Fear and Awe: The Last Stop in Epiphany

Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 26, 2017
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9
Fear and Awe: The Last Stop in Epiphany
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
       The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue writes of beauty: “Beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.” On this last Sunday in the season of Epiphany we are given a breathtaking, timeless moment filled with mystery and beauty as Jesus’ appearance changes for a brief time such that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” We don’t know exactly what happened on that mountain top, but it surely left an impression on poor Peter and James and John who were stricken with both fear and with awe. Mountain tops are known as holy places. They point to the heavens that are beyond our reach. In our first lesson from the book of Exodus Moses responded to God’s invitation to meet on the mountain and it was there that Moses was given “The Law” on tablets of stone. It was on the mountain that Moses stayed in God’s presence for 40 days and 40 nights. Our own Olympic mountains evoke Mount Olympus, the highest place in Greece and the mythological home of Greek Gods. Mountains tops are places where the view is clear and unobstructed, a suitable habitat for holy ones who are all seeing and all knowing, and for seekers who desire a more expansive view.
        Each year, on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we hear this awesome story that is told in all three of the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. In all three accounts Peter, James and John are led high up the mountain and then, in what feels to me like a silent revelation that is heralded, not with trumpets, or cymbals, or drum rolls… but rather in silence… as Jesus suddenly appears transformed and radiant, his face shining “like the sun.” The scene is other worldly. The meaning is not spelled out except in an experience of awe and beauty. And then… as if out of a dream… we are told that two great prophets of old, Moses and Elijah , appear and they talk with Jesus. We don’t have the slightest clue about the discussion between Jesus and the beloved prophets, but one senses that theirs was not trivial banter. I don’t imagine that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were talking about the weather or the current price of wheat on the open market. And what was the response of the three observers who were witnessing this surreal scene? Peter’s impulse is to respond to this experience of holiness by “doing”something. One might think that he was having a “Martha” moment (and I don’t mean Martha Stewart!) as he felt the urge to build three dwellings, dwell ings that might be akin to the Feast of Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths that is a commemoration of the wanderings of the Hebrews during their 40 years in the wilderness. You might recall the booth structures that are erected, yearly, in our courtyard by our sister congregation Bet Shira during the Festival of Sukkoth. We don’t need to be stuck in our own busy distraction trying to decide if Peter “should” have been more like Martha’s sister Mary…
that Peter “should” have simply soaked up the experience of this “other worldly” scene… because we are then distracted from the moment. We then hear that a bright cloud overshadowed them all… and just like the moment in early Epiphany when Jesus comes rising up out of the water at his baptism in the River Jordan, we hear a voice that says, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” The only difference between these two scenes, that bookend the season of Epiphany, the only difference in the heavenly message is that here, on the mountain top, comes the added imperative:
“listen to him!” …with an exclamation mark!
        The text goes on to say: “When the three disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus alone.” Up until this experience on the mountain, Peter, James and John have known Jesus as they walked with him in the dust of itinerate wanderings . Just prior to this story about Jesus’ transfiguration/transformation/metamorphoses… in the previous chapter of Matthew… Just after Jesus asks “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” …and after Simon Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on which the Church is to be built… followed by Jesus telling the ones around him… who have, by the way, dropped everything to follow him… that he will be heading to Jerusalem where he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the third day rise again… and after he
tells the disciples that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It is after this hard news…and somewhat baffling teaching… that we are all taken to the mountain top for an experience of terrifying beauty accompanied by the instruction “listen to him!” …exclamation mark! This is the last signpost in this season of Epiphany as the frontier of Lent is visible in the near distance.
        This coming Wednesday, our spiritual passports will be marked with the reminder of our own mortality, our own deaths… as our foreheads are smudged with ashes in a sign of the cross. Lent is a spacious, pared down season that invites us to slow down our urges “to do” and to “be busy.” It is a season when we are invited to listen for the “still, small voice” of God. It is a time to welcome the experience of beauty in new and unexpected ways. In the wide open spaces of our interior journey we may well encounter distractions, discomforts and even fears that are part of the journey. We too often muffle “the irritating” and the “uncomfortable” that arises within us with unnecessary busyness. When we slow down… and listen… to whatever comes… we are offered much food for growth. The walk through Lent is rich with possibility… if we but listen and are present with the experience of the long slow journey through the wilderness season.
        If you have ever skied at Heavenly Valley, on the south shore of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevadas, you know that when you ride the chair lift to the very top, above the tree line, you have the choice of skiing down the California side of the mountain, towards the lake, or you can ski down into Nevada. The view is awesome. Looking westward from this high vantage point, Lake Tahoe looks quite small. Looking eastward, the snow abruptly ends as the desert begins. On this last Sunday in the season of light, we come down off the mountain, having just had a most mysterious and breathtaking experience. Our direction, now, is towards the desert wilderness where we will follow Jesus through his time of trial and temptation that will lead us into Holy Week and to another high place known as Golgotha, the place of death. Our story of faith does not jump to “happily ever after.” Our story invites us to walk the journey of transformation by following Jesus to the both the high places and the low places…through the peaks and valleys of human experience… that our hearts may be stirred and changed and our minds stunned beyond pain, with the beauty of God’s  magnificent and perfect love.
        From her book Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, the great writer, Annie Dillard, has famously suggested that we should wear “crash helmets” to church instead of our Sunday best (whatever “Sunday best” may be). Of the spiritual journey Dillard writes, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” The power is present within and through this large, awesome, life giving story of our faith… a story that we live into as we follow Jesus from birth, to tomb and beyond.
        I would like to conclude with this blessing:
               May the peace of Christ go with you, wherever you may go.
               May Christ guide you through the wilderness, and protect you through the
                May Christ bring you home rejoicing at the wonders you have been shown.