The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet, All Saints Episcopal Church, Chelmsford, MA
The Last Sunday in Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 22, Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The season of Epiphany is the season celebrating Jesus’ ministry. The Scripture has invited us week after week to look at Jesus and listen to him hoping that we would see more and hear more than we ever had before. In this last Sunday of Epiphany, Jesus is in something of a hurry here because he knows that he is running out of time. We, and his closest disciples, are given one last chance to look. The mystery is so great that the Bible itself struggles as it attempts to lift the veil as it were. It presses the limits of language as it attempts to put the matter in words and images we can understand much like we do with the truths to be found in children’s stories. It speaks of a mountain and light, but what it is really talking about is an experience of catching a glimpse of the Truth, not just any truth, but Truth itself, God. The Bible does not say that to see God we need to go to a mountain in Israel’s Galilee. It says that this sort of experience of Truth seeking is like climbing a mountain. Anyone who has ever climbed a mountain knows that the remarkable thing about it is that each time you turn around and look from a new height, the view is a bit different. You see in a new way again and again as you find yourself liberated from what was obstructing your vision, again and again.
The most famous story in the Bible like this, one that surely was in Jesus’ mind at the time, was the one we read part of in the Book of Exodus. The ancient Israelites had just been liberated from centuries of slavery in Egypt, centuries of bowing before Pharaoh as if he was a god. Newly free, they stopped at the base of a mountain. Moses went up the mountain alone to receive the divine law. What we know is that Moses would eventually return with tablets containing the ten commandments where the opening words would command them never again to bow before anything material in this world, never again to abase themselves in this way, so as to never again lose their newfound freedom. But Moses was gone a little too long. While Moses was up there attempting to see the invisible God, the people as the base of the mountain crafted a visible calf made out of gold and bowed down before the product of their own craftsmanship.
The take-away from this story for readers is the Bible’s contentions that we never, never, worship nothing. Something always claims our attention. The world is full of visible gods of our own creation whose demands are always more severe and enslaving than those of the real Creator of all. The Bible’s word for these enslaving objects of our own creation that demand our attention is “Idol” (You may have one in your pocket right now : ). Human beings are born to be free, but find themselves in chains anyway. We Bible readers learn how our ancestors failure to 2 ascend with their minds past the material world had the effect of clouds rolling into their lives so that they soon lived in a flat world without mountains or stars. This form of near-sightedness happens to us so easily and prevents us from reaching the highest human ideals. It is as if we have to worship something more than the world in order not to be enslaved to this or that object in the world. At least that is how the Bible see things and that is why the Bible’s thinks its message is about freeing us from what would, otherwise, enslave us.
What then makes Jesus different? How are we to know that his ascent up the mountain will not lead to yet one more golden calf? What makes Jesus different is that Jesus does not go up the mountain alone like Moses did. He brought others with him up the mountain, above the boats and businesses of their own creation, to see what they had not been able to see before. The most remarkable thing happened at the top of this mountain. We are told that the disciples even “saw his glory.” That is, they saw in the visible material Jesus they knew the invisible God, “shining” as it were. And to help them get the point that this experience was what their previous history was leading them to, they also saw the images of Moses and Elijah. Words are hard to find here, but they certainly knew something happened. What would they do now?
We are told that they proposed to build “three [material] dwellings,” not quite a golden calf, but close. It was still too much about them and what they could do. They continued to act as if they were down at the base of the mountain. God’s voice calls out to them, “Hey there, it’s not about you.” God says, “This is my Son, listen to him.” They were there to see what they were made to see. They were there to worship what they did not create, understand that this was what they were made for, become free of other stuff, and from that moment on live and act in a manner worthy of this experience. The values from below were, however, so deeply engrained in them that they could not even be shaken off in that tremendous moment when Jesus himself led them up the mountain. Although they had climbed the mountain, they brought with them the values from below and this prevented them from seeing the truth.
They did understand later. In the letter from St. Peter that we read, Peter reflected on that experience and described it as “a lamp shining in a dark place” and he called others to learn to pay attention to it “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in[their]
hearts” (2 Peter 1:16- 21). He learned to attend to this lamp and use it to see by.
As followers of Jesus, our place in this story is that of his disciples. Jesus invites us to go climb with him (not with our feet, but with our hearts and minds). Sometimes we may not even 3 know why we should ascend this mountain, especially when there are so many other things calling for our attention. His invitation can feel like just one more obligation, one more demand, one more thing calling us to its service. But, the hardest thing to understand here is that this is not something imposed upon us, but the only thing that allows us to be who we really are, the only thing that accords with our dignity. It is this climbing up in our minds that makes us better. Even when we are unsuccessful in seeing God, the desire itself for God, does something good to us, where by looking for God outside ourselves we discover something about ourselves.
These are but poor analogies, but they may help explain this biblical notion of liberating, non-idolatrous, servitude: Musicians commonly experience moments when their instrument outside themselves allows them to discover something deep inside themselves that they did not know was there. In playing this instrument, aspects of their humanity find expression that would not otherwise be revealed. Is that instrument imposed upon them? Does the pursuit of music make them less human? Or, to give another example, have you ever loved someone, and they brought out qualities in you that you did not know were there. Those qualities were really yours, they were only submerged and unseen. Or have you ever taken a young dog to a body of water knowing it has never been taught how to swim, but something inside it awakens before your very eyes and it jumps right in and swims and swims. Have you ever travelled to a place you had never been to before, but fell in love with it because it felt like home, there was something about you in that place. I could go on with other examples [Actors discovering themselves in the words of another…, etc.], but this is an experience human beings are familiar with.
The love and worship of God is something like these experiences. Although it can appear to be something completely external to us, it is really the source of our life; it is a love that brings out our true selves. Without it, we wander in barren places and our humanity is not fully expressed. We too easily inadvertently bow before gods of our own creation by inventing new slaveries that demand our attention and service yet offer us so little light and freedom. These things don’t lift us, elevate us, or increase our capacity to see. As Jesus invites you to climb with him, know that his material form is not enslaving, but is the very thing that takes you where you are meant to go. Accept his invitation and become free of what is holding you below, so that you can worship what is above.
May we know the dignity that we have, and when the clouds roll into our lives obscuring our vision, let us always follow our hearts which tells us to climb a bit higher. May God prevent 4 us from remaining down the mountain, and save us from having our value determined by the wrong things. May God cultivate in us a desire to ascend, and say with Moses, “God show me your glory; I want to see your face!” so that we can say with Paul, “For now I see in a mirror, dimly, but then I will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Amen