Sunday, February 10, 2013

Transfiguration of Our Lord

Exodus 34:29–35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
Luke 9:28–36

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?

Exodus 34:29–35

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.

Psalm 99

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.

2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

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 9:28–36

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.

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