Archive for February, 2013
Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
As most of you know, I do chapel service for the Trinity School children each Wednesday. This week following the service I heard one of the kids remark that “Pastor said a word he shouldn’t have said.” My mind started racing over every word I might have uttered over the last hour. Decades ago, when I was much younger, I was prone to fits of potty mouth now and again. Though I have long since purged expletives from my regular vocabulary, there are very rare occasions on which I go to say “shoot” and I miss. I was hoping that the child I overheard had not witnessed any such misfire. Not until our school principle pointed out to me that I had sung a song with the kids that had an “alleluia” did I finally understand the nature of my offence. We are, of course, in the midst of Lent, the season of penitence. Alleluias are strictly forbidden-even on Palm Sunday. As the pastor, I should have known better.
So when I read this Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah, I felt strangely comforted. Seems I am not the only one that tends to forget where we are in the church year. “Come, buy and eat,” “buy wine and milk,” “eat what is good,” “delight yourselves in fatness” says the prophet. This is about as far out of step with Lenten discipline as a performance of the Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the midst of Holy Week. It looks as though the lectionary folks blew it big time. I am not sitting alone in the liturgical penalty box for Lenten violations.
Jesus seems also to have been guilty of feasting out of season. He was once asked why the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fast while his own disciples do not. I gather that since fasting was part of Jesus’ own discipline and instruction, the accusation was not that Jesus and his disciples never fasted. The problem seems to be that they were feasting at a time or season when fasting was expected. Jesus’ responds with a question of his own: “How can you expect the guests to fast when the bridegroom is among them?”
The problem we have observing Lent is this: we know how Jesus’ story ends. We already know that the tomb is empty; that Jesus is alive and present among us. The only reason we can bear to tell the story of Good Friday is that, even then, we cannot erase from our memory the joy of Easter Sunday. We cannot simply pretend we don’t know that God has become inextricably bound up in the messiness of our lives-even in our suffering and dying. The bridegroom is among us. How can we not celebrate? As the song says, “How can I keep from singing?”
Don’t get me wrong. I am as devoted to the observance of Lent as any other good Lutheran. But I cannot pretend I don’t know that Jesus lives. Knowing that Jesus lives cannot help but inspire joy. So I think I will go easy on myself and the makers of the lectionary as well. There are worse sins you can commit than feasting with Jesus or letting an occasional alleluia escape your lips during Lent.
For a brief but thorough overview of the book of Isaiah, see the summary by Fred Gaiser, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary published at enterthebible.org. Here it is enough to say that these words were spoken by the prophet to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet sees in this development the hand of God at work creating a new future for Judah. The exiles are naturally skeptical. Most have built new lives for themselves in the foreign land. Those born in Babylon know of Israel only through the legends and stories told by their elders. The prophet’s task is to make his fellow exiles see the glorious new future God is offering them. To that end, the prophet employs some of the most beautiful poetic language in the scriptures. He compares the opportunity for return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt. He promises that, just as God provided miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, so God will shelter and protect the exiles as they travel once again to that promised land from captivity in Babylon.
In our lesson for today, God speaks as though he were a street vendor or a carnival barker inviting all those passing by to “come.” The remarkable thing here is that the voice of the Lord goes on to announce that the goods are free. “He who has no money, come, buy and eat.” Verse 1. The banquet is a frequent metaphor for the new life God offers Israel. The point is clear. God is giving a banquet for which there is no admission charge. Only a fool would turn away from such an opportunity! Yet that is precisely the choice Israel will have made should she ignore the opportunity for return to the land promised to her ancestors. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful guests invited to the wedding feast. (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). The reference to milk and wine, foods associated with richness, seems to echo the image of Palestine as the land of “milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:9.
This is the only passage in the writings of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) in which King David is mentioned. The prophet is far more interested in the messianic role of Israel as a whole than in any of her leaders. Yet he or she can hardly ignore so prominent a theme in Israel’s faith and history as God’s covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” II Samuel 7:16. Yet what hope can this promise offer now that the line of David has been extinguished? As the prophet sees it, the covenant with David is now extended to all the people. God’s “steadfast love” for David is now embodied in an “everlasting covenant” with all Israel. Vs. 3. It should be noted also that Israel has been given as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…” Isaiah 42:6. Thus, God opens up the Davidic covenant to the whole of Israel so that Israel might become a channel of God’s salvation to all the nations of the world.
“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord.” This verse summarizes well a recurring theme throughout Second Isaiah: That God is God and we are not. One of the more subtle forms of idolatry is the assumption that God’s ways are our ways. Though the so called “Christian Right” has been justly criticized for linking godliness and morality to a narrowly defined set of cultural biases, I think that we mainline protestant types are often far too certain about what “social justice” ought to look like and far too eager to identify the will of God with our own partisan projects and agendas. Conservatives should be weary of assuming they know what God desires to conserve. Progressives should be equally weary of assuming they know which way God is progressing. What a hoot it would be to find out at the close of the age that nothing we thought was historic, significant and earth shaking, nothing we have given our lives to achieve ever really mattered. How rich it would be to learn that the real history was taking place in some corner of the earth we never even thought to look-like a stable in Bethlehem.
The reference in verse 11 to “the king” rejoicing in God (not included in our reading) and the psalmist’s having “looked upon [God] in the sanctuary” suggest that this psalm was probably composed before the Babylonian Exile and during the reign of the Davidic kings over the Judean monarchy. The longing for God’s presence expressed in verse 1 through the metaphors of hunger and thirst of a person lost in the wilderness are artfully contrasted with the images of feasting on “marrow” and “fat” in verse 5. The psalmist’s need for God is as critical as reliance on food and water. It is satisfied through praise and thanksgiving in God’s sanctuary. The psalmist has experienced God’s help and protection throughout his/her life and so “clings” to God’s right hand. God’s steadfast love (“chesed” in Hebrew) is better than life itself.
Once again, from a strictly liturgical perspective, it is hard to sanction this wanton show of gluttony during Lent, even though we know it is expressed only in a metaphorical sense. Yet on further reflection, it is not inappropriate to ask during this season of repentance whether in fact we actually experience this sort of hunger for God’s presence. If we do not, then perhaps, like the audience of the prophet in our first lesson, we are spending “our money for that which is not bread and our labor for that which does not satisfy.” Isaiah 55:2. Our appetites need instruction. We need to learn to yearn for and crave the things that will sustain us. We need to learn to pray well. For that purpose, I can find no better teachers than the psalmists. I have said it before. I will say it again. Two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. There is no surer way to a rich and satisfying life of prayer.
Few sections of the Hebrew Scriptures have proved as instructive for the church as the forty years of Israel’s wilderness wandering between her deliverance from Egypt and her entry into the promised land. Disciples of Jesus, who remember with thanksgiving the “exodus” accomplished by Jesus in Jerusalem and look forward in anticipation to his return in glory, naturally identify with the Israelites at this period in their history. During these “in between” years Israel was totally dependent upon her God for food, water and protection from enemies. She was tested, tried and prepped for her entry into and occupation of Canaan.
In this passage Paul calls upon the church at Corinth to understand her own day to day existence as a time of testing and sanctification. She needs to understand that her sins of divisiveness, rebellion and lack of love (See post for Sunday, January 20, 2013 ) will produce dire consequences for her. Nevertheless, the Corinthians must also keep in mind that God’s judgment is to be understood as another side of God’s mercy. God wounds in order to heal; God judges in order to induce repentance; God’s wrath is born of God’s zealous passion for the salvation of God’s people. For this reason, Paul asserts that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man…” Temptation here is not to be understood as a personal affliction. Paul is speaking here to the church. The temptations afflicting the Corinthian church are those that threaten her oneness in Christ and lure her into the quagmire of destructive conflict, class distinctions and partisan divisions. Just as God forged a group of escaped slaves into a mighty nation in the furnace of wilderness wandering, so the Spirit of God is shaping the Corinthian church, a fractured and divided community, into the Body of Christ where all work as one. The take away: sanctification is a slow, painful and difficult process. Left to ourselves, we are tempted to abandon it. Thankfully, God can be trusted to complete the job of transforming the church into the image of Jesus.
The two incidents referenced here, Pilate’s execution of an unspecified number of Galileans and the death of eighteen people in the collapse of a tower, are not referenced in any other historical source. That is not surprising. The Galileans were most likely put to death in Jerusalem during Passover. This is the only occasion on which lay people would be sacrificing their own animals. Longing for independence and resentment at Rome ran high during Passover. For this reason, Pilate made a point of being present in Jerusalem during the feast with additional troops to maintain order. This, of course, only added to the resentment of the people. It is easy to see how violent conflicts between Pilate’s troops and the Passover pilgrims could erupt. Such incidents were probably so common as to be hardly newsworthy.
The incident Jesus brought up involving the fall of the tower also appears to have been a relatively minor occurrence. “Silome” was a name given to the reservoir associated with the water supply in Jerusalem fed by the spring of Gihon. The spring was the main source of water for the city. It is referenced in Psalm 46. An aqueduct built during the Bronze Age brought the waters of the spring into the city. According to the Biblical account, it was through this aqueduct or one like it that David and his army were able to invade and conquer Jerusalem without breaching its walls. Interestingly, Pilate oversaw the construction of an aqueduct designed to improve the water supply system for the city. While it is possible that the fall of the tower to which Jesus referred had something to do with this project, there is no positive evidence on that score.
The implication here is that the people bringing to Jesus news of the unfortunate victims of Pilate’s wrath believed those victims were responsible for their plight by reason of their sins. Jesus does not specifically refute them on this point, but states that the Galileans were no more sinful than anyone else. Consequently, these people should not be focusing on what the Galileans may or may not have done, but rather upon turning from their own sin lest they meet the same fate. The same point is made with respect to the victims of the tower collapse. People should not be asking why these eighteen people died, but recognize instead God’s mercy in the very fact that they are still alive and still able to repent.
The parable of the unfruitful fig tree follows. Like this tree that has taken up good soil for three years without producing fruit, Jesus points out that the folks he is addressing are living similarly unfruitful lives. Like the butchered Galileans and the victims of the tower collapse, they deserve God’s punishment. But the ax has not fallen-yet. God has graciously given them time. The question is, how will they use it?
This parable of the fig tree is intriguing. It is tempting to interpret it allegorically with God being the owner of the vineyard and the vinedresser Jesus interceding on our behalf for mercy. But that does not work for a number of reasons. God clearly does not wish for the destruction of anyone. Even when God threatens judgment, it is with the hope that those who are so threatened will turn and repent. The owner of the vineyard is making no such threat and seems to have no hope for the tree. This is simply a business decision. The tree is an investment that has failed for three years to yield a return. It is time to pull the plug and invest elsewhere. The vinedresser’s motives are unclear. Perhaps he sees more potential in the tree than does the owner. In any event, the vinedresser is convinced he can get fruit out of the tree and tries to convince the owner to give him one more year.
As I see it, the parable has but one purpose: to illustrate the point Jesus has made with respect to the two tragedies discussed in the previous section. Fruitless as we are, we have lived to see another day. That is sheer grace. We have done nothing to earn this new day and have no guarantee that we will see another. Note well that we never hear the owner’s response to the vinedresser’s plea for more time. We would like to think that the owner said, “Fine. You think you can make this tree produce some figs? You have one year and one year only. Knock yourself out.” But it is just as likely that he said, “You have to be kidding! Three years this tree has produced nothing. What do you think will be different about year four? Cut it down!” Given that, undeservedly and inexplicably, we have been freely given this day, this hour, this minute-what are we going to do about it?
Second Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” Luke 13:35.
New Testament scholars are in virtual agreement that the Gospel of Luke was composed anywhere from fifteen to thirty years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Many of them are also inclined to view this saying less as a reflection of Jesus’ sentiments upon his arrival in the city toward the close of his ministry and more as the early church’s effort to provide a theological explanation for the Temple’s destruction. No doubt Luke’s telling of the story is colored by the church’s experience of historical events that followed the ministry of Jesus. That said, I don’t think it is possible to divorce Jesus from his dire judgment upon the Holy City. All four gospels contain Jesus’ words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt leadership. One of the more serious charges leveled against Jesus at his trial was his alleged claim that he would “destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days…build another temple not made with hands.” Mark 15:58. Furthermore, Jesus was not the first prophet to pronounce a judgment of destruction against Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Micah similarly warned that, however much God might treasure the Temple and the city of David, neither could be used as a shield against God’s punishment for injustice and unrighteousness. The judgment against the Holy city brought about in Jeremiah’s time by the Babylonian invasion served as a solemn warning for all subsequent generations. It is hardly surprising that Jesus should draw upon this prophetic tradition in speaking to the Jerusalem of his day.
Yet Jesus takes no delight in pronouncing Jerusalem’s doom. He does not speak here as an angry firebrand. His mood is sad more than it is angry; heartbroken more than outraged; tired more than inspired. He is a man resigned to a violent death at the hands of his own people for the sake of a new age he will not live to see. Unlike the parallel account in chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus does not weep. He just takes the next step in his journey to Jerusalem toward which he “set his face” back in Chapter 9. Jesus displays a grim determination to complete this race in which he is hopelessly behind and cannot hope to win. And he calls us to follow him.
This isn’t a very attractive picture of discipleship. But there are plenty of disciples of Jesus who will tell you that it is often accurate. St. Paul preached the Body of Christ throughout his ministry. What he got was churches like the one in Corinth-fraught with conflict, torn by power struggles and unable to comprehend the good news for which Jesus lived and died. I wish I could tell you about all the aid workers I have met over the years who have spent their lives in refugee camps throughout the world sacrificing ties of family and friendship at home, sacrificing their health and safety abroad for wages that ensure they will never live far above the poverty line. When their service is done they often leave a situation that has deteriorated further despite their faithful efforts. There are millions of church leaders throughout the world who volunteer their time, efforts and resources to build up the Church of Christ after spending a full day at their “real” jobs. These are the folks on the church council; the Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and trustees. Some of them toil away in churches that, in spite of their best efforts, are losing membership and financial support. Often times, they go without proper recognition and even face unjustified criticism. That is why I try my best to make these folks understand how precious and important they are. When people ask me why fewer and fewer people are involved in the church these days, I am tempted to reply that I often wonder why anyone at all is still there.
I hope we are all still here for the right reason-the same reason Jesus continued putting one foot in front of the other on the way to the cross. I hope we keep plodding on because we believe that God is serious about creating a new heaven and a new earth. I hope we struggle forward because we believe that God will finish what our lives can barely begin. I hope we embrace the cross because we understand that it is the shape the reign of God must take in a world that kills the prophets and stones the messengers of reconciliation sent to it. I hope we remain faithful because we believe that the prophetic word finally will be heard. I hope we are driven by the conviction that God is able to raise up the shattered pieces of our broken and seemingly ineffective efforts to be disciples just as he raised up the broken and lifeless Body of Jesus from the grave.
Why would a man take a bunch of animals, cut them in half and make a path through the two halves of each of the bloody carcasses? In order to answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time to the Bronze Age. Society is made up of city states that owe their allegiance to larger kingdoms that in time will become the empires of the Iron Age. Obviously, such alliances are not agreements between equals. The ruler of a smaller state received a promise of non-aggression from the larger kingdom in return for payment of tribute and a pledge of military support if required. If this sounds rather like a protection racket, it is because that is essentially what the agreements were. These lopsided alliances were sealed by covenant ceremonies in which numerous animals were slain and cut in two. The subject king would then swear absolute allegiance, promise tribute and pledge military support to the dominant king. The dominant king would then force the subject king to walk on the bloody path between the severed animal parts. It was supposed to produce the same effect as the horse head next to which Jack Woltz woke up in the movie, The Godfather. “See these hacked up animals little king? This is what happens to little kings that try to cross the Big King? Any questions?”
In Sunday’s lesson from Genesis, God stands the whole notion of covenant making on its head. Abraham asked God “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land of Canaan]?” God’s response is to make a covenant with Abraham. Usually, it is the weaker, vassal king who seeks covenant protection from the dominant king. But here God is the one seeking a covenant with Abraham. In near eastern politics, the weaker king is the one who makes all the promises. In this case, God is the one who makes an oath to Abraham. Instead of forcing Abraham to walk between the mangled carcasses, God passes along the bloody path saying, in effect, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to give you a child, a land and a blessing, may I be hacked in pieces like these animals.”
This remarkable story illustrates what one of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser, once said: “The Old Testament tends toward incarnation.” The New Testament witness is that the Word of God became flesh, that is, became vulnerable to the rending and slaughter experienced by the sacrificial animals used in the covenant ceremony. In fact, we can go further and say that God’s flesh was torn apart, God’s heart was broken and that this rending of God’s flesh was the cost of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So understood, it is possible to recognize the cross in this strange and wonderful tale from dawn of history.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.”
Two things are noteworthy. First, this psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” The psalmist’s response to these enemies is prayer. He or she does not strap on a six shooter with the intent of “taking care of business.” Instead, s/he calls upon the Lord to deal with the enemy. This is the characteristic approach of the psalms. Even when the psalmist expresses a distinct desire to see the enemy punished in very violent and graphic terms, the psalmist leaves the business of retribution to God. That, of course, is precisely in line with what Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
Second, the last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” Biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6 of chapter 3, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Knowing all of this makes it a little easier to stomach Paul’s call to imitate him. Paul is not just being a pompoms ass here (though I suspect that he could be just that at times). It isn’t his moral example or his sterling character that Paul calls us to imitate. Rather, he calls us to imitate his indifference to racial identity, cultural status and religious achievement. You don’t come into the church through your success in living as an observant Jew anymore than you win God’s love by living as an observant Lutheran. You come into the church by Jesus’ invitation. Everything else you bring with you is just excess baggage.
This encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees needs to be placed in the larger context of Luke’s story about Jesus. Recall how two Sundays ago Jesus stood with Moses and Elijah discussing the “Exodus” he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. From that point on, it was clear that something big was about to occur in the Holy City. So when we read in Luke 9:51 that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” it is clear that the time is at hand. From here on out, everything that occurs is leading up to the final confrontation that we know is approaching with every step Jesus takes toward his goal.
The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is seeking his life and urge him to flee. We do not know their motivation. Though the Pharisees were often hostile toward Jesus, this was not always the case in Luke’s gospel. In fact, in the very next chapter Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a very prominent Pharisee. Moreover, the Pharisees had no great love for Herod. However much they might have disagreed with Jesus over any number of issues, Jesus was still a Jew that cared deeply about the Torah. Herod was a thug and a bully appointed by Rome who cared little about anything beyond his own comfort. As between the two, it is likely that the Pharisees would have sympathized with Jesus.
Of course, it is also possible that the Pharisees were trying to intimidate Jesus. Perhaps they felt that raising the specter of Herod might frighten him away from Judea and back into the more remote parts of Galilee where he would be someone else’s problem. In either case, Jesus will not be deterred from the course he set out in chapter 9. So far from fleeing, Jesus sends the Pharisees back to Herod with his travel itinerary.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is one of the most moving passages in the gospels. We seldom get a glance into the head of Jesus. It seems to me that all four gospel writers are intent on preventing us from doing that. We are almost never told how Jesus felt or what his thoughts were about the things taking place around him. This passage marks one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Unlike the account in Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus wept over the city. Nevertheless, his lament is filled with compassion. Jesus is resigned, it seems, to failure. The city that kills the prophets and stones the messengers sent to it will deal likewise with Jesus. Its people will not be gathered together by Jesus. Jesus is going to die without seeing the consummation of the reign of God to which he has given his life.
As indicated in my introductory remarks, New Testament scholars tend to read Jesus’ words of judgment against Jerusalem as an attempt to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Again, I do not doubt that Luke had this event in mind while composing his gospel. Still, I believe that Jesus’ own remarks about the Temple and the wealth of prophetic tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures were Luke’s principle sources of inspiration. As pointed out previously, all four gospels have Jesus uttering prophetic words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt worship practices. Moreover, the prophets were frequently unsparing in their criticism of the Temple and their threats of judgment. See, e.g., Jeremiah 12:7; 22:5. Consequently, I believe that Jesus’ address here in its Lucan context is directed more generally to Jerusalem and the people it represents who have a long history of resisting the messengers of the Lord calling them to repentance. This saying should not be read, in my opinion, to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome was God’s punishment specifically for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus’ statement, “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood,” calls to mind a host of images from the Hebrew Scriptures. See e.g., Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 91:4; Ruth 2:12. The shelter Jesus promises affords the kind of protection proclaimed in Psalm 27, our Psalm for this Sunday. Jesus makes it clear to us that he knows he is walking into a conflict that will claim his life. He does so with the confidence that God will see to the completion of what his “Exodus” in Jerusalem will begin and that the people will one day cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
First Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The devil didn’t show up with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a stack of porn videos when he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. Turns out neither God nor the devil have much interest in the sins that rally our guardians of morality to march on Washington, boycott consumer products and bombard television networks with letters of protest. The stakes here are much higher than wardrobe malfunctions, nasty words and irreverent behavior. Real temptations, those that go to the very depths of our being don’t entice us to choose evil. Most of us are smart enough not to do that. For those who aren’t, the devil doesn’t need to waste his precious time tempting them. They will find the way to hell on their own. The devil typically appears as “an angel of light,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. Rather than openly advocating evil, he promises an easier, more cost effective way to achieve the good. That is precisely the tactic he uses on Jesus. “Why wait for God to provide bread when you can have it now? Why waste your breath preaching a kingdom for which all must wait when there is a military solution that can bring it into existence today? Why spend years forming faith through teaching the practices of discipleship when with one flying leap you can perform a miracle so grand that no one can possibly doubt you? The cross is a slow, inefficient and unreliable way of establishing the reign of God. Do it my way! It’s faster. It’s cheaper. It’s easier.”
I think that perhaps the greatest temptations we face are impatience and laziness. In the corporate world, you are expected to demonstrate immediate results in the most cost effective way possible. Don’t expect financing for a new business unless you have a business plan supported by raw data demonstrating that your company will begin paying off by a date certain-and not in the distant future. We expect elected officials to have some tangible accomplishments to show us within the first one hundred days in office. Such impatience finds it hard to tolerate a God who waits 400 years to deliver the children of Israel from slavery. What is wrong with a God who waits until a woman’s ninetieth year to give her a child? Why did Jesus find it necessary to terry two full days while his friend Lazarus languished on his death bed? The God of the Bible appears to operate in a way that is costly, inefficient and time consuming.
The ancient practices of Lent are similarly impractical. Does anyone really believe that prayer prevents hurricanes, earthquakes and blizzards? What can you show for having fasted? How can a single person giving alms make even a small dent in hunger throughout the world? The answer to all of these questions is simple. Practicality is not the point. Lenten disciplines were not designed to change the world. They were designed to change us. More specifically, they are designed to help us overcome lazy resignation and learn patience and persistence in faithful discipleship. Prayer, when it is modeled on the prayers of scripture, teaches us to love and long for the reign of God above all else. Fasting teaches us that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Giving alms trains our hearts toward thankfulness and generosity. The practices of Lent are tools we give the Spirit for the work of transforming our souls. Of course, transformed people inevitably transform the world around them. But that world transforming energy is a fruit of the Spirit, not the work of our own hands. It is driven by the sometimes hidden purposes of God and not by our impassioned notions of what the world needs. So let us begin our Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and alms, confident that God is at work in us and in the world bringing to fulfillment all that has been promised in Christ.
This is the passage that I love to refer to as the “First Thanksgiving.” Moses is addressing the children of Israel as they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. The refrain “remember” has been reverberating throughout the previous chapters and it will be heard in the succeeding ones as well. Forgetfulness is the greatest danger Israel faces as she begins to settle into the land of Canaan. There is a very real possibility that the lessons learned throughout the years of wilderness wandering will be lost once the people are in possession of productive land. “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God.” “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” Deuteronomy 8:11,17. Moses knows that the most potent antidote to arrogance and greed is memory. Therefore, he outlines a liturgy for the Israelites to recite at each presentation of “first fruits” from the annual harvest. You might call it a sort of “creed.”
The Israelites are to recite their history. They are to remember that they were sojourners, “few in number.” They are to recall that “the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us; and laid upon us hard bondage.” They are to remember how “we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” This is significant because God would have Israel know that she was not delivered from bondage merely to become another Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Israel is to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. “Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 16:20. “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
In the final verses of this reading, Israel is commanded to “rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and to your house…” vs. 11. This, by the way, is where I got my inspiration for this year’s Lenten theme: “The Joy of Repentance.” The opposite of faith is not doubt, but ungratefulness. When you start thinking that everything you have is the fruit of your own toil, you start to resent having to help out a poor neighbor. “I worked for it. It’s mine to do with as I please.” You also start to worry about losing what you have. “After all, if everything I have has been achieved by my own efforts, what will happen when my efforts fail? Where will my daily bread come from when I can no longer extract it from the ground by the sweat of my own brow? Can I afford to offer up the first fruits when I don’t know what tomorrow will bring? Can I afford to lend a hand to my neighbor when I might not even have enough for my own needs?” This is the kind of worry, anxiety and fear that always comes of imagining that ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ That, by the way, is why Jesus would not take the devil’s challenge to prove that he is God’s Son by making bread for himself out of stones. It is precisely because one is a child of God that he or she need not resort to such measures. Faith knows that “The eyes of all look to thee and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145:15-16. God did not create a world of scarcity filled with desperate creatures fighting for an ever smaller slice of a shrinking pie. This is how the devil would have us view the world. Jesus recognizes the devil’s world view for what it is-a lie.
We get the devil’s spin on this psalm from our gospel lesson (Luke 4:9-12). Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to just such a demonic distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.” This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain for Mom. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez. I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus.
But I digress. The point here is that we should not let the devil snooker us the way he did Mr. Wilkinson. This psalm is not telling us that faith in God is a magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has seen combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble,” which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.
You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life.
In this chapter Paul is dealing with what I believe is the foremost concern of his heart, namely, the relationship between Israel and the church. I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us to recognize that Paul’s letters were written long before Christianity existed as a religion separate from Judaism. Throughout Paul’s lifetime, the church was a movement within Judaism asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was the longed for messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this letter to the church in Rome Paul is arguing on two fronts. Over against his Jewish critics, Paul asserts that Israel’s messiah is not for Israel alone. As Paul rightly points out, Israel is called to be a light to the nations pointing to the reign of Israel’s God over all creation. It follows, then, that the salvation offered through Israel’s messiah must be available to the gentiles as well. While Paul’s critics would probably agree with him to this extent, they parted company with Paul’s assertion that the gentiles could be received as covenant partners with Israel’s God without effectively becoming Jews. As a practical matter, to be included among God’s covenant people gentiles would need to undergo circumcision and to observe all mandatory Jewish ritual and dietary laws. Paul maintains, however, that the gentiles come into the covenant as gentiles through baptism into Jesus Christ. This is so because the covenant stretching back to Abraham is based not on circumcision or ritual obedience, but on faith in God’s promises.
Over against the gentile members of the church in Rome, Paul is careful to remind them that they are “wild olive branches” that have been grafted into the vine that is Israel. Romans 11:13-24. They must therefore never look with contempt upon the people of Israel-even those who do not acknowledge Jesus as messiah. They are not to imagine that God has rejected Israel. Romans 11:1 To the contrary, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. You can reject God, but you cannot make God reject you. All of this is important for understanding the lesson for this Sunday. The emphasis is on the power of the “word [that] is very near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Free will has nothing to do with it. Belief in Jesus is the fruit of the Spirit working through the word of God. It is not a decision we make on our own. As Paul states earlier in chapter eight, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” Romans 8:29. Consequently, one need not fret over whether and to what degree one “truly believes” or “sincerely confesses” Jesus as Lord. As we read a few verses later, “faith comes through what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Romans 10:17. If the word is there, it will take care of the rest.
We have touched on the first and last temptations of Jesus in our discussions of the prior lessons. So let’s focus on the middle one. “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall be yours.’” You have to wonder why, if the devil really possesses such authority, he is willing to give it up. Perhaps he is lying. Maybe the devil does not really have the goods he promises to deliver. That is possible. The devil’s proclivity for falsehood is well known. More likely, however, the devil realizes that the power he is offering Jesus doesn’t really amount to much. Raw power is useful for subduing the world, but it is not particularly effective in ruling it. There has not been an empire yet that has been able to hang onto its vast holdings. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of their oppressive governmental machinery. In our own day we have seen the implosion of the Soviet Union. Our own nation, the United States, has learned through blood shed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the limits of military power for securing the peace and security for which we yearn.
Still and all, the power of the sword entices us. It is easy to imagine that, in the right hands, such power can be used for good. Of course, just as you cannot make an omlet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t rule an empire without cracking a few heads. Collateral damage is the clinical word for the death and disfigurement of innocents that get caught in the crossfire from the shootout at the OK Corral. Tragic, to be sure, but it is a small price to pay for freedom, democracy, justice, peace, liberation or whatever noble objective you are trying to achieve. The ends justify the means. And even if they don’t, at the very least, by seizing the devil’s offer, Jesus would have prevented the power of the sword from falling into the wrong hands. Wouldn’t you rather have Jesus as emperor than Nero? Isn’t it better that nuclear weapons remain firmly in the hands of decent people than fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals? If you don’t take hold of the power Satan offers, there are plenty of scary people out there who will take it in a New York minute. It is all well and good to sing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the river side,” but shouldn’t you be a little bit concerned about who might pick it up?
Of course, there is a price to be paid here. You can’t get the devil’s goods without paying the devil his due. The price of imperial power is the worship of Satan. That is where the power of the sword always leads us. Jesus knows that the ends never justify the means. How can they when we don’t even know what the ends are? We seldom, if ever, know what the outcome of our simplest actions will be. We cannot predict the effects of our words that so frequently lead to hurt and misunderstanding despite our best intentions. We often do not foresee the long term consequences of decisions that seemed right and sensible at the time. We simply do not control nor can we foresee the ends of our actions. The means are all that we do understand and control. Jesus tells us that the means are all important and that they will shape the ends of everything we do.
Jesus is not interested in the power of the sword because he knows that it cannot deliver the reign of God he comes to initiate. Jesus is not interested in winning battles. He is interested in winning hearts. Jesus will die for the kingdom of God, but he will not kill for it. Jesus does not want “every knee to bend and every tongue confess” him as Lord only because they fear that they will get a rifle butt in the teeth if they don’t. Jesus will spend whatever time it takes to win every last heart to faith and obedience. Victory will be painfully slow in coming. Reconciliation takes a lot more work, patience, sacrifice and time than a blitzkrieg campaign of shock and awe. Reconciliation, however, is the way of Jesus. There are no shortcuts to the reign of God.
Transfiguration of Our Lord
Prayer of the Day
Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Mr. Connors, my freshman high school math teacher, was a crotchety old bachelor who presided over “general math.” That was a class designed to give less than promising students like me a thorough grounding in the math skills I was supposed to have learned in middle school. Mr. Connors seemed to hate teaching kids. I think sarcasm must have been his primary language. He made no secret of his views about us young people. We were lazy, unmotivated and spoiled. Naturally, I wrote him off as just one more adult in my life that “didn’t get it.”
Then one day a tragic accident occurred that took the lives of two teenagers. Sadly, it was a typical scenario. A group of kids piled into a car following a party at which there had been more than a little drinking. The driver took a sharp curve at a high rate of speed, lost control of the car and drove it into a tree. Now this accident took place in the next county and didn’t involve anyone I knew. Consequently, I didn’t pay much attention to it, but Mr. Connors did. The very next morning, immediately after the class bell rang and before saying a word to us, he wrote a telephone number in big letters on the chalk board. Then he turned to us and said, “Before you do anything else, write down that number. It’s my telephone number. If you ever need a ride home from anywhere, call me. Day or night, anytime and I will get you home, no questions asked. But for God’s sake, don’t ever get into the car drunk or with a drunk.”
It turned out that all the assumptions I had made about Mr. Connors were wrong-or at least incomplete. He cared more deeply about us than I ever would have guessed. No teacher I ever knew went so far as to be on call for his or her students 24/7. I saw Mr. Connors in a new and different light that day. I would never again think of him or feel about him as I did before. So, too, Peter, James and John saw Jesus in a new light up on the mountain of transfiguration. Henceforth, they would never think of him again in quite the same way.
Peter, James and John had been with Jesus long enough to recognize that he was no ordinary person. They knew that he was deeply knowledgeable about the scriptures. They witnessed his compassion for the sick, the poor and the outcast. They had seen him perform some remarkable works and probably had formed some opinions about him. In fact, Peter was convinced that Jesus was the messiah of God. But even this belief was incomplete. Not even the exalted title of “messiah,” could do justice to the person Jesus was. The voice from the cloud atop the mountain had to admonish Peter and his fellow disciples to keep listening to Jesus. They still had a great deal to learn.
This Sunday as we celebrate the transfiguration of our Lord, we are reminded that there is always more to Jesus than we think we know. Just when we think we have Jesus figured out, we see him in a new light that tells us, no, we don’t. Knowing Jesus takes more than a life time. Because “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” eternal life promises to be an endless adventure of discovery. How can we ever say that we fully know Jesus, the Son eternally begotten of the Father?
Moses has just come down from the top of Mt. Sinai. He has been up there for forty days fasting and writing the Ten Commandments onto the two stone tablets. He is quite unaware that he has been noticeably changed, so much so that the children of Israel are afraid of him. This is a mystery, of course. I doubt we will ever understand exactly what happened to Moses at Sinai, but perhaps there are some analogies in our own experiences that give us a glimpse. I remember the return home of each one of my three children from their first semester at college. They were changed. They had been exposed to new ideas and values different from the ones with which they grew up. They had experienced a measure of independence that had given them a new sense of confidence. They thought about and responded to me in new and often critical ways that often made me just a little uncomfortable. They were still the same kids they were when I left them at the dormitory-but they were also different. I knew that if I was going to continue having a meaningful relationship with them, I had to start relating to them differently. Things between us would be different from now on. Good, but different.
How much more changed a man must be after a face to face encounter with the God of Israel! Moses was returning after having received the Torah, the commandments and ordinances that would assist Israel in living into nationhood as the chosen people of God. He had seen the shape of holiness. That is not the sort of experience you can share in a brief press release. Neither can you undergo such an experience and expect to come back the same person. It will take some time for Moses to unpack everything he brought with him from the top of Mt. Sinai and it will take some time for the people to digest it.
We all have life changing experiences that shape who we are. Some of them shape us for the better. Others can leave us wounded and scarred. Life is such that you cannot control the experiences you are going have. But you can put yourself in a place where you are assured that God’s Word will be a powerful and transformative experience in your life. You can make time with the scriptures a part of every day. You can make prayer a daily practice. You can worship with your sisters and brothers gathered around the preaching of God’s Word and the Eucharistic meal. I cannot promise that you will come away from church with your face glowing; but you can be sure that your heart is being transformed by the working of God’s Spirit.
This psalm appears to be constructed in three sections, each ending with the refrain “Holy is he [God].” See vss. 5, 7 & 9. Like psalms 93 and 97, this psalm acclaims God as king over all the earth. The fact that these psalms make no mention of the kings of Israel or Judah suggests that they were composed after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem ending the line of Davidic kings. To a vanquished people in a world filled with unjust and tyrannical kings, this psalm boldly proclaims that the only true King is the Lord. This King is a “lover of justice,” has “established equity” and has “executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” Naturally, then, the peoples and their unjust rulers tremble when confronted with the reality of God’s kingship.
The “cherubim” were winged creatures with lion heads. Two of these fabulous beasts were carved at the top of the Ark of the Covenant over which the God of Israel was thought to be enthroned. If this reference is to the Ark, it is possible that the psalm is of much earlier origin than generally thought, dating back to the early period of the monarchy when the Ark was still in Israel’s possession. But the term “cherubim” is also used to personify storm clouds and thunder storms. Therefore, its use here is not inconsistent with a composition date for this psalm after the Babylonian conquest.
The mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel, prominent men of faith who lived and ministered before the rise of the monarchy in Israel, further suggests that this psalm is post-exilic. Having seen generations of kings fall short of what righteousness and justice demand, Israel was now convinced that God alone deserved the title “king.” Though their actions had an undeniable political dimension, the chief role of the three figures named in this psalm was priestly and intercessory. Aaron was the founding figure of cultic practice in Israel. Moses’ intercessions frequently came between Israel and God’s wrath at her disobedience. So also Samuel interceded on Israel’s behalf on numerous occasions. Yet while the psalmist affirms the role and legitimacy of Israel’s priestly establishment and the sacrificial worship over which it presides, this worship is only effective because “thou wast a forgiving God to them.” The sovereignty and power of God, though manifested in storms and earthquakes, is chiefly expressed in God’s zeal for justice and readiness to show mercy.
A few words about Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthian church are in order. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing I Corinthians. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote II Corinthians expressing his gratitude to the congregation and to encourage it in its faith.
For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul. Some scholars believe that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report.
Paul is here interpreting the lesson from Exodus discussed above. You will recall that Moses’ face glowed following his descent from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the law. This change in Moses frightened the people and so Moses wore a veil when addressing the people. When Moses spoke with God, he removed the veil. Paul compares this veil on Moses’ face to the veil he contends prevents some of his fellow Jews from recognizing Jesus as God’s messiah. The metaphor is difficult because Moses’ veil was not designed to hinder the people from seeing or hearing him, but rather to protect them from the radiance of God’s glory by which they felt threatened. Moses, not the people, takes cover under the veil. Consequently, we need to focus not so much on the people as on Moses. When Moses turns to speak with the Lord, the veil is removed. The glory of God is allowed to permeate Moses and he is transfigured with light. But when Moses turns away from the Lord, he must put on the veil.
According to Paul, Moses is rightly understood and seen only when he is face to face with God. He is no longer a mediator between God and Israel. Now God has shown directly into the hearts of his people “to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” II Corinthians 4:6. Thus, only in Jesus Christ are the Hebrew Scriptures fully understood. “And we all,” says Paul, “with unveiled face [like Moses], beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed [like Moses] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” 2 Corinthians 3:18. What could previously be seen only through the veiled face of Moses can now be seen directly in Jesus. The same transformative power that filled Moses with light now shines through Jesus in the church.
Luke tells the transfiguration story a little differently than do Mark and Matthew who also report this amazing event. In Luke, the disciples are “weighted down” with sleep, but may not have actually fallen asleep. Luke tells us not only that Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah, but also what they were talking about. They were speaking of the “departure” that Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. It is highly significant that the Greek word Luke uses for “departure” is the same one the Greek Old Testament uses for the title of the second book of the Bible, “Exodus.” The Exodus, of course, is the foundational and most significant saving act of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, Luke wishes to make absolutely clear that God is about to accomplish through Jesus’ suffering and death a new Exodus, a new saving event. The presence of Moses, the giver of the law, along with Elijah, the greatest of all prophets, indicates that this new Exodus to occur in Jerusalem will fulfill the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. So when we arrive at verse 51 in which Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” we know that a critical turning point in the narrative has arrived. Jesus is now zeroing in on his primary objective.
The cloud enveloping the mountain top cannot help but bring to mind God’s appearance in the cloud over Mt. Sinai-the place from which Moses returned glowing with divine glory. Quite understandably, the disciples are afraid of the overshadowing cloud. So, too, the voice from the cloud is reminiscent of the voice thundering from Sinai that so terrified the Israelites that they begged Moses to implore God no longer to speak directly to them. Of course, it is also possible to see in this event a reflection of Elijah’s encounter with God on the holy mountain in the 19th Chapter of 1 Kings. There, too, the prophet encountered a powerful wind storm, an earthquake and a terrifying fire. In this case, however, God’s word was not found in any of these impressive natural events. Instead, God was heard in a “still small voice” or, as some translators have rendered it, “a sound of sheer silence.” I Kings 19:12.
I am intrigued by the possible link to the Elijah story because it alters my Sunday School impression of that voice from the cloud as deep, commanding and terrifying. Although the disciples are frightened as they enter the cloud, there is no indication that the voice from the cloud had a similar effect. Luke does not have the disciples falling on their faces in fear as do Mark and Matthew. Thus, I wonder whether my image of this event has not been colored more by Cecil B. DeMille than careful reading of the text. How does the voice of God really sound? How did the disciples perceive it? Would we know the voice of God even if we heard it? How does this question shape our perception of Jesus as God’s Son?
The marvelous thing about this story is its incomprehensibility. It raises more questions than it answers and reminds us that however much we may think we know about Jesus, we are not close to knowing him fully yet.