The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 23 February 2020

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2, or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
St. Matthew 17:1-9

Background: The When of the Feast

In the Episcopal liturgical calendar, this is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The readings, however, are those for the Transfiguration of our Lord. This feast is celebrated on many different days. For Lutherans, this Sunday is the Feast of the Transfiguration, although up until the publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship, the feast was observed on 6 August. That day received the feast when Pope Callixtus III used it to honor the lifting of the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. That day is shared with Eastern Orthodox calendars, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans. In the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland the feast is celebrated on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. 

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

The scene is the giving of “the Words”, which implies speech. Moses, however, is invited to come to the mountain to receive “the tablets of stone.” Words were a strong memorial at this time, with a great deal being remembered and transmitted via oral tradition. Here, however, there is a sense of permanence with the words being struck into the stone of the tablets. 

The second paragraph, however, is more of a theophany – a vision of God’s presence to Moses. He is enveloped in the cloud – the same word is used here for the “pillar of cloud” that accompanies Israel at the Reed Sea event. In this text we not only see Moses literally enveloped by the divine, but Moses separated from the people and in company with God. First there are seven days and then forty, both auspicious numbers. Israel will receive the words but not before a painful separation from Moses that will have dire consequences.

Breaking open Exodus:
1.            What is your vision of God?
2.            Have you ever been “in the cloud”?
3.            What might the separation from Moses mean?

Psalm 2 Quare fremuerunt gentes?

     Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
     Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
and the princes plot together, *
against the Lord and against his Anointed?
     "Let us break their yoke," they say; *
"let us cast off their bonds from us."
     He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.
     Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.
     "I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion."
     Let me announce the decree of the Lord: *
he said to me, "You are my Son;
this day have I begotten you.
     Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
     You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery."
10    And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11    Submit to the Lord with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;
12    Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
13    Happy are they all *
who take refuge in him!

Now the focus is a different mountain – not Sinai, but rather Zion. The psalm seems to speak of a particular historic situation which we can no longer identify. The important element, however, is “the Anointed” who makes an appearance in verse 2. Here the term messiah has reference to the anointed one – the king in the line of David. The other kings of the earth are held in derision, for it is the Davidid king whom God supports and protects. That is made clear in verse 6, where the king is situated in Zion. This mountain (in actuality a much smaller mount) becomes something greater for it is the seat not only of the Anointed One, but of the One who anoints and protects. Verse 7 makes it clear – “You are my son, this day have I begotten you.” We shall encounter this phrase again at the baptism of Jesus. Gifts are given in the psalm: the nations, the ends of the earth, wisdom, and happiness. The latter is given not only to the Anointed One, but to all who take refuge in God.

Breaking open Psalm 2:
1.        How is religion creating an uproar in our time?
2.        Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
3.        How can your church bring justice and righteousness?


Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

     The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
     The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
     Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
     "O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
     Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
     Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
     He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
     Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
     Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

Here we see God in the guise of a king, enthroned on the cherubim (as on the mercy seat between the cherubim on the ark of the covenant). God is seated in Zion and the people tremble and the earth quakes. These initial verses have a cosmic perspective, a universal cast. “He is high above all peoples.” All the peoples are invited to honor him. The reason they should is made clear, for it is this God who is a lover of justice, equity and righteousness. This is the program of the prophets who urged the people to have a similar passion for justice and righteousness. 

At verse 6 the context shifts from the global perspective to a more national one. It is signaled by the mention of three individuals: Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. As prophets and priests they invoke God’s wisdom, and God speaks to them and to the people from the cloud (see the first reading). The psalm mentions the testimonies and decree, clear reference to “the words” that were given to Moses. The hill of Sinai gives place to the holy hill of Zion, seat of the Holy One.

Breaking open Psalm 99:
1.        What is your reaction to God in glory?
2.        Where and when have you experienced that?
3.        What does it move you to either do or be?

The Epistle: II Peter 1:16-21

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

In this testament which has followed the conventional letter in the early verses, Peter reminds his readers to be wary of false teachers, and their claim that Christians are being sold a “bill of goods” in their belief in the promise of the end time, the parousia. Again we have words that have followed us from earlier readings, the voice proclaiming the Son, and the holy mountain. Thus the text is tied to the ancient traditions of Moses and David, and the baptismal accounts of Jesus as well. The teachers that Peter argues against, speaking against their denial of the heavenly vision of Christ, these teachers are given gifts from the ancient scriptures, and the evidence of Peter who was on the mount of the transfiguration. He contrasts the darkness of their understanding and light that shines in a dark place. Finally it is a matter of understanding the prophecy of scripture and how that is interpreted by men and women. It is the Spirit that illuminates.

Breaking open II Peter:
  1. What is a myth to you?
  2. What do you understand the end time to be?
  3. How is God revealed to you?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.” 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

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.”

This vision is transmitted to us not by an unknown other party, but by the witnesses themselves, “And he was transfigured before them.” Here the vision is a connection not only to the glory hidden in the Christ, but sees the transfigured Jesus as a connection to Moses enveloped in the cloud at Mount Sinai (see the first reading). The ancient prophetic connection is made real with the appearance of Moses and Elijah as well. The account however moves beyond the theophany to the reality of Christ in the midst of the lives of those who follow him. Peter’s request to build tabernacles to enclose the visions is countered by the voice which we heard in previous readings “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased, listen to him.” Finally the vision is theirs alone – they are to tell no one. One other great has to happen first before this understanding of Jesus can be fully understood – the Resurrection.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        Why was Moses there?
2.        Why was Elijah there?
3.        Why were the disciples there?

General Idea:              Understanding the Words

Stage One:                   Jesus is the Anointed One – the Son (exposition on the divinity of Christ)

Stage Two:                  Jesus is the Beloved One – (exposition on the relationship of the Father and the Son)

Stage Three:                I am well pleased with Jesus – (the acts of Jesus)

Stage Four:                  Listen to him – (exposition on the teachings of Jesus [look back on the Gospels for this season]).

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

O God, who before the passion of your only­ begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller


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