Lectionary Commentaries for February 14, 2010
Transfiguration of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 9:28-36 [37-43]

Arland J. Hultgren

In preparation for the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year C, one has to make an obvious decision.

Should the preacher make use of the short text, relating the Transfiguration alone (9:28-36) or use the long text, telling not only the story of the Transfiguration but also relating the story of an exorcism (Luke 9:28-43)?

For most preachers, the decision is easy. The Transfiguration is a Christological festival in the church year, which means that the story of the Transfiguration deserves attention on its own. The longer text tends to diminish the significance of the Transfiguration.

Each of the Synoptic Gospels contains an account of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9//Mark 9:2-10 //Luke 9:28-36). No such account appears in the Gospel of John, in which one might say that Jesus is somewhat transfigured as the transcendent Son of God on earth all the way through! It is also referred to in 2 Peter 1:18. The accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are drawn from Mark’s, but there are some significant differences among them.

Luke’s account is closely related to the First Lesson, in which Moses, after being in the presence of God to receive the Ten Commandments, comes down from Mount Sinai, and “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29). This feature, which is also present in Matthew’s account (Matthew 17:2), is missing in Mark’s account, in which it is said only that Jesus was transfigured (Mark 9:2).

The story takes place “about eight days” after the Confession of Peter (9:18-20), Jesus’ first passion prediction (9:21-22), and his admonitions about following him (9:23-27). All of this provides important background, for Luke himself says that the transfiguration took place “after these sayings.”

Some of the major features of Luke’s account, over against Mark’s, are the following.
1. The event takes place “about eight days” later (9:28), rather than after six (Mark 9:2; Matt 17:1); there appears to be no particular significance for the change.
2. Jesus went up the mountain to pray (9:29), perhaps to commune with God concerning his destiny.
3. Luke does not say that Jesus was actually “transfigured” (Greek metamorphōth&#275), as in Mark and Matthew, but says only that his face was altered; along with the other two, however, he says that the clothing of Jesus became dazzling white.
4. All that is within Luke 9:31-33 is distinctive. It has two features that are of interest for Luke’s rendition. The first is that Luke alone provides the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (on which comment is made below). The second feature is that the disciples are said to have dozed off during that conversation, but saw the glorified Jesus and the two men with him (9:32). English versions of the Bible vary widely in how they translate that verse. A rather literal translation would be that the disciples “were weighed down with sleep, but when they were fully awake, they saw his glory.”

The event happens on a mountain, a place of special revelation. Both Moses and
Elijah had received revelation on mountains. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). Elijah fled to Mount Horeb, and there God spoke to him in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV; RSV: “a still small voice”). It is those two men who appear on the mountain with Jesus and his companions.

While it has been common to think of them as representing the law and the prophets, which is not to be discounted, there may be more important things about them in this story. They have been on mountains to receive revelation; they are expected to appear at the coming of the messianic age (see Deuteronomy 18:15 concerning Moses; Malachi 4:5 concerning Elijah); and both had been taken into heaven and thereby were privileged to know God face-to-face and to know his will.

The story of Elijah’s going to heaven is told at 2 Kings 2:11-12. Accounts of Moses as having gone to heaven are not in the Old Testament itself, but in Jewish tradition (Josephus, Ant, 4.326). As persons who have been privy to the company and mind of God, they are able to provide Jesus with divine revelation.

Luke’s disclosure concerning the conversation is highly significant for his account. He says that Moses and Elijah “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (9:31). The Greek term translated as “departure” is exodus (“exodus” in English). They speak then of Jesus’ exodus from this world through his suffering, death, and resurrection into heaven, the place where they dwell with God. That exodus can only happen in accord with what Jesus himself had predicted when he said, just prior to this story, that he must suffer, be killed, and be raised on the third day (9:22).

The three “dwellings” (9:33, NRSV; “booths” in RSV) recall those used at the Festival of Booths (or Tabernacles), an annual harvest festival. It commemorates God’s protection during the wilderness wanderings (Leviticus 23:39-43). As such the booths also symbolize a time of rest, which could be interpreted allegorically as the messianic rest.

The saying of Peter would then mean that, since the messianic age is here, the group should ‘camp out’ permanently on the mountain. But that is not to be. There is the voice from heaven, declaring that Jesus is God’s Son, recalling the same declaration at his baptism (3:22), followed by the saying that the disciples are to listen to Jesus (9:35). The story ends with the self-imposed silence (9:36), whereas in the parallels it is Jesus who commands the three disciples to be silent (Mark 9:9//Matthew 17:9).

As one prepares to preach on this text, it is important to bear in mind that the Transfiguration of Our Lord is a Christological festival, not so much an occasion for moralism (that we all have mountain top experiences, but must come down). As such, it brings to an end the first major portion of the church year. The Incarnation of Our Lord and the Transfiguration of Our Lord stand as book-ends or brackets at the beginning and end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons.

The two festivals complement each other in striking ways. In the Incarnation, the divine partakes of the human condition. In the Transfiguration, the human shares in divine glory. In the Incarnation, the Son of God takes on human form and resides with us mortals on earth. In the Transfiguration, the earthly Jesus shares for a moment the company of two great and worthy residents of heaven, Moses and Elijah. Incarnation and Transfiguration are antiphonal. They enclose a portion of the church year that is now fast coming to an end, just before the period of Lent.

It is possible to structure a sermon in such a way that it brings the hearer upon the scene, looking around at the various persons present.

First, there are the disciples–Peter, James, and John. They are amazed at what they see. They are happy to see Jesus glorified. He had talked previously about his forthcoming suffering and death. But that is horrible, and now for at least a moment it appears that all that can be bypassed. Jesus is in glory already, and they are with him. They want to camp out with him on the mountain. That is a natural reaction. People seek inner peace, and they try all kinds of things to achieve it — anything that will promise much, but demand little.

Second, Moses and Elijah are present. They talk with Jesus. They know the mind and will of God. They speak of Jesus’ forthcoming “exodus” or “departure,” his forthcoming death and resurrection, which Jesus had spoken of before going up the mountain (9:22). They confirm that this is the will of God for him. The way of God for Jesus cannot bypass the cross.

This is at the heart of our Christian faith. Jesus has come to reveal God and redeem humanity. And the way that God has chosen to carry out his redemptive purpose is to send his Son, Jesus, to bear our sins upon himself at the cross. There the new “exodus” takes place, the new event of redemption for all the world.

Finally, there is the cloud and the voice. God speaks of Jesus as his Chosen One, for Jesus has accepted his role. Moreover, the disciples of Jesus are to listen to him. What he has said about himself and what is to happen is God’s will. What he says about discipleship is also to be heeded. All his teachings about love for God and for our fellow human beings are to be observed.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord is a day that gives those at worship a glimpse of the coming future glory of Christ on Easter. But it also reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross. A few verses later, at 9:51, Luke writes that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” where all that has been spoken of will take place for him. And for the worshiping congregation, Lent begins on the following Wednesday.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35

Beth L. Tanner

In the Protestant lectionary, Transfiguration Sunday stands at the juncture between Epiphany and Lent, and as such, offers a glimpse forward to the Easter Season and the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.

Since the days of the early Christians, Jesus’ transfiguration has been associated with Moses, who also stood before God, and the prophet Elijah. Why these two? One can guess, but a good possibility, as seen in a famous painting by Raphael, is as a representation of the traditions of the law and the prophets, with Jesus as the Gospel. These traditions are the bedrock of our faith and a good point of contemplation on the cusp of Lent.

The lesson for today focuses on Moses, and it is an opportunity to tell the story of the Exodus, for it is only in this context that this text can be understood. The story starts with God’s great acts in the Exodus: God’s show of strength; God’s actions on behalf of slaves; God’s use of creation as the medium of that salvation; and God’s protection. The story begins well enough.

Then the people get across the sea, and the new story of God dealing with God’s people begins. The people, who have always been slaves, are thrust out into the wilderness in a rather dramatic fashion. In their defense, they are led away from the only place they had ever known, into, well, the great and scary unknown. Anyone would be frightened. But wow, could they complain! Each time it was rough, they cried out to return to Egypt. God nevertheless continued to provide and guide them to Mount Sinai.

God then tells Moses it’s time for the people to prepare to finally meet God. The next day God speaks from the mountain and instead of excitement and thanksgiving for this face-to-face encounter, the people tell Moses they do not want to talk directly with God anymore because God scares them. The people are given an encounter with God and they complain. So Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God because the people are too afraid, and while he is gone, they decide Moses has disappeared or is dead or something, and they make a god of their own that they can stand before and look at!

The irony is apparent to all. God is so angry that God considers wiping out the people and starting all over with Moses. Moses intercedes and God relents, but remains angry, refusing to travel with the people. Moses again intercedes and God makes new tablets of the law, the crucial proclamation of 34:6-7, and a new covenant. God starts again, not with Moses alone, but with the same people who refused to stand before God, disobeyed, and destroyed the covenant by their actions. God repairs the broken relationship with the people by offering a new start.

The focus text for today comes at the end of this chapter and tells that Moses’ face was transformed after speaking with God. Again the people were afraid. Much of the commentary on this text centers on the understanding of the Hebrew word, qaran. Many, including Michelangelo, interpreted it to mean “horn,” hence the famous statute of Moses with horns. In the Hebrew, “horn” seems the most likely meaning, but other early translations use the word “shining.” Whichever word is selected, the content of the change to Moses’ countenance is not the point of the text. What is clear is that Moses’ face has been transformed in a way that, just like the face-to-face encounter with God, made the Israelites afraid to come near.

This change is usually interpreted in light of Moses’ interaction with God saying Moses’ face is transformed because he was face-to-face with God on the mountain. This is certainly possible; a face-to-face encounter with God would change a person, and this change certainly would set Moses apart from, not only the people, but the leadership of Aaron, Miriam, and the elders. Moses has become unique.

However, there is another possibility; for to make this argument, one must explain why this is the only time an encounter with God caused Moses’ transformation. Moses had stood before God previously with no change. Moses had even interceded with God before with no change.

It is possible then that when God made the new covenant and gave the new tablets, God also set before the people a tangible sign of God’s presence, right there on Moses’ face! The people had doubted God’s presence again and again during their time in the wilderness, and when God’s presence was offered they were too afraid to continue the connection. Just as the clothes God made for those disobedient garden dwellers and the sign God put on Cain and rainbow in the sky, God is making a new way for the people, a tangible sign of the God who demands no images be made.

God changed the plan to suit the frightened, disobedient people. God changed God’s own creation through Moses, as a visible sign of God’s presence. Showing in deed a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” to a doubting and unfaithful people.

In a way, the transfiguration does the same. The disciples see Jesus as a Rabbi, leader, and even friend, and this prevents them from seeing Jesus as God, as the great king and ruler of the universe. Just like the doubting people in Exodus, the disciples catch a glimpse of the great God, live and in person. Also, like the people in the wilderness, the disciples do not understand and try to change the plan, the people are afraid to see God again, and Peter wishes to stay in this place and not go forward into the next 40 days. Each does not fully comprehend what God is showing them. Each shows the frailty and fear of humanity, while God demonstrates God’s character of love and faithfulness and patience with humanity.


Commentary on Psalm 99

James Limburg

I write these lines just after hanging up the telephone.

I admit to a frustrating situation. For more than two weeks now, I have been trying to get in contact with a minor local luminary to invite him to speak to a group of which I am a member. His dutiful secretary protects him: “He’s out of town. He’s been on vacation. I’m not allowed to give out his cell phone number.”

But I’m persistent. I see that I have made a dozen attempts to get in touch with him over these weeks. My patience is running out.

I call. He doesn’t answer.

Out of that frustrating experience I have now come to Psalm 99. And I am struck by the simple statement in verse 6. After citing instances of the Lord’s dealings with the people, with Moses, Aaron and Samuel, the psalmist says simply, “They cried to the Lord, and he answered them.” (verse 6) A bit later, the psalmist makes it more personal, now addressing God as “you”: “O Lord our God, you answered them…” (verse 8)

In the world of that day, it was not always assumed that a god would answer a call from that god’s people. The Old Testament writer delights in telling the story of the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal. They called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” The text continues, “But there was no voice and no answer.” They called. Baal did not answer (1 Kings 18:26).

Structure and Genre
Three declarations that the LORD is holy define the structure of the psalm. Verses 1-3 conclude, “Holy is he!” Verses 4-5 also conclude, “Holy is he!” Verses 6-9 conclude the entire psalm with “for the LORD our God is holy.”

As to genre, this is an enthronement psalm. There are two types of psalms associated with kingship in ancient Israel. The royal psalms are associated with events in the life of Israel’s king, such as a royal wedding (Psalm 45) or the installation of a new king (Psalms 2, 72, 101, 110).

There are seven psalms that speak of the Lord being acclaimed king at some sort of festival. These are called the enthronement psalms and include Psalms 47, 93, 95-99. Like the royal psalms, these enthronement psalms have to do with a king. However, in the royal psalms, the king is the king. But in the enthronement psalms, the Lord is King.

Reading the Psalm

A Note on the Meaning of “Holy”
The fundamental idea behind the Hebrew word qadosh which occurs three times in this psalm (verses 3,5,9) is apart or separate. A place where the Lord once appeared may be called “holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Or a place where God is especially present may be described as a “holy temple” (Psalm 11:4; Habakkuk 2:20). In modern Israel to this day, a place of special significance is called a maqom qadosh or “holy place.”

Thus to say that God is holy is to stress the otherness or separateness of God. Isaiah saw the Lord and heard the angels singing “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3). The twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth liked to speak of God as “wholly other.”

Yet, according to the Bible, the Lord has not cut off contact with humans but is active among them. Hosea put it this way, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9). The fourth Gospel speaks the same way, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14)

The King Who Is a Lover (99:1-5)
With verses 1-3, the emphasis is on the Lord’s might. God is imagined as enthroned in the heavens! The people’s reaction is to tremble in awe and wonder and to praise. The “cherubim” were part of the decorations of the Lord’s throne in the temple; in the psalmist’s eye they become winged creatures around the heavenly throne. The greatness of the Lord is the reason for the people to sing hymns of praise.

In verses 4-5, the emphasis is on the Lord’s mercy, expressed in concern for people on earth. God is a lover, a lover of justice, and sees to it that justice is established in “Jacob,” that is, in Israel. Here the reason for the people to sing praises is God’s love for justice.

The God Who Answers (99:6-9)
The emphasis in verses 6-8 is on the nearness of this holy God, responding to the cries of a people in distress. Moses and Aaron bridged the gap between God and people at the time of the Exodus. They called on the Lord for help and the Lord answered (Exodus 4, 5-11). Samuel called on the Lord for help and the Lord answered (1 Samuel 7:7-11; 12:16-18). Verse 8 says simply, “Lord, you answered them and forgave them.” This is a reason for praise (verse 9) and an invitation for the people praying this psalm to call upon the Lord to receive help and forgiveness.

Toward a Sermon on this Psalm
The sermon could be an occasion to follow the suggested “We call, God Answers” theme. The preacher could speak about prayer, following the three-part structure of the psalm.

But this psalm is assigned to the day celebrating the Transfiguration of Jesus. The story of the psalm could be told, centering on the three “Holies,” as a background to the transfiguration story. The point is that God remains King, powerful and mighty. But God also is a lover of justice and righteousness who cares about justice and righteousness on earth. The mysterious events of the transfiguration provide assurance that this Jesus is indeed God’s Son, sent to humans as the chosen representative of the King, to establish God’s rule on earth.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

Karl Jacobson

Every second reading for Transfiguration from 2 Corinthians comes after the next.

Confusing? In an interesting coincidence, the lectionary for Transfiguration in Year B (February 22, 2009) and Year C (February 14, 2010), takes successive reading from 2 Corinthians, but in reverse order. Last Transfiguration, the reading was 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, and for this year it is 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:1. At first, this may not seem like something worth noting, but the connection between the two texts and the significance of reading them on Transfiguration are interesting.

In 2 Corinthians 3:13-18, the word “veil” (kalumma) occurs four times, in each of the verses except seventeen. There is the veil that Moses wore over his face after his visage had been transformed by his encounter with God. After speaking to God in the tent of meeting, Moses would put on his veil to avoid making the Israelites uncomfortable; it seems that when they saw his face shining with the glory of his encounter with God they were afraid (Exodus 34:29-35), and, as their own faces were still shining from the exertion of reveling before the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), they were probably ashamed by the comparison as well.

Paul takes this story of Moses’ veil and uses it as an allegory for reference to the old covenant (3:14)–which is only set aside in Christ (i.e. the gospel)–and for the reading of “Moses” (3:15, which is a euphemism for the Torah, or Pentateuch)–which is only comprehensible when one turns to God (3:16). In both cases, Paul is making the claim that the old covenant, the old “good news,” cannot be properly understood and accepted until the veil is removed. Then we ourselves with faces unveiled–which at this point is both a reference again to the Moses story, and metaphor for hearts and minds that are set free by the Holy Spirit (3:18)–will finally know the glory of God.

For Paul, this is again a statement of the gospel and its power to create faith and give life. This then is Pauline, Christian ministry, the removing of veils by “the open statement of the truth” (4:2).

Before moving on with the image of the veil, it may be necessary to say a quick word about the inter-testamental tension here. There may be a tendency, and perhaps even a temptation, to read this allegory of Paul’s as an outright rejection of the Old Testament. Phrases like “not like Moses,” and “their minds were hardened,” and even simply the “old covenant,” may seem to suggest that Paul is doing exactly this, rejecting “Moses” and his obscured, clouded, veiled word. But for Paul, there is no true disconnect between the Torah and the Testament to Christ. As the second reading from last week showed the gospel (or as 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 has it, the truth) is very much in keeping with the Old Testament, with the scriptures of the tradition.

At stake here are questions of antinomianism, of supersessionism, of simplistic ideas of “Old Testament = Law, bad and New Testament = Gospel, good.” Along with these often goes “Christian believer = good, Jewish believer = bad.” This is not, finally, what Paul is about. Paul does not dismiss the Old Testament.

At the same time the essential claim for Christ is an essential claim, it is particular, and quite uncompromising. While Paul does not reject the Old Testament, the old covenant, he does argue for a particular reading of it, one that is possible only in the Spirit, who brings freedom from blindness, and veiled minds (3:17). These are not simple matters to come to grips with, and are certainly not easily handled in the pulpit (a move that I would almost certainly avoid myself). But these issues ought to inform the preacher as she engages this text carefully and prayerfully.

Back to the veil at hand. Were we to continue reading in 2 Corinthians 4, we would read more about the veil, and its relationship to the gospel of Christ. The text of 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 bears re-reading,

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s case is for both the reality and the need for an unveiling of the heart in relationship to the gospel. This is the goal, with great boldness and open statement of truth (3:12; 4:2) toward which Paul himself presses, and to which he urges us who hear this proclamation. If we turn to the Lord, the veil is removed.

God is all about de-veiling; this is what the book of Revelation is, not so much about the end of the world, but the end of worldly vision a removing of the veil (apokalupsis). And this is what, in Christ, makes the covenant, no so much new as opposed to old, but the old made new as this veil is set aside.

So what then is the result of this de-veiling of sight, mind, and faith? The result is transformation, or perhaps better, transfiguration. 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed…”

All of us with faces unveiled (anakekalummenō), are being transformed (metamorphoumetha). This last word, metamorphoumetha, is the same word used in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration to describe what it is that happens to Jesus, in the eyes of the disciples; he is transformed, transfigured. As though the veil is removed from his face, or more accurately from their sight and their minds, the disciples see who Jesus is clearly, “the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Luke 9:29 does not use this same word, so the preacher ought not to stress unduly the relationship of 2 Corinthians and Luke1.  There is, however, a similar sense of transformation taking place, wherein the vision and understanding of the disciples is transformed by the work of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit.

For the reader, preacher and hearer of 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, it is this transformed vision, faith, and (as a result) life that it at the fore. Our preaching on this Sunday, the “transfiguration” which is so often difficult to understand and perhaps harder to explain, is well served by this text from Paul, which offers a transformation/transfiguration in the very same image of glory that is shown in the transfigured, transformative glory of Christ.

1Luke describes the transfiguration simply as Jesus’ appearance “becoming…other” (egeneto …heteron).