Transfiguration B: Veiled Glory

 

Fog on mountaintopOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Kings 2: 1-12

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

At the beginning of this passage, we’re given the hint that Elijah will soon be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah has up until now been the key prophetic voice through the region. Now that he is about to depart the scene, the stage is set for the choosing of Elisha as his successor. Elisha is depicted as refusing to leave Elijah’s side. He is obviously very committed to him. He is determined to follow him to the end. It is obvious that Elisha is not being led into this mission unknowingly. He clearly knows what he is being asked to do.

Elijah’s mantle, which he uses to part the waters, is a symbol of his authority and power, the equivalent of Moses’ rod. The implication is that his power resembles that of Moses’. Once they have crossed the Jordan, they are now in the region where Moses had died, where long ago, a mantle had also been handed over. There Elisha asks for a double-portion (an allusion to the legal right of a first-born son). It used to strike me that he was being a little demanding or greedy. Here he essentially asks for twice the wisdom that Elijah had, twice the authority, and a double helping of Elijah’s spirit. Perhaps he was just so unsure that he was prepared for the job that he was about to be asked to do, that he felt he needed this added affirmation. Perhaps in an odd sort of way this was not a case of Elisha feeling entitled but, rather, humbled at the very prospect of what he was being called to do and who he was being called to follow. Perhaps he thought that he was “half” the person that Elijah was.

The whole idea of the chariots and the horsemen almost a resemble a sort of war. In Israel’s ideology of holy war, the Lord’s celestial hosts fight along with and on behalf of the terrestrial hosts, the armies of Israel. It hints at the type of ministry that Elisha will have. The tearing of his shirt indicates a traditional expression of grief. Seeing Elijah leave was like seeing the body of a loved one go; this was real. The mission was now his. One could read this as a time of transition in Israel. The great prophet Elijah was no longer around, having been taken up into heaven. But you could also read it as a time of continuation. The prophetic role is still firmly in place.

We can understand why this text is included in this week’s lection choices. After all, Elijah will once again make an appearance in the depiction of the Transfiguration account that we will read from the Gospel According to Mark. But, really, this is more a story about Elisha and the way he is transformed into one who is faithful to God and to who God has called him to be. It is a lesson to us about our own calling to be transformed, to be transfigured, into who we are meant to be. Elisha wanted desperately to hold onto Elijah, to hold onto his leader, his mentor, his friend. But part of transformation is about letting go and letting newness and recreation happen. For years, Elisha had been doing ministry, working in the midst of the shadow of Elijah. The shadow now was gone and it was Elisha’s turn to walk into the light. Even in the midst of his honest and human grief, he had to go on. He had to take the reins. He was prepared, he had been given the resources that would need, whether or not he knew it.

The truth is that this is not a story about prophetic succession or the passing of mantles. It’s not about Elijah and Elisha; it’s about God. That’s what true leadership is, when you think about it—to lead others to where they need to be rather than to lead them to where the leader thinks they should go. Sometimes being a great leader means stepping aside and passing the mantle to someone else. It makes us realize that transformation doesn’t just happen on an individual basis but, rather, is woven into the community of faith, into the hearts of all of those who have the humility and the strength to take a part in the play.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your thinking on how Elisha felt about this calling?
  3. What does this passage say about leadership?
  4. How could this passage speak to us today?
  5. How do you see transformation in your own life?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Here Paul is responding to questions about whether or not God has hidden part of the Gospel from view. It is a response, once again, to those who are trying to discredit him. After all, if the things about which he spoke were real and believable, don’t you think others would know this? Don’t you think it would be obvious? Why in the world has God hidden the Godself from plain view? He contends that it was not done for manipulation but, rather, that it simply seems that way because some are indeed blinded to the good news. He claims that there is still a veil that prevents some people from seeing Christ for who Christ is.

He links the creation of light with the light that emanates from Christ. Light, glory, and glow are all ways of expressing God’s presence. There’s a lot here about seeing and veiling. What does it take to see through the veil? And why is there a veil at all? Why didn’t God just make it more obvious to us? Maybe that’s the point. It IS obvious unless one is blinded by the bright lights and “gods” of this world. It IS obvious unless one has quit looking toward it because one has already figured out what he or she thinks they see. It takes a change of vision, a new way of seeing. Paul claims that the message is clear. It is just up to us to see it.

Now this is one of those passages that could easily be misused. I don’t think this is about assigning roles or separating “believers” (those who “see”) from “unbelievers” (those who don’t). We don’t all of a sudden miraculously “see” God and everything falls into place. It is a journey. Seeing is something that is an act of faith. Learning to see is the whole point of our journey of faith. It would be ludicrous for us to claim that there are never times on our journey when we miss seeing the way we are supposed to, when our own desires and our own fears and our own perceptions of God get in the way of the God who comes to us each and very day. But there are also times when we do see it, when the clouds of this world part if only for a moment, when the veil becomes thin enough for us to feel and know the Presence of God that has been there all along. The Celtic tradition would call them “thin places”, places where the “veil” that separated the earth and heaven, the ordinary and the sacred, the human and the Divine, becomes so thin, so translucent, that one gets a glimpse of the glory of God. It is those times and places in our lives where God’s Presence becomes almost palpable and where we cannot help but be transfigured into what God calls us to be. Perhaps it is those times when we don’t just think about God but rather create space enough for the sacred and the Divine to penetrate our lives and our flesh in the deepest part of our being.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How is this Scripture sometimes misused?
  3. What gets in the way of our “seeing” Christ?
  4. What are those “thin places” in your own life?

 

 GOSPEL: Mark 9: 2-9

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

In the big scheme of things, we’ve gotten to this point pretty fast. Here it is—a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants turns out to be the Son of God. He grows up, becomes a teacher, a healer, and capable of hosting large groups of people with just a small amount of leftovers. Then he asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission. They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this great person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And we’ve essentially read through all of this in a matter of a few months since early December. And then one day, Jesus leads them up to a mountain, away from the interruptions of the world.

Now, this is sort of interesting. There is no proof of an actual geographically-charted mountain. It is presented as if it just rose up, uninterrupted, from the terrain, as if it is rather a part of the topography of God. Even for people, such as myself, who cannot claim a single, stand alone, so-called “mountain-top experience” that brought them to Christ but rather came year by year and grew into the relationship…even for us…this IS the mountain-top experience. And there, on that mountain, everything changes.

The clothes that Jesus was wearing change, taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding, white, whiter than anything that they had ever seen before. And on the mountain appeared Elijah and Moses, representing the Law and the prophets, the forerunners of our faith, standing there with Jesus. Peter wanted to build three dwellings to house them. For me, that’s sort of an interesting part of the story. Dwellings…I guess because that would keep them here, essentially bound to our way of living. Dwellings…to control where they were. Dwellings…to somehow put this incredible thing that had happened into something that made sense, to bring it into the light of the world where we could understand it. But, instead, they are veiled by a cloud and from the cloud comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” “Listen to him!” And then they were gone and Jesus stood there alone.

The Greek term for transfiguration is metaphorphosis. It means, literally, to change into something else. That is what this experience does for the disciples and for us. It changes us into something else. The account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to us that it should be the climax of the Jesus story. After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him. But there’s a reason that we read this on the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey. In some ways, it is perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now.

Going back to what we said earlier, this is, of course, the ultimate in thin places. The light is so bright it is blinding. God’s glory is so pervasive that we cannot help but encounter it. And these Old Testament characters? They show us that this is not a one-time “mountain-top” experience. It is part of life; it is part of history; it is part of humanity. Rather than everything of this world being left behind in this moment, it is all swept into being. It all becomes part of the glory of God.

And then the lights dim. There are no chariots, Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking. And in the silence, Jesus starts walking down the mountain toward Jerusalem. From our vantage point, we know what happens there. And he asks us to follow and gives us all the portions we need to do just that. And we can. Because now we see the way to go. Let us now go to Jerusalem and see this thing that has happened.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the term “mountain-top” experience mean for you?
  3. Once again, we are talking about “seeing”. They saw Jesus because they were looking for him. What does that mean for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)

 

Learn to see and then you’ll know that there is no end to the new worlds of our vision. (Carlos Casteneda)

 

A faith that moves mountains is a faith that expands horizons. It does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers, but into a larger one where there is room for wonder. {Rich Mullins}

 

Closing

 

The journey to Bethlehem was much more to my liking. I am content kneeling here, where there’s an aura of angels and the ever-present procession of shepherds and of kings who’ve come to kneel to the Newborn to whom we are newborn. I want to linger here in Bethlehem in joy and celebration, knowing once I set my feet toward Jerusalem, the Child will grow, and I will be asked to follow.

 

The time of Light and Angels is drawing to a close. Just when I’ve settled contentedly into the quiet wonder of Star and Child, He bids me leave and follow. How can I be expected to go back into darkness after sitting mangerside, bathed in such Light?

 

It’s hard to get away this time of year; I don’t know how I’ll manage. It’s not just the time…the conversation along the way turns from Birth to Death. I’m not sure I can stand the stress and pain; I have enough of those already. Besides, I’ve found the lighting on the road to Jerusalem is very poor. This time around, there is no Star…

 

The shepherds have left; they’ve returned to hillside and to sheep. The Magi, too, have gone, having been warned in a dream, as was Joseph, who packed up his family and fled. If I stay in Bethlehem, I stay alone. God has gone on toward Jerusalem.

 

Amen. (“Looking Toward Jerusalem”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 14-15.)

Transfiguration A: Listening to the Mountaintop

Fog on mountaintopOLD TESTAMENT:  Exodus 24: 12-18

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

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.” 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. How would our understanding of God change if we thought of God as the “Great I AM”?
  3. What keeps us from realizing that God’s presence changes everything in our lives rather than merely affirming who we are?
  4. (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

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

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. 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What does the concept of Christ’s return mean for you?
  3. What gets in the way of your seeing that come to be in your own life?

 GOSPEL:  Matthew 17: 1-9

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

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.) 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What does this depiction of God’s presence mean to us?
  3. In what ways, then, should we see the presence of God, or Jesus, differently?
  4. 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) 

Closing

 

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