Lectionary Commentaries for March 6, 2011
Transfiguration of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9

David Lose

Epiphany is about light, about illumination, about revelation.

Across its Sundays we discover the significance of the Jesus whose birthday we just celebrated. We learn about how the babe born at Bethlehem is also the light of the world as well as about how we as his followers are also called to be light. We are drawn more deeply into an understanding of who and what the infant greeted by shepherds and magi is for us and for all the world and of our role to share what we have learned.

In this regard, I like to think of the Christmas message as a tightly, even intricately packaged Christmas gift which takes us the whole of Epiphany to unwrap and discover. Transfiguration Sunday draws the season to a close, and Matthew’s account provides the nearly perfect bookend to the story of Jesus’ Baptism that we read on the first Sunday of Epiphany.

Strange Days
Make no mistake, “transfiguration” is a strange word, one that you almost never use in everyday speech. Transfiguration Sunday isn’t all that much more familiar, and it is easy for preachers to underestimate how little our hearers know what to make of the day. It is the final Sunday of Epiphany, perhaps the least well understood season of the church year. The relationship to the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday in the season, is clear, as we are again invited to listen with the crowds (at Jesus’ Baptism) and disciples (at the Transfiguration) as a voice from heaven announces, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

At the same time, Transfiguration leans unmistakably into Lent, as Jesus comes down from the mountain to head to the death he speaks of during that very descent. The injunction to “listen to him” addressed to Peter, James, and John will become poignant, even painful in the weeks ahead as they regularly fail to do just that, or at least fail to understand what they are listening to. And those same words, when taken as addressed also to us as Jesus’ latest disciples, orient us to listen and watch the Lord of Glory approach his destiny in Jerusalem so that we might more fully comprehend God’s purposes and work in Jesus.

As if all this weren’t enough, Transfiguration also foreshadows Easter. When the disciples fall to the ground in holy awe, the glorified and glowing Jesus comes to them, touches them (elsewhere in Matthew a sign of healing), and commands them not just to stand up but literally to “be raised!” Jesus then commands them not to speak of this event until he himself has been raised, this time from death. There is something about this day, this event, that can’t be understood until after the resurrection.

Attention to Detail
Our confusion about Transfiguration Sunday moves beyond both linguistic and liturgical considerations, as biblical scholars have also regularly failed to understand the role this scene plays in the larger gospel narratives. It comes something out of nowhere, in each gospel playing to a greater or lesser degree a pivotal mark in the narrative (most noticeably in Luke), but not clearly connected to what comes immediately before or after. In Matthew’s account, the Transfiguration occurs six days — perhaps recalling the six days the cloud enveloped Mount Sinai before speaking to Moses in today’s reading from Exodus — after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and his rebuke of Peter (presumably) outside Caesarea Philippi  (16:21-23). It is followed by more passion predictions and the continuing story of Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee and his impending journey to Jerusalem. Clearly a “mountain top experience,” it is nevertheless challenging to see how the account contributes to or advances Matthew’s story of Jesus. For this reason, we can probably focus with confidence primarily on the details of the account itself. Of these, two deserve particular attention.

First, Peter’s reaction may seem odd to hearers, but some New Testament scholars suggest that it is the appropriate cultic response to what is, quite literally, an epiphany, a manifestation of divine presence. Peter wishes to make a booth, a tent, a tabernacle — perhaps referencing the Jewish festival of Tabernacles — by which to offer lodging for these historic and significant religious figures. Others see in Peter’s suggestion less a cultic response and more the desire to preserve the event, to capture something of the magnificence of the moment. Still others — and perhaps especially our hearers — have been struck by this as characteristic of Peter and many of us: when encountered by something beyond our reckoning, our first inclination is to do something, anything! However you read the impetus for Peter’s suggestion, it is notable that in Matthew the voice from heaven actually interrupts him, cutting him off in order first to pronounce Jesus blessed and then to command the attention of the disciples. Whatever Peter — or we — may have been thinking, that is, there is only one thing that is needful: to listen to him, the beloved One.

Second, when all is over — when Moses and Elijah are gone, the voice is quiet, Jesus’ face and clothing have returned to normal, and the disciples are left in holy awe — all that is left is Jesus. Whatever all these signs and symbols may have meant, the disciples are once again with their Lord, their teacher, their friend. This is perhaps one of the signature characteristics of Matthew. Jesus, the one whose clothes and face shone like the sun, the one equal to Moses and Elijah, the one whom the very heavens proclaim as God’s own beloved Son, will not leave them.

When all else fades — and indeed, soon enough all will become dark indeed — yet Jesus remains, reaching out in help and healing. At the very close of Matthew’s account, he will gather with these and all of his disciples on another mountain, and promise that he will be with them even to the close of the age.

Most of us have had mountain top experiences and can testify to their importance to our lives. But all of us have also had to return to the valley. At both places, and all those in between, Jesus is there, reaching out to raise us to life again.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 24:12-18

Callie Plunket-Brewton

“Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain.” (Exodus 24:17-18a) The setting of this story is spectacular. The sight of a mountain whose highest point is covered by a cloud is beautiful; it is a view featured in numerous paintings and photographs. While it is impossible to say exactly what so many people find moving about a cloud cropped mountain, it is likely that many people would describe such a vista as majestic or awe-inspiring.

Some might also say that the size of the mountain, whose top reaches into the upper atmosphere is a reminder of our own relative insignificance. The majesty of Mount Sinai in the narrative of Exodus 24 is intensified by the fact that the cloud that settled upon the mountain was no ordinary cloud but enshrouded the very presence of God, whose appearance, the text reads, “was like a devouring fire.”

The significance of all of this grandeur would not have been lost on the ancient Near Eastern audience. Mountains are the site of divine revelation throughout the ancient world, even in cultures as far-flung as Greece and Japan, a mountain is a common location for a theophany. In the case of Exodus 24:12-18, not only is the divine made visible on the mountain that one associates with the very foundation of the people of Israel as God’s people, Mount Sinai, but the story that precedes this one details a covenant meal shared by the leaders of the people of Israel and their God.

Within the story of the sacred meal, one finds another vivid description of God’s glory: “[T]hey saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” Interestingly, in spite of the fact that the story notes that the people saw God, it does not describe God’s physical presence but the brightness of the ground on which God was revealed to them, and even this description of the “pavement” is a little vague, using words, such as “something like” and the simile “like the very heaven” to describe it.

God’s glory is beyond the capacity of the human being to describe, much less comprehend, and there is something absolutely reassuring about that power being revealed in the context of a covenant-making ceremonial meal. God’s power is on the side of the people of Israel, supporting their leaders, and establishing them as a people.

To say that God’s power is on their side is not to say that the people are entirely safe from that power being directed against them, however. And so Exodus 25-31, which seems to be the content of God’s revelation to Moses in the midst of the cloud, provides a verbal blueprint for the creation of the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant as well as the main practices associated with the worship of Yahweh. The emphasis in these chapters falls on the necessity of maintaining the holiness of the site of the tabernacle and the cultic activity that takes place within it as well as the holiness of the people themselves.

The heart of Exodus 25-31 contains detailed descriptions of the sacrifices that are to be offered at the tabernacle along with the divine assertion: “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them: I am the LORD their God” (29:45). The key is the word “dwell.” In Exodus 24:16, the text reads, “Then the glory of the Lord dwelled on Mount Sinai.”

The NRSV translates the verb in this sentence as “settle,” which makes for smoother English, but the verb there is actually the same Hebrew verb one finds in 29:45, which is translated as “dwell.” “Dwell” is also the same root one finds in the Hebrew name for the tabernacle. While “tabernacle” in another context might simply refer to one’s dwelling place, in Exodus this simple term takes on new meaning because of the identity of the one who will dwell there. It is no small matter for a god as terrifying and powerful as Yahweh to decide to dwell in the midst of a people and to enter into a covenant with them. All of the signs of God’s power in chapter 24 make this point abundantly clear.

And yet there is something altogether reassuring about God’s promise and provisions to dwell with the people. While a covenant with God is not something to be entered into lightly, it is the case that God invites and welcomes the people into a relationship. Indeed, Exodus 24:12-18 with its awe-inspiring view of the presence of God and Moses’ bold willingness to walk into that cloud of devouring fire suggests that a relationship with God, while not exactly comfortable, is exhilarating. In preaching a text like this one, it is important to balance the wonder and the majesty of God’s presence with God’s promise to be with and for the people of Israel. As the narrative of exodus continues through the Pentateuch, one sees just how tenacious and faithful God is to this promise.


Commentary on Psalm 2

Cameron B.R. Howard

Psalm 2 does little to contradict the common stereotype that “the God of the Old Testament” is a deity overflowing with wrath.

The poem uses a variety of synonyms to refer to God’s anger, wrath, or fury (verses 5, 12). It employs a violent image of God’s chosen king using an iron rod to break the nations, which then shatter into bits like an ordinary piece of pottery (verse 9). The psalmist even offers a glimpse of God seated in the heavens, laughing scornfully and inspiring terror in the world’s rulers below (verses 4-5).

Yet, the psalmist does not present God’s rage as unprovoked. The psalm begins with a rhetorical question that invites the audience’s incredulity. Why must the nations continue to conspire against the Lord and against the Lord’s anointed one, the Israelite king? How could the nations — even all nations joined as one force — imagine they could overpower the sovereign God of Israel and the earthly ruler whom he has appointed? It is this hubris that inspires mockery by God and by us, the readers, drawn in by the psalmist’s rhetoric. God scoffs at the efforts of the most powerful leaders on earth; their conspiracies are but a joke to God. Their plans are thwarted before they are even formulated.

The behavior of the nations — then and now — is terror and violence. Their fury incites God’s fury. In response to their conspiracies, their plots, their war plans, God unleashes wrath. Swirling anger is not, however, the only experience of God articulated in the psalm. The anointed one, the king, testifies to God’s claim on his life: “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you'” (verse 7). In addition to evoking a familial tenderness that stands in stark contrast to the international antagonism prominent in the psalm, this claim of parentage is also a legal claim. As Yahweh’s son, the king is Yahweh’s legal heir. The inheritance is no small parcel of land, but rather “the nations,” even to the “ends of the earth” (verse 8).

Psalm 2 draws connections between Israelite kingship and God’s cosmic kingship and, therefore, is classified as a royal psalm. As William Brown explains, royal psalms create “an indissoluble link between King and king. […] God’s sovereign rule is made manifest through the earthly king (2:7-12).”1 That link is drawn in this psalm through the parental metaphor. Thus, as God’s heir, the king becomes the one who wields the iron rod that destroys the conspiratorial nations. The Israelite king is the instrument of God’s power in the world.

At verse 10, the psalmist shifts his address to the very kings and rulers he has mocked at the beginning of the poem. Though they have provoked God’s wrath, anger need not be the nations’ only experience of God. They have the opportunity to orient their posture away from the service of their own power and toward the service of Yahweh (verses 11-12a). Without that change in orientation, God’s anger inevitably will flare, and the nations will indeed perish.

The last line of Psalm 2, “Happy are all who take refuge in him,” echoes the initial words of Psalm 1, “Happy are those….” This repetition brackets Psalms 1 and 2 together, and the unit serves to introduce the book of Psalms as a whole. However, the line also provides a fitting conclusion to Psalm 2 on its own. The last image of God provided by the psalm is not an angry God prepared to destroy the nations, but rather God as refuge, a place of quiet and safety in the midst of the world’s raging. The description here resonates with Psalm 46, where the language of God as refuge is woven throughout that psalm. Perhaps most evocative of Psalm 2 is Psalm 46:6-7: “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice; the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” The violence of the world, brought on by the hubris of the nations, will continue. Nonetheless, God provides protection from the uproar that rages in the earth. Even as God wreaks havoc on those who oppose him, God provides a refuge for those who serve him.

The references in Psalm 2 to God’s “anointed one” (Hebrew mashiah, “messiah”) refer quite concretely to the earthly Davidic monarch ruling over Israel. The New Testament later adopts this same language of God’s anointed one, or messiah, to describe Jesus. The language of Jesus as Son of God, also a favorite term in the New Testament, similarly echoes the parental metaphor used of Yahweh and the Davidic king in this psalm. At the Transfiguration of Jesus, read from Matthew 17:1-9 with this week’s lectionary, the voice from the cloud invokes this same parent-child relationship, declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Matthew 16:5). Thus it is clear that the “God of the Old Testament” and the images used to describe God there — be they furious and wrathful or tender and parental — persist in the New Testament as well. Indeed, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same. The powers of this world continue in their conspiratorial fervor, while God — the one God, sovereign over the earth — remains our refuge.

1 William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 188.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 1:16-21

Margaret Aymer

Transfiguration can be an uncomfortable feast day for contemporary preachers.

Full of the skepticism of the scientific revolution, it is tempting for us to view the gospels’ testimony about the transfiguration as so much mythology. For, using our methods of analysis, we cannot explain with any certainty what exactly happened on the mountaintop that day. It is tempting to quickly turn away from the spectacle of Transfiguration in favor of the concrete Lenten road ahead of us.

Into our skepticism speaks the author of 2 Peter. Scholars agree that this epistle is a later edition to the canon, written after the letters of Paul had been collected into a body of writings for the church (2 Peter 3:15). It is written to a community faced both with the promise that Christ will come again and with the long wait until he does. The neighbors of this community have leveled charges that the gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing other than a deviously crafted story. To this assertion of doubt, the author of 2 Peter responds, and his response give us tools by which we may begin to address contemporary Christians with an ancient message.

First, the author of 2 Peter holds up the validity of oral history. We, as a nation, are just beginning to remember the importance of stories passed down over generations. The recently-launched Story Corps projects of the Library of Congress, for example, encourage people to have their friends and relatives pass on pieces of family lore before they are lost to the silence of death. For the congregation of 2 Peter, the transfiguration is also oral history, a story that has been passed down since the days of Simon Peter and that have now become part of their story.

In retelling those stories, the author and the community become eyewitnesses with the three who ascended the mountain, eyewitnesses both of Christ’s grandeur and of the Divine assertion of Christ’s kinship with God: “This is my son, the beloved…” Thus, although writing to a community at least one generation removed from the life of Jesus, the author can assert with confidence the eyewitness status of his community of faith in refutation of the charge that this is all a cleverly devised myth.

A thoughtful preacher might use this authorial assertion to uphold the importance of testimony to the presence and power of God in our midst today. There is, here, an invitation to the community of faith to be on the lookout for more epiphanies, more evidence of the in-breaking of God, whether clothed in light upon a mountaintop or in far subtler ways. This might also be an opportunity, particularly for those from traditions that practice testimony, to involve the community of faith in the discipline of testimony, of relating the ways in which God’s presence and power have been revealed in everyday life for the building up of the community.

A second theme in the proper for Transfiguration is that of reliable prophecy. Here, the author is referring to that central promise of Christian theology that Christ will return and will be revealed as Lord. This is the answer Epiphany gives to the longing of the Advent season that started this church year. Here the author makes at least two points worth considering as one prepares to preach.

First, the author speaks about the hope that reliable prophecy brings to the community of faith. Thus the metaphor of prophecy as a lamp that brings light until the dawn breaks. Such an assertion might lead a preacher into a discussion of whether the statements of a community of faith bring light into gloomy places until the breaking of dawn, or whether they deepen the gloom. Alternatively, a preacher might take up the theme of illumination as a way of discerning a “reliable prophetic word” for the community of faith, a theme that will tie nicely both to the gospel and to the Hebrew Bible proper for this Sunday.

Second, a preacher might focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in the work of prophecy. For it is by the Holy Spirit that Christians are able to assert prophetic words into places where there is great need for illumination and hope. Certainly, contemporary heroes of the faith could provide ample evidence of those sorts of Spirit-inspired prophetic words and the way in which they enabled a community of faith to hold on in troubled times.

The appeal of this epistle as a companion text to this week’s gospel for Transfiguration Sunday is evident. As in the gospel, the epistle retells the story of the Transfiguration and the assertion of the divine sonship of Jesus. The wording of the text is almost identical, although one could argue that the sentence structure of the divine declaration emphasizes “this” in the gospel and “my son the beloved” in the epistle. Nevertheless, the epistle serves to underscore the testimony of the gospel which in turn illustrates the passing on of oral and written testimony from generation to generation.

In conversation with the Hebrew Bible passage, a theme of divine splendor on the mountain recurs. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, Moses alone enters that cloud; in the New Testament, Jesus is accompanied by three witnesses. One could use these two texts to tie together the splendor of the gift of the law and of the gift of the son, two markers of God’s covenant with humanity. This could be underscored by comparing what Moses brings off the mountain — the Law — with what Christ brings off the mountain — his own body; both of these serve as the vehicles of divine relationship with the community of faith.

Regardless of which choice one makes, the epistle encourages the community of faith not to come down off of the mountaintop too quickly. Wednesday will come with all of its solemnity, but for Transfiguration Sunday, we are asked to declare that which we cannot explain, to testify to what generations have held to be true: that Jesus Christ is God’s beloved son.