The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 9:28-36;
2 Cor. 3:12-4:2; Ex 34:29-35
VISIONING SALVATION FROM OUR VIOLENCE
Transfiguration is becoming one of my favorite days in the church year, alongside of Christmas and Easter. Sound a bit crazy? Well, I think that this story does intend to give the disciples and us a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus before the horror of the cross. Here, in our church year cycle, it comes the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, our journey to the cross, so that we might glimpse the glory of Easter before undertaking the Lenten journey of repentance.
But this story also contains aspects that are, in some ways, even more direct than the Easter story for the eyes of faith. For there is a sense, I think, in which God is trying to show us and tell us something that even Moses and Elijah failed to show us and tell us. There on the mountain of transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah, at Jesus’ side, God transforms Jesus’ appearance and says, “Listen to him!”
Our Old Testament Lesson just last Sunday contains verses quoted by Jesus that play a big role in the Gospels. You might remember that it was Isaiah narrating to us his call story. There’s the awesome picture of the seraphim singing like thunder, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” And when God calls Isaiah to service, he answers, “Here am I, send me!” Is that what Jesus and the Gospels quote for us? No, it’s the strange words that come immediately afterwards:
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate….” (Isaiah 6:9-11)
Why would God say something like that? Here is my proposal to you this morning of what it is that God is so desperate for us to see and hear from Jesus: God sent Jesus to save us from our violence, from the terrible things we do to hurt and kill one another, and to help us to meet the true God who never is about violence but is always about life-transforming love and forgiveness. But we remain blind and deaf to this message so much so that it typically takes the times when our cities and land lie in waste and destruction for us to begin to see and hear. There on the mountain of transfiguration, before the journey to the cross, the disciples and us catch a glimpse of the glory of Jesus and hear God beseech us to listen to him. Do we see? Do we hear even now?
Here’s a little of what I mean in the figures of Elijah and Moses. Elijah was the great prophet at the time of the early kings of Israel who worked miracles of healing and feeding during droughts. His greatest victory, it seems, is the one he won over the four hundred priests of the false god Baal. Do you remember that story? The priests of Baal . . . [tell story]
But the story doesn’t end quite yet. Here’s the end: in 1 Kings 18:40: “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized the four hundred prophets; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.” Is that the God we are supposed to see and hear on the mountain of transfiguration, a god of slaughter and punishment? Will it take yet another time of our cities and land laying waste for us to see and hear?
Or how about Moses and the people of Israel? Today’s First Lesson is about Moses going up on Mount Sinai to meet God. When he comes back down the mountain, his face is so bright that he needs to veil it. This was the second time he came down. Do you remember what happened the first time? While Moses had been up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments and sealing God’s loving covenant with God’s people, they had been worshiping a golden calf. So Moses came down the mountain and here’s what happened: “Moses said to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.”‘ The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day.” (Exodus 32:27-28) Is that the God we are supposed to see and hear on the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration, a god of slaughter and punishment? Will it take yet another time of our cities and land laying waste for us to see and hear?
In preparation for Holy Communion — as we celebrate with 14 of our young people this morning, who have completed some communion education — in that preparation we talk about the Passover meal which Jesus was celebrating the night before his death, when he transformed that meal into something else, the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I typically don’t go into much detail about the Passover with the younger children, which is why we still have communion education for our fifth graders, even though some have taken their first communion. By the time they are fifth graders, they are a little older and more ready to hear about the slaughter of all the first born children — although I’m not sure we are ever old enough to hear that story if we really let it sink in, if we truly hear it and see it for what it is.
We can hear it and see it truly, perhaps, in one of the modern day stories that has truly gripped me. It is the Public TV show of a couple years ago, called God on Trial, which we viewed and discussed in the Sunday adult class a year ago. The setting of the story is one of the most hellish places ever of human cruelty, a Jewish barracks in the Nazi death-camp of Auschwitz. God’s people, in that terrible setting, are asking why God has apparently abandoned them, so they put God to the trial, so to speak. Near the end, a learned Rabbi of wide reputation finally breaks his silence and speaks. The traditionalist Jews expect him to defend God. But, instead he begins to ask even more troubling questions about their history, the Passover included. “How did the Lord God, Adonai, bring us out of Egypt?” he asks. Plagues; and he recites the first nine plagues. “Finally,” he continues, “God struck down the first born, from the heir of Pharaoh to the slave at the mill. He slew them all. Did he slay Pharaoh? No. Pharaoh was the one who said “No” to Adonai but God let him live and slew the children. All the children. Did the mothers of Egypt think that Adonai was just?” Another Jewish scholar answers, “But Adonai is our God.” To which the learned rabbi replies: “Did God not make the Egyptians. Did he not make their rivers and their crops grow? If not Adonai, then who? Some other god? And what did he make them for? To punish them? To starve, to frighten, and to slaughter them? The people of Egypt, what was it like when Adonai turned against them? It was like this.”
And before we point to Moses and Elijah in contrast to us Christians, we’d better ask ourselves which God we Christians have followed after so many centuries of our cities and land being laid waste. Auschwitz is at the heart of supposedly Christian Europe.
On this Transfiguration Sunday we are once again allowed to glimpse the Easter glory of Jesus before our Lenten journey. But it is the same glory we are invited to see, hear, and taste each time we are invited to this Table, as seven of our young people are this morning to partake fully for the first time. And we are met by the God who sent Jesus into this world that we might finally see and hear: that God is a God of mercy, forgiveness, love, and life — not punishment and killing and death. This God has sent the Son into the world not to punish it, but to take on our punishment, our violence, on the cross, and to show it to be no much for God’s power of life, God’s power to transform our lives to that of peace, of Holy Communion, through forgiveness and love. May we come to the table and truly see without the veil. May we taste and drink in God’s salvation. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 14, 2010