Transfiguration is one of those “non-holidays” that appears in lectionaries with its own particular set of readings, but doesn’t draw much attention from local congregations.
The Transfiguration has many of the elements of the story of a superhero. There’s an arduous trek up a mountain; a tightly knit company of friends on a “mission” together; the appearance of other-worldly figures in dazzling light; the transformation of the hero into an equally dazzling figure; a command from a powerful voice from another dimension; a determined descent to battle those other powers back home. Preachers don’t quite know what to do with it. After all, Jesus is not exactly a superhero…is he?
Well, “no.” And “yes.” Inherent in the story of the Transfiguration is the promise of a kind of life beyond what is apparent to earthly eyes most of the time. Both Moses and Elijah, two figures whose passing’s were mysterious, were believed by many Jews to be God’s precursors of the end times. Because Elijah went bodily into heaven (2 Kings 2:9-12) and Moses’ grave was never found (he was buried by God himself in Deuteronomy 34:4-7), these two men of the faith were thought to be available for God to send back. God would send them to inform humankind that God’s reign was at hand. It is no accident that these two appear with Jesus on the mountain. They discuss that change already prophesied by Jesus (Mark 1:15) and as the two messengers disappear into the cloud (a sign of God’s presence, cf. Exodus 40:34-38), the word comes to “Listen to Jesus,” the only one left. Now Jesus becomes the divinely chosen precursor of the turn of the age.
Moses, Elijah, and even God are not the only signs for the alert that God’s reign are coming. Peter, contrary to popular portrayal, makes the connection that is too obscure for us to make. According to some Jewish expectation and as stated in the book of Zechariah the prophet (see 14:16-21), God would usher in the new age, the “Day of the Lord,” during the Feast of Booths. This God-commanded festival kept by Jews for centuries, was considered a possible time for God’s taking control of God’s creation and beginning the age of shalom. So Peter’s question about building booths is neither laughable nor mistaken. Peter is clear that the end times are coming and the Feast of Booths was upon them. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus need not construct their own booths for the celebration.
Peter was wrong about the timing, as Mark suggests (verse 6). Had he forgotten Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death or did he think God had just trumped Jesus’ prediction and advanced the timetable? We don’t know. But the word from the cloud, “Listen to him,” is a reminder to pay attention to Jesus’ reliable words (including those predictions in 8:31). He will not be a superhero as we understand it, but as one who lays down his life and thus opens glory to many.
Since this story so emphasizes the dazzling glow of the Jesus, Moses, and Elijah that we also need to pay attention to glory. The best known earlier example of a dazzling face transformed by being in the presence of God is that of Moses (Exodus 34:2, 29-35). After Moses has been in conversation with God about the future life of God’s people, he descends from the mountain so reflecting the light of God’s glory that he must cover his face lest he frighten the people. There are surely similarities to Jesus as he seeks to form a new people of God, has climbed a mountain, and is in conversation with God. Also important, in Daniel the “Son of Man” is also dazzling white. The mysterious messianic figure who will bring about God’s will and God’s justice, is a supernaturally stunning figure (Daniel 7:9-14). As Jesus is transfigured Peter, James, and John and Mark’s audience catches a glimpse of his reality as Son of Man, God’s chosen messenger of the God’s reign.
Putting all this together, we have a story that reassures Jesus’ core disciples and Mark’s readers: Jesus’ predictions of betrayal, death, and resurrection are to be trusted. The struggles yet to come for Jesus should in no way diminish confidence in his promises or his predictions of resurrection. As Mark’s gospel drives toward the bitterness of the passion and the ambiguity of an ending without a resurrection appearance, this story itself shines as a beacon of hope.
Recall that James and John believe in that glory and try to claim a place at Jesus’ side there (10:35-37). They don’t understand the price of that glory, even when Jesus tries to remind them. Even glory can be misunderstood.
For the preacher, there are many themes. These would include being vouchsafed an experience of glory, Jesus’ style. That is, it is glory that will come but cannot be seized, not by Jesus, not by James, John or by contemporary disciples. We follow in trust that God is forming us into a new people through Jesus, through whatever comes our way.
Another theme can be found in the clear evidence in this passage of God’s faithfulness. God has not left God’s people without guidance, without help, without hope ever. From Moses to Elijah to Daniel to Jesus, perhaps to Mark writer of this “good news” (Mark 1:1), and including many more persons of faith, we continually are helped to see the way of God in the world, as well as the promise for God’s future for all of us. Perhaps we have to trust the glimpse that others have had: all the twelve, for instance, were not part of this experience and Peter, James, and John did not talk about it until after the resurrection. But the glimpse, even of others, is a gift to all of us from God.
A preacher could develop the theme of encounter with the Lord of glory in the elements of bread and wine that point both to Jesus alive and Jesus whose life was lived with and for us, who ate the simplest meal with his disciples as promise of a future glory. As we share in the sacrament we too share an experience and promise of that glory…in all the ordinariness of our very human celebrations?”
Finally, how might this powerful story persuade us to “listen to him?” On that mountain, the remembered location of God’s revelation to Moses, comes the promise and indeed experience of glory underlined by God’s call to trust what Jesus has said. As the glow fades and brutal reality takes it place, will Peter, James, and John be able to remember this event and lead based on the hope that this memory gives? Will we? This episode puts the “matters” or “ways” of God –rather than Satan — firmly before the eyes and ears of Peter, James, John, and Jesus himself. As they trudge back to Galilee where Jesus has gone before them, NOT having seen Jesus but led only by remembering his promise and hope, will this vision transform them?
The book of Kings almost teases readers about the succession from Elijah to Elisha.
The issue of succession first appears in 1 Kings 19:16, and while 1 Kings 19:19-21 purports the start of an apprenticeship to Elijah, the text indicates that Elisha functions as Elijah’s “servant.” For much of the chapters following, Elijah appears alone with no reference to Elisha until the departure scene in 2 Kings 2:1-12.
In many ways transition seems difficult to materialize. The succession takes place after several delays in the narrative. Given that verses 1-7 consists largely of one scene in three takes, the dialogue and events of verses 8-12 seem to offer more to the preacher. Yet the emotional content of Elisha’s denial of Elijah’s departure, the three-stop itinerary, and Elijah’s detachment may offer new insights into a well-known passage.
The news of Elijah’s departure to heaven by a whirlwind seems common knowledge among the prophetic guilds. Spoken of as being taken “from above the head” of Elisha, Elijah’s departure looks like an event that the prophetic community anticipates and admires. Yet the prophetic community understands that more than the mode of separation but the fact of separation from the relationship between prophet and “sons” of his prophetic circle impacts the ones left behind.
In two locations the prophetic community enquires of Elisha about his master’s departure (verses 3, 5). That Elisha brusquely answers this question reflects not so much a surly disposition as an emotionally tense state. Clearly Elisha would prefer to have his master remain. His clinging onto Elijah as they travel may look pathetic but reveals the intimacy of their relationship, one that transcends the conventional father-son relationship of a prophet with his students (verse 12).
Elijah sets a curious path that delays his departure in the passage with a symbolically revealing itinerary. Should their starting point be Gilgal, then a journey to Bethel that returns to Jericho only to end at Jordan seems pointless, since Gilgal lies only a few meters away from Jordan. Elijah walks the path taken by Joshua on entry into the land. On crossing the Jordan, Joshua encamps at Gilgal establishing a monument there (Joshua 4:20-24), circumcising a group of men, and observing the Passover (Joshua 5:1-12).
The stop at Bethel not only recalls the historical role of Bethel in the religious imagination of northern Israelites but also the pivotal role it plays in the battles of Jericho and Ai (Joshua 6 and 8). Elijah’s itinerary mimics that of Joshua, only that rather than entering into the land Elijah prepares to leave. The parting of the Jordan confirms this connection. Whereas the Ark of the Covenant accomplishes this for Joshua (Joshua 4:8-13), Elijah’s mantle draws back the waters (verse 8).
In traveling this path, Elijah travels backwards to Egypt but rather than returning to Egypt with its memory of oppression, Elijah’s path leads him to heaven. And as the exodus happens with mighty signs and wonders, the whirlwind and fiery chariots and horses mark Elijah’s path to heaven.
In the midst of the drama of separation Elijah stays focused on his departure. Elisha seems at best to be a bother to Elijah. In managing Elisha’s neediness, Elijah maintains a balance between indulgence and support. He neither gives in to Elisha’s insistence never to leave him, nor leads him to think that he is invincible. While Elijah describes Elisha’s parting request as “a hard thing” (verse 10) he eventually makes it happen.
However, Elisha receives his request not simply because Elijah conjures it, Elisha participates in the mysterious passage of power from one prophet to another. Elijah convinces his apprentice of his ability to navigate the spirit world. Elisha seeing the unseeable and perceiving Elijah’s translation to heaven marks his full entry into the arts of the prophetic community (verse 12).
While interpretations tend to focus on Elijah and Elisha, the passage calls attention to the presence of the community of prophets. Elijah’s departure affects them as much as Elisha and they demonstrates solidarity, insider knowledge, and witness to the continuity of the prophetic community. At each stop on the itinerary the prophetic community varies its proximity in relation to Elijah and Elisha. From “came out” (verse 3), to “drew near” (verse 5), and then “stood at some distance” (verse 7).
Each location reflects the various positions that community occupies in times of transition and departure. While modern readers will struggle with the tensions between individual and community ministry, the passage hardly faces these. For as much as it displays Elisha’s emotion, the passage maintains Elisha’s membership in the prophetic community.
Additionally, it points to the partnership between Elijah and Elisha, a partnership not displayed in earlier parts of the book. From one place to the next, the text indicates that they travel together using the third masculine plural verb forms. When they travel to Jordan the text stresses their pairing (“two of them” verse 6). This emphasis continues as they stand on the banks of the river and as they cross the river (verses 7-8). The narration of their separation hardly seems like a rent in their relationship since that which separates this pair is the thing that unites them as prophets. The horses and chariots of fire separate them but at the same time enable the transfer of Elijah’s spirit to Elisha.
Rather than a disjunction in the prophetic community this separation reflects continuity. Ironically when Elisha tears his garment in two, instead of several pieces, this action may represent a recognition of the unity of individuality in the prophetic community. As the story continues Elisha manifests the spirit of Elisha as authenticated in his ability to separate the waters and the assent of the prophetic guild (verses 13-15).
While the passage’s fluctuating interest between Elijah and Elisha may be of interest to preachers, the prophetic community stands as a major character in the passage and offers possibilities for reflections on the communal nature of ministry. The transitions, stability, and continuity of the prophetic office provide contrast with much of the go-it-alone image of what makes for “successful ministry.” Elisha’s anxieties and Elijah’s sturdiness present space to talk about mentorship and transitions from one generation to another.
The chosen portion of Psalm 50 is rich with the light imagery that is common to all of the lectionary selections for Transfiguration Sunday.
The arc of the sun, the fire of the divine presence, the radiant beauty of Zion, and especially the image of God “shining forth” offer points of connection to the radiance of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the Transfiguration story, and preachers whose interpretive focus is primarily on that story may find these visual associations valuable to illustrate the frequency with which God’s presence is depicted in the Bible as being accompanied by bright light. However, if the Psalm reading is to be engaged wholly or primarily on its own terms, there are other aspects of the text that must be considered.
The visual imagery of the passage is not invoked for its own sake, nor as a mere testament to the glory of the Lord. The blazing divine presence is the power behind an important and far-reaching summons. God is calling “the heavens above” and “the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” to bear witness to God’s actions as judge. God’s radiance and power help to establish his right to sit in judgment, and the calling of heaven and earth to bear witness establish the scope of God’s jurisdiction. This passage is more a subpoena than it is a hymn of praise.
The judge is present and qualified, and the witnesses are summoned. The missing piece of the tableau is a defendant, and the identification of the charged party is soon offered, as the Psalmist declares that the witnesses were summoned “that [God] may judge his people.” Furthermore, this judgment will have to do with Israel’s covenant obligations in some way, as is made clear in the direct speech of the Lord, “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
If the interpreter engages only the selected verses, the particulars of the covenant violations with which Israel will be charged are not present. That being the case, there is opportunity for preaching the importance of covenant faithfulness on the part of God’s people, and on the consequences of covenant violations, in any number of areas. Such flexibility might aid the preacher in bringing the text to bear on the life and context of a given community, but it also leaves open the possibility of forced readings that do violence to the sense and aims of the Psalm.
To prevent such forcing of the text, it is highly advisable to consider the remaining verses of Psalm 50, whether or not they are read in worship. The Psalm as a whole offers two general indictments of Israel:
In verses 7-15, Israel’s worship practices are called into question. The message here shares many features with the common prophetic complaint that the offering of sacrifices has come to take the place of true worship of the living God, in a triumph of form over substance. Psalm 50 explicitly does not condemn sacrifice per se, but rather challenges a particular understanding of sacrificial observance. The Psalmist declares that God will not accept sacrifices “from your house” or “from your folds,” and then reminds the reader that all of creation, including those things brought for sacrifice, already belongs to God. Imagining that one’s offerings are a gift to God, or that they fulfill some need of God’s, is to claim ownership of what belongs only to the Lord. This attitude is here condemned as being contrary to Israel’s faith and to Israel’s covenant commitments. Instead, God’s people are to treat their offerings as acts of thanksgiving for all that God has done and given. Such sacrifices alone, says the Psalm, are acceptable to God.
In verses 16-21, a similar complaint is lodged against Israel. This time, though, instead of sacrifice, it is the recitation and citation of the covenant that is held up for inspection. Again, the practice itself is not condemned, but rather the empty and hypocritical speaking of devout words while living a rapacious and predatory life. To pay only lip service to God’s decrees while living in a manner contrary to them is to act as if God is either powerless to enforce the divine will or, as the Psalm puts it, “one just like yourself,” whose words are not backed by actions.
By following the lead of the whole of Psalm 50, the interpreter can offer specific direction to the call to covenant faithfulness issued in the first six verses. God’s people, whether in ancient Israel or in the church today, are called to attend to the substance and meaning of their religious activities and proclamation, and not merely the forms of them. They are called to give offerings as an act of thanksgiving, rather than of grudging surrender of what they imagine to be their own. They are called to be disciplined and led by the words of the covenant, not merely to recite them. The message of Psalm 50 is that in seeking to follow these calls, the people give honor to God and are shown the way of God’s salvation.
Once again, Paul pulls the curtain back.
At several moments in his letters, Paul takes a moment to pause and counter a potential argument by his interlocutors in order to keep his readers from reaching the wrong conclusion. These caveats also provide us a valuable glimpse into the theological foundations undergirding the gospel for Paul.
One such theological foundation which Paul returns to regularly in his letters is the source of his call as a minister. His was not a minister born of effort, ambition, or any other human motives; instead, he will consistently note that his authority springs only from God’s call. The gospel Paul preaches is not of his own creation but a gift from God.
In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul works through this contrast, noting the qualitative difference between “tablets of stone” and “tablets of human hearts.” The living quality of the latter proves superior to the rigidity of the former. Starting in 3:7, Paul will then link this contrast between tablets to the veil Moses wore at his descent from Mount Sinai (see Exodus 34:29-35) and the metaphorical veil that precludes some from hearing the gospel proclaimed through the words of Moses in Paul’s own time. This metaphorical veil cannot be lifted by us but only by Christ (3:14).
Our temptation here is to interpret that Paul is here primarily addressing those who have a veil over their hearts, that human destinies are primarily what is at stake for him. However, throughout 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is primarily concerned with the character of God and the source of the gospel. Here, Paul isn’t talking about us so much as he is wondering who God is and what does God achieve for us. As Paul concludes, “We are being transformed [notice the passive language!] into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. “This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEB; italics added)
Thus, as we approach our verses, Paul remains steadfast in trusting the God of Jesus Christ, the very source of the mercy which has saved us. In contrast to the veiling present in some lives, the gospel is a public matter available to all: “but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3). Thus, the question before us is not primarily about why some have heard the good news and others have not. Instead, Paul here is arguing for the consistency of God’s working in our midst. God works not in secret but in public, in clarity not obscurity, in light not darkness. Why then have some still not heard?
To respond, Paul returns to the image of the veil in 4:3. What is unclear is who Paul imagines are “those who are perishing.” Similarly, then, there is some ambiguity about whom he describes as “unbelievers” in verse 4. One possibility is that he means, just that, unbelievers, individuals and communities who have not embraced the gospel. But another option is that Paul here is referring not to outsiders but purported insiders. He may be pointing to individuals within the Christian community who misinterpret and misunderstand the gospel. Are these people who claim to believe but have missed what the gospel is all about? That is, is Paul directing his sights primarily outside of the bounds of Christian community or within it? However, in the end, this may not make much of a difference to Paul. The identity of these unnamed “unbelievers” is not as important as the character of God and God’s gospel.
As we found during the last two weeks reading 1 Corinthians, Paul’s sights are generally set inside Christian communities. To be sure, the world around us certainly influences these communities as the darkness which characterizes it presses in on faithful followers of Christ brought together by God. But even when he points outside the confines of Christian communities, he does in service of the exhortation and building up of the faithful who are gathered. Unlike so many of us today, Paul does not identify and deride the failures of those outside the church in order to inflate our sense of accomplishment as the truly righteous; instead, he reminds Christians of their former lives and yearns for them not to return to this previous state of darkness.
Yet the question remains. Why do some persist in unbelief? Does not their unbelief reflect poorly on God? What are the implications for the gospel when a publicly proclaimed word is brushed off by those walking in darkness?
Paul’s explanation here is cosmic and overarching. Opposing but unequal forces are at work in the world. Paul draws a sharp contrast between “the god of this world” (verse 4) who trades in the spreading of darkness and the God who calls light into existence at the dawn of time (verse 6). The former “god” has sought to keep the lost in a maze of lies. In contrast, the God who created the universe is also at work today in our hearts, transforming our lives.
One of the challenges in preaching Paul is missing his intended target. That is, we often tend to read Paul’s letters as theological treatises on discrete theological topics like salvation or justification. Certainly, Paul’s letter touches on these topics in important ways. But Paul’s vision is often wider than ours. Even more than individuals, Paul addresses communities of Christians living within God’s long story of good news for a lost world. In these verses, we might lose sight of these larger dynamics by focusing too narrowly on what these verses might mean for any particular individual’s salvation. Instead, I would encourage keeping our focus on the kind of God Paul confesses in these verses.
This is a God who traffics in light not darkness. This is a God who can bring light to every dark corner of the world and our lives. This is God who spoke light into existence and God’s glory into our lives. In the end, no veil can cover this powerful light.