Transfiguration Sunday (February 26, 2017)

February 13, 2017 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 24:12-18 Psalm 2 or Psalm 99 2 Peter 1:16-21 Matthew 17:1-9

Old Testament Lesson: Exodus 24:12-18

Commentators view most of Exodus 24 as an old, archaic text used in our present Sinai narrative by the biblical author. In this narrative Moses along with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders go up on the mountain to have a covenant meal and there they behold God standing on a pavement of sapphire stone. It is an unusual narrative, very distinctive among the other Sinai accounts. Then in vv. 12-18 Moses and Joshua go up higher on the mountain (presumably) leaving the elders behind (v. 14). How did Joshua suddenly appear with the group? Also, Hur is now said to be with the elders (v. 14). We feel like we are missing part of the narratives. On the mountain the Lord (notice the change of name from God to Lord) will give Moses the tablets of stone with the law and the commandments (v. 12). Is that the Ten Commandments? Why did Moses not get them in the narrative of Exodus 20? Do Law and the Commandments refer not only to Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments, but also to Exodus 21-23, the Covenant Code or the Book of the Covenant? Those would be large stone tablets. Did Moses need a forklift to carry them down the mountain? In Exod 32:15 we are told that the two tablets are written on both the front and back. Artists and sunday school pictures never notice that! In Exod 32:19 we are told that Moses threw the tablets and broke them. Temper, temper! In Exod 34:1-4 Moses cuts two more tablets of stone and goes up the mountain to receive the same commandments again. In Exod 34:28 they are called the Ten Commandments, and that is the only numerical reference to them. However, in Exod 34:17-26 they appear to be twelve in number and they are not the commandments found in Exodus 20, but rather they are ritual commandments. Both God and Moses are apparently absent-minded. I cannot begin to summarize the multitude of scholarly theories proposed to explain these issues in the text.

Theologically the passages in vv. 12-18 present a grand vision of the Lord appearing to Moses (in vv. 15-18 Joshua is suddenly absent). In this grand vision, the “glory of the Lord” settles on Sinai and then a “cloud” covers it for six days until the Lord speaks to Moses on the seventh day out of that “cloud.” “Glory of the Lord” is a respectful circumlocution for the Lord, so that the pious reader does not speak of the Lord directly. The cloud hides the Lord so that the Lord cannot be seen in person. (Strange how God appeared in v. 10 without the cloud upon a sapphire stone pavement! Perhaps these are separate traditions used by our author.) When the Lord speaks to Moses he is like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, and Moses enters the “cloud” presumably where he can see the Lord. He stays there for forty days.

This is a grand vision in the Old Testament text, despite the few inconsistencies. Christians saw this as an event foreshadowing the Transfiguration of Jesus reported in the gospels, and most likely it influenced how they told the story of Jesus so magnificently appearing before Peter, James, and John. The appearance of the Lord to Moses in Exodus 24 is a scene worthy of painting in grand fashion.

For the process theologian this vision is an example of God’s deep self-involvement in the life of Israel, especially in the lives of these pathetic little slaves living in the wilderness. It testifies to the presence of God in the process of this world and human existence, and in particular, it describes God as becoming self-involved in a grand way in order to give more purpose and direction to these de-socialized, escaped slaves. This is an excellent example of God providing a “lure” to lead people into the future, calling upon them to make meaningful, moral decisions. In the same way, we could speak of God being present in our midst, perhaps not in such grand fashion, but nonetheless present to lead us as worshipping communities and as individuals into the future with more purpose and determination.

Epistle: 2 Peter 1:16-21

The brief except from the letter of Second Peter alludes to the transfiguration experience of Jesus which was witnessed by Peter, James, and John., and which we read in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. The allusion in 2 Peter is brief, but it does stress that it was a majestic experience in which they heard a voice from heaven, “This is my son.”

As a process theologian I would stress that we have here a memory of a dramatic experience of the divine, of God, in the human process. The experience which the disciples had on that mountain was probably indescribable, but over the years they came to describe the transcendent and indescribable experience in words that other Christians could understand, and that is what we find in our present written text. It was the presence of the divine in the human process, providing the disciples with a transforming experience. It was the “divine lure” leading them in a deeply committed fashion into a life of service to Jesus and his message.

We speak of mountaintop experiences that inspire people for the rest of their lives. The testimony here in 2 Peter is to just such a mountaintop experience. The memory of that experience is a worthwhile testimony here in our biblical text whether the author of 2 Peter is Peter or more likely a disciple of his, such as Silvanus (as commentators oft have suggested). God is still involved in the process of people’s lives, and this reference to the transfiguation is not to a once and for all past experience. We believe that God can still provide transforming experiences for people today, sometimes singular and dramatic, but often more subtle and frequent.

The last verse is a passage often quoted by conservative Protestants to talk about the doctrine of scriptural inspiration. They speak of holy men being moved by God to write the Bible, and thus they expound upon a strong doctrine of verbal or plenary inspiration. (I was raised in such a tradition.) However, they forget three things. 1) The author of 2 Peter is probably referring to the texts of the Old Testament, for the New Testament is in the process of being created as he wrote. 2) The passage says that they spoke; it does not say that they were inspired to write. 3) The passage implies a cooperative endeavor involving both God and the human person in the process of inspiration, not a process of dictation as so many conservatives seem to assume. In general, we write too much about the doctrine of inspiration when instead we should pay more attention to the meaning of the biblical texts.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

This is the key text for the festival of Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on an mountain and is gloriously transfigured before them. It is a grand scene, one which has caught the attention of artists for years.

It is also a text full of symbolism. Jesus appears to them in radiant fashion, obviously a foreshadowing of his resurrected body. When God speaks, God says, “This is my beloved son,” which is language that obviously refers back to the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. This story functions in all three Synoptic Gospels as a linking text to pull the entire gospel story together by alluding to both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry, his baptism and his resurrection.

Dramatically Moses and Elijah appear and talk to Jesus. Moses is the father of the Torah, which is found in the Pentateuch. Elijah is a significant prophet, and some commentators suspect that his reception of the small voice on Mount Horeb may have been seen by ancient Jews as the beginning of the classical prophetic movement. Elijah was certainly expected to return before the Messiah appeared, and that is why John the Baptist deliberately imitated Elijah in so many ways. Thus, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, which is Jesus’ day constituted the significant portion of the Old Testament in the minds of many Jews. Also, Jews in Jesus’ day believed that neither Moses nor Elijah died. Though Deuteronomy tells us that Moses died, many Jews were familiar with the second century BCE work, The Assumption of Moses, which spoke of how Moses was assumed into heaven. Elijah, of course, ascended into heaven in a whirlwind . (No, he was not in the fiery chariot, God was invisibly present in that chariot. Artists usually get that scene wrong, except for El Greco.) Thus, Jesus is speaking with the two “living” personages most equated with the Law and the Prophets.

Most significantly in the story Peter once more brashly sticks his foot in his mouth. He says that it is good to be here, and he wishes to build three tabernacles, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus. However, Jesus will lead them down off of the mountain into the real world where the important action takes place. Likewise, we may have a mountain top experience, but it means nothing unless we take it into the real world and do something with it.

What happens when Jesus comes down off the mountain is important to each of the gospel writers. In Mark, Jesus is quickly in Jerusalem preparing to die. The message for Mark’s audience is that to follow Jesus means being ready to suffer and die. In Matthew, Jesus comes down off the mountain and proceeds to provide more teachings in the “Little Discourses” of Matt 11-13. For Matthew’s audience, being ready to follow Jesus means living the ethic that he taught. In Luke, Jesus comes down off the mountain and begins to heal many people. For Luke’s audience, being ready to follow Jesus means reaching out to help to poor and the sick in a social ministry that seriously demonstrates Jesus’ ethic of love for others. So the transfiguration account performs an important in the structure of all three gospels.

For the process theologian, the transfiguration of Jesus is another archetypal example of God active in the process to inspire and transform people. The transformative experience that the three disciples had, and which came to fruition in their lives, after the resurrection of Jesus, is an experience that many people may have in some form. God is in the process of life for everyone, leading us onward to new opportunities and new challenges, which, if the eye of faith can see and the hand of faith can touch, may transform us and those around us. The transfiguration of Jesus is an ultimate symbol for the “lure” of God in all of our lives.