Exodus 34: 29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12 -4:2 Luke 9:28-36
Today is the last Sunday in Epiphany – the season of the Christian year which celebrates, as the name implies, the revelation of Christ’s glory, the shining forth of God’s glory in Him. The lection from the holy gospel of St. Luke directs our attention to the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top where the apostles behold his glory and hear the confirming voice of God.
The gospel lesson is associated with the reading from the book of Exodus (chp.34) which relates God’s confirming of the covenant made on Sinai with Moses which the people broke, and how, descending from his second mountain top meeting with God, Moses’ face shone with the reflected glory of God; who is revealed to Moses on the mountain: God preserves Moses as the representative of rebellious Israel in the presence of God’s holiness by hiding him in the cleft of the rock. God’s glory shining in Moses’ face is the glory of a God who remains faithful to a faithless people, preserves them as God’s own in the midst of their sin. This reflected glory of God was such that every time he addressed the people Moses had to put a veil over his face in order that God’s reflected glory may not overwhelm them because of their rebellion in the presence of God represented by the reflected glory of Moses’ face.
It is no accident that the New Testament account of Jesus transfiguration on the mountain echo this experience of Moses in the foundational event of God’s covenanted faithfulness to his people, in spite of their faithlessness.
There is the scene itself, the cloud on the mountain top as the place of revelation, where God’s glory is revealed. The conversation between the transfigured Jesus and Moses and Elijah speaks of an “Exodus”, a “departure”, which Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem. The gospel writer says the event on the mountain took place after eight days. The eighth day, the day after the Sabbath, is the Resurrection Day, this day which was understood in the early church as the fulfilment of the seven days of creation.
In the transfiguration therefore we are to understand that the God who created the world, called a people to be a light to the nations, now, in God’s only Son, brings to a conclusion the divine creative and reconciling purpose. In Christ’s face we see unveiled, the glory of God the Father.
The basis of this congruence between the Old Testament narrative concerning the story of God’s purposes for humankind in creation and covenant and the account of Jesus’ transfiguration is the ground swell of God’s faithfulness. It is that we might see that God is not put off by Israel being, as they are described in the 34th., chapter of Exodus from which we read the Old Testament lesson, “a stiff-necked people”. God remains faithful to the promise, “I shall be your God”. This promise stands, come what may, whatever the cost. Moses’ prayerful plea to God now comes to fulfilment, his prayer that God, “Go in the midst of us……pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance”. (v.9).
In Jesus that is precisely what God does: he is the way in which God answers Moses’ prayer. The glory of the mount of transfiguration consists in this: God is not only the God who promises to be Israel’s God in utter faithfulness as God, but now in Jesus God’s Son enters into the situation of God’s rebellious people; identifying God’s flesh with their godforsaken cause, the godforsaken cause of all people, and in their place, for their sake, confesses the truth about the untruth of the human situation. He responds in perfect obedience to the Father, not for his own sake, He as the Son is ever one with the Father, He responds for the sake of all humankind. He does what is right in our place for our sakes. This is the manner in which Moses’ prayer of (v.9)., “Go in the midst of us……pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance” is so decisively answered.
Thus, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus at the very moment of His transfiguration of his “Exodus”, his “departure” which he is to accomplish in Jerusalem. The Exodus to which they refer is now not that journey from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land, but the Exodus of the Son of God through death to the freedom of life in relationship to God for our sake, an Exodus from sin to righteousness from death to life: accomplished once and for all people.
In this strange way, by the journey of God’s Son into the far country of our fallen humanity, God not only remains faithful to the covenant with Israel and with creation from God’s side he also establishes the faithfulness of our humanity to God in the humanity of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
It is this miracle of grace which is the subject of Jesus transfiguration. The revelation of God’s glory, the shining forth of his light in the darkness of the world, is the glory of his grace; God’s self-abandonment to the cause of the creature in the shameful corner where God finds us all. The utter faithfulness of God, God’s determination to be our God, no matter what the cost, is the essence of the glory of Christ which the Apostles, behold on that mountain of transfiguration. What they see is the transfiguration of our humanity in the humanity of the crucified God. They see in some manner the uncreated light in which God dwells for which the writers of the gospel are lost for words to describe. In St Mark’s version of the transfiguration Chp 9:3, he says, “His garments became gleaming, exceedingly white, such that no Fuller on the earth could whiten them.”
But what the Apostles see and what they understand are two different things. At this decisive moment in Jesus’ ministry, when his glory is revealed, they are asleep, as in the moment of his passion, so here too the apostle’s sleep. How incomprehensible it is to us that here the Apostolic foundation of the church is asleep at this critical moment of divine revelation: but there it is. No one thought it expedient or in the interests of the church’s good government that the account of such an embarrassing situation should be omitted from their record of this event. But the matter is compounded. Peter suggests in his confusion that perhaps it would be a good thing to build houses there, but, as the gospel writer says, he says this because “he didn’t know what to say!”
The apostle’s incomprehensible ignorance and inappropriate response represent the truth about the church in every age. As Luther once put it, when we meet with the grace of the gospel, we are all “like cows staring at a new gate”. The depth of the mystery of God’s presence with us and for us, in the way of Jesus to the cross as the revelation of his divine glory, the uncreated light of His presence, is never a reality the church can manage or programme for its own purposes. Though the Lord only knows we, like Peter, are always attempting to build houses to contain and manage the presence of his glory in Christ. To turn the Christian faith into a religious aura which surrounds our self-chosen life styles, to make the Christian faith into a programme that can be packaged and sold as another consumer item in the great supermarket of ideas, where one pays your money and takes your pick.
Or we have had our senses so dulled by what we take to be our pious fantasies, our assumed familiarity with the Jesus who accompanies us on life’s way, as if He were a well-known part of our everyday domestic routine so that, like Peter, we become insensitive to His glory and are found in fact to be asleep in His transfigured presence.
But Jesus glory is revealed; not in spite of but precisely because the church is present and represented in the Apostolic incomprehension and unbelief. For Jesus is there present with them in their incomprehension and unbelief: in His own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews His church. As Luther put it in his own inimitable way “the church lives and grows when I am drinking beer with my friend Philip of Armsdorf!”
So, despite themselves, the apostles and therefore the church, are given to share Christ’s transfigured glory. For it is precisely for such as these, the uncomprehending and unbelieving, that Jesus is there. His transfiguration is the shining forth of the light of the glory of God who justifies the ungodly. The church is truly Apostolic when the glory of this mystery of God’s grace is found at the centre of its life and witness; when the church acknowledges that it has no other obligation or purpose than that this should be shown to be the case in every sphere of its life. It is this reality that is celebrated and realised in the mystery of the proclaimed word of the scriptures and the holy eucharist in which we receive nothing more or less than Christ’s own body and blood, broken and shed for us.
Dr. Gordon Watson.