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Homily: We Can Be Transfigured, Too.

Homily preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria VA 5:00 p.m. on February 11, 2018.
Last Sunday after Epiphany/Transfiguration; Year B: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Cor. 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

With hope and longing, we hear the message, Heaven is real.

Elisha followed Elijah through the wilderness and across the Jordan before he saw the heavens open in a burst of light, with a fiery chariot and horses descending, to sweep Elijah away in a whirlwind up to heaven.

Peter, James and John saw Elijah, Moses and Jesus, who shines dazzlingly bright, in conversation on a high mountain where Jesus had led them.

In these two stories, heaven and earth collide.

Elisha sees that the long journey continues for Elijah, although Elisha must stay firm on the earth.

Peter, seeing the transfigured Jesus speaking with Elijah and Moses, wants to remain on this high mountain — “Let us make three dwellings.” At the same time, he feels the profound awe and fear that shepherds felt when they were surrounded by the bright glory of God and the heavenly hosts, announcing the birth of the Christ child.

Today’s readings are full of mystery. The Old Testament story of the assumption of the prophet Elijah, in the Second Book of Kings, sets the stage for our Gospel. Since Elijah did not die but was taken up into heaven, he remains alive with God and thus appears on the holy mountain with Moses and Jesus in the light of divine glory.

The death of Moses is also shrouded in mystery. Deuteronomy records that at the end of the Hebrews’ forty years of wandering in the Wilderness, Moses ascended Mount Nebo, in full view of the Promised Land, and there he died. The narrative continues that the Lord buried Moses, and no one knows the place of his burial. By New Testament times, the tradition had grown that Moses had not died, but had been taken up into heaven also.

More tradition developed that the return of either Elijah or Moses or both would signal the arrival of the Messianic age. So, the prophets of Israel had foretold. The Book of Malachi included the prophecy, “Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” And before he died, Moses himself had told the Israelites, “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from among you, from among your brethren – him you shall heed.”

So, when Peter, James, and John witness the spectacle of Jesus transfigured with the brightness of divine glory, and Moses and Elijah with him, the message is clear. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God. He is the One destined to bring about the reign of God on earth. So, the voice from heaven confirms: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

I don’t know about you, but these stories fill me with hope and longing. I, too, want to experience a vision of heaven right now, so that I will know that my own journey through the wilderness, trudging over the high mountains of my life, will someday lead me into the presence and brightness of the glory of God. I wonder if you share that same hope and longing with me?

A Baptist pastor I met in North Carolina as part of my Intentional Interim Ministry work said during Bible study that he’s ‘always there to focus on heaven,’ because he wants to enter God’s heavenly kingdom when he dies. I think that is what we all hope and long for -- eternal life -- to live in the light of the glory of God, in the company of Jesus; to be with those we have loved in this lifetime, and with the whole communion of saints.

During the season of Epiphany, we have had weeks of seeing and hearing that God is truly in our midst on earth in the person of his Son, Jesus, and today, we catch a glimpse of the heaven that awaits us in these final Epiphany readings.

But we hear something else also. We hear Jesus’ caution to tell no one. For our journeys are not ended. Heaven is real, but not yet for us.

Elisha, having watched Elijah ascend in the whirlwind until he could no longer see him, grasped his clothes and ripped them apart in his grief at the loss of this person who had guided him and taught him how to be a prophet. But now, even in his grief, Elisha must retrace his steps, back across the Jordan, to live out his own prophetic ministry.

Mark tells us that on the mountain, a cloud overshadows them, and suddenly when the disciples look around, only Jesus remains. Then Jesus, who has led them up the mountain, leads them back down to continue their journey as his disciples, reminding them they are to tell no one what they have seen until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead. The disciples question what this might mean. It’s hard to look truth in the face.

Jesus had already told them he must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Peter, who cannot imagine living through such grief, rebukes Jesus for speaking this truth.

So, as they came down the mountain, the disciples wondered how they could continue their journey if Jesus would no longer be with them. What did being risen from the dead mean? Even though they had just seen it, the light of the transfigured Jesus, they couldn’t imagine it would be at the end of the grief and darkness they felt about losing Jesus.

On this last Sunday of Epiphany, we too come down the mountain in the company of Jesus. And the church, in its wisdom, now gives us the season of Lent to participate in the very journey that the disciples themselves entered into at this point — the journey toward Jerusalem, where Peter will deny him, where the disciples will desert him, and where Jesus will die a horrible death on the cross, and then be risen, the resurrection about which, according to Mark, the stunned and grief stricken disciples can only remain silent.

We, too, make this journey through life, filled with joys and with grief. We travel through this life loving people, and then losing them, having success, then facing the death of our fondest dreams, and if we live long enough, growing older and feeling the world literally shrink around us. Parts of our journey may be full of darkness and insurmountable challenges that we aren’t sure we can manage. And like the disciples, we frequently come up short in the ways we manage our lives, giving in to the darkness in infinite ways unique to each of us.

With that trembling hope that we have for eternal life, how do we see those glimpses of heaven now that remind us that heavenly light and life await us at the end of our journeys?

Lent gives us an opportunity to remember that we travel in the light and to develop the practice of finding the light of God’s presence through all the days of our journeys. Today’s readings provide us with the guidance we need.

First, let us remember Elisha. Three times Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay here: for the Lord has sent me farther along—to Bethel, to Jericho, to the Jordan.” And three times, Elisha replies, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

“I will not leave you.” Exactly what Peter promised Jesus, and then spectacularly failed to do when he stood by the fire warming himself and denied that he had ever known Jesus. “I will not leave you” is what we promise Jesus and, yet, often fail to do. The season of Lent gives us a chance to reflect on the times we have left God out of our lives. We can work on remembering we are the ones who leave, not God. Jesus himself promises He will not leave us.

On top of the mountain, the disciples are told: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” Lent is a season of listening to what Jesus has to say to us, so that we can learn from him how to complete our journeys on this earth faithfully and loyally.

If we enter times of darkness and grief in our lives seeking the light of heaven and listening to what Jesus has to say to us, and faithfully following his example, then we receive the promise that the Corinthians heard described so eloquently by Paul. God, the One who said at the beginning of time, “Let there be light,” shines in our hearts. We ourselves become full of light, the same glorious God given light that shines in the face of Jesus Christ.

Lent gives us the opportunity to do what Peter wanted to do on top of that mountain — to make a dwelling place for Jesus then and there, to hold on to that moment.

Jesus promises us that we can be transfigured, too. In the fourteenth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus said that “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them, and make our abiding place, our dwelling place, our home, with them.” Loving him, loyally keeping his word—that is how we prepare a dwelling place for God in our hearts. So that can Jesus come to dwell in us, and we in him.

The coming season of Lent gives us the help we need in constructing his dwelling place in our hearts, a dwelling place that we hope that Jesus will fill with the glorious brightness of God’s presence -- eternal life now, a dwelling place filled with that light that points to our eventual entrance into the heavenly land of light and joy, where sorrow and sighing will be no more.

It is part of our human nature that we almost always seem to grasp the truth about a person long after we should. We are especially blind to the greatness of people we know well. That was the very human relationship that the disciples had with Jesus. They simply didn’t understand who he was. Maybe that’s why he told them to say nothing about the event.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. There on the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured, changed. He appears before them in dazzling white, a sign of God’s presence, with Elijah and Moses talking to Jesus.

When they see him transfigured, brighter than the brightest star, pure light before them, they see more than his future and risen life. Jesus shows them who they are becoming. He shows them the glory and destiny of all of humanity. That’s what the Transfiguration means in light of the Resurrection.

My prayer for all of us is that our journey through Lent can be one of loyal listening to God’s word and the faithful following of that Word, a journey in which we seek the light of Christ in our lives, especially in our darkest times.