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Quinquagesima B

Sermon at St Margaret’s, Budapest (2024.02.11)

Quinquagesima B

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

“Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

There is an old apothegm that 10% of our beliefs are wrong; the challenge is that we don’t know which 10%.

Up on the top of a mountain shrouded in clouds, in a bewildering and terrifying scene that even the best CGI of Hollywood would struggle to represent, Peter, confused and unsure how to respond, blurts out: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here! [yeah, obviously…] Let’s make three tents (tabernacles)...” 

The fact that our translation goes with the term “dwellings” versus the older rendering, “tabernacles,” points to the continued difficulty, even today, with making sense of what was going on. 

On Wednesday this past week, Dan asked me to come and speak to the middle and high school students at ICSB about the Anglican tradition.  Like Peter, my daughter Eszti was conflicted; proud that I would be at her school, but simultaneously also terrified of what I might say. (I know, weird, right? I mean, why would she be afraid?! Teenagers…) 

I brought along this cassock and surplice and asked them what they thought the various elements symbolised. For example, why is the cassock black? 

One student suggested it represented sinfulness, and then the white over the top represents holiness. And while that was a good guess, it falls prey to the 10% rule. 

The reason we wear a black cassock is that like the story of Moses going up the mountain to meet with God causing his face to glow so brightly that he had to put a veil on when he came down. Sometimes when clergy are up at the altar, our bodies start to shine dazzling white, and the black cassock serves as a veil so people don’t become terrified and think we are angels or something!

I am, of course, just kidding. The cassock is black because historically it was the cheapest fabric, and not colourful or flashy. It represented simplicity, humility, and conveyed the message that we are unimportant, mere servants of God’s people. 

Like the Apostle Paul wrote in our NT reading, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).

Ironically wearing a black cassock today causes one to stand out, especially at ICSB chapel. But that is the opposite of its originally intention. The Roman collar, the white “dog collar”, was the thing that identified us as clergy, which is still largely the case today.

The white surplice, however, is more complicated. It draws from the image of heavenly worship that we find in the Book of Revelation. At the Resurrection – the End of Time as we know it – our sinfulness will be washed away because of Jesus’ sacrifice, and multitudes of people from every tribe and tongue will be wearing white robes as they worship God.

Consequently, the white surplus connects our worship here this morning, with the worship in heaven on the Last Day. To use the technical term, it is an eschatological symbol, connecting the present with our future destiny. 

Interestingly, Peter was confronted with a similar set of eschatological symbols. 

In first-century Judaism, there was a widespread belief that the righteous would receive new, glorified bodies in order to enter heaven. This is a part of the Christian tradition as well. So Peter, when he saw the transfiguration of Jesus, assumed that the eschaton had arrived. The End of Time was upon them. 

This was further strengthened by the appearance of Moses and Elijah – something that makes little sense to modern ears. What in the world was going on?!

Moses was a prophet of singular importance. Not only did God use him to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt – literally to save Israel – but also to institute the covenantal framework for the relationship between God and his people. 

Elijah is another prophet of profound importance, but comes later in the history of Israel, at a time when things had gone very wrong indeed. Israel had turned away from maintaining this special relationship with God through observing the Torah (Hebrew Bible), and instead had chosen to follow their leaders in worshiping Baal, a different god.

In many ways, the ministry of Elijah parallels that of Moses – we see part of it rehearsed in our OT reading today – where Elijah and Elisha make a series of stops at the same places Moses and the Israelites stopped on their journey into the Promised Land. 

At grave risk to his own safety, Elijah called Israel to return to their covenantal relationship with God that Moses had established in Sinai. As one commentator put it, ‘Without Moses the religion of Yahweh as it figured in the Old Testament would never have been born. Without Elijah it would have died.’

Jumping forward in time again to the fifth century BC, Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return before the Final Judgment (Mal 4:5) and is why at Jewish Passover Seder meals even today, there is an empty seat reserved for Elijah. This prophecy could be understood as either a prophet who would mirror Elijah’s role in calling Israel to repent and return to God, or as some speculated, to physically return in person. 

In both cases, the return of Elijah clearly meant the End was near, which is why Peter wanted to build three booths (or tents or dwellings). He understood what was happening as the fulfilment of the Feast of Tabernacles, an ushering in of the eternal sabbath. 

As Peter had just confessed in the previous chapter of Mark, Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah, and the Messiah would finally set the world to rights, reigning with justice and peace forever. 

The problem is that Peter fell prey to the 10% rule. He got much of it correct but drew the wrong conclusions. Like his previous rejection of Jesus’ teaching that the Messiah (Christ) must suffer and die, Peter’s preconceptions prevented him from truly hearing Jesus’ teaching. 

The miracle of the two-step healing of the blind man, who initially was able to see again, albeit imperfectly – believing people were trees – is a somewhat humorous metaphor for Peter’s partial understanding. 

Here, like his confession of Jesus as the Christ, he mistakes a foretaste – an anticipation of the things to come – as the end itself. Salvation is not possible without the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, in order that the blessings of the Age to Come might be open to all of humanity. 

Peter’s thinking was limited to Jewish politics. Jesus had the entire cosmos in mind. 

Sadly, we are no different from Peter. Our own desires and expectations often distort our ability to hear and understand. 

The aphorism suggests that 90% of our theology is correct, but perhaps a better way to think about it is that 100% of our theology is imperfect, to varying degrees of imperfection. The hope is that over time, by study and prayer, our understanding will slowly move in the direction of greater perfection. But this side of heaven it will always remain imperfect.

As we think about this amazing event of Jesus’ transfiguration, it poses an interesting question. What are the ways in which we misunderstand the Gospel, where we are blinded by the “god of this world”? 

Making matters worse, the challenge is that it is not always clear which 10% needs adjustment.

As we enter the penitential season of Lent on Wednesday, I encourage you to make an extra effort to be attentive to areas in which Christ’s teachings might challenge some of your preconceptions.  

Alternatively, if this has been a season where your heart was “prone to wander”, perhaps it is a good time to listen to Elijah’s voice and return to God with a simple prayer of repentance. 

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