Matthew 17:1-9 and Exodus 24:12-18
By the looks of the daffodils outside, spring is coming early, but Easter is a bit late this year, coming April 16th. (Is Easter ever on time?) Of course the precursor to Easter is the season of Lent, which will begin this Wednesday. The Sunday before Lent is always the Sunday that we read about the Transfiguration of Jesus. And so, we leave behind the harsh teachings of the Old Testament, and Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, to find Jesus this morning on the mountaintop turning his face toward Jerusalem.
In our reading from Matthew, Jesus has left behind the crowds and the majority of his disciples and has gone up the mountain with his inner circle, Peter, James, and John. These are the three that he trusts the most, and these are the men that will be with him in Gethsemane when he is finally handed over. He takes his disciples to a mountaintop, which regular Bible readers might recognize as a traditional site for revelation from God. Throughout the scriptures it is on the mountaintop where the divide between God and humanity can be crossed.
Upon the mountain Jesus is transfigured. The word transfiguration comes from the Greek word for metamorphosis which means to change. His appearance changes as his face shines like the sun and his clothes glow dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear at his side. Peter begins to ask if he should build tents or tabernacles for the holy men but is interrupted by a bright cloud. From within the cloud comes the voice of God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The word for listen used here is the Hebrew word shema which means both hear and obey. So the disciples are not just asked to listen to Jesus, but to also pay attention and to do what he says.
Well, this voice from the cloud scares the dickens out of the disciples and they fall to the ground in fear. I imagine that any of us would do the same if we were in their situation. What brings the disciples out of their state of fear is none other than the touch of the Lord. Jesus, appearing normal once more, touches them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid.” The group then descends the mountain to return to the daily struggles of discipleship.
Unlike many of the gospel readings I think this scene, the transfiguration of Jesus, is one of the hardest ones for us to imagine. We can imagine healing miracles because we know people who have been healed. We can imagine great teaching because we have met very charismatic teachers. We can even imagine the calming of the storm because we have seen the weather change quickly. But faces like suns, dazzling clothes, bright clouds, and bodiless voices are not something we have any experience of. There is something about this story that is hard to relate to our modern life, and I think that it is the mystery and profound otherness of God.
It is not hard to see the connections between Matthew’s telling of the transfiguration and the Exodus story of Moses on the mountaintop. Like Jesus, Moses ascends a mountain to be closer to the Lord. A cloud comes down and settles upon the mountain and the glory of God is within the cloud. For six days Moses waits alone within the cloud. I like to imagine how Moses might have felt in that cloud. Six days is a long time to hang around with limited sensory input and wait. It is not until the seventh day that the voice of God finally speaks. It is at this point that God will give the covenant to Moses. Moses spends a total of 40 days and nights on the mountaintop, and to the Israelites below the mountain appears to be on fire. I am certain that they were frightened at the mysterious sight, I know I would be.
The purpose of this Exodus story is to stress the difference between God and humanity. God is holy, separate, fully other. God is not human and humans are not God. God is mysterious, scary, and cannot fully be known. We read a lot in the Old Testament about the “fear of the Lord” and the story of the Israelites in Exodus is one of those that inspires that fear.
In the Exodus passage, God sets out the ways in which God can be known, the way in which the gulf between the human and the divine can be bridged. God is known in a covenant which communicates God’s will. God is known in an awesome presence that appears in particular earthly places that God chooses. God is known not directly but through God’s glory. And God is known through a mediator of God’s choosing, the role of Moses in this passage. All these points stress that God is known only on God’s terms, and that God is never fully known by humanity. Part of God’s essential nature is mystery.
The transfiguration story in Matthew shows us that the mystery of God is also present in the person of Jesus Christ. The story stresses a profound otherness through the elements of shining faces, clouds, and voices. This is the holy otherness of God.
I think sometimes we like to imagine that we have God under control. That somehow, through reading the scriptures and coming to church we have gained an understanding of who God is. But the truth is that we can never fully know who God is. We can never fully know what God thinks or wants. God is holy, God is separate, God is other, and God is mystery.
A friend shared with me that sometimes they are bothered when people tell them that God has a reason for everything. I think as Christians we like to look back in our lives and point out the hand of God. We might say that God let someone get cancer so that someone else would come to faith. Or we might say that God let someone break their leg, so that they would become more dependent on others. We like to think that we know the reasons God has done or not done certain things. I think that the holy mystery of God that our scriptures point to, should remind us that we do not have the answers.
We do not know why God does some things or why God does not do other things. And I would argue, we are not supposed to know. God is God and we are not. We need to avoid the temptation to have the answers, to have it all figured out, to puff ourselves up into thinking that we know exactly who God is or that we can explain all of God’s actions.
It is true that we know some things for certain; we know about love and peace, we know about grace and hope. We often get a glimpse of God’s kingdom of justice, but we can never fully know God. The scriptures of the Old Testament took pains to point out the great divide between God and humanity. And though Christ reveals God more fully to us, the story of the transfiguration reminds us that Christ too, is part of the holy mystery that is God. For God to remain God, God can’t ever be fully understood by humanity. Part of the essence of the nature of God is profound otherness, holiness, and mystery.
As we enter the season of Lent this year we are living in a world that forces us to ask many questions. Who are we? Who is God? Where is God acting in our world? And, more pressing perhaps, the question of why things are happening the way that they are? This Lent, I want to encourage you to focus on the holy otherness of God, and I want to encourage you to marvel at God’s mystery. As we begin our journey once more toward the cross, may we remember that God is profoundly holy, profoundly other. God is as distant as the fire on a hill, and as near as the comforting touch of a friend bringing us out of a moment of fear. In our crazy world we don’t have all the answers, and our readings for today remind us that we are not supposed to have all the answers. May we go out into the world today embracing the holy mystery of our God. Amen.