actions of the Church. He and Christ had to do the rest.
We all have transfiguring moments in our lives—those moments when we are brought to our knees at God’s loving kindness and grace. They are moments that we look back upon and give them great significance in our lives. They can be pivot points upon which our lives may take dramatic turns or they can be just cherished times that re-enforce the love we have come to know at God’s hands. They are moments that we look back upon and remember which feed our faith and nurture our moral fiber.
It is significant that we have this reading on the last Sunday of Epiphany and more importantly on the Sunday before Lent. Transformation is what we are all about during Lent and the story of Christ’s Transfiguration tells us that we too can change; we too can be transformed by God’s grace to live the law of Love that Jesus came to teach.
Throughout this coming Lent, we will be given opportunities to make changes in our lives that we need to make. Each will have his or her own particular effort. Some will chose to fast in order to gain some discipline over some habit you have. Some will take on practices that you have not tried before. Some may just take more time for prayer; others may choose to do nothing out of the ordinary. But Lent can be a time of transfiguration. We need but prepare ourselves to accept it. We don’t do the transfiguring—God does. But when it happens, we won’t want to forget it. We will fill it with incredible meaning, as it should be. We will tell stories about it if even only to ourselves.
I invite you to tell your stories of God’s transfiguration in your lives—if only to yourselves. If you can share them with friends, you will be proclaiming the gospel—the promise that life is more because of that precious moment of surrender in your life. It is those stories that probably convey God’s promise more than all the sermons I could ever preach. They are the mighty acts that God has done in your lives that speak the power of Christ’s sacrifice. AMEN