Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
All of the texts for today are coordinated in support of the gospel account of Jesus’ transfiguration. The presence of Moses certainly figures prominently, and the account from Exodus gives us a glimpse of Moses as the one who is called into the presence of God in order to receive an important message for the people. There are a number of important symbols, or clues, to be considered here — the mountain, the cloud, the fiery presence of God. All of these are reflected in the Matthew account about Jesus on the mountain.
The numbers in this passage are quite interesting to consider, as well; 40 days and nights is a “biblical standard” for a holy experience, as this is the time that God caused rain to fall on the earth (a form of cleansing) in the time of Noah, as well as the number of years that Israel would wander in the wilderness due to their disobedience to God’s command to cross over and take possession of the Promised Land. Jesus was in the wilderness for the same 40-day period during his fasting and temptation by the devil.
The six days of waiting by Moses, before he is summoned into God’s presence on the seventh day, provides a mirror image of the creation story; God worked for six days, then rested. Moses now waits for six days, and is given his assignment on the seventh. This six days plus one is reflected in the gospel account, as well.
It might be fruitful to discuss this idea of “waiting” before God in a time of spiritual preparation, especially since we live in such a hurry-up world — one that is based on “fast” food and “instant” gratification. Are there times that we particularly ought to consider slowing down and simply waiting in the presence of God in order to have our hearts tuned and our spirits reset to the rhythm of the holy? Have you ever experienced moments like this? How did it happen — and how can we experience them in our continuing walk of faith?
This psalm comes from the corporate life of the nation of Israel — it was used on the occasion of the anointing of a new king. The word for “anoint” is the root word for messiah, or by the time of the New Testament, christ. In each setting, it means an individual that is set apart for a special purpose — often, the king (or priest) would be anointed with oil as a symbol of God’s blessing on their life.
For Israel, this holy calling — anointing — was a sacred moment; Psalm 2 quickly became identified in the Christian community as picturing the life of Jesus. The lines that jump out on this day include v.7 : “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” This is, of course, nearly verbatim in the account on the mountain when the voice from heaven speaks about Jesus.
What do you think it means to be anointed (chosen) by God for a special purpose? Are there ways that each of us — and, perhaps, all of us — are anointed and chosen by God?
The second piece from Psalms also contributes language to the background of the transfiguration scenario: the mountain of the Lord, the pillar of cloud, the presence of revered leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Samuel.
Why is it important for our faith to see continuity in the ongoing work of God throughout several generations, and over the course of many years? Are there particular revered leaders, or “saints of the faith,” that you look back to and draw inspiration from?
2 Peter 1:16-21
Peter was there; writing now as an elder statesman of the faith, Peter says, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty!”
What he doesn’t say is, “And we didn’t get it!” The gospel story tells us that Peter might just have missed the deeper point that God was trying to make with the whole transfiguration event. As a man of action (usually along the lines of “open mouth, insert foot”) — Peter wanted to rush into a display of worship and awe over the scene displayed before him. Notable and noteworthy. But God really needed him just to get quiet and pay attention to what Jesus was saying — not to rely so much on his own efforts.
The more mature Peter now advises, “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.” Wait; listen; pay attention.
Peter closes his admonition by reminding us of the power of listening to God together, in community. The words of scripture and the experiences of worship and service are not intended as lone actions by solitary Christians. We really do need each other!
What have been some of the most important and/or formative times with others in your Christian experience? Has there ever been a time when you learned the value of speaking less and listening more?
There are so many excellent opportunities for discussion around this story! You might take a few moments to think and discuss:
- Why does Jesus select Peter, James, and John from among the other disciples to come up with him “by themselves” for this experience on the mountaintop?
- What is the purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration? The word is the same root as our English word metamorphosis — “a change in form.” Do you think it was more a case of Jesus changing form before the eyes of the disciple, or perhaps of his true nature being revealed?
- What symbolic meaning is added by the appearance of Moses and Elijah?
- Go back and read Matthew 3:17; compare it to verse 5 in this passage. What is consistent about the message given by “the voice from heaven?” Is there any difference in the two passages?
- How significant is the touch of Jesus in v.7?
- After the fireworks of the transfiguration, the scene returns to just Jesus and the disciples. Why?
- Why does Jesus tell them not to tell anyone else about this event until after the resurrection?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
My older son is a science guy; his parents, a preacher and a social worker, most decidedly are not. This became very clear to us one day when he was seven. My wife and the boys were fishing in a little pond in our sub-division. The sun was setting and the western sky was full of colors; red, purple, orange. The four year old asks, “What makes the sky so pretty?” Mom answers something about God creating natural beauty for our enjoyment and to remind us of the presence of the holy in the world around us. And the seven year old says, “Well, Mom, actually it’s just the sun reflecting off dust particles and moisture in the atmosphere.” Like I said – a science guy.
The Transfiguration is one of those stories in the Bible that mystifies us. If we had been there and saw what Peter and the others saw, we would probably have been terrified as well. As it is, we can stand back from the story and try to figure out “what really happened?” We want a “dust particles and moisture” answer, and there isn’t one. And looking for such an explanation will keep us from seeing some very important things going on in this story.
A more fruitful question for us to think about is “Why did Matthew think it important to tell us this story?” And “Why did he tell it to us in this way?” This is one of those times when it’s important to step back and look at the big picture, at the overall story of Jesus, and the ways Jesus’ story connects with the story of Moses. Matthew’s gospel has as an underlying theme the idea that Jesus is a new Moses and the writer employs many parallel images in telling us about Jesus. The reading from Exodus makes many of those connections easy to see; holy mountain, voices from heaven, clouds, fire, over shadowing. Even Peter’s suggestion of the dwellings recalls the Feast of Booths, a Jewish festival during which people lived outside in little tents to recall the time when the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness – following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Focusing in a little closer, we remember that we’ve heard that voice, those very words before. When was that? Oh yeah, it was at Jesus’ baptism, at the beginning of Jesus ministry. And right after he was baptized he went into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan over what it meant to be the Son of God. And here we are, after a couple of years of teaching and preaching, at the Transfiguration. Just before this, in chapter 16, Jesus has asked the disciples his famous, “Who do people say that I am” question. This leads to Peter’s famous “You are the Christ” statement.
After this, Jesus explains that being the Christ means he is to suffer and die, and you will recall, Peter didn’t like that idea and protested, which lead to Jesus’ even more famous statement, “Get behind me Satan,” which is an echo of his time of temptation in the wilderness.
And now, we come to this day, this moment, of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James and John. There is a cloud, something happens and Jesus glows with holiness and divine glory, and Moses and Elijah appear talking to him. While the disciples shrink back in fear and wonder a voice thunders, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.” And then it’s over and Jesus reaches out and touches the disciples and tells them everything is okay.
And what are we to make of this? Put another way, what difference does all this make to us? Is this just a bit of the sun reflecting off dust and moisture; or is there something here about Jesus and God’s holiness, God’s beauty and, more importantly, God’s love?
At the very end of the Gospel lesson, there is this peculiar little line where Jesus tells the three witnesses not to tell anybody about what they’ve just seen and heard “until after the son of man has been raised from the dead.”
There are a couple of important things here. One is that it would be difficult to get anyone to believe you. This would be a first century equivalent to telling people about being abducted by aliens. It’s just too strange and pointless to be believed. Healings and casting out demons and the feeding thousands of folk are somewhat reasonable uses of divine power; but just lighting up Jesus’ just seems kind of random, unless you were there. So, Jesus says, just keep this to yourselves.
But, after the resurrection, this day on the mountain with Jesus is another piece of evidence about who Jesus was and is, and what God was and is doing through him. So, as we see in our second lesson, Peter backs up his preaching about Jesus and the resurrection with his testimony about the miracle he saw and the voice he heard. Then it becomes a piece of the long story of God reaching out to all of us with a message of love, compassion and steadfast mercy.
And, truth be told, if we would take a good look in the mirror, most of us can find ways we have been changed, transfigured, by the presence of the holy in our lives. No, for most of us, it’s not been a dramatic change – at least not as dramatic as Jesus shining as bright as the sun, or even Peter’s change from cowardly denier of Jesus on the night of his trial to brave preacher of Christ on the day of Pentecost; but we have all changed.
Yes we have been “transfigured,” by having Christ in our lives. We are less selfish and more generous than we used to be. Less judgmental and more tolerant, less anxious and more trusting, we do fewer bad things and more good things. If we look back at the long story of our personal relationship with God, we will find that we have been “transfigured” by God; smoothed out, reshaped, and formed more and more into the image of Christ.
And like Peter, we called to tell the story of our encounter with the holy, we are called to give our testimony of the voice that has claimed us as God’s beloved child, and the glow of joy that fills our lives when we remember what God in Christ has done for us.
Amen and amen.