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March 3, 2014

Matthew 17:1-9


It makes sense that the Transfiguration is the last Sunday in Epiphany. This strange vision we call the Transfiguration is an Epiphany par excellence. Epiphany means ‘shining through’. Today I want to talk about 2 things. I want to talk a little about why this epiphany/transfiguration story is so strange to us today and then I want to talk about what it might have to say to us.

For the ancient world there is a spiritual dimension to reality which is invisible but just as real as what we see in our everyday life. An epiphany is a moment when the invisible spiritual dimensions of reality ‘shine though’, when they catch a glimpse of how much more is going on, of what is really going on behind what we normally see. For the ancients an epiphany or ‘vision’ tells truth about a wider and deeper dynamic. They didn’t really have a science for the spiritual dimensions, as we think of science. They just took them for granted. The empire was more than Caesar, more than his soldiers, more than all the roman things you could see. The empire had a spirit when any one of these things passed away. They talked about each nation having an ‘angel’ or messenger and ‘principalities’ behind any one person in authority (cf Walter Wink). If you read through the New Testament when it talks about ‘power’ it doesn’t really make a nice easy distinction between what we would call ‘spiritual powers’ and ‘political powers’ or ‘physical powers’. In the ancient world they are bound up with one another.

In the modern world we think there is more going on than we can see. But we call it atoms and molecules and energy. The invisible stuff is not bigger than what we can see. It is the parts that make up what we see.

But we also know in the modern world (to some degree) that role of president is a power greater than any one president. That a mob spirit is greater than any member of the gathered crowd, that there is a spirit of Caversham Presbyterian Church that is bigger than its current members. That there is something bigger going on, that’s invisible too.

The modernist world says this stuff is not real; it’s just a metaphor, whereas atoms and molecules are literal truths. But is that true? Is there nothing more going on than what can be explained by the parts?

Were the ancients entirely wrong? I don’t think so. I think the ancients were onto something here. …When I say that, I am not suggesting for a moment that we should reject the powers of science. What I think we should do is acknowledge the limitations of scientific methods. Physicists can’t see everything about the world – and for the most part they know that. Biologists can’t see everything about human beings.

Christians reading the Bible, do so because they believe in the presence of God in the world, invisible, in some sense, but not always or entirely. It’s impossible to read this story as a Christian and think that the ancients are completely wrong here. They may not be completely right about how they divide the mysteries of the world up… and we see something of that in today’s story. But those who put their faith in the risen Jesus side with the ancient world on this one.

That’s background. That helps us understand the strangeness of the vision to our modern minds. But what is the message for us in this story? What is God saying to us through Matthew’s story?

As Matthew tells the story, this epiphany comes midway between Jesus baptism and his resurrection. In different ways each of these three events (baptism, transfiguration and resurrection) is a kind of epiphany. Here the “voice of God” repeats what was said at the Baptism ‘This is my beloved Son’. This is the deep truth they are being told and are having difficulty grasping. Because alongside Jesus, we have a vision of the Spirit of the Law and the Spirit of the Prophets – represented by Moses and Elijah. And the disciples, in the first flush of excitement, see here in Jesus an extension of these ancient institutions of Israel. Law (Torah), Prophecy and now Jesus. Peter, the leader of the pack, wants to represent that architecturally. To build a tent or a dwelling or something (it’s ambiguous in the Greek). But the deeper reality comes again in the voice of God. And it’s a voice of rebuke. “This is my beloved Son … Listen to him.” Jesus does not fulfill the law and the prophets by sitting alongside them, on the same level. He fulfils them by transforming those ancient powers. Jesus is authoritative in a way that they are not.

Where the disciples look back to understand Jesus, the voice of God calls them forward to what Jesus is about to say and do.

The rebuke is powerful. The disciples fall on the ground “overcome by fear”. And, as in his resurrection appearance, Jesus word to them is the same: “Do not be afraid”

“Rise up and do not be afraid”. Fear paralyses. Grace raises the dead and sets people free to move.

“And when (it says) they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself.”

Matthew’s message is clear. The new thing that is happening redefines all that has gone before.

But its one thing to know that, in theory, so to speak, in a vision, but it’s another thing altogether to understand what it really means. What I mean is, the vision gives them a deep conviction that God is doing something unprecedented in the life of Jesus, but it doesn’t tell them what God is doing. The vision is useless on its own – like people who get a theological theory in their heads and think that’s the answer… (Hey folks did you know that Jesus is the Son of God… pass it on). The vision doesn’t stand on its own, it’s a stimulus to pay attention to Jesus. The point of the vision is to ‘listen’, to see what Jesus does and what God is doing in Jesus life. A little knowledge, a little theory is a dangerous thing. So Jesus says, ‘tell no one about the vision, until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Why not till then? Because the crucifixion of this ‘Son of Man’ is the key element in the whole business of listening to Jesus and following Jesus. Until that has happened his disciples have no idea what the whole thing is about. They simply are not going to know how to follow Jesus until his life is completed in his death. It is the thing that makes sense of it all.

It must have been awfully hard to shut up about the transfiguration experience! And yet what was harder was knowing how little they knew about what God was doing in Jesus.

Jesus tells them he is about to suffer, like John the Baptist before him. The Beloved Son will be despised and rejected by the world.

Jesus points them towards his spiritual battle (while at the same time being a very historical physical event – remember the ancients did not separate these things like we do). Jesus takes up no physical sword, he rejects the sword. And in the very act of rejecting the sword, of rejecting the means by which the world is ruled, the spirit of the world, he ends up defeating that spirit. The spirit of Rome, the spirit of Jewish religious piety, the spirit of the crowd all end up conspiring together (breathing together in one spirit) against him. He would be no threat at all if he fought against them as all other revolutionaries did. If he became like them, he would be no spiritual threat at all. But he didn’t. He stood against them in forgiveness. He embodied a spirit of non-violence and reconciliation, so he had to be eliminated.

And yet the very act by which he was eliminated (his crucifixion) became the means by which God exposed the evil spirit pervasive within the world, the common spirit of all who conspired against him.

A new Spirit is at work in the world in a new way. A new conspiracy is at work. The Spirit which dominates the world by fear of death has been defeated. Its powers have seen it and still tremble – notice how the state calls its officers ‘Ministers’ and their domains ‘ministries’. The Servant (minister) is now Lord of all and the powers that rule the world need reminding of this. They know it at some level, its there in their language, but they need reminding.

In the end the Transfiguration shines its spotlight on God’s Servant Crucified and says to us today. “Here’s is what is really going on under the surface of things. The victory has been won. This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.”

This is the real challenge for us… not believing in God or in the reality of a spiritual world… the real challenge is paying attention to Jesus, listening to him, in the day to day decisions of life, in our relationships, in the midst of all the spiritual forces with which we contend.

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