TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY Almighty God, the resplendent light of your truth shines from the mountaintop into our hearts. Transfigure us by your beloved Son, and illumine the world with your image, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
As noted below in my remarks on the gospel for this Sunday, Rudolf Bultmann is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account that Mark the Evangelist has worked into the center of his narrative. This placement was then followed by Matthew and Luke whose gospels rely upon Mark. So why would anyone other than Bible scholars care about any of this? What significance does this have for the faithful reader of the gospels? I believe that this is one of those rare instances where redaction analysis really matters. The Evangelist is not simply being sloppy here. S/he is deliberately introducing the only resurrection account we have in Mark’s gospel into the very midst of the story. In the Transfiguration, death is undone. The relentless march of time is ended. The line of demarcation between past and future evaporates into the midst and we stand in God’s eternal now. The figures of Moses and Elijah, separated by centuries, converse together with Jesus on the mountain top. Can you blame the three disciples for believing that the reign of God had arrived? That the resurrection had occurred? That nothing remained but to bask in the glory of God’s new creation?
But here’s the thing. The reign of God has not come in full. The will of God is not done on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of the dead has not occurred. That is why the disciples are told not to speak of what transpired until after Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection-a reality about which they remain in a state of willful denial. Therein lies the problem. Neither the world nor the disciples are ready for the resurrection. They are not yet the kind of persons capable of living joyfully, faithfully and obediently under God’s gentle reign of peace. Resurrection is not good news if it means only that our present existence with all of its conflicts, prejudices, blood feuds, animosities and unresolved conflicts is projected into eternity. That sounds much more like a definition of hell! If we ourselves are not fundamentally transformed, we can hardly expect to live in a world transfigured by God’s glory.
Though not Biblical in the strict sense, there is a certain logic behind the medieval doctrine of purgatory. The term is derived from the Latin verb, purgo, meaning literally “to cleanse.” I doubt that few of us would deny that a single lifetime is far too short to become a creature capable of living under God’s reign. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself whether there is anyone you would not want to meet in the hereafter. If you can answer that inquiry with a confident “no,” you are either a bonafide saint or seriously deluded. If it is God’s will that none perish and that all come to repentance, then the “all” includes those with whom we are at enmity. We might rather have God cleanse the universe of people we hate; but God would purge us of hatred so that we can live peaceably with those we now count as enemies-however long that might take. This “purging,” however, is not to be found in some intermediate state between heaven and hell. It takes place here and now through the daily practice of confession and forgiveness. We are purged in that fiery furnace known as the church, where we must live together with people we wouldn’t necessary choose as our friends, people who rub us the wrong way, people we might not want in our midst-but people whom Jesus has called, and that because they can help us purge ourselves in ways we could never manage to do on our own.
Significantly, the voice from heaven directs the disciples away from the vision of resurrection and back to Jesus. “This,” says the voice, “is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” There is no short cut to the resurrection and eternal life. There is no bypassing the fiery ordeal of repentance; no alternate route avoiding the valley of the shadow of death. There is no way around purgatory, only through it. That is where Jesus led his disciples in the gospel and that is where he leads his church during the season of Lent. We summoned on Ash Wednesday to acknowledge what our death denying culture so adamantly refuses to accept: that we are dust and to dust we return. We are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna” that soon will turn to cries of “Crucify him!” We are asked to dine with Jesus at his last meal with his disciples-which will continue in a way too marvelous for us to comprehend. On Easter Sunday we will be drawn to the tomb as were the women-only to discover that our Lord is not there! This is our purging. This is our preparation for the reign of God: Listening to him revealed to us as God’s beloved Son.
Here’s a poem about the Transfiguration.
The sky was dark and overcast the day
we began our ascent to the top of that mountain.
Cold mist soaked our garments from without
as did the sweat of our weary bodies from within.
Up and up we followed in His footsteps,
each of us wondering how He knew the way
and how He could see the path through the
impenetrable fog all around us on every side.
Our hearts pumped frantically, our lungs gasped at the thinning air,
our aching limbs longed to fall motionless to the ground.
And so they did at long last when finally we reached the summit.
Broken with fatigue we lay down on the grass,
heedless of the cold and wet, leaving Him to His meditations.
Of what we saw-or thought we saw-when we awoke
I still cannot find words enough to tell the half of it.
His face shown like the sun as he conversed with the ancient ones.
The cloud enveloped us and brought us to our knees
with the power of a mighty ocean wave.
But most terrible of all was that voice driving
like a nail into our very souls these words:
“This is my Son, my Beloved. Listen to him.”
Small wonder we fell to the earth and hid our faces.
When at last we found enough courage to open our eyes
the cloud was once again cold drizzle and fog,
the voice silent, the ancients gone
and only He remained to lead us back to the plane.
The life and ministry of Elijah and his successor, Elisha, must be understood against the backdrop of the times. Elijah’s ministry began during the reign of Ahab, a king over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Like his father, Ahab was an ambitious monarch eager to expand the military and commercial strength of his kingdom at all costs. To that end, he continued the policies of his father, renewing Israel’s Phoenician treaties and solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, daughter of Tyre’s King Ethbaal. Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel. The names of his three children, Ahaziah, Jehoram and Athaliah all derive from the root of the divine name, YAHWEH. Nevertheless, Ahab did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.
The prophet Elijah appears as if out of nowhere to challenge Ahab’s unfaithfulness. At first a solitary figure, it becomes evident toward the end of the narratives about him in the Book of II Kings that Elijah is to some degree associated with a guild of prophets known as “the sons of the prophets.” Vss. 3, 5 and 7. Little is known about this group, but it appears that they shared some sort of common life apart from the rest of Israelite society. Though colorful and dramatic, Elijah’s life comes to an end with his mission largely unfulfilled. At the time of his departure, the house of Omri still reigns through Ahab’s son Jehoram, Jezebel still wields considerable influence and the worship of Baal is in full swing. To Elisha, Elijah’s successor, will fall the task of completing what Elijah could only begin.
Our lesson begins with Elijah and Elisha following a path taking them to points pregnant with meaning. Bethel is the site of Jacob’s dream about the heavenly ladder and God’s conferring upon him the covenant promises given to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. Genesis 28:10-22. Jericho was the first city conquered by Joshua in the land of Canaan. Joshua 6:1-21. The crossing of the Jordan River (vs. 8) echoes both Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea under the leadership of Moses and her own crossing of the Jordan into the promised land with Joshua centuries before. Exodus 14; Joshua 3:14-17. After the crossing of the Jordan, Elisha asks that he inherit a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha is not seeking more spiritual power than Elijah. Rather, he is seeking the double portion of inheritance due a first-born son under Mosaic Law. See Deuteronomy 21:15-17. Elisha thus stands in the position of a first-born son among “the sons of the prophets.” He will inherit the position of prominence belonging to Elijah.
It is unclear whether Elisha held a specific office or title among the sons of the prophets. Obviously, he held an important leadership role, caring for a prophet’s widow (II Kings 4:1-7 ), directing the building of a common dwelling (II Kings 6:1-7) and presiding at a common meal II Kings 4:38-44. It is conceivable that the sons of the prophets came into royal favor with the overthrow of Omri’s line by Jehu, the man anointed by command of Elisha. II Kings 9. With such royal favor frequently comes royal cooption and corruption. Under the new regime, it is quite possible that the prophetic guild of Elijah and Elisha became the religious mouthpiece of the state. That would make Amos’ declaration that he is neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet altogether intelligible. Amos 7:14. Amos, who was highly critical of the monarchy in Northern Israel, was making it clear that he was not in any way associated with the official state prophets. Though certainly plausible, this conclusion is thin on evidence from the biblical texts and altogether lacking from any other literary or archeological source.
Perhaps the most profound words spoken in this reading come from the lips of Elisha as his master is being taken away from him. “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” vs. 12. The true might of Israel is not on the throne in Samaria or in its military might. The voice of prophecy is Israel’s chariots and horsemen. The Word of the Lord is its power. Once again, militarism is soundly rejected by the Hebrew Scriptural witness.
This psalm summons us to the divine court where God is bringing a legal proceeding against his covenant people. Our lesson consists of the opening scene in which God calls the whole world as his witness. Vss. 1-6. Walter Brueggemann describes this section as “a stylized description of a theophany, a majestic overpowering coming of Yahweh in his royal splendor.” Bruggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 89. In verses 5-6, we are alerted to the legal standards under which this trial is to be conducted and Israel judged. Terms such as “faithful ones,” “covenant” and “righteousness” make clear that the allegations to be asserted under the counts of God’s complaint are based on the Mosaic covenant. Ibid.
In the first count of God’s complaint (Vss. 7-15) God takes to task those who imagine that their covenant obligations are fulfilled merely by attending to the proper rituals. Sacrifices are not commanded because God needs them. It is absurd to imagine that God needs to be fed by human beings. “God is here disengaged from any necessity bound to Israel. Israel knows and relies on God’s abiding engagement with Israel. On Yahweh’s part, however, that engagement is one of free passion, not of necessity.” Ibid. 90. Sacrifices are commanded because human beings require intimacy with God and God’s people. They are to be offered with thanksgiving, not under the mistaken belief that they appease God’s anger or buy God’s favor.
In the second count (Vss. 16-21), God reproves all who learn by rote and recite God’s commandments but make not even the slightest pretext of obeying them. Such people divorce their worship from the rest of their lives. On Sunday they sing hymns to the Lord who preached the Sermon on the Mount. On Monday they report to work at a bank that practices predatory lending; bundles toxic loans into securities sold to retirement plans and practices illegal and oppressive foreclosure procedures. Such worshipers are Christian churches and organizations that publish preachy-screechy statements on social justice even as they argue in the Supreme Court that they ought to be free to discriminate against their employees by denying them health insurance. See Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694, 181 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2012). They “hold the form of religion but deny the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. These false worshipers imagine that God is like themselves. Vs. 21. They assume that God regards the Mosaic covenant obligations as lightly as do they. They are mistaken. God is serious in promising deliverance for his people who invoke the covenant by calling upon him. Vs. 15. But God’s faithfulness ought to evoke faithful obedience from Israel. God takes his demand for covenant obedience on Israel’s part as seriously as God takes his own covenant promise to save.
Finally, God declares that proper worship consists in sacrifice with a spirit of thanksgiving from those whose lives, not merely their words, are ordered by God’s commandments. Vss. 22-23. Some commentators believe that this psalm may have ancient roots in Israel’s covenant renewal ceremonies. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 236. Others classify the psalm as an enthronement hymn celebrating God’s kingly triumph over all the powers hostile to God’s reign. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 175. Either suggestion is plausible.
We are now jumping from Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth to his Second Letter. Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13. Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.
The term, “Let light shine out of darkness” (Vs. 6) does not appear verbatim in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul is likely alluding to the opening lines from the first creation account in Genesis. Genesis 1:3-4. Just as light, the very first element of creation, was spoken into existence by the word of God, so also the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a word from the mouth of God. It is from this word that Paul derives his apostolic authority. His preaching and the faith it kindles constitute a creative act of God. Balla, Peter, “2 Corinthians,” published in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (c. 2007 by Beale & Carson, pub. by Baker Academic) p. 763. It is also possible that Paul has in mind Isaiah 9:2 in which the prophet promises the ultimate liberation of the northern tribes of Israel living under the darkness of Assyrian domination. Reading further we discover that this liberation will be inaugurated through a messianic ruler from the line of David who will usher in a new age of everlasting righteousness, justice and peace. Isaiah 9:6-7. The “zeal of the Lord” will bring this about. Isaiah 9:7. Whether Paul was thinking of Genesis, Isaiah or both, he is making the point that his authoritative preaching is not really his own, but is God’s light shining through him. In the following verses Paul will go on to say that he and his associates are but “earthen vessels” containing this glorious gospel light. II Corinthians 4:7-12.
In this brief passage Paul reminds the church that its job is to reflect Jesus to the world just as his own job is to reflect Jesus to the church. Paul is well aware that, due to his own human limitations and shortcomings, that good news might be “veiled.” Yet strangely, it is precisely because God makes use of such imperfect and flawed people that the limitless grace and mercy of God are so clearly evident. It is through the inept efforts of the disciples to keep up with Jesus in Mark’s gospel and the fractious and dysfunctional existence of the church in Corinth that the Body of Jesus continues reaching out with healing and reconciliation to the world.
The transfiguration story in Mark is arguably the climactic center of the gospel. I say “arguably” because some commentators, perhaps most, would place the “Intermission” for Mark’s drama directly after Peter’s confession at the end of Chapter 8. But it seems to me that Peter’s incomplete understanding of Jesus’ true identity sets the stage for the drama presented in our lesson. The term “after six days” immediately raises the question, “six days from when?” Most likely, Mark means six days following Peter’s confession. I am convinced, however, that this time period serves a literary purpose. Chronology is a concern altogether absent elsewhere in the gospel. Six days was traditionally the period of time required for self-preparation and purification before a direct encounter with God. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 234. The six days also could be an allusion to the theophany on Mt. Sinai with Moses. Exodus 24:15-18. It is possibly an echo of the “sabbath rest” declared in Genesis 2:1-3. In either case, the six day intro strongly suggests a lead up to some definitive revelation, work or appearance of God.
We are told that Jesus’ “garments became glistening, intensely white” possibly evoking Moses’ changed countenance after conversing with the Lord on Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35) or the Son of Man referenced in Daniel 7:13-14. In either case (or both), Mark means to let the reader know that Jesus is something more than the messiah Israel was expecting.
Peter blurts out, “Let us make three booths,” one for each of the distinguished personages. Mark informs us that this remark came out as something people say when they have no idea what to say but feel compelled to say something. Under those circumstances, I have no doubt that we have all said things that don’t make a lot of sense. That, however, has not stopped generations of exegetes from looking for some meaning Mark might have missed. The Greek term “skaynh” translated as “booth” in our English Bibles can mean anything from a temporary tent-like dwelling to a tabernacle or more or less permanent dwelling. Commentator Vincent Taylor believes that Peter’s intended meaning was more in line with the temporary booths made of interlacing branches at the Feast of Tabernacles. Leviticus 23:39-44. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 391. Yet if it was Peter’s desire to prolong indefinitely this transcendent encounter, construction of temporary dwellings is hardly an effective means to that end. It is difficult to determine from this brief utterance exactly what Peter had in mind (if indeed he had anything in his mind other than stark terror).
The cloud again evokes the Exodus theophany. It is “par excellence the vehicle of God’s Shekinah and the medium in and through which he manifested himself” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nineham, infra, p. 235. See Exodus 16:10; Exodus 19:9-16; Exodus 24:15-18 and Numbers 14:10. The voice from the cloud focuses the reader’s attention (and that of the disciples as well) on Jesus. “This is my Son”-the same word spoken to Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:11) is repeated here with an emphatic, perhaps desperate command/plea: “Listen to him.” This is the whole point of the story. It reaffirms to some extent what has already been established in the account of Peter’s confession in Chapter 8. Jesus is not to be identified with John the Baptist, Elijah, Moses or any other prophet. He is uniquely God’s Son and the disciples are to listen to him. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) pp. 217-218.
Rudolf Bultmann is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account, perhaps narrated in language closer to its original form in II Peter 1:16-18. Bultmann, Rudolf, History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Basil Blackwell, pub. 1976 by Harper & Row) p. 259. If he is correct, then this is the only resurrection narrative we have in Mark (barring the post Mark 16:8 accretions). This leaves us to ponder what it means to experience the resurrection, not at the conclusion of Lent, but as we are about to descend into the darkness of the final conflict and Jesus’ crucifixion. What does it mean to celebrate Easter at sunset? It seems to me that by projecting the resurrection back into the life and ministry of Jesus, Mark blunts so much of the triumphalistic distortion afflicting our Easter proclamation. Resurrection is no longer the “happy ending,” or a bland metaphor affirming that “all’s well that ends well.” It is rather an affirmation that eternal life is found at the heart of Jesus’ life of preaching, healing and casting out demons, a life that was not extinguished by his crucifixion.