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Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, March 3 2019

Sermon for Last Epiphany, March 3, 2019
March 3, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Exodus 34: 29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43a

Peter and the sons of Zebedee went with Jesus up a mountain so Jesus could pray, away from the crowds.  Though they were tired, too, they were able to stay awake – at least this time – and what they saw astounded them.

Jesus stood there, and his clothes became dazzling; it was like he was wearing light, and then, suddenly and mysteriously, they saw two others, and somehow they knew them for Moses and Elijah, and the three were all surrounded by dazzling light – Luke says “they appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure.”

And then, a cloud descended and hid them from view and when it passed, Jesus was alone.

“They appeared in glory …”

I’d like to tell you a story about what that glory might have been like.  A very many years ago, when I was in college, and an atheist, I took a class in Medieval history.  Rather to my surprise, I found that the medieval period was one in which the Catholic Church held considerable power and influence, and was apparently heavily involved in preserving and developing a particular culture built on the Christian story.

Remember, I was an atheist, so I challenged the Teaching Assistant, a post-graduate student who led a discussion group in the course, about the ludicrousness of religious faith.  We battled it out, neither convincing the other, but through all that time, he always treated me with respect, my questions with seriousness, and my challenges with calm.  He made the best defense of the Christian faith that he could, and I made the best case for mass delusion that I could.  And we actually became friends, and still are to this day.

And it was the friendship that began to draw me in, because all his friends were Christians, too – in fact, Episcopalians.  And they were all very nice people.  David, my TA friend, and Tim and Terry, twins, and Laurie, another grad student, and Lee and Sue Udell, and their kids.  Lee was the hospital chaplain at the university. They welcomed me, had me over for dinner; we went out to the movies, and so on.

Fast forward a year, and now it’s the fall of my junior year in college, and one day I decided to just drop in at the chapel on campus where they went to church.  And while I was there, standing beside friends during the Eucharistic prayer, much to my surprise, I found myself, seemingly, somewhere very different.

I seemed to be standing in a long, dark tunnel, deep under the earth, and along the wall there were hung torches to light the way, but the light they gave was very dim.  If I held my hand up to the torch, I could just make out the shape of it, but only just. It seemed a long time I had been there.

And then, suddenly, a door opened on the right-hand wall, inward, and a glorious, bright, light spilled out and down the tunnel behind me, and I could see my shadow stretching back and back and back.  I approached the door, and could make out very little because of the brightness, but it seemed to me that the very photons of light were alive, and dancing, and I could just sense a Presence – or several presences – of living beings in that space.  It was a very brief moment of overwhelming beauty, and then the door swung closed, until only a thin line of light remained around the edge, like a promise.

And the next thing I knew, I was standing next to my friends, and the priest was still saying the prayer, but I was – all in that one moment – convinced that what my friends had been telling me all along was true; I didn’t know how, I didn’t know why; but it was true.

I still remember that dancing light, those living photons, though, and I think maybe that’s what Peter and James and John saw surrounding Jesus and Moses and Elijah in glory.

“They appeared in glory.”

But, Why Moses?  Why Elijah? 

Moses was the great liberator and lawgiver for the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt.  He had been raised as a prince of Egypt, after being rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, but one day he saw an Egyptian overseer beat an Israelite slave and for some reason he lost it, and killed the Egyptian. 

Then he ran away into the wilds of Sinai, and met a woman at a well and met her father, and married her and became a shepherd.  Until one day, he saw a bush burning but not being consumed, and found himself in conversation with the God of his ancestors, who told him he was to return to Egypt and rescue his people.  All his arguments against this insane idea failing, he did return, and we all know what came next.  Today we hear what happened to Moses when he went onto the mountain of Sinai to speak with God – his face was changed; his face shone like the sun; anyone looking at it would become blind. 

Elijah was a prophet in later years; and he was compelled to speak out against the abuses of power perpetrated by King Ahab of the northern kingdom – Israel – and of Ahab’s wife Jezebel.  The royal couple was the worst.  They stole land, they killed enemies, they compelled the people to be their slaves, they gave the daughters of Israel to their soldiers, they were unjust, selfish, greedy, and cruel.  Eventually, Jezebel got really, really tired of Elijah’s constant train of criticism and threatened him with death, so he ran away. 

He ran into the mountains and hid in a cave, and then one day soon after, the Lord spoke to him asking him what he was doing there.  He explained.  And the Lord said “I will pass by in a storm, but I will not be the storm. I will be in the silence, but I will not be the silence.  I will pass by and you must hide your face; you may see only the back of me.”  And it was so.  Then the Lord told him, “Now get back to work.”

Why Moses? Why Elijah?  Perhaps because they both were at risk of death, but God still required them to continue the work set before them.

Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure.”  

That is, of Jesus’ impending departure, because he is setting his face and his feet toward Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem he will be killed.

Perhaps Moses and Elijah were there to encourage Jesus on the path set before him, to remind him that turning back was not an option, that only going on with the job would serve.

Is it possible that Jesus was afraid?  I don’t know; I hope not – but let’s not forget in all the excitement of God’s coming into the world, that God chose to do that in the person of one particular individual, Jesus, son of the one particular individual, Mary.  Let’s not forget that he was fully human, as well as fully divine.  The Gospels tell no stories of his childhood, except the sojourn in Egypt, or the discussions he held with the rabbis in the temple when he was young. 

In John’s gospel, he just shows up one day at the Jordan River, where he is baptized by John, who has been baptizing all comers to cleanse them of their sins.  Jesus, the one who was without sin, chose to be baptized in this way. 

After the baptism, he heads out into the wilderness where he is tested by Satan.  It’s not like he doesn’t have any idea what he is doing or why; he sets it clear in that time in the wilderness.  But maybe, when push comes to shove, and he’s run into some flack along the way, maybe he needs a bit of assurance to continue.

Or, perhaps, he’s just “checking in” with the two most famous and important prophets of the Jewish tradition, to let them know he’s ready now.

Then Peter makes his famously clueless offer to erect some tents for the three great ones, and Jesus rebuffs the offer and tells them to say nothing about this to anyone, and they go back down the mountain, and Jesus “gets on with the job,” healing the epileptic, trying to explain things to the disciples, and working his way south to Jerusalem.

Is there perhaps a job that God wants you to “just get on with”?  Or us?