Monday, February 20, 2017

You Want A Sign?


This year at diocesan convention, the bishop recalled his desire for God to give him a sign that his inclination to be ordained was, indeed, God's will. Spoiler alert: the sign didn't come until much, much later. This Sunday is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is to say the final Sunday before Lent, and the gospel lesson (Matthew 17:1-9) is the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ--the moment when his clothes and face began to shine with the light of his divinity and when Moses and Elijah appeared with him, confirming his identity as fulfillment of Law and Prophets. For Peter, James, and John, who accompanied him on that mountain top, and for us, who read about it in the gospel, that's a pretty remarkable sign. It's evidence of Jesus' identity that's hard to miss.

It's also hard to miss that this gospel lesson opens with a reference to something that precedes it--something that we need to know about before we can understand what is happening in this passage. Matthew introduces chapter 17 with "Six days later." Doesn't that beg us to turn back a page and see what it was that happened or was said six days earlier? Unlike novelists, gospel writers aren't usually concerned about locating the events of their accounts in a clear timeline. Sometimes weeks or months go by, and we can't even tell. So, when Matthew bothers to let us know that exactly six days have passed, we'd be well served to flip back and see what it was that happened first.

And when I did--by searching biblegateway.com for "Matt 16"--here is what I found. I already remembered that at the bottom of the page--toward the end of Matthew 16--Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ. In all of the synoptic gospel accounts, Peter's confession precedes the Transfiguration. They just go together. Always. But what I wasn't prepared for was what is at the top of the page--at the beginning of Matthew 16: "The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven." You may remember how that little back-and-forth ends--with Jesus saying, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah."

I don't really know what the sign of Jonah is, and the Internet doesn't know either. Is it the three days he was in the belly of the fish as an image of the three days when Jesus would be dead before rising again? Is it the overall sign of repentance that Jonah brought to the least-likely-to-repent people of Nineveh? Is it the fact that God pursued Jonah, who ran away from God's call, until he got him thrown overboard into a stormy sea? Is it the shade-giving bush, which God causes to grow up and then destroy with a worm? I don't know. But that's not the point. The point is that they want Jesus to give them a sign--some proof upon which they can evaluate for themselves whether he is who he claims to be--and Jesus won't give it to them.

But he does give it to Peter, James, and John. Peter's confession happens first, and that's important. But, once someone in his covey of disciples recognizes in faith who Jesus really is, God confirms that identification through the Transfiguration. The order matters. They don't do the fireworks show until after the Friday-night baseball game or else all the parents and children would leave after the fifth inning. (Plus, it's not usually dark enough when a game starts.) Jesus' light show comes after Peter sees who he really is. The sign isn't the thing upon which we hang our faith. It's the confirmation of the faith we've already been given.

This week, as we approach the mountain top that then propels us downward toward the forty days of Lent and the cross that awaits at the end of the journey, I am reminded to look back just long enough to remember how we got here. Peter sees Jesus. Jesus shows himself to them. And the Pharisees and Sadducees want a sign but don't get it. What about us? Are we looking for a sign? What sort of sign are we looking for? What sort of sign do we expect to receive?

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