February 23, 2020
Transfiguration Sunday. Matthew tells us: “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…”
Transfigured – Metamorphoo in the Greek – makes us think of metamorphosis…maybe a butterfly…literally to change to another form: caterpillar to butterfly – in that case unrecognizable in the change one to the other – in this case, recognizable, but more. In Luke’s account of this, instead of transfigured he says, “the appearance of his [Jesus’] countenance was altered.”
But remember – both Luke and Matthew were not there. They are describing what they have heard – after some time went by – Peter, James, and John were “ordered” not to say anything about this until after the resurrection. Interestingly John, who was there, does not report this experience in his gospel. Maybe it was too personal? Maybe it’s simply, as Loisy asserts (Bromiley on Transfiguration), because John’s gospel is a “perpetual theophany” – a never ending revelation of God.
What I love about the Bible is that is tells us crazy ungraspable things so casually. It’s almost like dinner time conversation: “Please pass the potatoes:” only Jesus was transfigured. So calm. So tidy.
But this is crazy. I was reading in the Bromiley Encyclopedia on the Transfiguration. And it also asserts an understatement: this is a difficult passage.
And here we are.
The timing of this is so great – it’s the Sunday before Lent begins. We may find challenge, assurance, and umph for the Lenten season in this passage.
Part of the fun of today’s readings is the conceptual overlap of the Old Testament and Gospel as well as the recollection we hear from 2 Peter.
In Exodus Moses takes his assistant, Joshua, with him up a mountain for a 40 day and 40-night conversation with God. In the gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain.
Israel is on the brink of wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus’ followers are on the brink of witnessing Christ’s suffering and death. For both, they are on the edge of the unknown and unsure where it is going. This may stir us as we approach Lent.
What we do not hear in the Exodus passage is the impact of the presence of God on Moses. He was also transfigured, but again, recognizable. Moses 40-day conversation, in Bible space is about 10 chapters. We hear in Exodus 34: “…As he [Moses] came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenantin his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.”
A part of what we are seeing is what being in God’s presence does. Here, for Moses and Jesus, God’s unfiltered or unmodified – not toned down – presence transforms them. God’s presence changed them so much that they looked different on the outside. Moses face was shining, Jesus face also shone, and his clothes were “dazzling white.”
The take-away for those around Moses and Jesus was God was with them. All who saw were convinced. Now, for Jesus, that was his inner circle of friends who were also followers – it was not the multitudes, not the crowds, not even the 12 disciples – to which they belonged. But it was the three – Peter, James, and John. Jesus’ inner circle.
I have tended to think of the transfiguration simply. Jesus is on the verge of betrayal, suffering, and death and needed encouragement. So, Boom! Moses and Elijah, God’s presence unfiltered, and God’s voice heard. That’s pulling out the stops for some encouragement. But I have only been looking at one side of the coin.
There is another side of the coin to consider. It’s poignant to us as we face the coming of Lent – our walking with Christ in his betrayal, suffering, and death for our sins.
We catch a glimpse of the significance of this for those who were with Jesus through Peter’s epistle today. Peter is recounting the meaning of this experience. He says of himself and those with him: “we had been eyewitnesses of his [God’s] majesty…we ourselves heard this voice from heaven [can you imagine being able to say that?], while we were with him [Jesus] on the holy mountain.
Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured with Moses (the lawgiver) and Elijah (the prophet) and heard God’s voice. We begin to understand the intensity of this experience as the narrative continues: “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” They were terrified. This revelation of God was a full-on sensory overload with a visceral response.
And a part of the beauty of this is how in Christ we see God as safe in the midst of fear. In response to their terror, Jesus comes to them. Initiates with them and touches them – as he has done for so many - and bids them not to be afraid. What a tender moment amid this powerful encounter.
Peter’s takeaway is that he is convinced. Jesus is the Christ, is the Messiah. He says “…we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.” Already confirmed. More fully confirmed. God has pulled out all the stops to do this for them.
And then we hear Peter’s exhortation: “You will do well to be attentive to this…”
Attentive. Pay attention. This is a strong word in the Greek - of giving attention or devotion and is even in its meaning compared to the drive of addictive yearning (Strong’s Concordance). Be driven toward this Peter is saying.
But toward what? Incarnational reality. God with us. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Peter says this paying attention is like being aware of a lamp in the darkness or the morning star rising in our hearts. When we pay attention, we see; we see something that contrasts and is visible, revealing – imagine a lamp in darkness. When we pay attention, we experience hope – we see this in the allusion to the morning star.
Scripturally Christ is referred to as the “morning star.” This phrase actually refers to the planet Venus. Venus appears in the eastern sky just before sunrise, daybreak. “Jesus is the “Venus Star,” the first light marking the dawn – not of a new day – but of a new age (A. E. Hill, Morning, Bromiley, Vol. 3, p. 413). Hope.
Pay attention to the reality of God making God’s self known to us. Pay attention to the rising of hope in our souls – even when it does not make sense. Even when you do not know where you are going or what is next. Peter experienced seeing Jesus transfigured when he we was not far from his three denials of Christ – and now his writing, nearly 50 years after Christ’s resurrection and during a time of great persecution of Christians, Peter basically exhorts us to be assured and stand firm. He knows what he’s talking about. He knows what we need to pay attention to.
There was a lot that could distract the disciples’ attentiveness in their time of crisis and did. We do see Peter’s denial. And we also see the Israelites distraction when Moses comes down the mountain and they have fallen into creating and worshipping an idol after following God closely in their time of deliverance.
We are all Peter. We are all Israel. We get fearful. We get distracted. We seek quick solutions and pleasure.
We deny Christ. We create idols and worship them.
In the words of Peter: Pay Attention. Be aware that God is with us.
As we seek God in this Lenten season, let us be mindful that God show’s God’s self to us – and that God will do whatever it takes to convince us that God is God. And remember, there’s fruit to that – we are transformed as we are in God’s presence. We become more.