February 26, 2017 – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Some of you have heard me tell the story of the first mission trip I took after I was ordained. Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during the fall of my final year of seminary, and, as you’ll remember, a year later things had not gotten much better. Many people at St. John’s, Montgomery, wanted to do something, so I organized a group of about a dozen men and women who went with me to join the relief efforts of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana by gutting houses. Many of the residents whose houses had been destroyed lacked the money to pay someone to come and strip their house down to the studs, which the City of New Orleans had required all homeowners to do. If a house wasn’t gutted, it was assumed abandoned, and the City took possession of the property. To help out, you didn’t need any skills—just a willingness to work hard and get dirty—so our group of inexperienced but eager laborers went down to the Crescent City to do some good.
At the time, I had the overwhelming confidence and the underwhelming sense of humor that most newly ordained people possess. If it weren’t for the earnest desire of the volunteers to help those in need, I don’t think I could have convinced them to go with me anywhere. At the end of our second day of work—hot, dirty, dusty, moldy work—it was time to board up the window openings before we left the job site. The six-foot step ladder was being used by someone else, so, in a hurry to be finished, I carried the little two-step stepstool around to the side of the house where a piece of plywood needed to be nailed across an opening. I asked two of the women on our trip to help me hold the board in place while I stretched on my tippy-toes and reached as high as I could to drive in the nails. Nervous, one of them asked, “Do you think we need the other ladder?” to which I replied, “Nah, I think I’ve got it.” And, with the second swing of the hammer, I slammed it with all its force right into my thumb. I don’t remember what expletive I yelled out, but I do remember that, when I did, the two women gave each other a nervous look, and then all three of us broke out laughing. Later that night, as we iced our sore muscles and drank ice-cold beer, they came up to me, and one of them said, “You know, we weren’t really sure about you. You seem so uptight all the time, but I have a feeling that everything is going to work out just fine.”
Sometimes we get a glimpse into someone we know and discover something we hadn’t quite figured out about that person. Those moments of transparency might surprise us, but they don’t always seem out of place. In fact, more often than not, those windows reveal something that we always knew but still hadn’t quite managed to piece together. Sometimes those revelations come on mountain tops and leave us with a newfound respect for a person, and other times they come in deep valleys and leave us with a sinking feeling that we are in for rocky times ahead. Either way, those epiphanies don’t last forever, and, before long, it’s time for us to figure out how to move on—for better or worse.
On this Last Sunday after the Epiphany—the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey toward Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week—we climb up on the mountain top to see Jesus’ glory revealed as his face and clothes shine as bright as the sun. But we didn’t get here by accident. As the first line of this gospel lesson reveals, the Transfiguration took place six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Most of the time, the gospel writers don’t bother to string events together with a specific chronology, so, when they do, it’s worth taking notice. How are Peter’s acknowledgment and Jesus’ transfiguration related? And why does Jesus reveal himself now?
For the first fifteen chapters of Matthew’s gospel account, we watched Jesus heal the sick, raise the dead, and challenge the religious authorities of his day. Each step of the way, he showed us a little bit more of who he really was. And, over the past few weeks in the Sunday lectionary, we’ve heard him shock us with his countercultural teachings from the Sermon on the Mount like “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” The religious leaders refused to accept such radical teaching at face value and demanded that Jesus show them a sign as proof of his identity, but Jesus wouldn’t do it. Then, in chapter 16, Peter, led by the Holy Spirit, saw what no one else had ever seen—that Jesus really was God’s anointed one, God’s true Son. And what did Jesus say in response? “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. The Spirit has revealed this to you. Well done. Now, don’t tell anyone because, when we get to Jerusalem, I’m going to be arrested, tortured, and killed.”
And all of the disciples said, “Say what?” Actually, that’s not what they said. Matthew tells us that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “This will never happen to you, Lord,” to which Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan!” But you get the idea. The disciples knew that they had been following someone special. They had been captivated by Jesus’ controversial words. They had marveled at his eye-popping miracles. They had come to see that he was like no one they had ever met before, and, now that they had figured out just how special Jesus was—that he was the one on whom their people had been waiting for centuries—Jesus gave them the bad news that this wasn’t going to end up the way they thought. And, for a moment or two, I bet that some of the disciples had their doubts. “I’m not so sure I want to follow a savior who is going to get all of us killed,” they must have thought to themselves. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. This isn’t what we signed up for.” And, just when the doubts and the worries were becoming too much for them, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where his true identity shone through in brilliant white light.
Sometimes God shows up when we need him most. Sometimes, when our doubts are about to get the best of us, God breaks through in dramatic fashion and shows us what we knew all along. How often have you heard someone say that God “hit me over the head with a 2x4?” Those are our mountain top experiences—moments when God gets our attention by revealing himself to us. It’s God’s way of saying, “Don’t give up! I have something special in mind for you.” But the problem is that God doesn’t show up to encourage us because things are about to get easy. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, but I don’t want to do that. That sounds dangerous. That sounds difficult. Can’t we just stay here on the mountain top and bask in the glory of God for a while? Can’t we just build some huts and camp out here in this safe place where everything makes sense?
But we already know the answer to that, don’t we? It doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t show himself to us simply to make a show of himself. He shows up so that we will have the strength to carry on. God has something in store for us—something big, something exciting, something dangerous. It’s called God’s kingdom, and God is calling us to be a part of it, but the world isn’t going to give up without a fight.
Whether we realize it or not, we come to church each week to have a mountain top encounter with Jesus. Every Sunday, he meets us here in the body and blood of Holy Communion in order to show us who he really is. As his followers, we see that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the one who shows the world what God wants the world to be. And, as the one who was crucified and raised from the dead, he reveals that in God’s kingdom the weak are made strong, the poor are made rich, and the dead are brought to life. But the world isn’t going to make room for the weak and the poor and those whom it considers as good as dead unless we make room for them. This is our work. This is our calling. And it is difficult, dangerous, and at times deadly work. But we are followers of Jesus. And he has shared his victory with us. And we are here to partake in that victory so that we might be equipped as instruments of God’s vision for the world. We cannot stay here. We cannot rest in this place. The world needs us to bring the good news of the gospel to it. But we can return each week and meet the one who gives us the strength to confront those who stand in the way of God’s kingdom, to risk all that we have for the sake of the gospel, and to take up our cross and follow him.