“This is my Son, the Beloved”

Sunday Evening

Matthew 17

5 “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

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The Transfiguration, Baptism, and Resurrection of Jesus
By Moreau.henri

We sang the Gloria today for the last time: “Glory to God in the highest,” the song the angels sang before the Shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth.  It is the last echo of Christmas.  Now our eyes turn towards Easter, towards the three-day celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the remarkable and unexpected outcome of the story that began with the equally unexpected announcement to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  What sounded like the heralding of a new king for Israel will crash and break to pieces against the rock of Roman power – only to be utterly transformed into a dawning reign of grace and life for all creation.

The star that has graced our sanctuary will be put away.  The candelabra that spoke of the one proclaimed as light of the world will also be put away.  The color will shift to purple – the color of the robe that the taunting soldiers threw over Jesus as they mocked and tortured him with a crown of thorns.  Royal purple.  Meant to shame Jesus.  Meant to discredit him in our eyes.  But we see its truth.

But today, before we begin that Journey to Jerusalem, we heard once again God declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”  These are the words spoken at the beginning of this season when Jesus was baptized by John.  They are spoken again here, not in wistfulness as a fading refrain of the season, but with confidence.  The one who journeys towards the cross is the holy one of God.

And we are invited to journey to Jerusalem with him and to wait there for the wonder to come: his vindication.  The breaking of the tomb.  The tearing of the curtain.  The harrowing of Satan’s realm.  The reconciliation of heaven and earth.  The dawning of the new creation.

It all awaits us as we tell again the story beginning that wondrous Thursday night when feet are washed and bread broken, when soldiers come in the dark and strip Jesus of all honor – and that Friday afternoon when the nails are pounded – and that Saturday evening when darkness turns to light, when we journey again through the waters of baptism into Christ and from death into life, and hear the great cry “Christ is risen!”  And then that Sunday morning we come back together to sing then, and through the next fifty days, the Alleluias and a new song, the hymn of heaven from Revelation 5:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” 

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

Alleluia.  Alleluia.

The touch of Jesus

Saturday

Matthew 17

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Antonello da Messina – Salvator Mundi

7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

I love the tenderness of this gesture.  In the presence of the Almighty, at the sound of the voice, Peter, James and John fall down in terror.  They have a vision of Jesus made radiant with the presence of God.  They see Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus.  The vision reveals to them that Jesus is equal to Moses and Elijah – and so the suggestion for three shrines upon the mountaintop.  But then there is the cloud of God’s presence, and the voice speaking: “This is my son.”  And they are overcome with the terror of the holy.

The three know they are in the presence of the holy God, the one who met Israel at Sinai where the earth shook and the mountain was encompassed in fire and cloud.  They are at the doorway to the heavens – like Jacob waking from his dream of the stairway with angels ascending and descending.  This is a holy place.  This is sacred ground.  This is a dangerous place for sinners to be found.

But Jesus comes to them, bends towards them, touches them, raises them.

Jesus does not come to them with tongs bearing a burning coal – as the seraph came to Isaiah.  Jesus does not come to them in the flashing fire and eyes of Ezekiel’s vision.  They are not made mute like Zechariah or blind like Paul on the Damascus road.

Jesus touches them.  As he touched the leper and made him whole.  As he touched Peter’s Mother-in-law and made her well.  As he touched and opened the eyes of the blind.  As he took the synagogue leaders daughter by the hand and raised her from death.  As he caught Peter sinking into the sea.  As he placed his hands on little children to bless them.

Jesus touches them.  As he lays his hand upon us when we are overcome with fear, when we are sinking, when we are in need of healing.

“Listen to him,” says the voice of heaven.  “Listen to him.”

The cloud

Friday

Exodus 24

File:Approaching mist.jpg16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days;

The prophet Isaiah writes, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (45:15RSV)Isaiah’s vision in the temple amidst the shaking foundations and smoke and fearful seraphim is but a glimpse of the hem of the robe of the heavenly king.  Ezekiel’s vision is of the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” (1:28) of the LORD.

Elijah encounters God in the silence, not in the wind, earthquake or fire.  Moses’ first encounter is with a God hidden in the burning bush.  Abraham dreams of a smoking fire pot.  In answer to the question “who shall I say sent me,” Moses gets an enigmatic name that probably means “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be.”  Job is answered from a whirlwind.

Only Adam and Eve have a direct, unmediated encounter with God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.  And then Moses, of whom it is said “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11) in the tent of meeting.  And yet, in that very same chapter of Exodus, Moses is only allowed to see Gods back: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  (Exodus 33:20)

The fact that the first Christians had no images of God led the Romans to call them atheists.  Deep in Hebrew and Christian faith is the sense that God is hidden, veiled, beyond our sight and comprehension.  So the dominant image of God’s presence is a cloud.

In a world that wants gods to be visible, God remains hidden.  We want visible; what we get is mystery.  Holiness.  Hiddenness.  The strange.  God behind a curtain.  Might and majesty hidden in the crucified.

And even Christianity’s notion that God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth – or the sacraments, the bread and wine and water – even there, God is visible only to the eyes of faith.  In other words, he is not visible at all, except that we trust the promise of his presence.  The bread still looks and tastes like bread.  The water still looks and acts like water.  Yet God is there.  So God promises.  So we “see,” see with the eyes of wonder and trust, see with a spiritual insight, not a physical one.

And at a hospital bedside; at a graveside; when food is shared with the hungry; when the unwelcome are welcomed; prisoners visited; when unexpected grace happens – there, too, we “see”.   See the God otherwise hidden from us – but the God made visible in love and sacrifice.  The God made strangely visible in the broken body with a pierced side.  The God who does not shun suffering and sorrow, but meets us there.

So when we read about clouds at the Mount of Transfiguration, we know it means God is present.  And when we hear that Jesus will come “on the clouds of heaven” we know it’s not a reference to the sky.  And when we are groping in a fog; it bears a far greater secret than mere confusion.

Into the fire

Thursday

Exodus 24

File:High Park fire near Poudre Canyon, Colorado.jpg16On the seventh day [the LORD] called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now 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. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.

Presumably Moses can also see that the top of the mountain is “like a devouring fire,” but he goes up.  He was not a young daredevil ready to compete in an ancient X-games; according to Exodus 7 he was eighty years old when they left Egypt.  We can joke that the prospect of a fiery death seemed preferable to continuing to lead this contumacious people, but I marvel at the faith that walks into that unknown fire.  Even if the fire on the mountain is no more than lightning – the mountaintop is not where you want to be in a thunderstorm.

Moses had seen the fire of the burning bush, seen it blaze yet not consume.  And he had seen God’s power in the afflictions that came upon Egypt for their refusal to turn from oppression.  He had seen God’s act of deliverance through the sea.  He had seen the mystery and wonder of manna from heaven and water from the rock.  But there is nothing in human experience that could tell him what would be the outcome of answering the voice and walking into the cloud.

But he answers the call.

“Come up to me.”  Moses is not the only one God summons, though for all of us the fire is different.  Abraham was summoned to leave his home for a promise.  Joshua is summoned to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  Gideon was summoned from his hiding place to save Israel from the Midianites.  The boy Samuel is summoned by the voice in the night calling his name.  Saul, David, Solomon, Elijah, the prophets, each is called to go forward into the unknown by a promise: Isaiah, with the ground shaking and the temple filled with smoke and the seraphim crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

The stories that come to us are mostly the big stories, of kings and queens and prophets who received God’s call in crucial moments.  But all of us are summoned, summoned to enter into God’s presence, summoned to hear the voice of God, summoned into the Spirit’s fire, summoned to be servants of God in the world around us.

The faithfulness of Moses is not more important than the maid who speaks to her mistress, the wife of Namaan, about the prophet who could heal him – or Ruth, the Moabite, who shows faithfulness to her widowed and now childless mother-in-law.  But these “big” stories are told and remembered because they sustain us when we are called up the mountain, when we are summoned to draw near to God, when we are beckoned into the unknown.  These narratives encourage us when we get up each morning and face the coming day knowing not what may come, but trusting God to meet us there.  They help us go forward, even into the fire.

“Come up to me…and wait”

Wednesday

Exodus 24

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Mt. Sinai

12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.

We read past this instruction to wait so quickly it is easily missed.  Moses spent six days waiting before God revealed the commandments he had summoned Moses to receive, six days before God gave his instructions for this people newly born into freedom: 16The 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.

Waiting plays an important role in the spiritual life.  When Anna was an infant and woke up hungry at night, she went from sound sleep to a demanding cry in an instant.  Children are not wired to wait; learning to wait is an important part of maturing.  Waiting for Christmas, waiting for your birthday, waiting for a friend to arrive, waiting for an answer from your parents (“I need to think about it.”  “Why?!”)  Learning to delay gratification, learning to surrender some of our selfishness (“You go first”), learning patience – it’s all an important part of spiritual formation.  Too often we want God to solve our problem now, to change our hearts now, to answer our questions now.

Waiting is not easy.  Surely Moses was in a hurry to get back down to the people – and he had good cause.  In his absence they made a golden calf and caroused around it declaring this was the god who delivered them from Egypt.  But God made Moses wait.

When the prophet Habakkuk cries out to God, impatient at the injustice and corruption around him, God’s answer is simply If [the vision] seems slow, wait for it.”  This is God’s central message: “Trust me.”  Trust that I am good.  Trust my promise.  Trust my commands.  Trust my justice.  Trust my mercy.  Trust my love.

Psalm 27 bids us Wait for the Lord,” and Psalm 37 to Be still before the Lord.   Isaiah declares that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint(40:31)“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

If I wait for my father to pick me up from school, I wait because I trust him.  If I did not trust his promise to come, I would find some other way home.  Patience is the flip-side of faith.  It trusts the promise despite delays, despite fears, despite sorrows.  It’s not belief against evidence or denial of reality; it is enduring trust in the one who has made the promise.  Because we trust we wait.  And the fruits of faithful waiting are those related virtues: endurance, courage, steadfastness, and hope

So Moses must wait.

But there is also grace in the waiting.  He had six days to put behind him all the pressure and labor of leading that unruly crowd; six days to learn to “let go and let God,” six days to center himself, six days to enter into the peace of God.  And after six days he was finally ready to hear what God had so say.

And then God spoke.

My Son

Watching for the morning of March 2

Year A

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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These Sundays after the culmination of the Christmas season with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, began with the account of Jesus baptism where the Spirit descended upon him and the voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”  Now at the end of this season we hear again the voice of heaven declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” adding the words “listen to him!”

“Listen to him” because he has just began to teach his followers about the cross and resurrection; he is going to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed – a very un-messiah like thing to do.  Indeed, by every common standard, to be crucified would prove he was not God’s chosen one.

We hold these two images in tension: Jesus broken and repudiated upon the cross, and Jesus radiant with the reflection of God’s glory.  It is precisely as the one who suffers that he reigns as Lord of all.  It is in the laying down of his life that the path of life is opened.  The faithful son is wounded but lives: dies but is raised.  He remains faithful to God, obedient unto the cross, and through him we who proved unfaithful receive the crown of life.

“Listen to him,” says God. “Listen to him.”

The Prayer for March 2, 2014

Holy and Gracious God,
wrapped in mystery, yet revealed in your Son Jesus.
Renew us by the radiant vision of your Son;
make us ever attentive to his voice;
and worthy of your service.

The Texts for March 2, 2014

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
“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.” – God speaks to Moses from the cloud on Mt. Sinai.  Both the cloud as a symbol of God’s presence and the tradition that Moses’ face shone from speaking to God face to face lies in the background of today’s Gospel narrative of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 2
“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” – A royal psalm that contains a declaration by God to the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you” similar to that spoken by God to Jesus in the story of the transfiguration.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
“He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
– The author of 2 Peter alludes to the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” – After Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ only to be told that the Messiah must suffer and be killed, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain where they have a visionary experience of Jesus transfigured by the radiant presence of God.