Every time we gather for worship (these days, distant from each other in person or on a screen), we are the disciples on the mountain seeing the rabbi—the carpenter from Nazareth who became our teacher—bathed in light.
At first, it seems, Jesus and Peter, James, and John are out for a hike. A high mountain: the sort of place eager mountaineers might yearn to scale for the vista. Then everything changes.
The vision the disciples behold removes the veil of Jesus’ humanness to reveal his divinity: wondrous, frightening, powerful, unexpected, and rich, connecting all ages (the prophets Elijah and Moses with Jesus), giving enlightenment. His external appearance is utterly changed.
Jesus’ transfiguration is not to be approached with the assumption that we can understand it. It means to draw us in toward what is abnormal, unnatural—like the burning fire that does not consume the bush (Moses’ first encounter with YHWH in Exodus 3:1-6) and like the fire Elijah hoped for and received from God on the altar drenched in water to win the wager against the prophets of Baal (Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 18). The Transfiguration places Jesus in the lineage and honor of the two prophets who stand beside him on the mountain.
The disciples are terrified in a way that means they fear they will be harmed (see Ezekiel 34:28). Yet, they seek for a way to remain in the presence of what terrifies them. The drama of the moment suggests that it harbors danger.
And then the cloud appears as another manifestation of the divine with the voice that reminds us of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11. Here, however, the voice does not speak in second person to Jesus (“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”) but in the third person to the disciples (“This is my Son … listen to him”). The Transfiguration gives the disciples the experience of witnessing a most amazing and unspeakable vision that draws them to want to stay there, dwell in that place of wonder, and then to be told by the voice of the divine that their job is not to abide in that wonder but to go back down the mountain. The voice in the cloud is directed at the disciples, to the church, rather than to the Son as it was at his baptism. It speaks to Jesus’ identity so that the church can see what Jesus alone heard when he was baptized.
We might use the words “transfigure” and “transform” interchangeably, but there is a helpful distinction to keep in mind. To be transfigured is to be changed in outward form or appearance. Jesus’ transfiguration does not alter who he is but gives to those who see the changed visage a new understanding of him because they see him outwardly in a different light. When we speak of transformation we tend to mean a complete or essential change in composition or structure. Jesus on the mountain with Moses and Elijah is not transformed (changed inwardly) but transfigured before his disciples (shown to be other than assumed). He is not made to have a new essential self but an appearance that conveys his standing in the company of Israel’s greatest prophets.
In worship, week after week, through the Word of God, our vision is restored. We are enabled by God to see Jesus as savior (something more than a teacher of morality and ethics) because the dazzling clothes constitute an epiphany. His transfiguration transforms the disciples in the story and transforms us by removing the veil over our vision. The preacher who wants to work with the imagery of veiled sight will benefit from enigmatic language about being veiled and given the light in the appointed RCL Epistle from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. Also helpful is 2 Corinthians 3:18 with its promise that “all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image…”
The Transfiguration stands between the Time after Pentecost, when we are learning to be church, and Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, when we are thrust back into the hard truth that we are dust. The power of the Transfiguration is that it plants in our hearts and minds the brilliance of eternity on the mountain with the greatest prophets, emboldening us for the journey together as the body of Christ. The Transfiguration thus prepares us to come to terms with our humility, our soil nature, our utter dependence on God.
It is no small matter that the scene ends with the word “dead.” Jesus has embraced his identity as one who will die and be raised. He signals the journey ahead that will be coming when he and his disciples have left the mountain. It is one thing to have had a “high” experience, “a mountaintop” experience with Jesus up in the clouds where everything is brilliant, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. The reason for the identification of Jesus with Moses and Elijah is for the church, the disciples, to realize their crucial work in the world: to accompany Jesus to the cross, to take up our crosses, to die in order to live, to be last in order to be first, to refuse the invitation to turn away from God’s laws.
The church has a responsibility: to listen to God’s Son. That listening does not result in staying aloof where the air is pure and the view is stunning. The church must listen to the voice of God’s Word in our midst so that we follow in a way that leads to the cross. We are not called to have power over others but to rise up as dust that has been formed by the breath of God and give life to others, especially those who are neglected by the powerful.
Second Kings 2:1-12 is almost exactly half a narrative.
The entire chapter has a chiastic structure, with verses 11-12 in the very center. The event in these verses is that toward which Elijah and Elisha walk and the event from which Elisha returns alone. Typically, in a chiasm the central event is of central importance. In this passage, Elijah going up to heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by two fiery horses is certainly a high point in the narrative, but Elisha’s journeys to and from the Jordan may hold larger homiletical value. Read in this way, the narrative is as much a call story for Elisha as is the moment when Elijah called Elisha out of the field to serve him (1 Kings 19:19-21).
Journey to the Jordan
Elijah and Elisha take the journey to the Jordan River in careful stages, pausing at both Bethel and Jericho before finally reaching their destination. Each leg of the journey follows the same pattern. Before they even leave their point of origin, Elijah requests that Elisha remain behind, for the LORD has sent Elijah on to Bethel. In return, Elisha follows doggedly, swearing in the names of both the LORD and Elijah that he will not abandon his master. Upon arriving at Bethel, the prophets of the place warn Elisha that by the end of the day, the LORD will have taken his master. Elisha acknowledges this and asks for silence.
The pattern repeats as Elijah and Elisha move toward Jericho, and Elisha, having insisted on accompanying Elijah, shushes the prophets of that place who warn that Elijah will be taken by the end of the day.
At the Jordan, Elijah once more tells Elisha to stay, and Elisha once more refuses. The prophets at that place … remain at a distance. In this third repetition, the pattern breaks down, focusing our eyes on what happens next.
Up until this point in the passage, Elijah and Elisha have been identified by name or with the pronoun “they,” but in verse 7 it is “the two of them,” that haunting phrase from Genesis 22 where Abraham and his son Isaac—the two of them—walk toward the place where Abraham will sacrifice his son. Repeated in verse 8, the phrase emphasizes that it is the two of them—no more and no less—who will experience what happens next.
Crossing the Jordan
Crossing from one side of a river to another is not a particularly subtle symbolic action. Something of some importance will happen on the other side. Crossing the Jordan on dry ground with the waters parted to the side, however, recalls some rather specific biblical images. First, crossing the Jordan recalls Joshua and all of Israel crossing that same river on dry ground (Joshua 3), entering into Canaan. Elijah rolling his mantle and striking the water to divide it so they may cross over on dry ground further recalls Moses crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-27), leading the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom. What will God bring to Elijah and Elisha as they make their trek across the river become dry land? A promise? A calling?
Both are in view. When Elijah asks Elisha what he should give him, Elisha requests “a double share” of his spirit (2 Kings 2:9), better understood as the inheritance due to a firstborn son. This request may be seen as something other than presumption. Elisha had already received Elijah’s cloak and followed him, so his request does not arise out of the blue. Further, Elisha’s request signals Elisha’s understanding of their relationship. Just two verses later, he calls him “my father.”
The chariot and horsemen of Israel
As Elijah ascends in a whirlwind, a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses appears in the foreground as Elisha remarks, “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel.” The idiom is not well understood, the phrase occurring only here and at Elisha’s own death (2 Kings 13:14-20). It is perhaps associated with imagery of the LORD riding on the clouds, an image depicting the LORD as a warrior (Deuteronomy 33:26; Isaiah 19:1; 66:15; Habakkuk 3:8) or having other types of power (Psalm 68:33; 104:3). Surely the fire, with no discernible source, signifies God’s presence. Whatever more the imagery represents, the LORD has taken Elijah, as the prophets forewarned throughout the day, and Elisha is left alone. He retains only the vision of what has happened and Elijah’s cloak, once dropped on his shoulders when he became Elijah’s assistant (1 Kings 19:19-21) and now is his very own.
Return from the Jordan
The lectionary passage ends with Elisha mourning Elijah in the traditional fashion—by tearing his clothing. Were we to continue reading, we would see Elisha leave the Jordan River by the same route he came, this time alone. We would observe prophets at Jericho recognizing Elisha as having Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:15), Elisha putting this spirit to use as he makes water safe to drink at Jericho and, less helpfully, commanding bears to maul those who mock him at Bethel.
On the festival of the Transfiguration of our Lord, a day named for the gospel reading in which Jesus is transfigured with divine light while conversing with Elijah and Moses, one might understandably focus on Elijah’s ascension in the fiery chariot as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ transfiguration. Conversely, one might choose to focus on Elisha’s transformation, itself in response to an encounter with God’s glory. Elisha leaves the experience to continue living out his divinely inspired call. Like Abraham and Isaac, like Joshua and Moses, like father Elijah, Elisha’s encounter with God has strengthened him to pick up the mantle.
First there is a blinding flash of light and then the thunderous sound of God speaking. It’s the story of the Transfiguration, right? Yes. But it is also the beginning of Psalm 50.
A festival psalm
Psalm 50 was probably composed for use at the Festival of Booths—also called the Festival of Tabernacles, Festival of Sukkot, or Festival of Ingathering. It is a festival psalm, similar to the other festival psalms.
In ancient Israel, the Festival of Booths was the most important of the three pilgrimage festivals, because, as the word “ingathering” signifies, it was the festival associated with the autumn grain harvest. The importance of this festival is also indicated in the book of Ruth, chapters 2-3. For a narrative understanding of its importance, read the story of Ruth, Boaz, and the good times folks had at the fall harvest.
In the “book of the covenant” in Exodus 21-23, God commanded the Israelites to keep three annual pilgrimage festivals: one in spring (“unleavened bread,” or Passover), one in early summer (“harvest of the first fruits” or “weeks,” or Pentecost), and one in the fall:
Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.No one shall appear before me empty-handed.You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Exodus 23:14-17; see also Deuteronomy 16).
Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.
No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Exodus 23:14-17; see also Deuteronomy 16).
At these festivals, the heads of the families were to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to bring their offerings—note that “no one shall appear before me empty-handed”—and to hear words from the Lord regarding the covenant between God and the covenant people.
Psalm 50 displays a clear structure and flow:
Part I—Psalm 50:1-6—God arrives and summons the covenant people to account
Part II—Psalm 50:7-15—God rebukes the faithful among the people for vain worship
Part III—Psalm 50:16-23—God rebukes “the wicked” for violating the covenant
The entire psalm really is ideal to be heard, sung, and preached in its fullness. I encourage worship planners and preachers to consider the whole psalm. But here I will focus only on the selected verses.
For the occasion of Transfiguration Sunday, only Part I—“the summons”—is assigned. Two poetic flourishes in this summons make the psalm fitting for Transfiguration Sunday—the light of God and the word of God.
The light of God
The mighty one, God the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth. (50:1-2)
The psalm poetically and liturgically begins by ushering in the presence of “the mighty one, God the LORD,” who “summons” the earth. One can imagine a Levitical priest or worship leader stepping forward to announce the presence of God. This is not just any God, but the Lord God of Israel who “shines forth” from Zion—that is, from the Temple in Jerusalem.
The image of God “shining forth” is a fairly rare word in the Hebrew Scriptures. It indicates the presence of God in a powerful and redeeming way—not just in an accompanying way. The psalmist in Psalms 80 and 94 pleads with God to “shine forth.” In Moses’ final blessing for the people before his death, he begins by reminding the people of how “the LORD came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran” (Deuteronomy 33:2).
The image of God “shining forth” is the image of a theophany—the sudden and real apparition of God to a person or group of people. Such a moment is what Peter, James, and John experience at the Transfiguration. The psalm enacts such a theophany liturgically—that is to say, the psalm is not an actual theophany but a liturgical enactment or reenactment of the original theophany. As such, this psalm is perfectly suited to our Transfiguration worship services, which are liturgical enactments of Christ’s transfiguration/theophany.
The word of God
We can then imagine the Levitical priest or worship leader crying out:
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge. Selah. (50:3-6)
The arriving God, who shines forth with light, then speaks: “Our God comes and does not keep silent.” God’s real presence at the Festival of Ingathering is not for the comforting sense of protection, such as one finds in psalms of trust such as 23, 27, or 46. Here, God’s arrival is terrifying—“before him is a consuming fire, a wild tempest is all around him” (my translation). Like the prophet Micah in Micah 6, God summons all of creation to serve as witnesses to a trial. In this trial, God himself will “judge his people,” and all creation will be witness to this judgment.
In this lectionary selection, we hear only the summons: “Gather to me my faithful ones [my Hasidim], who cut a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
It is worth pursuing that in Part II of the psalm, the “faithful ones” are rebuked for vain worship. God does not rebuke them for bringing their sacrifices and offerings—God does not require them, after all—“I will accept no bull from your house,” God says, according to the older Revised Standard Version translation.
Rather, God wants a “sacrifice of thanksgiving,” and God wants people to keep their promises. Given the whole slew of recent research into the positive power of gratitude rituals in a person’s life, this section of the psalm is worth reading and preaching.
In Part III of the psalm, God rebukes the wicked for breaking the basic commandments of the covenant, specifically mentioning making friends with thieves and adulterers (you shall not steal; you shall not commit adultery) and speaking violently against family and neighbor (you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor).
The psalm then ends with an appeal to “discern” or “understand” the gravity of what God has said (the New Revised Standard Version has “mark this, then, you who forget God”).
The reading for Transfiguration Sunday has only “the heavens declare his righteousness” (verse 6). The obvious referent here is Jesus, of whom God says, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” Like the psalm, the gospel calls the disciples—and us—to listen to God’s Word.
And what does he say next in the Gospel of Mark? The exact words are not recorded, but the Gospel says, “He ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
It is a minor passion prediction. What does Jesus say? I am going to Jerusalem, where I will suffer, be put to death, and rise from the dead for you and for your salvation.
Second Corinthians 4:3-6 is part of the defense letter of Paul’s gospel (2 Corinthians 2:14—7:4).
In 1-2 Corinthians, he consistently and vehemently argues that the good news is:
While God is the starting point of the good news, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church (1 Corinthians 3:11). Jesus revealed God’s wisdom and strength through his challenge to the wisdom of the world.
The Corinthians must follow the way of his life and his faithfulness, being united to him. Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). By living and dying in Christ, they are reconciled to God, serving as ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) or as a letter of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:3).
Yet some people in the Corinthian church challenge Paul’s ministry/gospel and argue that they are wise and strong in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:8-13). They say salvation is done and do not live by Christ’s faith. In this context, Paul defends his ministry/gospel. In 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, while clarifying his ministry/gospel as he did earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:1-18, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to abide by the faith of Christ, who is the image of God.
Our gospel is veiled
“Our gospel” (or good news) is the good news that Paul, with his co-workers, proclaimed to the Gentiles. This gospel is rooted in God’s good news that God is loving and steadfast and that now all people may become his children through Jesus Christ, his Son; they may live a new life in Christ Jesus, who manifested God’s righteousness and justice to the world.
Jesus’ bold proclamation of God’s good news in the world, full of worldly wisdom and strength, ended with his crucifixion. This gospel is costly, but it is the power of God. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a set of knowledge or merely teaching, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18 (see also Romans 1:16): “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.” This gospel requires a response from people, who must submit to God’s law or righteousness, based on the way of Christ—his faithful obedience to God and his grace for the world.
The irony is that not all people accept this good news of God manifested through Jesus because some of them cannot give up what they have: wealth, power, or fame. In this context, Paul says in 4:3: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” This gospel is veiled to some, not because God’s mercy is short but because they seek other things and do not follow the way of Jesus. Paul continues to explain the motif of veils and says that “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” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Christ, the image of God
Christ is the image (eikon) of God in the metaphoric sense of representation or embodiment. That is, Christ represents God with his work and embodies God’s righteousness to the world. In Paul’s undisputed letters, he emphasizes Christ’s work and his faithfulness that proves God’s love (Romans 3:22; 5:6-8; Galatians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Understood in this way, Christ is the image of God because he revealed God to the world. He finished his work of God, risking his life; he was exalted and seated at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34).
Following Jesus, people may be reconciled to God and live a new life in Christ, being led by the Spirit. But “the god of this world” prevents some people from following the way of Christ; they follow the god of this world, which means they live with all kinds of human-centered ideologies and practices that do not seek God’s righteousness. They do not see the light that comes from the gospel of Christ because they are blinded by worldly desires.
We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
Paul and his co-workers do not proclaim themselves. The basis of the gospel is not their knowledge or conviction about God or Jesus. Rather, they proclaim Jesus Christ, who is Lord. As in 1 Corinthians 2:2, what is proclaimed is Jesus crucified, who deconstructs human wisdom and human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), brings the good news of God to the world, and becomes the Lord of all. Jesus is Lord because he, as the Son of God, must be the foundation of Christian life and gathering. His faithfulness and his grace must be the guiding principle for Christians.
Proclaiming “ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” sounds strange because Paul says he and his co-workers are slaves of the Corinthians. In Romans 1:1, he says he is a slave of Jesus Christ, meaning that he thoroughly follows him (Romans 5:6-11; 6:1-11). Galatians 2:20 speaks clearly about Paul’s decision to live by Christ: “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (NRSV; italics indicate author’s translation). “Proclaiming ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” implies that Paul is wholeheartedly working for the Corinthians in the name of Jesus, and in so doing, he commits himself to the work of the Lord there.
Let light shine out of darkness
If the Corinthians engage in the world through Christ’s image of God, they may live in the light of God, away from darkness. Jesus expelled darkness and testified to the truth of God. God’s glory is shining in the face of Jesus Christ because of that. The Corinthians can dwell in light when they participate in Christ Jesus. That is the way to light.