Transfiguration: Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 26 2017
Exodus 24.12-18; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Muslim social activist Tarek El-Messidi got a message last week that moved him.
“I knew we Jews needed to stand with Muslims,” it said. “I never thought we’d need you to stand with us. Bless you all. We’ll stand together to get through the darkness.”
This isn’t the sort of message we often hear in Jerusalem. That’s because it wasn’t heard in Jerusalem – although it needs to be. Tarek El-Messidi is a Muslim-American activist, and the message came to him from an American Jew.
Last weekend, over 170 tombstones were vandalized at the Chesed Shel Emeth, a historic Jewish cemetery in St Louis, Missouri.
“I thought about how I would feel were it my parents or grandparents buried there,” said El-Messidi, the founding director of CelebrateMercy – a Muslim non-profit that engages in “campaigns of compassion”.
He got together with Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour to raise $20,000 from Muslim-Americans to repair the stones and rebuild this sacred space. Last I heard, they had raised almost $130,000.
“Through this campaign,” they say, “we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America.”
There should be no place for it anywhere.
This Sunday we jump forward 12 chapters in the Gospel of Matthew.
For the last four Sundays, we’ve been in chapter 5, walking through the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount. Next week, we begin seven Sundays that will take Jesus of Nazareth all the way from his temptations in the wilderness to his death on a Roman cross outside this city’s wall and a resurrection that was, to say the least, unexpected.
In between, we have this strange story on a mountaintop in the Galilee – some say Mount Hermon, most say Mount Tabor. The cynic in us notes that Mount Tabor is easier to get up.
The story of the transfiguration has its own place in each of our first three gospels, but what also interests me this morning is its place in our lectionary.
One of our own temptations is to reduce the Christian gospel to good advice. Here’s how to live. Here’s how to pray. Here’s how to become a better Christian, a better person. Here’s how to make sure we end up in heaven and not elsewhere.
None of that is entirely wrong, but it misses the heart of the gospel.
The story of the transfiguration reminds us that the gospel really is good news. It stands in continuity with the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus as God coming to be with us: Jesus our Emmanuel. It echoes Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The scriptures use the term “son” to designate the people of Israel, the kings of Israel or Judah, and the person who is wise: Israel is called to be a light to the nations. Rulers are called to represent God’s rule although, as we know, mostly they don’t. The wise person lives righteously according to God’s leading.
On the mountaintop, God declares that Jesus of Nazareth is all of this and more: he is God’s beloved, God’s servant whom he has chosen. God here confirms Peter’s declaration at the end of previous chapter: Jesus of Nazareth is in a special sense the son of the living God. He is the messiah.
This is a direct challenge to the rulers of the world of those days, and indirectly a challenge to rulers in all times and places, including our own.
Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, deified after his death. Other Roman emperors of the first century – Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian – were also called sons of gods. The title exalts their status and pays tribute to their great power. It underlines their claim to be beneficial rulers of the earth.
But look at them by contrast with the true son of the one true God, look at them soberly in the light of history, and we can see this claim is fake news.
Jesus reminds his followers of what is obviously true: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” He adds, “It shall not be so among you.” Even if no one else stands up against the arrogance of power, Jesus does; and he calls us to stand with him.
Here on the mountaintop, God confirms the disciples’ confession of Jesus as the messiah, but God also confirms what Jesus must do as God’s messiah. He must go to Jerusalem, the centre of power of the elite allied with Rome. There he must confront these rulers. There Rome will kill him.
I said that the transfiguration reminded us that the gospel is good news. You may be thinking, “This is obviously some strange usage of the term that I wasn’t previously aware of.” And I haven’t even mentioned taking up your own cross.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it really is good news. God is with his beloved son all the way to Calvary and beyond; God is with us all the way to our own deaths and beyond; and God is with God’s world, yesterday, today and tomorrow, leading it out of death into life, leading it out of tyranny into freedom, leading it out of conflict into peace.
This is the good news. Something happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Something is happening in our own lives and in the life of our world. And something will happen. In and through and despite the stupidity and wickedness of our world, God is working God’s purpose out; and the risen Christ shall return in glory to establish God’s definitive reign.
The transfiguration story, then, invites us to pause for a moment, to take a time out. It invites us to look back at where we have come in the story of Jesus and the story of our world; and then to look forward, calmly and realistically, to the future of both.
We are offered no easy comfort, but we have no reason to despair. The teaching of Jesus is more than good advice, for we need this tough teaching if we are not to run with the crowd but to find the narrow way that leads to salvation. The pressure is on us, as it always is, to be faithful in challenging circumstances.
Tonight is Oscar night, for those who care about such things.
I’m no great fan of celebrity culture, but I found irresistible a joint statement issued yesterday by the six directors of the films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
They come from Australia, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Iran.
Together they express their “unanimous and emphatic disapproval of the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and in so many other countries, in parts of the population and, most unfortunately of all, among leading politicians”.
“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colours, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on,” they contend: “the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”
“Human rights are not something you have to apply for,” they say. “They simply exist – for everybody. For this reason, we dedicate this award to all… who are working to foster unity and understanding and who uphold freedom of expression and human dignity – values whose protection is now more important than ever.”
A bright cloud overshadows us. Jesus is transfigured. We are transformed.
In preaching and living the gospel, in speaking and acting for justice, in words or deeds of comfort and love and shared pain, we are being carried along by the Spirit into the dawning light of God for the world.
We have a God who stands together with us through the darkness, all the way to Calvary and beyond. If that is so, how can we keep from standing together?
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Pan, 1979)
Judy Maltz, “ Muslim-led campaign to fix vandalized Jewish cemetery triples goal in less than one day”, Haaretz, February 25 2017
Judy Maltz, “Muslim fundraising drive to repair vandalized Jewish cemetery tops $100k in under 48 hours”, Haaretz, February 25 2017
Catherine Shoard, “Foreign language Oscar nominees decry ‘climate of fanaticism in US’”, The Guardian, February 25 2017
NT Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good (HarperCollins, 2015)