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The Transfiguration Of Our Lord

Preaching
Lectionary Preaching Workbook
Series VII, Cycle C
Theme For The Day
Those who have encountered God are a beacon to others.

Old Testament Lesson
Exodus 34:29-35
Moses' Shining Face
As Moses descends from Sinai with the tablets of the law in his hands, he is not aware that his face is shining -- this is a result of his recent face-to-face encounter with God. So glorious is Moses' appearance that Aaron and the leaders of the congregation are at first afraid to come near him. As a matter of practicality, Moses veils his face -- removing the veil when he comes into the presence of the Almighty, but putting it back on again when he returns to talk with the people. This passage has been obviously chosen for its parallel to the shining manifestation of Jesus at his transfiguration, in the Gospel Lesson. It teaches of the radical otherness of God. One does not encounter the Almighty and return to life unchanged by the experience.

New Testament Lesson
2 Corinthians 3:12--4:2
With Minds Unveiled
The story of Moses' veil is adapted, here, to the purposes of this letter, symbolizing the boundary between the old covenant and the new. Great care should be taken in preaching this passage, which has been used too often in the past to justify anti-Semitic persecutions: "But their minds were hardened ... Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed" (vv. 15-16). This passage's mention of "the old covenant" certainly does not refer, as some careless interpreters have assumed over the centuries, to the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Old Testament. Indeed, at the time of this letter's composition, most of the documents of the New Testament had not even been written yet. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (v. 17) -- it is far better, in preaching this passage, to focus on the positive ideal of freedom in Christ, rather than on condemning those who may for whatever reason choose not to accept this gift of freedom. In light of the good news of Jesus Christ, the lives of Christians ought to be an open book (4:1-2).

The Gospel
Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
The Transfiguration
This story of Jesus' transfiguration was rich with meaning for the early church, even though its meaning may seem impenetrable to many today. The events of this story speak in the language of imagery and emotion, rather than logic and rationality. There are strong associations with the Hebrew Scriptures. There is the mountaintop location of this epiphany, recalling Mount Sinai. There is radiant light, such as was present when Moses met with God. There is the presence of Moses and Elijah themselves, the two greatest prophets -- the two who, according to some strains of Jewish tradition, had been assumed directly into heaven in bodily form. Faced with this unexpected and radiant glory, Peter, James, and John do not progress very far past mind-numbing exhaustion and befuddlement. Peter's offer to build three shelters is well-intentioned, but naively misses the point. Earlier in this same chapter, Peter has supplied the right answer to the question of Jesus' true identity as the Messiah (9:20), but this awareness does not seem to inform his actions on the mountaintop. There is also a strong link between this passage and Luke's account of Jesus' baptism (3:21-22), which likewise includes an audible blessing by God.

Preaching Possibilities
The Old Testament contains some wonderful, evocative accounts of human beings who encounter God's holiness -- one of the most notable of which is the story of Moses. Things have not been going so well for him, nor for the Israelites he's been leading through the wilderness. They're stalled ... sidetracked ... sidelined in the desert. Remember how Moses climbed the rocky slopes of Mount Sinai, and returned many days later bearing the tablets of the law? Remember what sight greeted him, as he descended into the valley?

A golden calf: an idolatrous sculpture, molded from hundreds of gold earrings -- donated by people desperate for something, anything, to worship. "Come, make gods for us," they had begged Moses' brother, Aaron. Aaron accepted their earrings, however reluctantly. He melted them down, and made for the people a god. (Isn't that the proper role of a church leader, in a consumer society -- to respond to the felt needs of the people?)

Moses doesn't think so. Moses receives his direction from a higher source. Moses takes the tablets of the Ten Commandments God has just given him, and smashes them to pieces in a fit of rage. He seizes the calf statue and melts it down. He gathers round him, then, the sons of Levi -- those few Israelites who are still loyal -- and together they deal harshly with the rebels. Then Moses goes back up the mountain to beg, on behalf of the people, for God's forgiveness.

What he receives, on the mountaintop, is a precious experience: Moses is given the rare opportunity to look upon God directly. Not that Moses hasn't spoken with the Lord many times in the past. Exodus 33 tells how God was in the habit of descending as a "thick cloud" -- in Hebrew, the shekinah -- from which Moses would hear God's booming commands. But this day, on the mountaintop, is different. Moses will do more than simply hear God's voice, he will gaze upon the very being, the very essence, the very person, of God.

Even with this extraordinary favor, Moses is permitted to catch only a glimpse. To see anything more of the Most High God is just too dangerous: "You cannot see my face," says the Lord to Moses, "for no one shall see me and live."

The Hebrew description of what comes next is wonderfully earthy: "And the Lord continued, 'See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.' "

It happens, for Moses, just as the Lord has promised. Then God gives him the law -- the "words of the covenant" -- a second time. It is here where we pick up today's story: "As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God."

The rest of the Israelites -- spooked, no doubt, by what they remember of the last time Moses came down the mountain -- are afraid to even draw near. The experience of the holy, which they see beaming from Moses' very face, is beautiful and awe-inspiring -- but it's also, in its own way, dreadful. Moses is reduced to covering his face with a veil, as he walks around camp, so the people will not shrink from him in fear.

Today is the Day of Transfiguration -- in the Christian Year, the last Sunday before Lent begins. The story of Jesus' transfiguration pops up, in the lectionary, every year. Depending on whether we're in year A, B, or C, we get Matthew's, Mark's, or Luke's version -- but it doesn't matter all that much, because they're virtually identical. Maybe it's the sheer repetition that leads most lectionary preachers to dread the Day of Transfiguration!

What makes the day so challenging is not so much the repetition of the passage, as its strangeness. Jesus goes up the mountain, taking Peter and James with him. His intention is to pray. "And while he was praying," Luke informs us, "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white."

Who should then appear, standing beside Jesus on the mountaintop, but Moses: The same one who was himself transfigured -- whose face had beamed so gloriously, as he came down the mountain! Along with Moses is the prophet Elijah, the very one whom God had hidden away in a cave, and then passed by -- unleashing earthquake, wind, and fire. After these things, there comes the "still, small voice," or the "sound of sheer silence" -- or whatever English expression sounds best. (Human language just can't bear the freight of this miraculous experience.)

Beside Jesus, then, on the Mount of Transfiguration, are gathered "the glory boys" -- the two most important spiritual leaders in all of the Old Testament -- the two whom God has blessed with what is sometimes called a theophany: a direct experience of God's presence. Is it any wonder that preachers shrink from this passage? For what is there to say about it, really, other than simply to point in wonder and say, "Behold God's glory!"

Some people have noticed that couples who live together for an extended period of time end up looking like each other. There's something about that experience of dwelling together, in community -- something about the daily-ness of it all -- that leads them to actually resemble one another: to walk and talk the same way, to demonstrate the same mannerisms.

Why is it that the faces of Moses and Jesus actually shine? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they've been dwelling in the presence of God. Moses was on Sinai for forty days and forty nights, talking to God. Jesus, according to the prologue of John, is the co-eternal Word, the one who "was in the beginning with God." Both their spirits shine forth in brilliance because they have a close, personal relationship with God.

So, too, with those who offer the most successful personal witness to Christian faith. Rarely is this kind of contagious faith purely a matter of technique -- of learning just the right arguments to offer, of obtaining the perfect pamphlet to press into someone's hand. Rather, those who are most effective in leading others to God are those who spend much of their time dwelling in God's presence themselves. Those who follow Paul's advice to "pray without ceasing," who can acknowledge, along with the author of Psalm 84: "... a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness."

We've all had the experience of being mistaken for someone else, especially someone in our family. Occasionally, an elderly relative may come up to us and say, "You know, I'm not sure I've ever told you, but you look like so-and-so" (giving the name of some long-departed family member).

Most of the time, this kind of comparison is meant kindly. The person being told of the resemblance often gets a positive, warm-fuzzy sort of feeling -- to realize in such a concrete way that he or she is connected to earlier generations. How wonderful it would be if someone would come up to us and say, "You know, I may not have told you this before, but every time I see you I think of Jesus Christ. You remind me so much of him:

• Your eyes, like his, are full of compassion.
• Your face sometimes seems to shine, as though you've been in communion with God.
• Your hands, like his, are marked from the pain and suffering that comes of helping others.
• Your words, like his, bring hope and truth."

One of the classics of Christian literature is the little book by Thomas à Kempis called The Imitation of Christ. The title says it all. It is the task of a Christian to live close to Jesus Christ ... to be in communion with him ... to seek to pattern our lives after his.

Prayer For The Day
We try, O God, to penetrate the mystery.
With eyes open wide as ever we can,
we peer into the darkness,
hoping to discern some outline of things eternal.
But then, we see it: the Light.
It is our Savior,
illumined from within.
He is the Light by which we see.
He is the Hope by which we live.
He is the Truth by which we believe.
We thank you for the vision,
for we know we cannot sustain it.
It is not for us to dwell there with him.
Help us to take the vision with us,
even as he goes with us,
to guide and sustain. Amen.

To Illustrate
The poet and novelist, Madeleine L'Engle, has tried to capture the miraculous event of the Transfiguration with these words:

Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
the way he really was all the time,
although they had never seen it before,
the glory which blinds the everyday eye
and so becomes invisible. This is how
he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy
like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was -- is -- from the beginning,
and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,
came manifest to us; and there on the mountain
they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn't that what is required of us?
Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.


***

Some years back, Steve Martin starred in a movie called, Leap of Faith. It was an odd, quirky movie. Leap of Faith is about a con man named Jonas Nightingale -- a traveling evangelist, who uses religious faith to prey upon the unsuspecting. There's one scene where Jonas comes out on stage, under the circus tent, wearing a white coat. The lights go down, and in the darkness he pulls his coat off, flips it inside-out and puts it back on. The spotlight returns, but this time, as it hits him, it's as though a thousand beams of light shoot off in every direction.

His coat is covered on one side with shiny sequins. Nightingale, in that brief moment, is transformed into something like a walking version of those mirror-balls that hang from dance-hall ceilings. But it's all for show. It's all glitz and special effects. Jonas isn't really pointing to God; he's pointing to himself. He knows why he's in the evangelism game: He's in it for the money. To him, the congregation that's gathered, in all humility and hope, on a hot summer's evening underneath the revival tent, is nothing more than several hundred suckers, waiting to be fleeced.

How different that whole attitude is from Moses' outlook! Rather than being self-conscious and manipulative, Moses is innocent. He isn't even aware that his face is glowing; it's the reactions of other people that tell him this.

***

There's a story of a trio of gold miners who worked a claim in the Montana territory. One of them found an unusual-looking stone one day. Breaking it open, the prospector was thrilled to discover gold! He called his partners over, and they joined him in digging. In no time at all, they had discovered a whole new vein.

Overcome with joy, they began dancing and shouting, slapping each other on the back and crying out, "We found it! We're rich!" Then a more sober thought occurred to them: They'd best keep this a secret, so there wouldn't be a stampede of other prospectors.

On their next trip into town to buy supplies, not a one of them breathed a word to anyone about their miraculous find. Yet they discovered, upon packing up to leave, that hundreds of men, pickaxes in hand, were lined up to follow them. When they asked who had squealed, the reply came back, "No one -- we could read it in your faces!"

That's the way it is with Moses. He doesn't need to announce to the Israelites: "Hey folks, you'll never guess who I've been with!" Anyone who's seen Moses' face can have no doubt where he's been.

***

Quite a different story than that of Moses coming down from the mountain is the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was a young man who was more physically attractive than any other man alive. All the young women were desperate to be with him. Yet Narcissus was also proud and vain. He scorned everyone who sought his favor.

Finally, one of his jilted lovers prayed the prayer, "May he who loves not others love himself." The goddess, Nemesis, heard the prayer, and arranged for it to come true.

Sitting by a clear pond one day, Narcissus caught sight of his own reflection. He instantly fell in love -- with himself. So single-minded was his attraction, that he could not bring himself to leave the side of the pool for any reason. Eventually he starved to death.

Edith Hamilton adds, in her classic, Mythology: "They say that when his spirit crossed the river that encircles the world of the dead, it leaned over the boat to catch a final glimpse of itself in the water."

Each of us have a fundamental choice to make in life. We may choose either to reflect Christ outward, or to turn inward and become fascinated, like Narcissus, with our own reflections.
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