March 2, 2014– Transfiguration Sunday
12The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
The Lord reigns;
Let the peoples tremble!
He dwells between the cherubim;
Let the earth be moved!
2 The Lord is great in Zion,
And He is high above all the peoples.
3 Let them praise Your great and awesome name—
He is holy.
4 The King’s strength also loves justice;
You have established equity;
You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
5 Exalt the Lord our God,
And worship at His footstool—
He is holy.
6 Moses and Aaron were among His priests,
And Samuel was among those who called upon His name;
They called upon the Lord, and He answered them.
7 He spoke to them in the cloudy pillar;
They kept His testimonies and the ordinance He gave them.
8 You answered them, O Lord our God;
You were to them God-Who-Forgives,
Though You took vengeance on their deeds.
9 Exalt the Lord our God,
And worship at His holy hill;
For the Lord our God is holy.
2 Peter 1:16-21
16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
19So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of the season of Epiphany, the series of weeks after Christmas when the church lingers on the significance of the appearance of Jesus on the stage of human history. With the Transfiguration story, the church turns toward the season of Lent and Easter, a time of reflecting on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The luminosity of the transfiguration story reaches toward the vision of God as transcendent, other worldly, mysterious and dimly apprehended.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop is found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Matthew and Mark versions are very similar. Luke’s version varies a bit and has Jesus praying and Moses and Elijah’s words are described as saying something about Jesus’ impending death in Jerusalem. The transfiguration story is not in the Gospel of John. The word “transfiguration” is used to translate the Greek word METAMORPHOO in Matthew and Mark.
The setting of the story has Jesus fully aware that his journey is toward suffering and death. The disciples, initially feeling very good about being with Jesus and having this mountaintop experience, end up being fearful and not sure about the future. Jesus touches them and tells them not to be afraid. I think this is the heart of the story.
Through the ages this story has influenced Christian spirituality. The Eastern Christian Church interpreted the story as representative of the human transformation possible in Christ. Western Christianity tended to emphasize the cross experience of Jesus.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus opens the awareness of God’s presence in the lives of previous heroes of the faith. The mountaintop experience of Moses and the mountaintop experience of Elijah are well known narratives of Israel.
After encountering a burning bush on the mountaintop, Moses leads the transformation of a slave people toward self-determination. After encountering God on the smoky, fiery mountaintop, Moses helps Israel find its character and vision as a people of law and justice and shalom. Moses’ final mountaintop experience was overlooking the Promised Land before his death.
Elijah’s mountaintop experience was different. The sheer sound of silence, or a small inner voice, guided Elijah in speaking God’s word to the powerful and to those in need.
Jesus in conversation with these figures reminds the reader of the long history of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the establishment of a covenant community and the sometimes irksome habit of God calling and raising up prophets to remind everyone of this intersection of divine and human activity and the ongoing dream of humankind’s transformation.
A few years ago a prophet appeared in the life of this nation and offered these words:
I have a dream…
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
Martin Luther King Junior was a modern prophet who helped this nation move toward a more expansive view of humanity. The “I Have a Dream” speech was a mountaintop experience for many of that generation and continues to inspire. King was giving a speech to 250,000 people who had marched to WashingtonD.C. to demonstrate for civil rights. As King was speaking Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” And he did.
What is the expansive vision we need today?
- Care of creation?
- Narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor?
- Including sexual minorities fully in the church and society?
Some Christian spiritualties, if not all of them, have emphasized the role of prayer in Jesus’ transfiguration. Jesus and the disciples going to an isolated setting is interpreted to mean they spent time in prayer and meditation. The disciplines of prayer and meditation as a ways of raising awareness of the divine presence and mystery have motivated many to work at disciplined ways of finding the presence of God. Controlled breathing, chanting, meditating on words and phrases, observing extended times of silence, fasting, and praying have been pathways to mountaintop experiences for many through the ages. As we struggle to stay afloat in the deluge of the information age and navigate the complexities of the 21st century, we often long for the focus and simplicity of a quiet place and a method to journey into God’s presence.
The disciples thought they had found that place. “Wow! This is good, Jesus. We’ll stay right here. We will build new institutions to commemorate and perpetuate this mountaintop experience.” As they are speaking and carrying on and planning, they are interrupted by divine speech. “This is my beloved with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.”
Almost the same words were heard at Jesus Baptism and the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of testing.
This time, God’s voice declares, “Listen to him.” Then there is a series of exorcisms, confrontations with the authorities, healings, teachings and parables by Jesus as he continues his ministry among the people and continues the journey toward Jerusalem and his death. This the Jesus we listen to.
We are not a people called to linger long on mountaintop experiences. If we listen to Jesus, we will be a people who are transformed as we engage in the work of creating a world as God intended it to be.
Maybe the ultimate transformation is the movement from loving our idea and image of God to loving our neighbors in all their variety of colors, social class, physical appearance, gender, sexual orientation and circumstances.