God’s Beloved

TransfigurationA sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 11, 2018. The scripture readings are 2 Kings 2:1-12Psalm 50:1-62 Corinthians 4:3-6Mark 9:2-9

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I guess there are some people who are fine with arriving at a movie theater just in time for the movie, but I like to get there early.  I like it because I want to see the trailers, the previews of other movies coming out soon.  I like to see what stories are going to be told, how they might make me think or respond, or even how one of the upcoming movies might change me.

This Sunday, this day in which we hear of the Transfiguration of Jesus, is a kind of preview.  The scriptures and prayers provide a kind of trailer for the full feature that will be the Season of Lent and Holy Week.  Today is a preview of coming attractions.

The preview begins with our Old Testament reading, as Elijah passes off the role of chief prophet to Elisha.  Elisha, the sort of prophet-in-training, seems to suspect something is about to happen, and so he’s hesitant to let the older prophet out of his sight.  The older one, Elijah, tries to move on ahead, but Elisha refuses to leave him.  Finally, Elijah makes it clear that it’s time for him to REALLY move ahead, to die to this world and to join God.  Elisha doesn’t like this—he’s not only going to lose his teacher and friend, but this also means that the full weight of the prophetic ministry is going to fall on Elisha.  But he keeps quiet and watches.

After asking Elijah for courage and strength and whatever else Elijah can impart to him (characterized as “a double share of your spirit”), Elijah suggests that if Elisha is able to watch all that is about to happen, if he’s able to take it all in, if he’s about to stand firm, and absorb God’s majesty in front of him, then that double spirit of Elijah will be his.  And that’s just what happens.

This movement of Elijah away from Elisha, the inclusion of the spirit that remains, and all of this within the work of God— this is a preview of just what is going to happen between Jesus and his disciples.  Through the days ahead, we’ll see how Jesus keeps moving in front of his disciples, almost as though he’s trying to get away from them.  But what’s really happening is that Jesus is following the call of God, and sometimes he’s just ahead of his friends.  They have to keep catching up, until the time that Jesus has to go part of the way alone.

If this really were a movie preview in a theater, as we approach the Gospel, the music would grow more suspenseful and probably use all of the latest technology to rumble and thunder to great effect.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain.  There on the mountain, light settles on Jesus in such a way that he seems to be especially illumined.  The light is not so much from above, or behind, or from below, but just everywhere.  He’s brighter from within somehow.  And then, along with him appear Elijah and Moses.

Elijah represents the great tradition of the prophets, and his presence anoints Jesus as his successor.  Moses, who received the Ten Commandments from God and helped the people of Israel understand the commandments as blessings, and write their message on their hearts—Moses represents the Law of God.  With Moses, Jesus inherits the full weight of the Law and the Commandments, but does just what Moses was trying to get the children of Israel to do—to write the law in their hearts, not just to quote the law of God, as our Prayer Book says, to “show forth [God’s] praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.”

This Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain will reverberate through the whole season of Lent for us.  The power of prophecy will go with Jesus as he speaks the truth to the Devil in the wilderness, as he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, as he cuts through the duplicity of Judas, his betrayer.  The love and power of the law is embodied by Jesus as he lives out the laws of God, dealing fairly with people, caring for the poor, and sacrificing his own personal needs, wants, and desires for the sake of the others, of the community, of the whole world.

At the transfiguration, Peter’s response previews a common response of others in the days that lead up to the crucifixion in Jerusalem.  Why rush things?  Why not do some equivalent of building booths, of sitting down and staying a while.  Why not be content with things as they are?  But Jesus will not be held.

He will not be held by Peter on the mount of Transfiguration.  He’ll not be held by sin in the attempt of the religious leaders to bind him in a mock trial and crucifixion.  Jesus won’t be held by the death of the grave.  Even after the Resurrection, Jesus will not be held down by the needs or expectations of Mary Magdalene, the early believers, or even the church in our day.

Though many aspects of what we will encounter are already encountered in today’s readings, perhaps the most important has to do with words the disciples hear and we overhear in the Gospel.  It happens when a cloud overshadows them.  A voice comes out of the cloud, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

Those words are powerful enough, but I almost imagine God adding to that, “no matter what.”  “This is my son, Jesus.  Listen to him, no matter what.”  Whether the disciples heard God say something like this, or whether they picked it up through faith, it seems like the disciples did hear something in God’s message that brought encouragement and strength.  And we’re invited to do the same.

Listen to Jesus, no matter what.  Listen to him on days like the Transfiguration.  When we’re overwhelmed by the presence of God, or by the presence of something larger than ourselves.  We feel the weight of our ancestors upon us, and the people closest to us don’t understand.  Listen to Jesus.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll journey with Jesus through the desert, through the towns, toward Jerusalem, the cross of Good Friday, and the rising of Easter Sunday.  Through it all, we’re encouraged to listen to Jesus.

When in the wilderness, surrounded by temptation and doubt, listen to Jesus who put the devil in his place and moved on in faithfulness to God.

When we’re feeling weighed down by crosses of our day, listen to him who carried his cross and triumphed over it.

When we’re facing dishonesty and corruption, listen to him who called out the moneychangers and overturned their tables.

When it seems like everything around us is about death and decay, listen to him who was raised from the dead and brings new life to us.

Listen to him.  Pray to him.  Follow him.

Today’s readings and prayers do work a little like a preview to a movie, except for a major difference—this movie is not only about Jesus.  It’s about you and me.  It’s about our life.  In the stories, traditions, and sacraments of this coming season, our lives can take on new meaning and purpose as we hear God say to us:  You are my beloved.  Follow, trust, and believe.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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