February 26, 2017

And He Was Transfigured Before Them

Passage: Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
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Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

The Silver Chair is the fourth novel by C.S. Lewis of the seven novels in The Chronicles of Narnia. In this novel Aslan the Lion gives this final word: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

1. Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. Right away our ears should perk up. Having been exposed to scripture for decades we should know that mountains, in scripture, are the venue of revelation: Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel, Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives, the “hill” of Calvary,” “The Sermon on the Mount.” “Mountain” always points to God’s self-disclosure and the change within those who are beneficiaries of it.

Just as our exposure to scripture sensitizes us to know the connection of mountain and God’s self-disclosure these first followers of Jesus would hear many more connections because of their intimacy with the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). The first hearers of Matthew’s gospel were Jewish Christians and many of the allusions that Matthew imbeds in the story of Jesus would have leapt off the page for them. Our lack of familiarity with the Older Testament impoverishes our reading of the gospel.

New Testament professor Mark Powell conducted an experiment testing what people note when scripture reading. Powell had twelve students in a seminary class read the story of the prodigal son from Luke's Gospel, then close their Bibles and retell the story as faithfully as possible to a partner. None of the twelve American seminary students mentioned the famine in Luke 15:14, which precipitates the son's eventual return. Powell then had one hundred people participate in the same experiment and the results revealed that only six of the one hundred mentioned the famine. The "famine-forgetters," as Powell called them, had only one thing in common: they were from the United States.

Later Powell tried the experiment in St. Petersburg, Russia. He gathered fifty participants to read and retell the prodigal son story. This time an overwhelming forty-two of the fifty participants mentioned the famine. Why? Just seventy years before, 670,000 people died of starvation after a Nazi German siege of the capital city began a three-year famine. Famine was very much a part of the history and imagination of the Russian participants.

So back to our listeners to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration. These hearers whose listening was tuned by familiarity with older testament story would know the story in Exodus we read as our Older Testament reading today. “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The 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.” (Exodus 24:15-16) So when these people read Matthew’s introduction to this transfiguration event and read “six days later”—six days after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God—they know that Matthew wants them to understand that this is the seventh day, as was the day when God called to Moses. This the seventh day when God will confirm the disciples’ conviction that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah).

Among those hearers would be people who would call to mind the week long Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) that commemorated Exodus; the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. (Leviticus 23:42-43) Jesus transfiguration would have taken place on the last day of the feast, which was both its high point and the synthesis of its inner meaning. Others would call to mind that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fell six days before the Feast of Tabernacles. They would picture that Peter’s confession “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” corresponded to the Day of Atonement in time relationship to the transfiguration of Jesus.

As soon as we hear that Jesus has taken Peter, James and John with him up a mountain, we know that an epiphany is occurring whose truth and reality will stamp itself indelibly upon these men and upon all, like us, who receive their witness and therein find the same epiphany occurring again. While the three men are with Jesus on the mountain, Jesus shines before them with a luminosity they can neither explain nor forget. What happened on the mountaintop is that Jesus divine nature rose to prominence in a way that had not generally been the case throughout Jesus’ earthly existence up to that point. Here on the mountain heaven and earth intersect in way that a glimpse of heaven’s glory is experienced. It was not that Jesus became something he generally speaking was not but more the case that something that was a part of who he had been all along was displayed in a different way.

2. I invite you to take note that Peter is one of the three disciples taken to this mountain top. In the Greek language of Matthew’s account, Matthew uses the definite article with Peter’s name in a way that indicates that he is highlighting the continuing role of Peter from the events that precede this witness of the transfiguration. Peter was the one who insightfully answered Jesus question at their retreat near Caesarea Philippi. “But who do you say that I am,” asked Jesus. Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 26:15-16)

With this conviction in their hearts, Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. It was Peter who took Jesus aside and rebuked him for teaching he deemed unthinkable. Jesus then said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 26:23) It is this same Peter, Matthew wants us to note, that Jesus takes with him for this mountain-top experience.

Perhaps, like Peter, you have found some feature of the gospel, some aspect of our Lord’s teaching to seem off base, even scandalous. Many find features of the Older Testament, the Bible Jesus knew and loved, to be off-putting. Yet the patience and love of Jesus is not diminished in his heart towards us. Just as he takes Peter to this mountain, Jesus will make himself known to us.

Furthermore, the idea that one would consider Jesus’ claim that the Messiah should die a scandal is not unique to Peter. Added to this is the fact that he would die by crucifixion—a kind of execution unique in its design to wipe the name of the crucified from history. The Apostle Paul would note of the gospel that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Many have bristled at the claim that Jesus died for my sin. Clearly, if his death on the cross was for my sin, my depravity is far worse than I care to imagine.

Jesus welcomes us to this mountain to catch a glimpse of his glory.

3. In Peter’s second letter the event of Jesus’ transfiguration is referenced in defense of the charge that this whole Jesus story was “cleverly devised myth.” Peter notes of this mountain encounter … “but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. …We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So 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.” (2 Peter 1:16-19)

Now we must be careful not to make eyewitness account mean more than it does. And I suggest to you that Peter is being careful here. He simply says that we would do well to be attentive to this point. The record of these eyewitness accounts counts for something, as we hear of their witness to Christ. We must admit that what these eyewitnesses described as happening—the other-worldly luminosity of Jesus, meeting Moses and Elijah, the cloud of God’s presence, the voice—are beyond anything we experience in the routines of life. It sounds fanciful to us. Oddly, though, such fantasy is more like what we would imagine encounter with God to be like. We certainly don’t expect God to come among us in a country boy from a backwater place like Nazareth.

I invite you to reflect with me that we often borrow, as it were, on the faith of these eyewitnesses. Just as we lean on one another in our faith journey; listening to how a person has encountered Jesus in their life helps to identify our own encounters, though different that theirs. I know people who have had an experience of seeing Jesus in a vision. I have never had such an experience. Still, their testimony is an encouragement to me. Perhaps, like me, you have had the experience where you “happen” to read a passage of scripture that addressed an uncertainty or challenge that was confronting you at that moment. You didn’t hear an audible voice but the message was as clear. The one who greets you in vision is the one who underlines text for your guidance.

When Peter invites us to be attentive to his eyewitness experience of Jesus he invites us to lean on him, as it were, to borrow from him. Jesus shows these disciples his glory that we too would know the wonder of this One who meets us. Fully God, fully man.

Many today balk at the particularity of Jesus. These apostles assert that Jesus Christ is the mirror-image of God the Father. On the mountain of transfiguration we see the glory that belongs to Jesus as the Divine Son. Some complain that this is terribly narrow. The disciple Phillip was not on this mountain and in the upper room he asks Jesus for one, conclusive disclosure of God, “Just show us the Father and that will be enough,” he cries to Jesus. “Phillip,” replies the Master, “to see me is to see the one you want. I am the disclosure you crave.”

I admit that this claim of Jesus is narrow, in its particularity. But it is important to note what is not said in this claim. It is not said that God has neglected or forsaken people who are non-Christians. Nevertheless it is in Jesus Christ that we learn that God neither neglects nor forsakes anyone.

4. The Transfiguration mount would be a beautiful ending to a beautiful story. Jesus the teacher and healer reaching the summit now seen in all his glory. It some way that may be what Peter thought when he saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus. This is it. Jesus will rule the world from here. Peter wants to freeze where they are, “I will make three dwellings.”

Returning again to Peter’s second letter where he speaks of the transfiguration he makes this observation. “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” I am not sure if he was thinking about his initial interpretation of what was taking place as he observed the glory of Jesus. Yet, I can’t help but think that, in part, he has this in mind. The point being that God not only makes himself known but also discloses the meaning of his incursion into our lives.

Peter’s own interpretation was so off the mark that Luke comments, “he didn’t know what he was saying.” When Peter tries to do what he thinks best, a cloud appears (clouds, in scripture, are a symbol of God’s presence), and out of the cloud a voice comes: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” “Listen”, for the Hebrew mind, always has the force of “obey.” If we don’t obey we haven’t heard.

At this point Peter, James, and John have fallen to the ground overcome with fear. Jesus’ word to them and us is always this one, “get up and do not be afraid.” His way always leads to hope and life eternal.

As 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.’ Note with me that he is leading them to Jerusalem. The glory of God will be revealed on another mount—the mount of Calvary. Glory being the moment when we see the heart of God most clearly. The moment when Father and Son will take into themselves the sin of the world. The self-forgetful self-giving of Father and Son at the cross for our sakes. Jesus calls us to go with him to the cross where the meaning of this moment of transfiguration will find its fulfillment. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’