Sunday, February 6, 2005

Transfiguration of our Lord
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.

I watched a show the other night about the last day in Pompeii, the city completely destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The descriptions given of those final moments were horrifying; the graphic portrayal of the effects of the heat, toxic fumes and falling rock were quite disturbing. I could not imagine how the people must have felt being in the midst of such turmoil. The people in Pompeii had no idea what was happening until it was too late. Conditions on that day were perfect for complete destruction but few knew to leave. Some of the city residents fled but most people decided it would be best to hide in their homes. By the time the ash started falling and the volcano reached its peak, it was too late for them to escape. They were trapped and what were thought to be safe havens became their tombs.

The scene was perfectly preserved because the whole city was covered in stone and ash. The ash covered the bodies of those who perished and when the flesh disintegrated it left a cavity that could act as a mould to make plaster casts of the people. The casts have so much detail that the archeologists could identify the people according to their gender, age, occupation and even according to their position in society. The casts provide haunting images of the people in their final moments, seeking comfort from other humans or from their faith. Some were found grasping bags of coins or other valuables. Others were found covering their face with their hands as if that would keep them safe.

I’ve never had to experience anything so frightening, but even watching it on television and thinking about the possibilities brought fear to my heart. I can’t even imagine the terror that must have plagued those people in their final moments. How do you react when you are faced with imminent death?

Our Old Testament scripture for today talks about another fiery mountain, but this one fiery for a whole different reason. Now, in the days of the Roman Empire, a mountain like Vesuvius erupted because the gods were unhappy. It was thought that natural phenomenon was a reaction from the gods to faithfulness or unfaithfulness. If the weather was perfect to grow good crops, then the gods were pleased with the people. If it rained too much or too little, then they thought something was seriously wrong with their relationship with the gods.

Though the God of the Hebrews was not like those false gods of many ancient societies, I can imagine the fear they experienced at the sight of the cloud covering Mt. Sinai and the glory that shone from the top. To the Israelites, it appeared as though the mountain top was being consumed by fire. God spoke to Moses from that mountain. “Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that thou mayest teach them.” Moses, who had a personal relationship with God, went forth in faith and entered into cloud and stayed there for forty days.

It is not until several chapters later that we hear the rest of the story. When Moses comes down from that mountain, he had in his arms the tablets of the commandments. Unfortunately, the people gave up on Moses, thinking there was no way he would ever return from the mountain. They turned back to their idols and had Aaron create a golden calf. They sang and danced, seeking the blessing of the gods they knew rather than the God they did not know. When Moses saw the people running wild, he threw down the tablets and they broke into many pieces. He later returned to the mountain where God gave him another set of tablets. When he returned to the camp this second time, his face glowed. “And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him.” Moses was transformed by his meeting with the LORD.

For those who stood at the base of that mountain, the LORD was a God of wrath and order. He demanded obedience and could easily wipe out the nations that stood against the LORD. The psalmist writes, “He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh: The Lord will have them in derision. Then will he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure…” This is not an image of God that is widely popular among modern believers. Christians and non-Christians alike prefer a God that accepts us as we are, who comes to us as a friend and who does not seek to change us. Wrath, used righteously, is not evil or destructive. With God, who is righteous in all He does, wrath is divine chastisement, meant to bring transformation.

Moses knew God as none of the others knew Him. He had seen the glory of God and heard Him proclaim His name. “And Jehovah descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of Jehovah. And Jehovah passed by before him, and proclaimed, Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, keeping lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation.” When this happened, Moses fell on his face and worshipped Him.

God, in His fullness is something to fear. He has the power and might to bring down nations and kings. He has the strength and the wisdom to change the course of human events. He has the authority to bring judgment. Yet, those who know God do not fear Him as we would fear a volcano. We know that He does all things righteously with love and mercy. We fall on our faces not because we are terrified but out of a sense of wonder and awe. Our fear acknowledges God’s greatness and our humility before Him.

I have to wonder what Moses thought the second time he went up that mountain. Perhaps he did not want to go back down. He knew what happened the first time, how quickly the people turned away from God. It must have been so much better to be in the presence of God, to experience that “mountain top experience” than to face those stiff-necked people at the base of that mountain. Yet, being in the presence of God is such an exhausting and humbling experience, there is no way Moses could stay there forever. He had work to do and so it was necessary for him to go back into the world to do what God had called him to do.

Peter, James and John followed Jesus to the top of another mountain. These were the inner circle, Jesus’ closest companions. The other nine were left in the valley to minister to the people. Suddenly Jesus was transformed. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as the light. Then Elijah and Moses appeared before them, talking with Jesus.

Peter, not knowing how to react to this strange state of affairs said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Why did he say this? Perhaps he thought they would act as witnesses to this amazing event. This transformation, this transfiguration, was like a royal coronation. Jesus was glorified before the disciples and they could share with the world His identity as King and Messiah.

Peter continued, “If thou wilt, I will make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” For whatever reason, Peter wanted to hold on to this moment, to capture the glory and keep it going. He wanted to make it permanent. This is especially pertinent when we consider the conversation that happened between Jesus and Peter just six days before. Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered with that great confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” After this encounter, Jesus told the disciples of His impending death, but Peter would have none of it. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”

Peter was willing to accept the beauty of the moment, the truth of Jesus’ identity as Son of God, but he was unwilling to accept the truth of what Jesus had to do. He wanted the mountain top experience but not the cross. On this mountain of transfiguration, once again Peter shows us how he imagines the rule of Christ – one of earthly power and authority with no need for the journey to Jerusalem.

God has other plans and Jesus has been faithful to His work. As Peter offered to build the tabernacles for Jesus, Elijah and Moses, a cloud covered the mountain and a voice rang out interrupting him. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” We’ve heard this before, when Jesus was baptized. It also appears in today’s Psalm. God was pleased because Jesus was following the path set forth for Him. He was not succumbing to the temptations of power and authority on the earth. At this transfiguration, Jesus was about to begin the final stage of His ministry on earth – the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

Matthew tells us that when the disciples heard the voice they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. I am not sure how Peter could be so confident in the presence of a glorified Jesus with Elijah and Moses, and yet so frightened in the presence of God. Yet perhaps God’s final words are terrifying. He said, “Listen to Him.”

We tend to listen to Jesus when He speaks things we like to hear, but we would rather ignore the hard stuff. We will listen when He speaks about the promises of God, but we reject the talk about sacrifice. We listen when Jesus speaks about the love of God, but we would rather not consider how Jesus suffered His wrath on the cross. We accept His words about mercy and forgiveness when it has to do with our own sin, but we are less than willing to give mercy and forgiveness to others. Peter, James and John may have been remembering that conversation six days before where Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” There are just some things Jesus says that we would rather not hear.

Yet, after God spoke these words, Jesus came to the frightened disciples and said, “Don’t be afraid.” He was no longer shining like the sun, but rather looked like the man who climbed the mountain with them. He touched them, offering healing and peace in the midst of their turmoil. Then He led them back down the mountain and commanded them to not tell anyone what they have seen. Though Peter, James and John might have thought they were to be witnesses to something special, instead they had to keep the most incredible experience to themselves.

Yet, the day would come when they would share their vision of the transfiguration with others, when the Son of Man was raised. They would be His witnesses in the world. Peter wrote of his experience later in his second letter. “For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount.”

It was good for Peter, James and John to be on the mountain top with Jesus because there they witnessed His transfiguration into glory so that they would see prophecy fulfilled. Their purpose that day was not to hold on to the glory of Jesus so that He could rule on earth, but rather to have authority by their witness to speak the truth about Jesus to the world. Just as God told the disciples to listen to Jesus, Peter was able to share that same command with others. “And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.”

The psalmist also speaks to those to whom the Word of God has come. “Now therefore be wise, O ye kings: Be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve Jehovah with fear, And rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry, and ye perish in the way, For his wrath will soon be kindled. Blessed are all they that take refuge in him.”

God is indeed a God of wrath, but that wrath was given to our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. It is a frightening thought, one that might lead us to go our own way and seek comfort in all the wrong things. But God is not like a volcano. We need not be afraid to be in His presence. Rather, we should take refuge in it, especially at the cross. The cross is not a place we would like to go. It is much more pleasant to stand on the mountain top, to experience the glory forever and ever. However, we aren’t called to build tabernacles on a mountain; we are called to live in the valley speaking the words of Christ into the lives of those who would perish under their own power. Though we have been given a glimpse of His glory, we should be transformed by the experience so that we will go forth in faith to do all that God has given for us to do. Through it all, no matter what cross we must face on this journey, let us ever remember to take refuge in the One who touches us and makes us whole, our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

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