Sunday, February 19, 2023
Last Sunday of Epiphany
HE TOUCHED THEM AND SAID “DO NOT BE AFRAID”
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77450
February 19, 2023
Today’s passage is the point where Matthew makes it 100% clear that Jesus is the Messiah. This is a turning point in his gospel. From this point on, Jesus along with his inner circle who now have no doubt about who is, are on their way to Jerusalem for the final confrontation with the Jewish and Roman authorities. This will ultimately lead us through Lent as Jesus makes the trip to Jerusalem culminating in Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
This passage is set six days after Peter’s confession of who Jesus really is, not only who do people say he is but Peter’s answer when Jesus asks, “And who do you say I am.” The six days are in keeping with the timing of the Festival of Booths in the fall which is 6 days after the Day or Atonement in the Jewish calendar. Jesus takes his inner circle up the mountain where they witness the transfiguration.
Jesus has an inner circle of three just as King David had an inner circle of three Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, 2 Sam 23:8, 18-23. This is important since Matthew is focused on proving that Jesus was a descendent of David, both physically and theologically. This tie to David is very important to Matthew as he tries to convince his readers that Jesus really is the Messiah.
In the previous chapter, Peter a member of this inner circle has just been questioned by Jesus as to who do people say I am. This is followed by who do you say I am, where Peter confesses him as Christ and in behavior true to form for Peter, promptly is strongly rebuked to get behind me Satan when he seems to forget who Jesus is within just a few verses.
We see in this passage the transcendent Jesus in his glory to use OT terms. This is a theophany, meaning it is an in breaking of God into our worldly existence. It pretty clearly involves a vision that is shared by all on the mountain. This is a classic glimpse into the kingdom in true apocalyptic tradition. Apocalyptic in terms of being a vision of what is to come, a revealing of knowledge about the nature of God.
In your bulletin is a copy of the icon that I have on the altar today. This icon depicts three parts of the scene. The group is shown going up the mountain with Jesus in the lead. Then the focus is on the transfiguration however the icon also shows them then going down off the mountain. The entire journey is shown on this icon. The flow seems to be, come, see who I am, follow. Then the transfiguration occurs, but that is not the end. Finally, it is time to come down out of the vision, off the mountain and get back to work. All three of these pieces are important.
Jesus is the focal point, always at the center of this icon, which is of key importance. Jesus as Messiah is the focus of Matthew’s message, so the artist has placed Christ at the center in all three portions.
Moses and Elijah appear because for Matthew they represent the law and the prophets. He changes the language from Mark’s version to make this point. The mountain brings back memories of Moses and the commandments. God speaks from a cloud as with the commandments. Moses in this icon has what looks like a book or tablet in his hand. Finally we remember that when Moses came off the mountain his face shown so brightly that he had to place a veil over his face so people could look at him. So this story has linked Moses and Elijah, who is to come before the messiah, with Jesus. This was very important to Matthew’s audience.
In the icon both Moses and Elijah are pointing towards Christ and bowing slightly to show he is the greater. The Greek translated “listen to him” also implies obey him. This echoes the voice that is present in Matthew’s baptism scene where we hear “This is my son the beloved in whom I am well pleased.” In the baptism it isn’t exactly clear who hears this voice, but here it is clear that the disciples hear the voice and fall to the ground in terror.
When I started working on this sermon, I was thinking the listen/obey him was the important message. However as I worked on my storytelling what jumped out at me is that in their fear and trembling, Jesus touches them and tells them not be afraid.
The cloud is gone, the voice is over and the very human Jesus touches them. This is unique to Matthew. Jesus touches them. This is the only version of this story in the gospels where he touches them. What is that about, why does Matthew include this when neither Mark or Luke mentions this detail.
Matthew is focused in his gospel on proving to his mostly Jewish audience and followers that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is more than transcendent and this very human action of touching someone brings a very human touch to this mostly transcendent experience. Matthew speaks of this as a vision an inbreaking of God into our world, but then everything changes in that simple act.
Think for a moment of all the times we hear of Jesus touching someone. Much of the time that touch is one that heals sometimes instantly. The blind man where he mixes the mud and puts it on his eyes. The young man who is being carried out to be buried. So many of those stories.
I speak of two images of Jesus one transcendent, the up there on the throne in heaven and the imminent Jesus, down here in the dirt with us. Sharing our pain, soothing our pain with us in the struggle. Only Matthew offers both images in his story. This is Jesus fully divine and fully human.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine the scene as I tell the story again. Place yourself there on the mountain with Jesus.
Matt. 17:1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Stop for a moment and create the picture of this in your mind. What does Jesus look like for you. See the shining light from his face, the blinding white of his clothes.
3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Again use your imagination and see what this looks like for you.
5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
What does God’s voice sound like? Is it quiet, pleading, urgent, commanding? What does God’s voice say about your image of God?
7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Where does he touch you, on the head, the hand, your shoulder? What does it feel like to have Jesus touch you?
Matt. 17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
As you come back down the mountain with Jesus, what do you want to say to him?
Now what I have just done with you is a bible meditation technique developed by St. Ignatius as part of his spiritual exercises. When I go on retreat I will spend an extended period of time using these techniques. As we get ready to being Lent, you might try this technique of imagining yourself in the bible story with our weekly or daily readings. You could also do this with the OT passage for today with Moses on the mountain with God. The idea is then to sit with what you experienced and thought while doing the meditation and then ask what message is God trying to send to you through this meditation.
Lent is time for taking on a spiritual practice. This is just one of several things you can do. Over the next week I will be updated a page for Lent on the website and I will provide a link in the E-news. In the related links page on the website there are links that will take you to a variety of sites. One is to Pray as you go, which is an Ignatian site that provides a 15 minute daily meditation using several Ignatian meditation techniques.
An even simpler discipline is to join me at 8:00 each morning for online morning prayer on Facebook. You can watch it live or at any time during the day. It is helpful if you have your prayer book with you. You can also go to Mission St. Claire and follow along with me if you would like. Whatever you do for Lent, make a prayer discipline part of your rule of life for the season.
Lent is time to consciously work to draw closer to God and a rich prayer life is the best place to start. Be bold this Lent and give it a try.