According to tradition, the Book of Exodus is known as “the Second Book of Moses”. The major themes of Exodus are identified as liberation, law, covenant, and presence. The presence of God is exceedingly important. God’s presence is seen as life-giving glory being concretely present in the world. The assumption is that God yearns to be present, but that requires a community of generous faith, emptied of the worldly culture around it, which gives it best skills, disciplines, and goods for the housing of the holy. The main theme of the passage that we read is communion in the presence of God. This is prior to the making of the covenant. We just have to bask in God’s overwhelming and exuding presence. The preceding verses have God inviting Moses back up the mountain.
Now…some background…in the understanding of this early community of faith, God was not to be seen. God was the great I AM, one whose name could not be said, one whose power could not be beheld, one whose presence could not be seen. (It is in some way a better way to think of God—“lost in wonder and awe”– than the way we often view God as a great vending machine ready to tend to all of our wants and needs! After all, it seems that it would be harder to take the great I AM for granted!) But here, if one saw God, one died…But here God was!
So Moses goes farther up the mountain. (Now remember too that for these ancient Israelites, the mountain was a source not only of grandeur, but also of divine revelation. Mountain tops were sacred places.) He is with Joshua, who really plays no part. It is noted that perhaps the narrator of the event is looking forward to that time when Joshua would be his successor and tries to legitimate that role. But, finally, Moses is alone and, alone, walks into the cloud. (Now keep in mind their understanding of seeing God. Their assumption would be that Moses was going to die.—Look at the language…”devouring fire). But here he waits in complete obedience to be addressed and to receive. Think about this…to those in the world, to those standing and looking up at the mountain, God’s presence resembles a “devouring fire”, something that destructs and devours everything in its path, clearing the path before it. God’s presence comes in and changes everything…and that is painful. But, it says, Moses entered the cloud. He goes where no one has ever gone before. He leaves the zone of humanness and enters the sphere of God. And then he stays. No one thought he would ever return—consumed by that fiery inferno. For God to come here, Moses must go there! The truth is, Moses probably got a whole lot more of God than he every really wanted.
The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live. They were right. No one can see God and remain unchanged. We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud. We, too, probably don’t want “all of God”. We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives. But remember the words of the Isaac Watts hymn: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
- What does this passage mean for you?
- How would our understanding of God change if we thought of God as the “Great I AM”?
- What keeps us from realizing that God’s presence changes everything in our lives rather than merely affirming who we are?
- (OK…this is an odd question)…Do we really want as much of God as God is willing to share with us? Do we really want a God that is “so amazing, so divine” that a relationship with that God “demands my soul, my life, my all?”
NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Peter 1: 16-21
Although this epistle is often presented as the work of the Apostle known as Simon Peter, most scholars attribute it to an unknown author writing under the name of Peter. (Keep in mind the tradition of honoring someone by using their name—this is not plagiarism!) So this letter is looked upon as pseudonymous. There doesn’t seem to be any real indication that even the first and second letters of Peter were written by the same author. They vary quite a bit in style and form.
The recipients of the letter were apparently undesignated churches once addressed by the first letter of Peter as well as some of Paul’s epistles. The writer was prompted by a presence of false teachers who had convinced weak or new Christians to accept their doctrine that claimed that Christ’s presence and coming was a myth. To them, God was transcendent and unconcerned with humanity. The idea of God coming and living in our midst was something that they just couldn’t fathom so they preached against it. This went against the Apostles’ teaching of living a holy life while one waited for the glory of the coming of Christ; in other words, while one waited for what we humans had already figured out it would look like when God comes.
In the passage that we read, the author refutes this whole incorrect belief with a proof from eyewitness testimony from those who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. This whole problem came about because, in the minds of those in that day, God had not been true to God’s word of Christ’s return. They thought it was going to be the next week or the next month or certainly by now! It was easy to turn it into a myth. (And, I suppose, remains that way for some people.) But the writer encourages its hearers to remain faithful and build up their own faith.
The truth is, our faith is not a belief in what is said or taught but, rather, a belief in what is. It is not a faith of following what is said or what is known but in listening to what is, to the God who calls us even now and walks with us down the mountain into the unknown. It is believing in a God who walks with us into Life.
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What does the concept of Christ’s return mean for you?
- What gets in the way of your seeing that come to be in your own life?
GOSPEL: Matthew 17: 1-9
The Greek for “transfigured” is, here, metamorphormai, or “to undergo a metamorphosis”. In our terms (think of a butterfly—that’s sort of our “go to” symbol.), that means a change in form or character. Here, Jesus glows with a transcendent glory reserved only for heavenly beings, which implies that he belongs to the divine world or at the very least was being showered and consumed by the very Divine. The Gospel writer of Matthew depicts Jesus as being together with Moses and Elijah in a scene of transcendent glory, showing Jesus in continuity with the fulfillment of God’s work portrayed by the Old Testament.
As we read in our Old Testament reading, the heavenly voice and presence comes from the cloud. Matthew has this same image of the cloud. Peter’s response seems odd to us, almost as if he misses the whole point. (And probably makes us a bit uncomfortable with our own reaction!) It sounds like he’s trying to control or contain the Christ. But keep in mind that it was a response from his Jewish understanding. He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy. But he needed only to listen. That is the proper response to such incredible holiness.
And somewhere in the depiction, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight. In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was. Here, in this moment, this changes. Jesus stays with them alone. Jesus—not Moses, not Elijah–IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world. The disciples descend down the mountain into the world, full of pain and suffering and injustice. But God’s presence remains with us.
In the Old Testament passage that we read, Moses descended the mountain with the law; in the depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ, Jesus descends with his own life and body given unto all. Fred Craddock describes the account of the Transfiguration of Christ as “the shout heard round the world”, the glorious announcement of what happened in Bethlehem years before. It IS the final Epiphany.
It says, though, that the disciples descended from the mountain. That is the key. We are not called to some sort of removed piety. We must return to the world. The Transfiguration leans directly into Lent. Jesus descends and walks toward Jerusalem. The Transfiguration leads us to Lent and at the same time gives us a taste of Easter glory. But those who are present are told not to speak of it. There is something about this that would never have been understood until it was placed in the context of what was to come next and, for now, we know more than those disciples what that is. Jesus has gone onto Jerusalem. Our response must be to follow—even into what we know.
After a person is baptized in an Episcopal Church, there is a prayer said for the newly baptized, which concludes like this: “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”
The gift of joy and wonder in all your works. We’ve lost many things over the years. Joy and wonder are two of them. It’s just so hard to conjure up wonder. As a parent, one of the parental goals I have for myself is to raise two girls with a sense of wonder. So, I take them to museums and cathedrals, and point out the intricacies and nuances of what they’re seeing. When I speak of God to them, I not only tell them that Jesus is their friend and with them all the time (which is good), but also that he made the sun, the moon and the stars. And manatee. And flamingos. And Cheetos. OK, I definitely leave out the Cheetos…
As a priest, I try and conjure up for the parish I serve similar awe of the power of God, the minute and amazing details of the scriptures, and the movement of the Holy Spirit through the history of humanity and the Church. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. I’ve had too many experiences of taking youth into a grand nave of a wondrous, storied, cathedral or abbey… only to find them more interested in looking at their shoes and incoming text messages. Those moments hurt my heart.
We had a clergy day a few weeks back with Mike Gecan, the author of “Going Public.” He talked about going into his child’s Kindergarten class and seeing a bulletin board illustrating what the students wanted to learn in school that year. Most of the statements were like, “behave,” “learn to sit still,” “follow the rules,” “listen to the teacher better.” One child said “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.” Holy smoke. I mean HOLY smoke! Now that the kids mentions it… I want to know why the ocean shines like fire too. There’s a kid who has the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.
We can say a lot about the Tranfiguration. And given it’s prevalent use in the lectionary from year to year, we get to say a lot about it. But, if there’s ever a “WOW” moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, this is it. Jesus took his three chosen disciples up on a mountain to do many things. One of them, was to blow their sandals off. And, whatever shortcomings they have, and however paltry Peter’s words are, they at least do the appropriate thing and fall on their faces before the Presence of the Glory of God and His Son. This is an intimate encounter, for only a few, on an un-named mountaintop. And so, I have to believe that this isn’t just a historical tale of one of Jesus’ afternoon excursions, but is a model of Christian life.
We are to look around and search for those places and events where God knocks our socks off. And we’re to fully soak in the WOW of the moment. And maybe even fall on our faces. It reminds us of God’s power and glory and splendor. And it reminds us of our appropriate, faithful, response: worship. And, once we experience wonder – and help others do the same – maybe we can put the incoming-text-message-machines down… and experience joy too. Why does Jesus shine like fire? Let’s see for ourselves, and invite others along. When is the last time you let God blow your socks off? (From “A Garden Path”, a blog by R.M.C. Morley, available at http://www.rmcmorley.com/a-garden-path/2011/02/last-epiphany-a-shining-like-fire.html, accessed 1 March, 2011.)
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What does this depiction of God’s presence mean to us?
- In what ways, then, should we see the presence of God, or Jesus, differently?
- What effect does that have on how we view our own practices of faith?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
People only see what they are prepared to see. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend [God’s] kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, or sharing, of laughter, of joy, of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no opposition that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned into love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled. (Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream)
Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself. Do all this, and you’ll find the cross before it finds you. (Thomas A’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)
A Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday
Let’s go up the mountain. Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky where the earth touches the heavens, to the place of meeting, to the place of mists, to the place of voices and conversations, to the place of listening:
O God, We open our eyes and we see Jesus, the months of ministry transfigured to a beam of light, the light of the world, your light. May your light shine upon us. We open our eyes and we see Moses and Elijah, your word restoring us, showing us the way, telling a story, your story, his story, our story. May your word speak to us. We open our eyes and we see mist, the cloud of your presence which assures us of all we do not know
and that we do not need to fear that. Teach us to trust. We open our eyes and we see Peter’s constructions, his best plans, our best plans, our missing the point, our missing the way. Forgive our foolishness and sin.
We open our eyes and we see Jesus, not casting us off, but leading us down, leading us out – to ministry, to people. Your love endures forever. We open our ears and we hear your voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him!’ And we give you thanks. Amen
(Prayer by William Loader, 02/2001, available at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/TransfigurationPrayer.htm, accessed 1 March, 2011)
Let us go, now, to Jerusalem and see this thing that has happened!
I will be once again posting daily Lenten devotionals as we walk through the holy season on http://dancingtogod.com/ and I would love for you to join me on the journey.
Grace and Peace, Shelli