Transfiguration

Even though I have been preaching about the Transfiguration of Jesus every year for almost 25 years I am still pretty perplexed by the whole thing. I think most people are. I wonder what folks think when they come into church and see that it is Transfiguration Sunday. Do you think, “Wow, this is a really special Christian holy day, what should I wear?”

In seminary I learned that the Transfiguration of Jesus is principally a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t dispute that, but I’m not sure what to do with that.

The central question I put to a text I am preparing to preach on is what does this text show us about ourselves in relation to God? I have to be honest with you, I have a tough times answering this question for the Transfiguration story.

I could punt and go with the other texts, in this case the “Assumption of Elijah” (does Elijah lift off on a rocket?) in 2 Kings or Paul’s “light shining” discussion of the gospel in 2 Corinthians. But I am reluctant to abandon the Transfiguration narrative because I know it’s important. Here’s one thing I get from all these texts (and the devotional), God in Jesus in ambidextrous.

To be ambidextrous is to be equally competent with either hand, which I am not. What I mean in applying this to God is that in Jesus two distinct “hands” of God (or traditions) are brought together in Jesus. Those two traditions are represented by Moses and Elijah.

Moses is, among other things, the great law giver. Moses was credited with responsibility for the first five books of the Bible (Penta-teuch) containing the law of God which formed and informed the Promised Land people of Israel.

Elijah represents the prophetic tradition, that tradition of interpreters of the law who informed the people, and especially the powerful, how their activities positively, or more likely negatively, affected the community.

The legal community enshrined in the temple and the sacrificial system sometimes (most of the time) found itself in conflict with the prophetic tradition over what stood at the center of Israel’s faith. A good example of this conflict was expressed by the prophet Hosea and quoted (retweeted) by Jesus, “I (God) desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13)

Jesus, as is evidenced by his frequent quotations of the prophets and conflicts with the legal scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees seems to favor the prophetic tradition. But God in Jesus is ambidextrous and the Transfiguration imagines a literal meeting of the legal (mosaic) and prophetic (Elijah) traditions in the person and ministry of Jesus.

This is interesting, no? Of course it is, but it doesn’t answer the sermonic question that keeps me up at night (usually Saturday) … so what?

Help me out this week. Think about these texts for Sunday and have a look at the “Eat the Goat” chapter in Surviving the Bible and let me know why you think the Transfiguration matters (or doesn’t) in your faith life.

Or tell me what you like or dislike about this story, what makes sense or doesn’t make sense to you. Maybe we can figure something out before Sunday!

6 Comments

  1. Joy Gerhart

    I have always liked the Transfiguration story. I used to enjoy trying to figure out WHY Moses and Elijah even though it’s obvious–law and prophet. It’s fun to look at their similiarities–Moses and Elijah each parted a river or sea, each had a somewhat odd death (Elijah being swept up by a chariot and Moses dying on Mt. Nebo –who was there to confirm it?), and Elijah considered necessary to come back to pave the way for Jesus the Messiah, while Jesus is sometimes considered a second Moses, one who freed his people. I think the hardest part of the whole account is having to come down from the mountain after the glorious vision or experience. One of the Transfiguration hymns says it well “How Good Lord to be here, yet we may not remain; but since you bid us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.” Like getting back to work after a big superbowl victory? Hardly. Well, maybe a little tiny bit. There’s spiritual enlightenment but not much ministry to do on that mount. Our mission is on the plain. Maybe there are some connections with last week’s children’s sermons on rest and recharging before we move on to serve.

    • Pastor Frey

      I have often preached about the disciple’s reluctance to leave the mountain. The choir anthem this Sunday is all about this reluctance. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the first thing Jesus and the disciples encounter when they come down the mountain is a sick child. Yet, in a significant way, the sick child in the valley authenticates the message on the mountain that Jesus is the beloved and he should be listened to.

  2. Lynn Gibson

    Being a humanities person, when I hear the term transfiguration, I always think of Schoenberg’s complicated and compelling composition originally titled, in German, “Verklarte Nacht” which translates to “Transfigured Night” in English. I believe Schoenberg masterfully blends conventional and unconventional elements in his piece. Perhaps the connection between this musical score and the theological challenge of interpreting Biblical transfiguration is to compare the complexity and the mystery of Schoenberg’s music with the challenge of melding “the legal (mosaic) and prophetic (Elijah) traditions in the person and ministry of Jesus.” Elements common to both the music and the text are mystery and beauty. The mystery transcends understanding but yields a visceral reaction that touches our flawed humanity.
    [I’m not sure my interpretation answers your “so what” question, though, and I don’t have the chapter “Eat the Goat” at my fingertips.]

  3. Nancy Centrella

    I just read about the Bible blog. As usual I”m a little behind. Hopefully I can get a copy of “Surviving the Bible” and catch up a bit.

  4. Charles Weiser

    Getting too close to God? In Exodus, God goes to great lengths to keep the people away from him. Even Moses must be not perceived to be “part” of God. So Elisha must eventually be separated from Elijah. In the Gospel, the three disciples enjoy the mountain view, but they wish to remain there. Jesus has them follow and thus leave the comfort zone. Schoenberg is a great musical example of a change time. As a long work, I’m always happy it wasn’t later in his composing career when things were all mixed up, twelve different ways to Sunday! I always root for Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” who seems to foreshadow Jesus so well. Completing the idea, Handel takes Elijah directly to Jesus by excerpting his story in “Messiah.! What a wonderful way to think on it all!

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