Last Epiphany A Feb. 20, 2023
This is the last Sunday of Epiphany. Actually, because I learned to count when I was little, I had decided that today was Epiphany 7, since last week was Epiphany 6. So I spent quite a bit of time putting together a sermon for Epiphany 7. Oh well – maybe in three years I can use the one I wrote.
OK. So. On this last Sunday of the Epiphany season, we are struck by glimpses of glory emanating from two occasions of theophany found in today’s lectionary. As with the heat and light of the sun, we know its effects, but we can’t get too close to it because we couldn’t bear it.
Let’s start by examining two crucial words, glory and epiphany. We glorify God’s Holy Name when we offer praises, but do we ever stop to think about what the word glory means? It is such a beautiful word, that maybe it should be reserved for the Divine. But we hear it used a lot, used, for example, for human kings and queens. If we look at the ancient roots of the word in Greek, they reveal that glory resides in knowledge, in knowing the one we are praising. This is crucial to the understanding of today’s lectionary.
Next word: theophany. Theophany is closely related to Epiphany; in fact, the Greek church calls this season of Epiphany Theophany. Theophany means the revealing, the appearance of God (not what God looks like, but God appearing to us). Let’s keep glory and theophany in mind as we look at our scriptural passages for today.
In the Old Testament lesson, which is one of the most profound and significant in the story of Exodus, we see Moses entering, and then disappearing into, the cloud of glory and theophany. The writing uses anthropomorphic language to describe God’s actions. Like – “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction.” What’s awesome about this experience lies hidden in the cloud. The presence of the cloud and of fire denotes God’s presence; however, we know that the human beings involved cannot see God because if they do, they shall die. “The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days . . . . Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.”
Inside the cloud, Moses learns something of God’s character as outlined in the commandments, and in the theophany he is privileged to glimpse, he is covered by God’s glory. The writer of the passage doesn’t tell us what Moses is seeing and what he is feeling. But we know that devouring fire (that is, fire that devours) is terrifying; there is nothing mild, sweet, and comforting about theophany. The ancient Hebrew writers teach us this reality with their carefully chosen language about the Divine.
By contrast, how careful are we when we speak about God? Have we become careless in speaking about God? How often do we hear the Lord’s name taken in vain? How often do we hear it and not even protest? How often do we make glib comments like “It was a God thing.” The Old Testament lesson for today should leave us with the appropriate awe – the fear and trembling that result when we are confronted with God’s glory. The ancient Hebrew writers did use anthropomorphic language for their God, but they never forgot that theophany was beyond human language and comprehension.
The beautiful and terrifying Psalm 2 has been appropriated by Christians who attribute the words meant for a human king to Jesus of Nazareth. This was inevitable because of the familiar words echoed in the baptism of Jesus and in the preaching of St. Paul. “You are my Son; this day I have begotten you.” Let’s not forget, though, that the psalm was written for the enthronement of a king at a time when kings were God’s chosen leaders of the people. Later, this conviction changes into the hope for a kingly Messiah. You notice in this psalm there is a militant, punishing, and vengeful tone which Jesus, in his life and death, utterly rejected.
In the New Testament, the letter attributed to St. Peter recalls the Gospel lesson; we’ll concentrate on the event the Church has called the Transfiguration of Jesus. The story of this metamorphosis maybe should be called “Seeing the Glory in Jesus,” for this is what happened when three fishermen from Galilee were given a glimpse of who their friend Jesus truly was; the amazing thing is that they forgot almost immediately afterward – until much later.
This story is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, but here we have St. Matthew’s version. It’s obvious that both Matthew and Luke learned the story from Mark, who must have heard it firsthand from his uncle Peter. You can imagine Peter telling Mark of those moments of glory and terror. “And there I was,” he must have told them, “babbling, not knowing what I was saying. I was only sure that something wondrous was before our eyes, that I didn’t want it to end, that everything else in life suddenly didn’t matter, and I begged Jesus to let me build a hut for him, for Elijah, and for Moses. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking. I was struck by Light and Glory, and had lost my senses.
Six days before, according to Matthew’s timeline, Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had declared that Jesus was the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God.
Now Peter, together with James and John, accompanies Jesus, who is taking the three of them on a hike up the mountain, a hike which must have taken all day. Luke, who paid attention to details, tells us that the three disciples were heavy with sleep; apparently night must have fallen; he also adds that Jesus was praying. They know, without even being told, that this is the way he is always replenished, his powers restored, his exhaustion lifted – when he prays to his Father.
But this time, something changes drastically while he is praying. His face is transformed by blinding light and his worn, dusty robe is turned into brilliance. He is no longer alone but in conversation with two other beings. They know the two are Elijah and Moses, though we’re not told how they know. Will they remember this moment of glory later when they watch their teacher and friend in the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane? Will Peter remember as he denies Jesus in the yard of the one who will condemn his dearest friend to death?
No. Human beings often forget God’s glory and God’s light when they are confronted with sin and darkness. One moment we are crying in delight “Let’s stay like this forever,” and the next moment we are sure that the Light never shone on us. It becomes so easy to blame God for all the ills of humanity. When Moses returns from the glory of his mountain, he is confronted with the disloyalty of the people who in his absence have fashioned an idol, a golden calf. When Jesus returns to Jerusalem, he is confronted with condemnation by the people he had loved. He is abandoned by his friends.
What does this say about us? Whose children are we, children of darkness or children of the light? God gave us the great gift of memory, and these biblical stories help us to remember always that knowing God means knowing God’s glory. The dramatic stories of Moses on the mountain, of Jesus as he is transformed, of Paul as he is met by the glorified Christ and changes forever – these are our heritage. But the glory does not end there. We see it in the extravagant beauty of nature, in the unconditional love of our pets, like Luna and Buster, in the smile of a baby, in the kindness shown by one person to another; in the hymns we sing, and in the Eucharist we share. We see it in the life of Jesus and in the lives of his disciples. We see the suffering and the pain also, but every now and then, there is that cloud of the Holy Presence and the Light of God’s assurance – that we are loved despite our forgetfulness.
Above all we remember that theophany, the revealing, the appearance of God, did happen in the Incarnation and in the Resurrection of Jesus. We hold on to that knowledge. We are not abandoned. We are reminded that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.