Year C — Transfiguration Sunday

Commentary for February 10, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Exodus 34:29-35
One of the favorite gospel songs of my youth was, “Have a Little Talk with Jesus.” (If you know Southern gospel music, you might enjoy this clip of that old chestnut.)

It always seemed like such a nice thing to be able to do — to sit down with the Lord and have a chat. The reality here with Moses seems a bit more challenging — even a little bit scary.

One may wonder what it was that made the “skin of Moses’ face shine.” Was the presence of the Lord so intense that Moses got a sunburn? Was there some change in the cellular structure of Moses’ skin that caused the luminescence? Was the thrill such that his heart rate increased and the blood flow to his head rushed up and caused a permanent blush?

Of course, such speculation is pointless, and only serves to miss the point. Moses was different because he had been in the presence of the Lord. The light here is a symbol — which, of course, connects us coming from the Epiphany to the Transfiguration in the gospel reading for today. 

But — gospel quartet antics notwithstanding — there is always a bit of shock and awe associated with the presence of God. And that’s not a bad thing, I’m thinking….

Psalm 99
The psalm text continues the theme of “fear and trembling” before the presence of God — as well as a connection with Moses (who appears on the mountaintop with Jesus.)

Notice that this mighty King, before whom the earth itself quakes, is also a lover of justice and a provider of equity.  This awesome God is quite interested in righteousness, and is intently focused on the cries of His people. 

Two of my favorite theological tensions — transcendence and immanence.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
The readings from Corinthians make a shift this week, as Paul brings the experience of Moses and his “veiled face” to bear on our on experience with Christ.

No need for a veil any longer, the apostle says; we see the glory of the Lord directly (albeit in the mirror) and are commended to “shine” for the sake of God’s mercy.

“We do not lose heart.” While easier said than done, I suspect that this statement is an appeal to that mercy and light that we find in Christ. As Jesus himself said, “Let your light so shine before the people that they may see the good deeds you do, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Luke gives us two stories — both of which illustrate the absolute superiority of Jesus as the Christ over all other considerations. 

Moses and Elijah represent so much of the great and brilliant history of Israel — of God’s great power made known amongst God’s people in the past. Jesus “shines” so brightly as to overshadow these two, though Peter would have invoked worship of all three. The voice of God reminds him that there is only One who is Chosen, and One who is to be worshiped here.

The second story affirms that Jesus is not only greater than his disicples (poor guys got dissed in front of the whole crowd for not being able to pull their weight!) — but is greater than the power of evil in the world. The demon leaves, the boy is healed and is restored to relationship with his father. 

The folks that witness this scene are astounded. Awed? Afraid? Inspired? Intimidated? Confused? Moved to commit their way to Jesus?

That all remains to be seen, does it not?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was reading Marcus Borg’s and N.T. Wright’s book on Jesus this week, and in it Borg made reference to the relationship between history remembered and history metaphorized. Borg’s point was that there are actual things that happened that were remembered and turned into stories like Moses going off on the mountain to see God and returning with a shining face and Jesus being “Transfigured” on the mountain.

For Borg, obsessing about what exactly happened or denying it could have happened or arguing “Oh yes it could happen, God can do anything,” is a waste of time and energy.

Our efforts are better spent looking at how the folk who remembered the story made use of it to teach religious and spiritual truth; i.e. the metaphor they made out of remembered history.

It was a distinction that made sense to me. History turned into metaphor, or more correctly, personal story turned into a metaphor, is my sermonic stock in trade.

Just because you teach spiritual truth through the use of a story doesn’t mean the story isn’t factual, it just means that sometimes the facts are beside the point.

So I’m assuming there is an actual, historical, real and remembered moment underneath the Moses story. I also assume that figuring out the actual “facticity” of that moment is nigh onto impossible and would yield very little of value if it were possible.

What we have is remembered history metaphorized and the questions for us today are; “Why does this story about Moses have such staying power within Judaism and what significance does it have for Christianity?”

The same idea applies to the Transfiguration. Something happened, nobody made it up. But what really happened, the exact facts, “history remembered,” is unavailable to us. There are all sorts of “reasonable” (or not so reasonable) speculations, but no way of knowing for sure.

So why these stories? What are the metaphorical truths contained within what “really” happened? What do these stories tell us about God and what do they tell us about ourselves and our lives of faith?

Well, they tell us that here are peak experiences in the spiritual life; they do happen, and, we can never predict them, create them, nor repeat them. We don’t know when they might happen, we can’t do anything to make them happen, and we can’t do everything the same as we did last time and make them happen again.

They happen when God wants them to happen. They happen when God’s grace descends on us as it wills.

Our liturgical and homiletical contrivances may be able to stimulate a similar experience, but such a thing will always be counterfeit to the real experience.

They also tell us that spiritual highs come and go, but the real spiritual life is lived in the ordinary day-to-day. In chapters four through eight of Luke, Jesus goes off alone to pray five times. The first was the temptations in the wilderness, not exactly a “high”. Four other times in the first eight chapters, Jesus goes off to pray, and each time nothing happens. Well sort of nothing. He gets interrupted a lot. “Hey Jesus people are looking for you.”

But in none of the “go off alone and pray” episodes did Jesus change form or hear heavenly voices. He just prayed and that’s the point. The first eight chapters of Luke tell the story of Jesus going about his business of preaching and teaching and healing, with times of synagogue worship and private prayer. This was his life; long periods of ordinariness with only an occasional moment of luminosity.

Dr. B.S. Brown was pastor of Lutheran Chapel in China Grove, NC from 1945 to 1960. I was pastor there from 1984-1985. I found one of his old, hand-written sermons in the archives. It was about his first car, which he got in 1920, while pastoring near Johnson City TN, deep in the Smokey Mountains.

He talks about going on a trip to Knoxville. Often times he had to drive along in creek beds because there was no road, backing up hills because his Model-T had a gravity feed fuel system, etc. Occasionally, he would top a mountain and he could see the lights of Knoxville off in the distance, but most of the time was spent in the valleys in the darkness. Dr. Brown compared this to our lives of faith. We catch occasional glimpses of the Holy, but it’s mostly plodding through the dark and shadowed valleys.

God is constantly present in our lives. Our awareness of that presence of God is mostly a matter of perception, of trusting that God is indeed with us, not only in the moments of high feeling and intense spirit, but also through the yawning and lonely valleys of life.

It is a matter of paying attention to God in the ordinary things we do, of looking for God’s hand in the simplest of circumstances.

Amen and amen.

3 thoughts on “Year C — Transfiguration Sunday

  1. "The first eight chapters of Luke tell the story of Jesus going about his business of preaching and teaching and healing, with times of synagogue worship and private prayer. This was his life; long periods of ordinariness with only an occasional moment of luminosity."My husband pointed out that healing as Jesus did is not exactly ordinary! The same may be said for his preaching and we simply don't know how 'mountaintop' his times of prayer with His father were. (We must beware of trying to reduce Jesus' experiences to just reflect our own.Of course there were many ordinary moments in Jesus' life – he ate, he slept, he grew weary and probably just talked to people)Do you think we would have more mountaintop experiences if we were living more within God's will for our lives? Thank you for the thought provoking sermon.Eva in NS with some thoughts from her husband.

  2. Eva,Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Re: the "ordinariness" of Jesus' ministry, I was not so much thinking about the results of what he did; but rather the fact that most of it was, for him, the daily rounds of going about his business without voices from heaven and transformed visage trumpeting his special-ness. I do, of course, note that there is nothing "ordinary" about either the healings or the words of Jesus. I do point out that we probably think there is nothing "extra-ordinary" about the words we speak or the loving actions we take; and yet God uses them to touch, and heal, and illuminate others. Thanks for reading and for dialogue.Delmer

  3. Delmer, thank you for your reply. What you say makes a lot of sense to us and clarifies the 'situation'. Thank you. Blessings to you on this Shrove Tuesday. I was astonished that neither your teacher nor your preacher could explain Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday to you when you were a youngster. After saying that, I must admit that I didn't know the actual meaning of 'shrove' until I read your bonus article this week. I just knew Shrove Tuesday was the day before Lent began. Eva in balmy NS (34F)

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