Probably the greatest challenge about preaching on Transfiguration Sunday is dealing with the pressure to explain what the Transfiguration means.
Somehow we expect that we have to guide people toward making sense of why the Transfiguration occurred, or how the story functions within the plots of the Synoptic Gospels, or why the Synoptic evangelists thought they should include it, or what shaped the early Christian traditions about the Transfiguration, or what symbolic value should be assigned to the setting and Jesus’ two conversation partners, or what the event communicates about Jesus’ nature, or whether we should praise or criticize Peter’s comments, or why some people call it “Transfiguration Sunday” while others prefer the more melodious “Quinquagesima.”
Seriously? When has the idea of a brilliantly glowing holy figure ever “made sense,” anyway?
The transfigured Jesus isn’t supposed to be figured out. He’s supposed to be appreciated. We should be drawn to him, as if we were moths. On this day, help your congregation bask in the warm wonder of his glow. Here are three angles into the text that might serve your efforts.
A Jesus who will be seen
Epiphany began a few weeks ago with a story about a manifestation of Jesus’ identity, but it was a much more covert incident: Jesus’ baptism. In Mark’s account of the baptism, it’s not clear that anyone else sees the heavens slashed apart or the Holy Spirit diving into Jesus. The voice from heaven is Jesus’ alone to hear. Nothing’s public. Nothing’s obvious. Similarly, most of the epiphanies we get to experience in life consist of glimpses, and sometimes we aren’t even sure that they are really ours to see.
The Transfiguration is a very different kind of a revealing, however. Jesus becomes a beacon, like a lighthouse planted in the middle of the desert. The heavenly voice addresses all the witnesses: Peter, James, and John. On this Sunday, there is a promise that Jesus can and will be noticed. Epiphanies aren’t always subtle.
There is something almost — if you’ll promise not to giggle at the word — exhibitionistic about the Transfiguration. As a transfigured body clothed in shining garments, “Jesus insists upon being seen,” says novelist Mary Gordon, which means the Transfiguration narrative “can be read as the celebration of the visible.”1
In Mark’s Gospel, a story so full of concealment and secrecy, the Transfiguration says that this Jesus has plans to be conspicuous. What he will disclose is not necessarily the secrets of the universe or the meaning of life; rather, it’s himself. He may be hard to see clearly in all his intricate detail, what with the radiant glare and the transfigured body and all, but — sometimes, at least — he’s surely there.
Epiphany is for lovers
Because the Transfiguration is so bizarre and unusual, it can be easy to assume that we’re supposed to approach it with sober reverence and awe. But that isn’t how God views it. For God, the Transfiguration presents an opportunity to declare love for the one called “Son.”
If God is capable of smiling, this would be the occasion in which that happens. I don’t see how anyone can talk of one’s “beloved” without breaking into a pleased grin. That’s how lovers talk to and abut each other.
To return to Mary Gordon’s meditations on this story, she cites a translation of Matthew 17:5 that has God saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I take delight.” At the Transfiguration, then, “we are in the presence of delight. Delight as an aspect of the holy.”2 A sermon on Mark 9 can elevate this sense of delight. The Transfiguration does not sketch an image of intimidating purity or self-satisfied and inviolable majesty. It’s tender holiness. The scene is a reminder that holiness, as a characteristic of God, is participatory and shared. God loves, so God interacts. This holiness expresses itself in self-giving, for that’s what happens when someone adores and celebrates someone else.
Take delight in Jesus, for God does. As God expresses this delight, we gain a little more insight into the divine heart.
The promise of intimacy with God
The sights and sounds of the Transfiguration also suggest that Peter, James, and John find themselves on holy ground, in privileged company. After all, Jesus appears alongside Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets in Jewish memories.
Many things made those two ancient prophets great. For one thing, in the Bible each shares a moment of striking intimacy with God, through Moses’ face-to-face chats with God and his glimpse of God’s backside (Exodus 33:7-23) and Elijah’s encounter with God in a strange “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-13). When one is so close to God, everything changes. Impossibilities dissolve. After all, some Jews believed that both of these prophets successfully avoided death and were assumed directly into heaven, as recorded about Elijah in scripture (2 Kings 2:1-12) and as the first-century Jewish author Josephus reports about Moses (Ant. 4.323-26).
We should also note that both prophets, like Jesus, labored to help the people of God remain faithful as they were enticed by idolatrous religious ideas. All of them sought to keep the people of God hopeful as they suffered the burdens of abusive political systems. That is, Moses’ and Elijah’s closeness to God wasn’t something to be hoarded; it energized them in their service to others, equipping them to know and pursue the Lord.3
At the Transfiguration, then, Jesus stands in impressive company, sharing the moment with two others who know what it is to share close communion with God and to frustrate that pesky and seemingly unyielding boundary between life and death.
The bright light of the Transfiguration affirms life, a light that shines ahead into Lent to keep that season in perspective, never without hope and confidence. This light speaks a promise that God is here. And that God is knowable. God seeks relationship. Because God is life.
1 Mary Gordon, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels (New York: Pantheon, 2009), 42.
2 Gordon, Reading Jesus, 42.
3 Scripture also anticipates roles for Moses and Elijah that extend beyond their (first) lives: Deut 18:16-20 and Mal 4:4-6.
The story of Elijah’s ascension to heaven in a whirlwind is paired in the lectionary with the Transfiguration of Jesus.
In the larger context of the New Testament passages, one can see the efforts of both the disciples and the Gospel writers to understand Jesus in light of the Old Testament (OT). Jesus asks the disciples who the people say he is, and they tell him that he is identified with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the OT prophets (Mark 8:28; Luke 9:19; Matthew 16:14).
John the Baptist and Jesus were frequently identified with OT prophets and other figures who were thought to have had special revelation from and contact with God. Indeed, Elijah was not the first figure in the biblical narrative to have been taken to the heavens. It is similarly recounted of Enoch that he “walked with God,” but “then he was no more, because God took him” (Genesis 5:24). This was interpreted to mean that Enoch had not died, but had gone to be with God, and he was therefore viewed as a kind of supernatural sage. In the intertestamental period, apocalyptic books were written about his heavenly journeys and visions (1-4 Enoch), and Hebrews 11:5 reflects this same set of ideas: “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death.”
Outside of the New Testament (NT), it is Enoch and Elijah who are most commonly presented as harbingers of the messiah, but the NT pairing of Moses and Elijah may draw on Malachi 4:4-6, which warns its hearers to prepare for the coming Day of the Lord: “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” Moses and Elijah here seem to symbolize the law and the prophets, which Jesus embodies and fulfills for his followers (see Matthew 5:17-18).
Elijah is “taken” (2 Kings 2:3-10; 1 Maccabees 2:58) while still living, and so the beliefs and expectations surrounding his role were much the same as for Enoch, with the aforementioned prophecy of Malachi serving as a crucial prooftext (Sirach 48:10). In later Jewish tradition, Elijah’s return is expected, and a chair or cup is set for him at various gatherings.
In the Christian tradition, however, John the Baptist is usually identified as the second coming of Elijah. Matthew 11:13-14 reports that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come,” while in Luke 1:17 the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that John will go before Jesus “with the spirit and power of Elijah.” In the Markan and Matthean accounts, Jesus still has to explain the significance of Elijah to his disciples. In Matthew, they ask, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” and Jesus answers, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands. Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:10-13).
The scene of Elijah’s ascension is far more elaborate than others, as “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11). Elisha cries out, “Father, father!” — not meaning a biological relationship, but rather using common ancient Semitic kinship terminology towards a superior figure (e.g., Genesis 45:8; 1 Samuel 24:11; Judges 17:10). He goes on, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” — drawing on the ancient image of YHWH as the commander and chief charioteer of the heavenly host (Psalm 68:4, 17 [ET]). The Lord has come to pick Elijah up, or at least sent his heavenly host for him. The same words are cried out by Jehoash, king of Judah, as Elisha’s death is near (2 Kings 13:14); in the latter case, it is presumably an invocation of God to come down and take Elisha up. The repetition of the phrase gives the impression that it may have been a relatively common saying, and gave rise to the popular spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which longs for divine deliverance and comfort: “a band of angels, a-comin’ after me — comin’ for to carry me home.”
In Matthew 16:13, Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man; none of the aforementioned Old Testament figures is ever called “Son of Man,” which indicates another intertextual association. Both Ezekiel (passim) and Daniel (8:17) are called “son of man” (Hebrew ben ?adam), and both of them are supernaturally transported and offered revelatory visions. Daniel also sees “one like a son of man (Aramaic bar ?enaš) coming with the clouds of heaven,” to whom “was given dominion and glory and kingship” (Daniel 7:13-14).
One crucial feature of 2 Kings 2 is that it validates Elijah’s authority before his witnessing successors. A divine decision to take Elijah up to heaven makes him a rare figure indeed. The New Testament authors certainly recognized his significance, since the only figures mentioned more often were Moses, Abraham, and David. The fact that Elijah had disciples also made him an apt figure for Jesus. Although some other OT prophets such as Isaiah (Isaiah 8:16) seem to have had followers, we certainly cannot say this was the norm for prophets who came after Elisha.
There are significant structural differences between 2 Kings 2 and the stories of the Transfiguration, however; most notably, Elijah departs from Elisha and his disciples, whereas Jesus returns to his. The Elijah story would be more naturally read in conjunction with Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 1), since it marks a similar transition of earthly leadership. Elisha asks “let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (v. 9), and indeed he picks up Elijah’s mantle and proves able to carry out the same miracle of dividing the waters. Jesus seems to expect his followers to be able to carry out the same wonders he did, if not greater ones (John 14:12). Many churches since have not reflected seriously enough on what it means to inherit Jesus’ miraculous (and prophetic) ministry.
What will it take for us to see — really see?
What will it take for us to see Jesus for whom he really is? What will it take for us to see God? And perhaps hardest of all, what will it take for us to see ourselves?
The combination of Psalms 50 and 51 in the propers for Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday might help, and the preacher might want to make use of this connection in sequential sermons. Psalms 50 and 51 are deeply connected — much more so than in their consecutive numbering. They are mirror images of one another, each one amplifying the other.1
Among many other connections, the two psalms together form a concentric pattern:
A 50:1-6 On Zion and sacrifice (today’s text)
B 50:7-15 On sacrifice and deliverance
C 50:16-21 The rebuke
D 50:22-23 Call to repentance/divine wrath
E Ps 51 superscript The Nathan oracle
D’ 51:1-2 Turn to God/divine grace
C’ 51:3-9 Concession
B’ 51:10-17 On deliverance and sacrifice
A’ 51:18-19 On Zion and sacrifice
What will this mean for a sermon for the Festival of the Transfiguration? As is so often the case, a sermon on a psalm for the day must look more broadly than the liturgical use of the psalm as response. Response is one thing; proclamation is another. Responding to the story of the “translation” of Elijah and anticipating the Gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, the opening verses of Psalm 50 are used to see (or at least hear) God in all God’s glory, summoning the entire earth along with the heavens to Mount Zion in order to see, hear, and proclaim God in the midst of fire and tempest. A big deal! A big God! This is the glorious God who will lead Peter, James, and John, following Jesus, up on another mountain to see a similar vision: the full glory of God reflected in the dazzling white robes of Jesus.
This could be enough. Suddenly, in a moment, the disciples see Jesus for who he really is, the one in whom the whole glory of God is revealed. This could be enough, but it would be a sermon on the Gospel rather than a sermon on the psalm. The psalm adds a clinker — one produced by that divine fire — that will throw things in a different direction. Yes, come and hear this amazing God, but you won’t like what God has to say: “Hear, O Israel, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God” (Psalm 50:7). True, we have to add another verse to the text to get to this unlovely line, but it is clearly where the psalm is going, and it is already anticipated in the description of God as “judge” in v. 6.
Is this why Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain? To signify the law and the prophets that have prepared the way for Jesus? Perhaps. But beware of tuning this into an Old Testament wrath/New Testament grace message. That movement happens already in the juxtaposition of Psalms 50 and 51. When God shows up, both judgment and mercy are present. The same thing is true when Jesus shows up. Jesus is savior, of course; but Jesus is also prophet, warning Israel of the very real consequences of sin. If all God’s glory is present in Jesus, that glorious fire will burn as well as enlighten.
The fire burns brightly in Psalm 50. The sacrificial system, meant to seal the promise of the covenant (v. 5) has been turned into a deadly “let’s make a deal” arrangement through which the people think they can buy God’s favor with the flesh of bulls and the blood of goats (vv. 12-13). Guess what! God doesn’t need us to provide for God. The sheep, cattle, and all that moves (including us) already belong to God. No deals!
We don’t do animal sacrifice, of course, but we do “offer” divine worship, and we can get that wrong, too — any kind of false worship and false assurances that “deal” way too lightly with the majesty and mercy, but also the justice and righteousness, of God. Then, the RSV translation of v. 9 takes on a new metaphorical meaning: “I will accept no bull from your house!”
The Transfiguration of Our Lord is a major event in the life story of Jesus, in the divine narrative of salvation. We do not want to diminish that. But this time around, we might want to probe more deeply (with the larger context of Psalm 50) the full import of coming into God’s presence, of hearing God’s word in its fullness. God is God, and we are not, so this is dangerous territory. The disciples were right to be terrified. It will take some figuring out to realize that this blazing fire burns only to purity, to make our robes as white as those of Jesus, to free us from our little attempts to tame God. To get out of the judgment with which Psalm 50 ends, we will need the contrition and forgiveness of Psalm 51. So, tell people to come back on Ash Wednesday.
1 For my development of this argument, see Frederick J. Gaiser, “The David of Psalm 51: Reading Psalm 51 in Light of Psalm 50,” Word & World 23/4 (2003) 382394; online at https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/issues.aspx?article_id=328 (accessed November 20, 2014).
The transfiguration of Christ entails seeing Jesus as nothing short of God’s glory.
For Paul, to see Christ in this manner is to see God’s good news for the whole world. Seeing is believing. Unfortunately, not all are able to see this good news.
The veiling of God’s good news
Our reading this week begins with a stinging acknowledgement that the gospel is veiled to “those who are perishing.”
The dichotomy between “those who are being saved” and “those who are perishing” echoes Paul’s previous correspondence to the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, the apostle writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” There, the dichotomy served to remind the church that those who are being saved are called to act not by the world’s wisdom, but according to the cross.
The argument in 2 Corinthians recalls this earlier letter. According to 2 Corinthians 2:15, the apostle bears witness to Christ both among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. Plus, there is a reminder of the transparency and sincerity of his intentions to preach God’s good news (2 Corinthians 1:12; 4:1-2; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Paul claims that he is not the one veiling God’s message, but the “god of this age” has blinded unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6). It is certainly not uncommon for Paul to refer to this age (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:6; Galatians 1:4) or to other powers (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 8:5; 10:20-21). In Romans 8:31-39, Paul expresses the good news that nothing — neither anti-God powers nor the sufferings of this world — will ultimately separate us from God’s love.
This good news, however, is veiled to those who are perishing. The concepts of death and veiling build on the previous argument in 2 Corinthians 3. Paul has referred to the giving of the law as a “ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:7) and a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9). Paul’s view of the law in 2 Corinthians 3 fits nicely with what the apostle has argued elsewhere. According to Galatians 3:21, the problem with the law is that it cannot provide life. The law serves to point out sin, not to vanquish it (Galatians 3:19; Romans 7:7-12). The law demonstrates the pervasive power of sin, and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The holy and just law serves as a tutor (Galatians 3:24), but it was never intended to provide victory over death. Thus, Paul can say in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that the letter kills.
Although the “ministry of death” or “condemnation” stands in contrast to a ministry that brings life (2 Corinthians 3:6), both the law and Christ are linked to God’s glory. Paul does not denigrate the law, but acknowledges its limitations. Those limitations continue to exist even in the reading of the law, since a veil covers the mind of the hearer (3:14).
In Christ, the veil is set aside (2 Corinthians 3:14). Christ embodies God’s glory. In Christ, Paul has seen the abundant life that God wants for all creation. Paul likens the glory of Christ to the very image of God (4:3).
This revelation has changed how Paul has viewed even the holy and just and good law (see Romans 7:12).
For Paul’s argument to make sense, one must imagine the argument backwards. With Christ, Paul sees God’s glory as he has never seen it before. It is as though the law turned on a flashlight in the darkness, but Christ has shone daylight. After seeing the world with the light of the sun, the limitations of the flashlight, though a wonderful tool, are obvious. The law — though a gift of God — could only provide fleeting light of glory. If the law, with all its limitations, brought glory that was fleeting, how much more glory will abound by seeing Christ (2 Corinthians 3:9-11)! While the law produced glory that fades, seeing Christ results in glory that grows as the witnesses are being transformed into Christ’s likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Servants for Christ’s sake
For Paul, the revelation of God’s image through Jesus has changed everything. The revelation of God’s glory in Christ is the basis of Paul’s confession of Jesus’ Lordship (2 Corinthians 4:5). That revelation also is the driving force behind Paul’s entire ministry. In Jesus, Paul sees that God is indeed making all creation “new.” Jesus embodies God’s desire of life abundant for all. God has not abandoned God’s creation to the “god of this age.” This is good news indeed.
Paul’s life has been transformed by this news. In 2 Corinthians 4:5, Paul declares that he and his co-workers are servants for Jesus’ sake. As a servant, Paul will endure hardships — flogging, imprisonment, mobbed, overworked, sleepless, and starving (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). Paul’s willingness to suffer for the sake of spreading the gospel stems from his conviction that Christ’s love is for all (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
Let the light shine
If Christ is the transformative light of the world, then why isn’t the whole world transformed by God’s glory? The bad news is that the “god of this age” has not given up. Rather, this false god is actively hindering the Lord’s light from shining in a dark world. Paul himself has faced many obstacles in trying to share this light. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation to the church demonstrates that sometimes “those who are being saved” also fail to bear witness to that light.
As we teach and preach from 2 Corinthians in honor of our Lord’s transfiguration, perhaps we should ask ourselves in what ways we might be complicit in the veiling of God’s light in our world. Fortunately, God chose us — the weak and fragile vessels that we are (2 Corinthians 4:7) — to display God’s glory. That glory is transforming us and molding us into Christ’s image. The good news is that God’s light will not be overcome by darkness.