Exodus 24:12-18, Ps 99 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
Moses has gone up to the Mountain. In our Old Testament lesson Moses along with Joshua head up to the holy mountain. The top of it is covered in clouds and there is drama- thunder and lighting. We do not yet know at this point in the story to know what is happening up there, but what we do know is that Moses has an encounter with God. Heʻs there for 40 days and 40 nights and while in Godʻs presence receives the law. A few chapters down the road in Exodus Chapter 34 we read of Moses coming back down the mountain and the Bible describes his skin as glowing. Clearly, an encounter with God is life-changing.
The first followers of Jesus saw him as the new Moses. Jesus was the new lawgiver. Thus in a similar mystical event, Jesus also goes up to the mountain with James and John and there has his encounter with God.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah represents Godʻs anointing finger upon Jesus. And then just as Moses went down into the valley from the mountaintop so does Jesus. He will go to deliver the people into a NEW promised land.
But what are we to make of this story of transfiguration? As I mentioned Jesus as a new Moses and a New Elijah- he is the lawgiver and the greatest among the prophets for a new age of understanding, a new era in Godʻs story of Salvation. But Jesus is not Moses or Elijah- That time is over. Jesusʻ mission is not in a temple or a mountaintop, or a specific location. Jesusʻ ministry is not a ministry where people come to him, but a ministry where the primary act of worship is going WITH him INTO the world.
Let me unpack that a bit. When Jesus was on the mountaintop and with Peter, James and John, and they witnessed the transfiguration, what did Peter want to do? He says. “Letʻs build some tents here.” He doesnʻt strictly say this, but what he is saying is that letʻs mark this place, where people can come and see the tents one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah so they can pay their respects.
We do this all the time, and we call these sites Churches. There are hilltops, valleys, and holy sites across the world. All of them- places where people go to pray and perchance have their own encounter with God. Who would have thought? This is our tent of meeting, this here is our tent that serves as itʻs memorial to the life and teaching of Jesus.
But the challenge for all of us to see beyond this tent- see beyond these church walls. Because as much as we would like to live here all the time and be our own community, we canʻt. We have other obligations- jobs, commitments, mortgages, and so forth. For many, years I would go to the Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. It was run by the Benedictine Angiclan brothers of the Order of the Holy Cross. The monastery was on the top of a beautiful hill that overlooked the pacific ocean and the Channel Islands. It was a place so beautiful it was always hard to leave. But the brothers did it all the time. Part of their work was hosts of the retreat house for pilgrims like me, but their mission work was really off the mountain, down in the “valley”- out in the world.
Peter is wanting to build the tents wanted to find a way to preserve the moment.
I really love Peter for that very reason. He is so human. He is symbolic of all that is real about us as human beings. We believe and yet have doubt, we confess Jesus as Lord and yet can also deny him. Despite his shortcomings Jesus chooses him to continue his work on earth.
Peter wants to preserve the moment. And how many of us do this every single time. Now that we have these things (phones) we try to preserve the moment as IF by NOT taking a picture … the event never happened. Hike to an overlook- phones out – selfie! I baked a loaf of bread and yes I took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram and Facebook. I am not dismissing the need to hold and preserve memories for posterity like we did once upon a time in photo albums- that too is important. But I fear that with these things, we are so desperate to capture and hold on these and other moments and sometimes I think in doing so we do ourselves a disservice because we lose what these things mean to us and the impact they have. This was Peter’s dilemma? How was it possible to capture this moments and preserve it for posterity. Peter wasn’t wrong to want to do this he was trying to honor the moment in the best way he knew. But for Jesus there was more to be done- he could not and was not going to stay on the mountain. Following this transfiguration.
The story of the transfiguration and Moses’ ascent into the clouds invite us to ask: How do we capture our encounters with God? Anyone who has been on a pilgrimage of any kind whether that is a spiritual pilgrimage or the once in a lifetime trip to Disneyworld or to view one of the natural wonders of the world, we come away from such experiences different than from when we began. When Christ gathers us around this altar in the Eucharist we are not living or reliving a digital moment.
Rather, metaphorically, we are on that mountain. We hear God’s voice telling us to listen to the one we bear witness to who is the Beloved Messiah. And as a result, we are changed by it. We are touched by God’s grace and we can never be the same.
There is however this great temptation to think then that this is where we find Jesus and having found Jesus, it’s our task to take Jesus out into the world.
In his address to all the bishops in the Anglican communion at Lambeth, Bishop Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury) told them that it was typical of our Christian life to believe that WE needed to take the baby Jesus by the hand and lead him out into the world. There is fallacy and sin in such a belief in that God must be protected by us.
Instead, he offered an image that we are to leave the safety of our booth like churches and follow Jesus into the world.
This is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday we will mark our foreheads with a sign of our mortal nature. Epiphany has always been about the revelation of Jesus, the Light of the World and the incarnation of God, Epiphany has been about the calling and the gathering of the disciples, and now Epiphany draws to a close with the Transfiguration- a moment of light, and revelation, and calling.
When we come way from communion, whether or not we feel it, or know it, or even want or care, we leave this place different in some way than when we came in. We may not fully understand the transformation that takes place, but take place it does. That is Grace: we may not fully understand the transformation that takes place, but take place it does.
The ineffable mystery that is before us leaves us in awe and serves as food for the journey that calls us not to remain on this mountain, but sends “us now into the world in peace.” And into the world, we go- descending from the mountain; our faces shining because we too have been transfigured; having been in the presence of God. Amen.
Last week it was easy. It was about Jesus telling us that we are the salt of the earth and that we are the light of the world. Last week the message that came from Jesus hinted at bringing flavor to the world; as creatures of light we Illuminate the darkness with the radiance of glory and love of God.
But today we are confronted with the moral life. With the commandments. There are the commandments of old given by Moses, who in the Book of Deuteronomy stands at the gateway to the Promised Land and gives the people: If you obey the commandments of God by loving the Lord your God and walking in his ways and observing his commandments, God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear and are led astray to bow down to other gods, you shall perish. “Choose life, so that your descendants may live” he says, “loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding on to his teachings. The book of wisdom called Sirach which is in the apocrypha also says if you choose, you can keep the commandments; before each person is life and death.
And that would be enough for us to go on about our business to think that commandments are simply rules we have to follow and we can evaluate our righness or wrongness of a choice or action. The Big Ten is a good example- Thou shall not bear false witness is a general rule against telling deliberate untruths.
But another way of looking at commandments is to see it as a guide to the formation of our moral character. In otherwords its not just about following a rule for the sake of following it, but rather, through repeated attempts to follow the rule in the face of changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to do the right thing.
Our gospel lesson for today comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “Anti-theses,” because Jesus’ teaching is presented in the following pattern: First, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said ”; then Jesus follows with his own magisterial statement, “but I say to you”. The problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” is that it suggests that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not so. Rather, what Jesus does with each one of these is take it to the next level. What he says goes beyond commandment itself and the typical understanding of it. When Jesus offers us these commandments, they are not just rules to be followed but that in following them, we are formed and shaped as disciples fit for the Kingdom.
“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us. To fulfill this commandment is to form our hearts and minds so that we look at others not with anger, but rather with love. The greater gift is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the type of people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work to be reconciled with them.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle others. Treating others as objects takes what doesn’t belong to us, even if it keeps its distance. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses and respects our neighbors.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” The commandment is given so that we can be people of integrity.
Becoming grace filled people does not happen in a moment. When we are baptized, it doesn’t mean that at the moment the water hits our head we are “zapped” and all is well with us on our walk with Christ. We hear the words of Jesus who said, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people…” that was the invitation. These commandments from Jesus is him teaching us how we ought to go about fishing. Jesus came not to abolish he law but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community that is devoted to a higher purpose.
We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might become the type of people Christ wants us to be, people formed and fashioned for life in the kingdom of God.
God gave the commandments not so that we would become moral rule keepers; rather, God gave us the commandments as guides and exhortations for the formation of our character so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.
Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 24:7-10, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
Well here we are, us Episcopalians, digging into our more liturgically catholic roots to enact and participate in a ritual that goes back to at least the 11th Century and some historians have suggested it dates back to the 4th or 5th Century. I am, of course, talking about Candlemas. Or the blessing of candles.
Why, one might ask, do we go to the fuss?
The blessing of Candles is secondary to the centrality of the occasion which is formally called the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple or simply the Presentation.
It is a feast rich in meaning with several different interwoven themes- presentation, purification, meeting, light. In a way it is a moment for us that glances back to the Christmas and the Incarnation on the one hand, and looks ahead to Lent and the cross on the other.
This feast commemorates the purification of Mary after giving birth of Jesus. According to the law in the Book of Leviticus, in the Old Testament, 40 days after the birth of a boy, the mother was to go to the temple to be declared ritually pure once again. But this is also the presentation of Christ in the Temple as well. It also says that the first born male would also be presented to God. Historically, the feast was kept locally in Jerusalem as early as the year 350. In Eastern Christianity, this feast was also known as “the Meeting,” referring to that of Christ with Simeon. It would continue to be kept widely in the West.
The blessing and lighting of candles is a key part of this liturgy. Before we made a switch to oil filled candles, beeswax candles were blessed, distributed, and lit and carried in procession while the Nunc Dimittis- Lord you now have set your servant free. This symbolizes the entrance of Christ, the True Light into Temple.
“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into my temple.
These are the words of the prophet Malachi who says that the messenger is described as a refiners fire or a fuller’s soap. A fuller is one who washes wools or fabrics. The book of Malachi was written in the late 4th century BC to a society that was filled with sorcerers, perjurers, corrupt employers and landowners. No surprise there. God is responding to the objection that God is unable to deal with the evil doers and make things right. Instead God declaers there will be a messenger who will come to the temple with the purpose of cleansing it and warning the people. The reading of Malachi is deceptive. IN actuality, this is strong stuff. Eventually, Jesus will fulfill this prophecy when we cleanses the temple and over turns the money changers tables- chasing them out with a whip of cords.
But today’s Gospel is Jesus’ first entry into the temple. He is but 40 days old, and as a tiny infant, he is carried in to the temple in Mary’s arms. There are three rituals that take place, The purification of Mary, the redemption of the first born, and the presentation of the child in service to God. And then there is Simeon. When the holy family arrives, Simeon comes out. This is the moment he has waited for all his life. He is an old man now and was told that he would not die until he met the Messiah. He bursts into joyous song, in the words known to the us as the Nunc Dimittis. The Song is sung in the evening at Vespers and Compline- the traditional words are hauntingly beautiful:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a Light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
As a Light to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel, Simeon boldly declares that Jesus is the light of the world as well as the glory of his own people of faith.
Also in this scene is Anna- the prophet- She ALSO praises God. It is a wonderful picture of wisdom of old age paying homage to youth in infancy. Together they represent a transition of the time of the Old Testament to new era.
Ok, So where are we?
On this great feast of Candlemas we recall how Jesus was presented to God in the Temple, the most holy of all the sacred places of his religious faith. Today and every time we gather we are called to present ourselves anew to God in worship – Our Lord’s presentation in the Temple sets us up for our own kind of presentation. If you look carefully in the language and the parts of the Eucharist, we ask God not only to transform the bread and wine into a Sacrament of Grace, but we also ask God to transform US as well. We ask for God’s blessing, we ask for God to purify our hearts and make us a new creation. In worship we put the past and its failings behind us, and turn our focus toward the living God who loves us and who calls us to a holy life a life of grace and transformation. It is a life that follows the path Jesus called us to when he plucked us from our fishing nets and mundane existence to discover the adventure that now awaits us.
Candlemas is a service that is also about the blessing of light- Jesus who is the Light of the World
is, in our hearts, the light of hope.
God calls us to share in the light of Christ – to bring help and comfort to others by that message of hope and light, and to re-awaken our dedication to God in the renewal of our daily lives. So as we bless our candles as it were one last look back at Christmas, giving thanks for the great gift of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, let us also look ahead – the way ahead may be uncertain and even filled with difficulties and challenges for many, but it is the adventure to which we are called. With Christ as our guide, we can be assured of his presence with us and his strength to sustain us, as we follow in his way even to the cross and beyond to newness of life. Amen
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.