The Transfiguration of Our Lord: February 18, 2007.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
The heights of Sinai, belching smoke, mist, and fire, present a quintessential example of what one might identify as the "Old Testament" God: wholly other, supremely transcendent. The image of Jesus, teaching, talking, and showing a flash of very human anger, presents the counterpoint: the incarnational, very human "New Testament" God. The trouble with generalizations, of course, is that they do not present the complexities of the scriptural witness. The texts for today defy such generalizations and demonstrate a long tradition of blurring the categories of the transcendent and immanent God.
While the heights of Sinai, the untouchable mountain, provide the backdrop of the text from Exodus, and while the sin of the people has heightened their sense of God's otherness, it is precisely here that God comes all too close in the light reflected in Moses, who is unaware of the effect of God's presence on his appearance. God's presence is as plain as Moses' face, and that makes the people, still stinging over the events of the golden calf (Exodus 32), afraid to come close. Moses has spent time with the Lord and has been transformed. The people have spent time with an idol and are filled with fear.
For Paul, the divine light reflected through Moses on Sinai is a fading light. The Greek in v. 13 speaks of a glory that is at its end ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and being nullified ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). While Paul's argument is at times forced, it offers a pivot that moves us from Moses on Sinai to Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration. The light of Moses, Paul says, is a mediated light that is not only veiled but still as distant as Moses' face. The light, or glory, which Paul says is dawning, emanates from Christ and erases the final distance. This light is unveiled and, through Christ, shines in all who call on his name.
Luke's story of the Transfiguration is laden with meaning and mystery in its own right. It also is woven into the larger narrative in a way that gives us even more to chew on. The question uttered by Herod--"Who is this about whom I hear such things?" (9:9)--lies at the heart of this passage and of all of chap. 9.
Immediately before Jesus goes up the mountain with the chosen few, Peter declares that Jesus is the "Messiah of God" (9:20). Jesus then instructs the disciples as to what this means by pointing to the cross that awaits him in Jerusalem. In this context, the Transfiguration is a foretaste of both his coming glory and his "departure, which he was about to complete at Jerusalem" (v. 31)--the cross. Peter's confession led to a misunderstood word from Jesus. The glory of Jesus with Moses and Elijah confirms the messianic identity but is also followed by the misunderstanding of Peter. Amidst the myriad messianic expectations swirling around Palestine at this time, Jesus is defining what "messiah" really means, and it is mysterious, even mindbending.
The Word that rumbles from the cloud is both a parallel and contrast to Moses' descent with the tablets. Moses bears God's Word to the people with the command "Listen to these." Here God commands "Listen to him" (v. 35). If we may borrow from John, Word has become flesh. Moses and the prophets are summed up in the one who is left alone, standing before his disciples.
The episode of the next day is a manifestation of God's power as Jesus does what his disciples could not: cast out a demon. The curious turn here is that these same disciples seemed to have no trouble with this kind of task at the beginning of the chapter (9:1-6). The only thing that has changed for all of them is the growing misunderstanding about Jesus' messiahship, rooted in suffering and service.
There seems to be a rash of new television shows that are about kidnapping. Shows like Without a Trace perhaps speak to a society that feels lost. Many of the episodes follow a plot where a child has been abducted. By the end of the show, the intrepid FBI agents have tracked down the child and the kidnapper. The kidnapper is somehow removed from the plot, and then the agents find the child, cowering in a corner. Conditioned by the length of time in captivity to fear strangers, the initial reaction to the agent who has come to the rescue is to recoil. A chasm opens up between the one who is lost and the one who has come to save. Because all television shows like this end on a high note, somehow the child opens up to the agent and the chasm closes, the distance is overcome. Agent and child go off to safety hand in hand.
There is a sense in which the texts for the Transfiguration of Our Lord are about a similar chasm that exists between God and God's people. On the one hand, like moths to flame, the glorious, gleaming figures of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus attract us. On the other hand, we approach with fear and trembling because we have built the golden calf; we shine so little. We cower in the corner when the glory descends. Yet, in the midst of the terrifying light, a face, a hand, a voice reaches across the divide, and God is with us. What must God do to stop our fear? What do we do when God draws near?
In the movie End of the Spear (Every Tribe Entertainment, 2006), the Waodani people of South America are encountered by missionaries who arrive by air. The Waodani live a life untouched by modernity, and so the arrival of an airplane lowering gifts from the sky and bringing people who look so different is an encounter with The Other, in a sense. Mincayani is leader of this band of people. He is wary, afraid, and anxious about this encounter. The missionaries, led by the pilot (named Saint) want to bridge the gap, while Mincayani wants it preserved. The missionaries are speared to death, and that becomes the thing that allows the chasm to be closed in the end.
That the revelation of God's glory in Jesus through the Transfiguration is surrounded by Jesus' persistent announcement of his journey to the cross tells us what it will take for the chasm between God and God's people to be bridged. Before the cross, the brilliant light causes us to fall on our faces. After the cross, as Paul says, that light comes so close it is reflected in us.
Perhaps the most difficult element of these texts is the notion not only that the transcendent wishes to move to the immanent but that the glory, which is so wholly foreign to us, is somehow intended to be shared with us as well. Jesus does not simply want the disciples to bring all the demon-possessed and sick to him; he wants them to do the healing and exorcising. God allows the divine light to transfer in part to Moses. Paul boldly proclaims that the distance is traversed; the light is to shine in us. The glory of God, before the atoning death of Christ, is a revelation of what we are not. After the cross, it is a sign of what we shall be. TVO
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Olson, Timothy V.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
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