(Last Sunday After the Epiphany)
It is fitting that our season of Epiphany, the season of revelation, should end on a mountaintop. The conservationist John Muir once said, “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us, God.” There is something about the difficulty of the climb, the companionship of the trail, and the expansiveness of the summit view, that whisper to us that we are a little bit closer to God at the top than at the bottom.
On the mountaintop in our gospel reading we find Jesus, with three bewildered and frightened disciples, Peter, James and John. God reveals to us again that Jesus is God’s Son in an eye-catching scene.
Jesus shines brightly.
He talks with Moses and Elijah.
A cloud overshadows them.
God’s voice speaks to the disciples from the cloud.
And then it’s over as suddenly as it began. What were the disciples to make of it? Perhaps Jesus told them to keep it quiet until after his resurrection because they could not understand it yet. They had just seen Jesus’s triumphant glory, but they had not yet seen his crucified glory, and we cannot truly understand one without the other.
There is another mountaintop scene in Scripture that sheds light on this one: Moses receiving the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai. Let me set the scene for you. It’s the desert. The Israelites have just fled slavery in Egypt, narrowly escaping Pharaoh’s army when God parted the Red Sea. Now they are camped out, waiting to see what comes next.
Moses goes up the mountain. God speaks to him out of a cloud. God reveals to Moses God’s law. See the parallels?
Granted, I’m oversimplifying a bit, because there is the whole golden calfdebacle and Moses having to go up the mountain again for a second set of tablets because he smashed the first ones in anger, but we’ll leave that aside for now. The kicker detail that connects these scenes is that Moses’ face was shining when he came down the mountain. It freaked the Israelites out so much that he hid it under a veil.
Two mountains. Two brilliant revelations. At the first, the revelation of God’s law. At the second, the revelation of God’s Son. We might be tempted to interpret this as saying that God’s law and God’s Son are two equal revelations of God. Jesus is simply the new Moses, a prophet sent from God to show us a different way to interpret the law. Before, God’s people followed the 10 commandments, now God’s people follow Jesus’s teachings like the Sermon on the Mount. But this misses the point entirely.
Our epistle reading this morning comes at the end of a passage in Second Corinthians, where the Apostle Paul expounds on these two revelations. He refers to the first, the revelation of God’s law, as the ministry ofcondemnation, and to the second, the revelation of God’s Son, as the ministry ofjustification. Now, calling God’s law “the ministry of condemnation” sounds a bit harsh, but it’s for a good reason. The law of God is glorious and good. It tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we truly did these two things, we would make the world around us a much better place. But the fact is, we are sinful human beings, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot follow these rules. The Israelites promised that they would obey God there at Mount Sinai, and the Old Testament recounts over and over again the stories of their transgressions. We have our own “mountaintop experiences” – perhaps a particularly stirring sermon or an amazing spiritual retreat – and we resolve to become better people. But we can never quite follow through the way that we want. This is why God’s law is a ministry of condemnation: once we hear it, we are condemned by it, because we are unable to uphold it.
If the Bible left us with only the mountaintop experience of Sinai, it might feel hopeless. But that’s where the revelation of God’s Son comes in. Jesus’ divinity allowed him to live the perfect human life, or perhaps to perfect the human life. He followed all the commandments given at Sinai – loving God and loving his neighbor perfectly all the time. But then, despite the fact that he was NOT condemned under the law like the rest of us, he was crucified. He died for us, so that we might be forgiven for not following the law perfectly. His perfect life stands in place of our imperfect lives, his undeserved death stands in place of our deserved deaths. This is the ministry of justification. This is the ministry where God looks at each of us and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” because when God looks at us, God sees Jesus’s life instead of ours. In this ministry, our mountaintop experience happens not when we resolve to be better people, but when we kneel at the foot of the cross, humbled by the gift Jesus offers us.
God’s Son is more glorious than God’s law. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “
” Jesus’ glory, found both on the cross and in the transfiguration, is permanent glory. The gift offered to us in his life, death, and
resurrection can never be lost. Once we accept this gift, we are free to love God and love our neighbor, not in a doomed attempt to follow the law perfectly, but out ofthanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
May God’s light shine
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry
of justification abound in glory! 10 Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because
of the greater glory; 11 for if what was set aside came through glory , much more has the
permanent come in glory!
“in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the
glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Amen.