A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

 Year A – 2 March 2014

 John Edward Miller, Rector


 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

– Exodus 24:12-18

Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

      – Matthew 17:1-9

The Collect

O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

One of the basic claims of our faith is that God is with us. That should come as no surprise to anyone who embraces the biblical traditions. It’s something assumed by Jews and Christians alike, as though it were embedded in our spiritual DNA. Immanuel is the Hebrew for “God with us.” It was coined by the prophet Isaiah[1] as a sign to encourage a frightened king of Judah. And it was adopted by Matthew’s gospel[2] to highlight the divine origin of Jesus the Messiah, the son of Mary. The teaching that God is Immanuel rightly belongs to both traditions; it is a cherished belief held in common.    

But this is not to claim that God is a partisan deity, partial to us only, supporting our team, our country, and our interests over against those of other people. What “God with us” means is that we believe that God is present, that God is in touch with our needs, our travails, our thoughts and feelings. That we live in the presence of God is an active belief that has enriched lives by guiding them, shaping them, redeeming them, and making them whole. It is an assurance that has heartened many generations and has led them through times of confusion, doubt, and unspeakable pain.

One brief biblical poem shared by Jews and Christians has saved many a grieving soul from despair. It resonates with the belief that God is with us. I invite you to say Psalm 23 with me:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. 

This little Hebrew psalm is simply eloquent. It is a pastoral piece – one that utilizes the metaphor of the shepherd with his flock to depict the relationship of God to his people. The psalm is designed to reassure the community and individuals in it that God is present and effective in our life even when it appears that God is absent. The words of the psalm draw us forward through shadows and voids to places of refreshment, peace, and comfort. The fact that this psalm continues to speak to us is that attentive believers have experienced its confirmation in daily life, and testified to its truth.

Jewish believers may see the meaning of Psalm 23 written in the history of Israel – in the Exodus from Egypt, in the gifts of the Law and the land of promise, in the Torah and the prophets, in the covenant life and in the traditions of the Temple, and in the religious culture that has given joy and solace through the centuries. Christians see similar things in the biblical story of faith. But we take a further, definitive step in proclaiming our view of Jesus. Not only do we identify him as the Messiah, but we also see him as the embodiment of the Good Shepherd of the sheep. In his life he presents us with the physical, as well as the spiritual, presence of God. This is the uniquely Christian assertion. It is something that both Jews and Muslims do not accept. Nevertheless, it has defined our thinking about his significance as our Savior, and has enabled us to understand what “God with us” might mean in human terms.

In today’s world, however, there is increasing skepticism about that central Christian claim. Moreover, there is evidence of a more general “softening of religious commitment” in our culture. Part of this is due to the tsunami of secularization that has been sweeping through the postmodern world since the late 20th century. Our culture has shifted away from reliance on intangibles, such as religious belief, to the tangible and the temporal. The horrors of the holocaust, cold war and fear of nuclear annihilation, seemingly endless warfare of all sorts, including wars fueled by religious fanaticism, anarchical terrorism, economic instability, and legislatures in partisan gridlock – to name but a few of the salient issues that assail us – have dispirited people across the globe. They seem to be more intent on pleasure and personal gain in this world’s terms than focusing on the transcendence. This is particularly true of the so-called “millennialists” in this country. In a 2012 Pew survey, 32 per cent of the population aged 18-29 indicated that they have “no affiliation” when it comes to religion.[3] Added to that, 21 per cent of Americans aged 30-49, and 15 per cent of those 50-64, have the same lack of interest in religion, especially the institutional sort. The result of these rising figures is an overall decline in support and attendance levels in churches throughout the mainline denominations.

[Thank you for being here this morning.]

At the same time, there is a new surge in “spirituality” that claims no particular affiliation with church or synagogue. That is a positive trend for people who are already anchored in historic traditions, but for the uninitiated, a lack of mooring may foster a cafeteria-style approach to beliefs, which may or may not pass the test of experience. Free-floating without clearly-defined standards or boundaries can be an exhilarating adventure, but it can lead to a free-fall to spiritual disaster when one’s beliefs do not support one’s experience of harsh reality. Still the attraction of being “spiritual” without specific loyalty to organized religion is strong. The empty spaces in church pews attest to that.

These are the trends that the church is facing today. In response, we who value this way of life, who attach our loyalty to tradition and place our trust in ministries based on Word and sacrament, are challenged to examine our heritage and to celebrate what it offers. We are called to re-discover and take hold of what is most important, to live as though these things are beacons of meaning and truth instead of treating them as relics that we can take or leave without consequence.  That may result in a new reformation, or at least a refreshed consciousness of our Christian calling. Either way, it is essential that we start with basics, such as the sign of Immanuel.   

“God with us” is an old hope that we have inherited as a faith legacy. It is a powerful claim that our forebears entrusted to us as a peculiar treasure. We receive it as a gift to digest, to explore, to rely upon, and to pass on to our children. But it is not something not something to take for granted, or to take lightly, as though it was an artifact of religious lore. To believe that God is with us, that we are in the presence of God, is tremendously good news. It is life-shaping if it is taken seriously. For if we are in the presence of God, there is never a time when we are alone – left to our own devices. Instead it says that we matter infinitely to God, the source, the redeemer, and sustainer of our life. That realization should make us tremble with awe; it is our reason for reverence, and for a life of gratitude and devotion.

As the biblical tradition asserts, God’s presence affects real life. It touches the world and those who dwell therein. That is the message of today’s texts from Scripture. The passages from Exodus and Matthew recall moments of theophany[4], when God’s presence breaks through the mundane and leaves its marks on the people it influences. Both scenes are mountaintop experiences – literally and figuratively. In the first, Moses is on Mount Sinai obeying God’s call to receive the tablets of the Law. The second text features Jesus and his leading disciples – Peter, James, and John – on the mount of transfiguration. The parallels between the two passages are intentional. Matthew is counting on the fact that his readers already know about the Moses story. His message is that the presence of God validates the ministry of Jesus just as it had upheld the mission of Moses, who brought the Law of God to the people. The affects of being in God’s presence are similar too. In Exodus, Moses’ contact with God is depicted as a context of clouds and consuming fire. Another related passage says that during the forty days he spent on the Mt. Sinai, Moses’ face was burned by his proximity to God.

The episode in Matthew comes just after Jesus has told his disciples that the Son of Man must suffer and be killed, and that following him is a costly venture of faith. That unsettling revelation was hard to swallow, and Jesus knew that. So he led his leadership core to the summit of a high mountain where they spent time with him apart from the others. There, on that pinnacle, they saw Jesus transfigured. His face shone like the sun, his garments became dazzling white, and in this radiance there appeared alongside him Moses and Elijah (representing the “Law” and the “prophets), who were speaking to him. This was the great epiphany – the peak moment when God’s presence engulfed the mountaintop and made it clear who Jesus is and what following him means. It was so thrilling that Peter blurted out what was on everyone’s mind, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let’s pitch camp and stay here forever!” Then a cloud rolled in and from it came the voice of God, who said, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” The whole experience was so overwhelming that the disciples fell on their faces in awe. But Jesus’ voice relieved them. He touched them and said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” He then reminded them that there was work to do. So, together they descended from the mountain summit to the valley below where people live and move and have their being. Their down to earth calling was to preach and teach, to forgive, and to heal, and to move steadily toward Jerusalem.

These mountaintop encounters with God enabled the people of Israel to proceed to the Promised Land and empowered Jesus and his disciples to continue their trek to the holy city. Both journeys were hard and costly; yet through them we have received the Law and the grace of God for our walk of faith. “God with us” was the rallying cry of our ancestors, who relied on God’s abiding presence for guidance and sustenance as they led their lives of reverent service. It enabled them to overcome fear and to carry on, despite the difficulties and disappointments of life. For that gift of presence the people of God have expressed their gratitude in worship and in gracious deeds though the centuries. We are their beneficiaries; our task is to live into the same claim that God is with us.

The mountaintop moments are real. Without them we would quickly lose interest and hope; with them we sense the presence of God in daily life. How do we know that what we experience is God with us rather than just a good feeling or a blissfully happy moment? Well, there is a way. Truth happens, and believing is seeing. That is, we have been raised in a sacramental life. Our worship and reflection are guided by the biblical Word and the sacraments in order to recognize the real presence of God, not only in church but in the world. When Frederick Buechner was asked by a youthful interview team how to detect God’s presence, he replied with gusto, saying, “Pay attention!” I heartily second that motion; looking for God with the eyes of belief is the key to recognizing his presence. That is climax of the transfiguration story. Matthew records the voice of God booming out, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” In short, Jesus is the Rosetta stone for our interpretation of life. Faithful vision understands the meaning of all things through him. He is the lens through which godliness comes into focus. Love is what he reveals. The love of Christ is the presence of God. It is an act of the will to give of oneself, to sacrifice time, energy, resources, and even life for the sake of others, expecting nothing in return. We know that by listening to him, by remaining true to the sacramental life and by attending to his Word. And if we look carefully with those disciplined eyes of faith, we will see it, and say, “thank you, O God.”

All of us have had those moments. We share them and celebrate them here at St. Mary’s. And we help each other recognize that presence elsewhere. When real love touches you – i.e., when it helps a family member preserve her dignity despite the devastating reality of illness, when it gives your child a second chance after failure, when it encourages you when you are fearful and lonely, when it helps you celebrate a new life or bury a loved one, when it enables you to kneel side by side and receive the elements of communion in Christ, when it teaches you a new way to see things after awful disappointment, when it gives respect to people who are dying to be loved and respected, then you are in God’s presence. Listening to God’s beloved Son, and holding fast to moments when we see him in our midst, is a gift to be treasured forever. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 7:14.

[2] Matthew 1:22-23.

[4] Theophany, from the Greek theophaneia, is a manifestation of God in the biblical narrative that is detectable by the human senses.