February 10, 2013
Epiphany is a season during which we are invited to explore the ways in which God’s glory appears to us. This year, brief as it is, we have seen God’s glory in the Baptism of our Lord, in the miracle of Jesus Christ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Each year, on the last Sunday of Epiphany, we hear a different gospel version of the same story, Jesus’ transfiguration. It is a story that breaks in upon us, just as God’s glory breaks in upon us, and in its details, its eerie nature, and its resonances, it breaks in upon our sense of time and reality, and invites to look forward to the resurrection, and back to the Hebrew Bible, to Sinai and to the prophets.
The reading from Exodus is quite puzzling and has fascinated readers for thousands of years. It’s the story of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai after having received the covenant, Torah, from God. It’s actually the second time he comes down. The first time he brought down the two tablets of the Law that had been inscribed by God. When he discovered the Israelites celebrating a festival around a golden calf Aaron had made, Moses threw the tablets down and broke them. After that, he scaled the mountain again, and asked God’s mercy on the Israelites. As part of his pleading that God would continue to be present with the Israelites, Moses asked to see God’s glory. Yahweh refused, saying no human could see God’s glory and survive. Instead, he instructed Moses to hide in a cleft in the mountain, Yahweh would pass by, and Moses would catch sight of Yahweh’s receding glory.
Having seen God’s glory, Moses’ face now shines so brightly that the Israelites cannot bear to see it regularly. Moses must keep his face veiled in some way. That radiance is a confirmation to Moses of his unique relationship with God. It is also a sign to the Israelites of God’s continuing presence among them. Whatever the case, this strange, ethereal story eludes our grasp and understanding. Whatever the text’s writers are attempting to convey in this passage is a reminder, in the end, that the glory of God eludes us; that God’s presence, however palpable at times, remains beyond our explanation and comprehension.
The gospel story has very much the same otherworldly, eerie atmosphere. Present in all three synoptic gospels, it appears in the very same narrative sequence, occurring just after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, just after Jesus has predicted for the first time that he will be crucified and explains to his followers that to be his disciples, they must also take up their crosses and follow him. So this is a story told under the looming presence of the cross and Jesus’ death.
In Luke’s version, he takes his three closest followers up the mountain to pray. I’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating, that Jesus’ praying is a significant theme of Luke’s gospel. He mentions it at key moments in the story—at Jesus’ baptism for example. What takes place here takes place in the context of prayer.
Several details stand out to help us begin to understand this strange story. First, Luke uses the exact same language when describing Jesus’ appearance as he will use to describe the angels who appear at Jesus’ tomb at his resurrection: The clothes are “dazzling white.” Second, the presence of Moses and Elijah is another powerful reminder of the deep connection and continuity between Jesus’ ministry and mission and the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For Luke, that connection is made concrete in various ways, but it’s important that we understand there is no sharp break between Old and New Testament, between the way God revealed Godself in the past and the way God reveals Godself in the present. Moses and Elijah’s presence are evidence of that continuity.
All of this is meant to be confirmation of Jesus’ identity—the change in appearance of his face, his dazzling clothes, the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter has just confessed him to be the Messiah. Now this is divine confirmation of that fact. But there’s more. God, too is present here, to confirm Jesus’ identity. The voice that came from heaven in Jesus’ baptism comes again. At the baptism, the voice said, “You are my son, my beloved.” Now the voice is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples. It says, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” This time, the voice comes not from heaven, not from a far distance, but from close at hand, from the cloud that envelops them, suggesting God’s near presence in this place. And the message directed to the disciples is not about abstract theology, it has to do with Jesus’ message: Listen to him. And suddenly, the event was over. The glory, the dazzling clothes, the cloud, Moses and Elijah, all of it was gone. Left there were Jesus and his three disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they went back down the mountain and didn’t tell anything to anyone.
There is much here for us to ponder. This strange story eludes our grasp, just as God eludes our grasp and comprehension. We can discern traces of other things in it—the connection with Hebrew Scripture, the pointing back toward the past and the pointing forward to the cross and resurrection. We can hear and see in Luke’s vivid description all that takes place, but still, none of it really is comprehensible to our twenty-first century skeptical minds. We want to make sense of it, process it, analyze it, understand it in our terms, on our territory. But this story, like the story of Moses’ shining and veiled face, remain beyond our comprehension, beyond our human understanding. God’s glory remains to us, as it did to Moses, something we could only experience in passing, from behind. We need the veil because direct experience of it would be too much for us. We need to see in mirror, darkly; for if we saw God’s glory directly, immediately, without protection, we might not survive.
It’s often tempting to hope that the religious life is full of such peak experiences, full of moments when God’s glorious presence is more real to us than anything else and everything else in our lives pales in comparison. It’s tempting for us to try to seek out such peek experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that. Our readings today, the season of Epiphany itself, is a reminder that such experiences have a role to play in our spiritual lives. But such experiences are not all that the spiritual or religious life are about.
Moses’ experience of God’s glory came in a very specific historical and religious context, in the midst not only of a long narrative of God’s intervention on behalf of God’s people, but also immediately following the people’s sinful idolatry. Moses saw God’s glory in the context of sin and repentance and his shining face was a reminder not only of the people’s sin, but of God’s forgiveness and continuing presence among God’s chosen people.
So too the Transfiguration came at a very particular moment in Jesus’ ministry, after his disciples had confessed him to be the Messiah, after he had begun to tell them about his imminent suffering and death, after he had begun to teach them about the cost of discipleship—take up your cross and follow me. Even in the midst of the Transfiguration, Jesus and Moses and Elijah speak about what is to come, Jesus’ suffering and death.
Our relationships with God, our life with Jesus Christ is not just about those moments of perfect bliss and happiness, moments when our faith is sure, our lives are happy, and we rest comfortably in God’s love. Our life in Jesus Christ is a call to discipleship, a call to follow him. It is a call that may come to us in a flash of lightning or a still, small voice. It may make us thirst for more, to build booths where we might rest content with Jesus Christ, without a care in the world.
But discipleship means walking along, following Christ on the path he leads, And so we, too come down the mountain, with God’s glory at our backs, the cross ahead of us, and Jesus beckoning us forward, teaching us what it means to follow him. Listen to him!