The Transfiguration of Our Lord – February 19, 2012
2 Kings 2:1-12 – Elisha asks Elijah for a double measure of his spirit. Elijah is taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire.
Psalm 50:1-6 – The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 – If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.
Mark 9:2-9 – Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain after six days.
Epiphany 6B – February 12, 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14 – Namaan healed.
Psalm 30 – For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – In a race all runners compete, but only one wins the prize. Run to win.
Mark 1:40-45 – Jesus has compassion on a leper and heals him, telling him not to tell anyone.
In 2 Kings, Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Then, Elijah is taken up into heaven by a whirlwind, with a chariot and horses of fire attending. Elisha takes on the mantle of Elijah, striking the waters of the Jordan and parting them as Elijah had, and, of course, Moses. The prophetic office is passed from generation to generation. What prophetic voice is being called for in this generation? Who are the prophets among you?
2 Corinthians is complex. Paul is defending his apostleship in the face of some false apostles. In chapter 3, the chapter prior to our upcoming lesson, he explains that he and his colleagues are ministers of a new covenant, not written on stone (as Moses’ Ten Commandments were) but rather on hearts. We follow a gospel of grace written upon hearts, not a religion of law, written on stone.
The revelation of the Law in the Hebrew Bible came in such glory that the people could not look upon Moses’ face. It had to be veiled. If the ministry of condemnation had glory, how much more must the ministry of justification have glory! Paul figures the reason his fellow Israelites don’t “see” Jesus as the messiah is because the veil is still there. When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. In Christ, we see the image of God as in a mirror. One imagines an icon of Christ, as a mirror through which one views the glory of God over one’s shoulder.
Then comes chapter 4, our chapter for this week. Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing (presumably in their sins and condemnation by the law). The god of this world has blinded them from seeing the glory of God as reflected in the face of Christ. It is a complex argument, borne out of Paul’s grief that all Israel has not run to Christ. We have here a reference to Moses’ shining face to prepare us for the story of the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is told in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9. It is also referenced in 2 Peter 1:17-18:
For 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.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
“We,” says Peter, of James, John and himself. “We ourselves heard this voice…” Some (who propose an unlikely date of 64 A.D. for 2 Peter) suggest that this account actually predates the synoptic gospel accounts. Others suggest that Peter is behind the writing of Mark’s gospel. If so, the scribe of Mark’s gospel may be penning an old man’s firsthand account of a life-changing, perspective-altering, mountaintop experience.
Mark 9 is our first known written account of the Transfiguration, if we decide on a later date for 2 Peter. Origen suggested this story was a preview of the resurrection. Later scholars proposed a theory that it was a resurrection story mistakenly or intentionally misplaced. Yet it lacks some of the characteristics of the resurrection appearances (like Jesus being gone at the beginning of the narrative). In either case, the oral iconography is clear: Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. This was Luther’s interpretation.
The story has all the marks of a theophany. The glory of God is reflected in Jesus as it was (is) in Moses and Elijah. They are on a mountaintop just as Moses and Elijah were on the mountaintop. The cloud is the Shekinah of God’s glory. This event confirms Jesus as the Son of God for the inner circle of three disciples. The voice is heard as at Jesus baptism: “This is my Son…”
Once, a friend invited me to run a 200-mile race with a team. It was called the Hood-to-Coast. We started on Mt. Hood, the largest mountain in Oregon (11,000 feet), above the tree–line, above the clouds. The view is incredible, it inspires awe. When was the last time you felt awe? The thing about mountains is the perspective you get. You can see for miles. You see how little you are. You think about yourself and about things differently when you’re on the mountaintop. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. The mountaintop puts things in perspective.
Mount Tabor, looming above the Jezreel Valley, is where some folks imagine the Transfiguration took place. There is a church there on the ridge, of course, called the Church of the Transfiguration. Under it lie the remains of a very old church. We don’t know how old exactly. One writer mentions seeing three basilicas there in AD 570. Jezreel is where Elijah fought the prophets of Baal and where Jesus was raised as a child. Why this mountain? Why this valley? Was it the view? The sense of history? A sense of perspective?
Others place the Transfiguration on Mount Hermon, further to the north, which is nearly 10,000 feet in altitude. Mount Hermon is now a well-known Israeli ski resort attracting thousands every year. Why do they go? Could it be the exhilaration and perspective one gets on the mountaintop?
The three disciples are so moved they wish to build booths, tabernacles, tents, shrines. “How good, Lord, to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” says Peter. They sense that this is now a holy place. We always want to camp out on the mountaintop, at the holy place. It is a natural response. Mark tells us that Peter was frankly a bit tongue-tied. Here the classic sermons often focus on our desire to remain on the mountain of spiritual bliss, but our Lord calls us to ministry in the valley. The God revealed in Jesus cannot remain aloof on high.
Moses had his perspective changed on the mountaintop. He went up for forty days and forty nights. He hid in the cleft of the rock as God passed by because he could not behold the brightness of God’s glory because it would consume him. On the mountain God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Elijah also had his perspective and life changed in a mountaintop experience. He traveled 40 days and 40 nights to get to Mount Horeb, what the Bible calls the Mountain of God, the same mountain where Moses saw the burning bush, the same mountain where Moses received the law on tablets of stone. It was there that Elijah experienced a terrifying storm, with wind that brought down rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. But after that there was a whisper of silence. And God was in the silence.
Peter’s perspective was changed in this mountaintop experience. Jesus had just rebuked Peter for not believing that he, Jesus, must suffer and die. Peter was in the dark about Jesus’ life and mission, but in this vision he was blinded by the light. He began to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He saw Jesus with new eyes. “Although we once viewed him from a human perspective, we no longer see him in that way.” Peter suddenly began to understand Jesus’ prediction of his own crucifixion. He began to understand Jesus as the future of humanity.
We are invited to climb the mountain and behold the glory of God in the face of Christ, the fulfillment of the law and prophets. In Word and Sacrament, in song and in prayer, we are invited to see the brilliance of the face of God, even if it makes us turn away. And then we are sent back down into the valley, out into the world to love and serve in Jesus’ name.