2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 4:1-6
Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, and not as Moses, who put a veil on his face, that the children of Israel wouldnít look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away.
Transfiguration Sunday means that Lent is right around the corner; next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday already. Where does the time go?
We have been in the season of Epiphany, the season of Light, for the past few weeks. Our texts have focused on the revelation of God in the life of Jesus Christ. We have been following Mark's telling of the story of Jesus at the beginning of His ministry. We saw Him call His first disciples, drive out an evil spirit, heal many people (including Simonís mother-in-law), pray alone and move on to other towns to do the work He was sent to do: preach the Kingdom of God. We end this season with the brightest light of all, the transfiguration of Jesus. On this day we see Jesus literally glowing from within the radiant light of Godís glory in the presence of the ones whom God sent to point His people toward the Messiah: Moses and Elijah.
There were many parallels between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. Both Moses and Jesus had extraordinary infancy stories, with intrigues and danger. Both faced the possibility of death commanded by a king; both survived by being hidden. Elijah was a foreshadowing of Jesus; he did many of the same things and experienced many of the same sufferings. Jesus, Moses and Elijah all provided food for the hungry, water for the thirsty and hope for all Godís people. They all spoke the promises of God to His people: Moses through the Law, Elijah through prophecy and Jesus through His life. Thatís why it is so appropriate that Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop in this culmination of the Season of Epiphany.
The glow the disciples saw was not something outside or behind Jesus; He was the Light, and the light that they saw was Jesus. He was transformed, transfigured, into something different, something beyond human experience. Even His clothes were transformed into something otherworldly more white than the whitest white. Artists often represent holiness with a yellow, white or gold aura around Jesus, but this was probably more like He became a light bulb, shining brightly on that mountain top. It is no wonder that the disciples were afraid.
We see a similar experience in the Old Testament lesson. Moses had been on the mountain for forty days and forty nights to receive the tablets of the Law. This was the second set of tablets; the first tablets were destroyed when Moses delivered them and discovered the people turned to the false gods while he was gone. Moses was transformed during this visit with God; Moses was radiant from speaking with God. He had seen Godís glory (Exodus 33:12-23) and was changed, although he did not realize it at first. The people saw how he reflected Godís glory and they were afraid, but he called them to come to him and listen. He gave them the commands the LORD had given him on Sinai.
When he was finished talking, Moses put a veil over his face. There are some who suggest that even looking at the reflected light of Godís glory is too dangerous for ordinary people to look upon. Although the reason for the veil is uncertain, St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians that he put it on to hide the fact that the radiance passed away. We donít hear that in the passage from Exodus, but we do know that he stayed unveiled when he spoke to the people after hearing from God. Though they were afraid of him, the light reminded them that Moses was Godís own chosen representative. It is likely, then, that Paul has it right. The glory fades. Would the people of Israel have continued to listen to Moses if they did see the radiance of Godís grace? Perhaps Moses wore the veil because of his own fears.
Some lectionaries use the story of Elijah as the Old Testament lesson for this week. 2 Kings 2:1-12 tells the story of the assumption of Elijah. Elijah and Elisha were traveling through the prophetic communities of Israel so that Elijah could say good-bye. All along the way, Elijah told Elisha to stop following him. Elisha refused to leave his master, ďAs Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.Ē All along the way the prophets told Elisha that he was about to lose his master. Nothing stopped Elisha; he was determined to follow Elijah every step of the way. Elijah was prepared to take this journey alone, but Elisha would not leave him.
This must have been a frightening time for Elisha. Was he ready to take on the responsibilities of being Godís prophet? Being a prophet was not a pleasant job, especially if the word God speaks is unpopular. Elisha knew that he would experience persecution and threats, but he also knew that it was where he belonged. He did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do. At the end of the journey, Elijah and Elisha found themselves at the Jordan River. While this is the story of the passing of Elijahís authority to Elisha, Elijahís story is the one that matters today. Elijah was taken up into heaven suddenly in a fiery chariot, the sign of Godís blessing on Elishaís ministry, and it is for this reason many believe that Elijah will return.
The Old Testament lesson takes us on a journey where Moses was never allowed to tread. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised. All those who had left Egypt that had been properly circumcised had died in the desert. There, at Gilgal, Joshua restored the people to the covenant between God and His people by circumcising all the men. Elijah followed that same route, returning to the very place that the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are some who believe that Jesus was baptized in the same area of the Jordan.
These parallels are more than mere coincidences; they show us that Godís hand was guiding each chosen one into the fulfillment of all His plans. And so we see, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the glorification of Jesus. He was lifted up, placed in between the two greatest men of Israel and established as the One who brings it all together. It is in Christ that the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled. It is through Jesus that God has finally made all things right again. The transfiguration was not the end of Jesusí ministry; it was really just the beginning. From that moment, Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Paul reminds us that the old covenant was temporary and inadequate was passing away, but some wanted to hide its vanishing with a veil. The Old Covenant could never stand because no matter how hard we try we can never be good enough to deserve Godís grace. The Old Covenant was replaced with a new one, one that is revealed to those who believe in Jesus Christ. Moses and Elijah were never meant to be the ones whom Israel looked to for eternal life. They both pointed toward the One God would send to restore Godís people to Him forever. Thatís why the radiance of Moses faded.
Moses reflected Godís glory, but even the holiest human is imperfect. We fail. We cannot sustain the glory because we are stained by sin. Moses did not want the people to know the light faded, so he hid his face. Jesus, on the other hand, does not reflect the light; He is the Light. The glory did not fade for Jesus; when the moment was over, Jesus let it go so that He could continue to work in the valley. He had to go back, to get His hands dirty, to face the humiliation of the Passion, and to die. He refused to stay in that moment of glory because the real glory would come later. It would come on the cross.
As quickly as the glory came upon Jesus, it left and Jesus told them not to tell anyone. The disciples did not want to leave, but the mountaintop experience was not the moment they had been preparing for. It was just a preview of what was to come. Peter wanted to build shelters to make this a lasting moment, but Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem, toward death and the grave. Peter, James and John did not quite understand what was to come, but they followed Him, always blessed with the brief shining moment when they saw Jesus as God intended Him to be, crowned in glory. They saw the hope of what was to come.
Jesus hurried them back into the valley because it is in the valleys where life is truly lived. They could not stay on the top of the mountain; they had to get back to work. There were still people who needed healing. There were still demons to be cast out. There were still so many who needed to hear Godís word and learn about Godís kingdom so that they might be saved for eternity. It would not happen if they lingered on the mountain top.
Peter, James and John witnessed God briefly breaking through to our world in a powerful tangible way. The Law (seen in Moses) and the Prophets (seen in Elijah) were brought together in Jesus Christ. They saw Jesus in a form that is beyond anything earthly. They heard the audible voice of God speak to them personally. This is something we can read and imagine, but we canít really know what it was like for those three men. We are awed by this experience, but they were afraid. How would we have responded to this incredible moment?
The message God spoke to the disciples was simple but very powerful, ďListen to Him.Ē There is an article in Readerís Digest about how do not listen as we should. We live in a world filled noise and we have gotten very good about tuning it out. Yet, even while we are ignoring the noise, we often miss hearing things that give us pleasure or information. Listening opens a beautiful world we might miss if we close our ears. I saw a cartoon with a sheep listening to music with headphones while a TV, computer and radio blared noise as he read a magazine. He thought, ďI wonder why I donít hear the Shepherd anymore?Ē We live in a world that has so many voices screaming at us with opinions that are built on biases; it is hard to know to whom we should listen. Which one is right? Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? It is easier to ignore it all.
God tells us what to do, ďListen to Jesus.Ē Iím not sure it is that easy, because there are so many voices trying to tell us what Jesus meant, and they rarely agree. But we can listen. We can pray. We can spend time in the scriptures where we can learn to listen for His voice. We can do our best to live as God calls us to live, serving Him with our hearts and our hands and our voices, knowing that God is faithful and that He is more powerful than our failure.
Human beings donít change. None of us want to be the prophet. We donít want to be the one to do the hard work with God. Peter, James and John were afraid when they were confronted by the reality of Godís magnificence. They, like the Israelites and us modern day Christians, wanted control. In their fear they tried to make God fit into their comfort zone. Peter responded by suggesting a building project. Do we respond to God in the same way?
Paul writes, ďAnd even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that perish.Ē Those who are ruled by sin and death refuse to see Godís hand in the world. They prefer to veil Godís glory. They prefer to believe what sounds good rather than hear what God really has to say. Jesus came to speak Godís words in a new way, to cause Godís people to see Him as He is, not in the twisted ways of the world. Jesus came to bring a New Covenant in the Gospel that is better than the reflected glory of Moses that passed away.
Not everyone hears. Paul knew this. He was opposed by people who accused him of manipulation and lies. They ministered out of self interest, commending themselves so that they might gain positions of status and influence. They refused to admit, or even see, that they were the ones playing games. They cared nothing for the Gospel or Christ, but only for themselves. To them, there was no glory on the cross. They could not see because they were blinded by the god of this world. They were also blinded by their own fears and their own desires. They were happy to let the truth be veiled so they didnít have to see their way was passing away.
Paul writes, ďSeeing it is God who said, ĎLight will shine out of darkness,í who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.Ē The Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ was a moment of glory, more magnificent than the glory that shone from Mosesí face or the whirlwind that took Elijah to heaven. It might have seemed like that was the culmination of Jesusí work. But it was merely the beginning of what was to come. Jesus was about to speak a strange and wonderful word into their lives, a frightening reality that included death.
The reality of God is frightening. The psalmist writes, ďOur God comes, and does not keep silent. A fire devours before him. It is very stormy around him.Ē Moses experienced the bush that burned without burning. Elijah was taken to heaven in a flaming chariot. This is how God revealed His presence to the Law and the Prophets. God revealed the reality of Jesus to Peter, James and John on the top of the mountain. In the presence of Moses and Elijah, Jesus was transfigured into one filled with glory, and God spoke the words we are called to hear today. ďThis is my beloved Son. Listen to him.Ē
The Word often falls onto deaf ears, but that does not mean God is less powerful or Jesus any less authoritative. The god of this world continues to blind those who would prefer to keep the truth and glory veiled. A veil has been drawn over their eyes. But we need not fear the presence of God or the consequences of telling His story. He has called us into this relationship, invited us to experience His glory and then follow Him into the valley to do His work. It is frightening, but as we join Jesus on the journey to the cross, we need not live in fear. God goes with us, and He has assured us that He has the power to fulfill His promises. He can make it happen, and He does. We might not think we are ready to take on the responsibility, but God blesses those who have faith. Moses trusted God. Elijah trusted God. Peter, James and John trusted God. Jesus trusted God. Now we are called to trust God, too, to follow Him wherever He leads and to listen to Him above all the other voices. We need not wear a veil because we hope in the Gospel of the God whose promises are everlasting.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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