March 6, 2011
The work of God’s Servant conceals a divine glory and sanction, only momentarily glimpsed by the chosen ones.
The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday, which this year comes as late as possible because Easter is so late. Transfiguration Sunday emphasizes the Glory of God’s Son, but it is immediately followed by Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent, which emphasize the humility and obedience unto death of that same Servant of God. Thus, these two Sundays are the peak and the depth of the divine-human presence of God to a waiting and longing humanity.
Transfiguration is a sharp intrusion of the divine element into the human world. It is not about ordinary human events or powers. It is a radical affirmation that beyond human efforts there is a reality that can and will ultimately work a redeeming will of God in spite of all human appearances and expectations to the contrary. Therefore, the Transfiguration readings are about marvelous, miraculous events. They are about the “other” that is finally the basis of all faith, hope, and love.
The Torah reading presents Moses surrounded by God’s glory on Mount Sinai. The exodus has happened, a first round of testing in the wilderness has passed, and the people have witnessed the awesome and earth-shaking power with which God delivered the first installment of the law required of the covenant people—the Ten Commandments and the Covenant Code (Exodus 20-23). The people have bound themselves to obey the law, and their representatives have ventured up on the holy mountain to consummate the covenant agreement with a sacred meal in the divine presence (Exodus 24:1-11).
The next phase of God’s instructions from the holy mountain is about to begin, the phase in which God will provide for a dwelling place on the earth, for the true sanctuary among the people, which is called the Tabernacle. “And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:8-9, NRSV). It was to receive the instructions for this tabernacle that Moses again went up the mountain, waited six days, and then on the seventh day entered the brilliant cloud to be in God’s presence for forty days and forty nights.
While the Torah reading lifts up God’s glory around the servant at the making of the covenant and the giving of the true sanctuary, the Psalm reading features the rule over the worldly powers of God’s Anointed One who has been enthroned upon Mount Zion. This psalm is a coronation psalm; it presents the ideal picture of the king on Zion as God’s agent for ruling the rebellious powers that would destroy the peace of God’s realm.
The psalm has four parts, the first three of which are dramatic scenes that conclude with direct speech from the participants. In Scene One, a heavenly observer speaks with astonishment about an uprising of the nations against God’s rule. The speaker describes the scene and allows us to overhear directly the rebellious words: “The kings of the earth set themselves, … against the Lord and his anointed, saying, / ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, / and cast their cords from us’” (verse 3, NRSV).
In Scene Two the heavenly observer turns from the earthly rebellion to describe the response in the heavenly throne-room. “He who sits in the heavens laughs…” (verse 4). The laughter soon turns to annoyance, however, and God makes a pronouncement intended to shatter the rebellion: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (verse 6). From the heavenly viewpoint, that concludes the matter. The rebellion against God’s Anointed (Messiah, Christ) is overthrown by the appearance of the (new) king on Zion.
In Scene Three we hear that king, the Anointed One, speak. He quotes, for all peoples to hear, what God had said to him when he was enthroned on Zion. “You are my son; today I have begotten [or “borne”] you” (verse 7). And the heavenly declaration continues by promising the Anointed One that his inheritance consists of the nations, and he is given discretionary powers to discipline them (verses 8-9). (In verse 9, read “you may break them with a rod of iron, and you may dash them in pieces…” This is not a prediction—“you shall break them…”—but a granting of discretionary power to the Anointed One, up to complete destruction.)
In the final Scene, a mini-sermon is delivered by the heavenly observer to the rulers of the earth, warning them to serve the Lord with reverence, because the Lord is quick to discipline rebellious outbursts. The concluding word is that obedience to the Lord is its own reward: “Happy are all who take refuge in him.”
At his coronation ceremony on Zion, the Anointed One is proclaimed in a glorious way and is endowed with a mission concerning the nations.
II Peter 1:16-21
This Epistle reading is the only direct report of the transfiguration event outside the synoptic Gospels.
II Peter is written as the last testament of Peter—“I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me” (II Peter 1:13-14, NRSV). Probably written rather later than the time of Peter (many writings had been attributed to Peter by 150 CE), it was accepted as scripture by the later church (third and fourth centuries) because it seemed to be one more surviving report of the faith received from the apostles.
The writer is discussing the truth of the teachings about Jesus’ second coming, his return in power at the final judgment. In the writer’s time this coming had been long delayed, and “scoffers” had arisen who challenged such a belief. They said, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were…” (II Peter 3:4).
In support of the tradition about Jesus’ coming glory, “Peter” reports what he and the other disciples saw and heard at the transfiguration. “For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory,” and he goes on to quote the words of God at the transfiguration. (“The wording of the heavenly voice differs slightly from that in the Gospels; the writer may be relying on oral tradition rather than a written gospel,” Patrick A. Tiller, New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed., on verse 17.) The writer concludes, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (verse 18).
The appearance of the heavenly Jesus attested by the voice of God—these things of the transfiguration—were foretastes and guarantees that the enthroned Lord will finally come in full force.
(The consummation this writer expected is given in II Peter 3:10. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”)
The Gospel reading is Matthew’s version of the transfiguration event. It follows Mark pretty closely, though it reads a little more smoothly and has some special touches of its own.
The transfiguration narrative—the moment when the veil is lifted and the real Jesus of heavenly glory is revealed, for a moment—stands as a twin pillar to the baptism narrative (in Matthew, 3:13-17), where the voice of God also testifies to Jesus as Son of God. This is true in all the synoptic gospels, with Matthew and Luke following Mark in this structure of the Jesus story. The baptism and the transfiguration are the moments in Jesus’ ministry that give heavenly authority for the saving work in Galilee (Baptism) and that then re-direct that saving work toward its culmination at Jerusalem (Transfiguration). These two pillars of the story bring the power of God into the human world and, in the case of the transfiguration, give divine authorization for the mission of the dying savior on his way to Jerusalem.
The transfiguration has this meaning because of its placement just after the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Anointed One (Matthew 16:13-17) and Jesus’ first prediction of his coming passion and resurrection (16:21). When this new course in the ministry has been set, then, and only then, do the three inner disciples receive the great revelation of the heavenly glory of the Son of God.
The opening phrase of the narrative—“Six days later…”—is not a report of daily events; it is a repetition of the Moses narrative at Sinai. (The transfiguration also takes place on a mountain.) After six days, Moses entered the cloud at the top of the mountain where the glory of God glowed (Exodus 24:15-18). Jesus takes his three leading disciples along, also paralleling Moses when he took Joshua, “his assistant,” up the mountain with him (Exodus 24:13. The Greek translation also has Joshua accompany Moses in verse 15.)
The disciples see Jesus “transformed” (meta-morpheō), which in Jerome’s Latin translation became transfiguratus est, the source of the English “transfiguration.” Matthew shapes his description of the newly revealed glory in poetic parallelism: “And his face shown like the sun, / and his clothes became white like the light” (verse 2, more literal than NRSV). Along with the heavenly light there appear the ancient worthies who brought in God’s great ages of the covenant in the past—Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. The disciples see these holy men of the past conferring with Jesus. Clearly, another great—the greatest—age is about to begin for Israel and the nations.
Peter speaks up and proposes to erect three “tents,” one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. The word “tent” is the Greek skēnē, the term used in the Greek translation of the torah for the tabernacle, that same tabernacle which Moses made so God could be present to the people (Exodus 25:8-9). Peter’s proposal implies that Jesus is to stand in the esteem of the people alongside Moses and Elijah, as a third. It is this proposal that precipitates the interruption of God’s voice. Peter’s proposal is a foolish one – as both Mark and Luke say explicitly. Here, “while he was still speaking,” Peter is interrupted and God announces who you are really dealing with. “This is my Son, the Beloved… listen to him!” (verse 5).
The reaction of the disciples to the voice of God and Jesus’ response to them are reported only by Matthew. “… [T]hey fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (verse 6, NRSV). Jesus then comes to them and “touches” them, instructing them to stand up and not be afraid. “And when they looked up, they saw no one except him—Jesus only [’Iēsoun monon]” (verse 8, translation conformed to Greek word order).
In Matthew, the transfiguration concludes with the uniqueness of Jesus (Jesus only). The one who touches and speaks gently—who looks deceptively like only a kind man—is the only Lord for those who have truly recognized him.