SJF • Last Epiphany A • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of “showing forth.” It was a very short season this year, only four Sundays counting Epiphany itself; yet some significant things have already been shown forth to us these few weeks. We have seen how God hides and reveals himself, and come to understand how utterly known to God all of us are — known through and through, and loved by the one who made us in his own image.
We have heard gospel readings describe Christ’s showing forth to the world. A dove settled on him at the river Jordan, showing John that Jesus was the one he waited for. John’s followers answered Jesus’ call to “come and see,” and Jesus himself went to the far reaches of Galilee of the Gentiles, and netted himself an assortment of fishermen, who left their nets and boats and families behind, to follow him. But on this last Sunday before Lent, Jesus is revealed in a different light, and delivers a paradoxical command to three of those fishermen.
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First, the revelation. Jesus is revealed for a moment in his full glory. He had promised his disciples, in the verse before our gospel for today begins, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, James and John get a preview of Jesus’ divine majesty, a down-payment on the final fulfillment. No wonder Peter wants to stay on the mountain!
However, not only don’t they stay on the mountain, but Jesus issues a strange command as they are coming down from the heights. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And we wonder, Why reveal, then conceal? Why reveal the good news and then order them not to tell it? I spoke two weeks ago about how God plays hide and seek with us, and this may be yet another instance. But I think there is more to it in this case.
And the “more” begins in our Old Testament reading. Here too is a mountain on which God is revealed, though not in human flesh, but in cloud and majesty and awe, carving the Law in stone. God gives this written revelation to Moses, who brings it to the people. And we all know what happens. The people are not ready to receive God in the form of sublime and righteous laws. God is ready to meet them half-way, to enter into a covenant with them. But they don’t want to go half-way; they don’t want even to be near the mountain. They will reveal themselves to be happier with a god they’ve made themselves, a golden calf they can dance around, who won’t do anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.
So God is faced with a dilemma. God loves humanity, and sends Moses with the Law, a covenant into which the people were invited, but which they reject before the ink is even dry, so to speak. So God sends the prophets, like Elijah, reminding the people of the promises, of the love, of the forgiveness that awaits them if only they will turn to God and forswear their foolish ways.
What happens to the prophets? Some are heeded—briefly. But others are beaten, some killed. So God decides to send his own dear Son — not a letter, not an ambassador, but one who shares his being, one who is God— one who is glimpsed in majesty on the mountaintop by three disciples, and will only later be revealed in the mighty act of resurrection from the dead.
This is why Jesus orders the disciples not to tell the people about what they have seen on this mountain... until after. The people already have Moses, for the Law is read week by week in the synagogue. The people already have Elijah and the other prophets, whose deeds and warnings are also recounted. Jesus knows that this is not enough— the Law and the Prophets alone cannot save. Following rules and hearing warnings will not save people — they don’t need another teacher or lawgiver: they are too hardheaded to be instructed. They don’t need to be taught, but rescued; not instructed, but saved! And that goes for us too. What is needed is for someone to rise from the dead, mighty in power and strong to save.
So what happens on the mountain is the preview, not the feature presentation! It is a private screening, to encourage the apostles — not for general release! And even what they see on the mountain is not enough — it is not salvation, but promise. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, to bask in the momentary glory, to live in the promise rather than the fulfillment.
But God has other plans: When Peter offers to build three shelters, God speaks, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” God is saying, The Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, have had their day and did their part, but now you have the Son himself: listen, and do as he says. There is something better even than this to come.
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Saint Paul understood this difference well, a lesson learned at great personal cost. He had been a man of the Law and the Prophets, but he learned that, in the light of the resurrection, all his learning was just so much rubbish. Jesus is working along the same line when he tells the disciples to keep the vision secret until he has risen from the dead. Don’t give away the ending, he’s says, perhaps the first spoiler alert! The best part — the important part — is still to come— but not before suffering, pain and death. Jesus does not tarry on the mountain. He goes down to the challenges still waiting. For he knows that only through his death and resurrection can people finally be saved. The promise is not enough — there must as well be performance.
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We, too, have our mountaintop moments. Like Peter, we are tempted to remain in them, enjoying them, trying to make the experience last. But we too have challenges awaiting us. The parish church is one mountaintop for us. We come each week, hear the words of the Law and the Prophets, and of Jesus, and then go out on our way. Surely, it is good to be here. We feel restored, renewed, encouraged and comforted.
But all of these feelings are meant to impel us to action, not as ends in themselves. We receive the promise in order to equip us for performance, in God’s name. It would be easy to stay in the comfort of community, but we are challenged and equipped to go out to face a world in need.
It is good to be here, and we need a weekly return to our mountaintop: just as Christ himself went to hills to pray. But he also went back to the valley for ministry. We are fed by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel; but we know that the Law is without power to save on its own, that the prophecies will pass away, and that the gospel will perish if there is no one to preach it. So we are reminded today that we have a mission, a mission to all the world. We go back to our weekday lives equipped with gifts of the Spirit, as ambassadors of Christ.
Us? Ambassadors of Christ? Yes, us! We have been transformed, changed into messengers of Christ, so that what is unchanging may be revealed through us. The great news is the resurrection has happened — we are not bound like James and John and Peter, to keep it secret until it happened — for it has, praise God! We live in the time of “until after” — Christ is alive! That is the Gospel, the Good News. And so we’ve received the commission to tell it out, to tell abroad the Good News that salvation has come, and we are its heralds and ambassadors.
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Christ came down from the mountain to a valley that led towards Calvary. He didn’t stay on a mountaintop with three booths, but marched steadfastly on toward a little hill with three crosses. But there is more; do you see it? As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, as we enter the valley of challenge before us, keep your eye on the mountain there ahead —— not the little hill called Golgotha, but the mountain that rises behind it, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom. Though Lent is about to begin, we know the end of the story, the greatest story ever told, we know that Christ is alive, risen from the dead and powerful to save, and we — we servants of God — equipped with that knowledge and filled with the Holy Spirit, we can go forth from this place on our mission, empowered to tell that story and do great works in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+