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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Transfiguration 03/06/2011

I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so ready for and happy about Transfiguration Sunday as I am this year and I have to say that’s I statement I never thought I would make.  I used to kind of dread this Sunday because the story is so strange but this year, after five weeks of difficult and challenging Sermon on the Mount texts that couldn’t help but leave us all feeling a bit uneasy and probably a bit guilty too, and before heading into the penitence and reflection of Lent, I’m ready for a good story and that’s what we get on Transfiguration Sunday.  It’s a good story and strange as it is, one of the good things about it is you don’t really have to try to figure it out because it isn’t “about” anything, except the glory of God; that’s it!

So you can just listen to the story, maybe put yourself in the place of one of the disciples, Peter, James or John, as they head up this mountain with Jesus.  They’d been up mountains with him before, most notably the mountain on which he delivered the sermon we’ve been considering for the past weeks, so maybe that’s what they thought they were in for this time too; maybe on this trip it would be more personal instruction for the three of them, better still, maybe Jesus was going to officially anoint them as the Big Three of all the disciples. 

But this hike up the mountain wasn’t “about” any of that.  It was just about the glory of God, the glory of God revealed in Jesus.  Suddenly that’s what they saw as Jesus’ face shined like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white and not only that, but the legendary figures of Moses and Elijah were there too on either side of Jesus. 

One might think that would have been enough to reduce the three disciples to awe and wonder in the presence of this revelation, you might think that just being there in the moment would have been enough; but no, not for Peter anyway.  We don’t hear from the other two but Peter thought he had to do something so he proposed making three dwellings for the Big Three of Moses, Elijah and Jesus until he was interrupted in the midst of his proposal.  A bright cloud overshadowed all of them and a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him,” at which point the disciples were reduced to awe falling to the ground in fear.  Then they heard another voice, a voice more familiar to them, the voice of Jesus, alone now, speaking the familiar refrain, “Do not be afraid.”

It is a great story, a great image if you just picture it in your mind, Jesus radiant reflecting the glory of God, the three disciples seeing Jesus in a way they hadn’t seen him before, a way that was awe inspiring and frightening at the same time, no doubt provoking the same kinds of questions that have been asked about Jesus ever since, namely, just who is he anyway?  But this morning isn’t the time for those questions.  The story of the Transfiguration gives us the gift of a moment that provides a glimpse of the glory of God a moment in which we are simply invited to be there, to contemplate the glory.  There is a time for questions, but this isn’t it.  This is a time to just be, to be present in the mysterious reality of the divine.

In the narrative that Matthew writes, this story seems to function as an interlude, an interruption in what has been going on.  In the chapters before this Jesus is out there doing what Jesus does, teaching, telling parables, healing people, doing miraculous things.  Following the Transfiguration the same pattern continues; they come down from the mountain and life goes on, Jesus doing what he does, the disciples, still not fully comprehending things, but knowing something they didn’t know before.  It’ll be awhile though, before this pattern changes, before Jesus enters Jerusalem and the Passion story begins to play itself out. 

So in the book of Matthew itself the Transfiguration functions as an interlude and liturgically it does the same thing this year coming as it does between the Sermon on the Mount readings and the beginning of Lent.  In terms of narrative and liturgy the story of the Transfiguration provides an interlude, an invitation to do nothing, except to encounter and contemplate the glory of God. 

The first lesson today does the same kind of thing as Moses encounters the glory of God in the cloud on Mt. Sinai.  The chapters preceding this story in Exodus include the Ten Commandments along with other social and religious laws as well as information on various festivals and seasons.  It’s not very stimulating reading to be honest; there is good stuff in there but there’s also much that seems rather harsh and archaic, but then in the middle of all that you get a story not unlike the Transfiguration story, one that you can just listen to and marvel at, something of an interlude in this recital of legal material.

It’s another story that serves little purpose other than to reveal the glory of God and actually another version of the same story was told a few chapters earlier so it must be important.  Moses goes up the mountain and the glory of the Lord settles on the mountain in the form of a cloud, the glory also described as a devouring fire which to me sounds like “Don’t get to close.”  Yet Moses goes where no one has ever gone, entering the domain of God’s glory, God calling to him out of the cloud.  Envisioning this we ought to be in awe, and fear, any inclinations we might have of getting overly cozy with God called into question, any inclination we have to figure God out placed on the back burner as we quiet ourselves, as we quiet our bodies and minds and just contemplate the presence of this glory.

Such quiet, such being in the presence is not easy for most of us though.  Our Lutheran theological tradition is more in tune to looking for answers and explanations or we’re more about moral passion, kind of like Peter always feeling like we should do something.  In truth, I think many of us would rather consider the challenges and guilt of the Sermon on the Mount or consider our own sinfulness as we do during Lent than to quietly contemplate the glory of God. 

We don’t do well with quiet as any Lutheran pastor, including me, who has ever done it finds out when they try to include times of silence during worship.  What happens is you hear the rustling of bulletins and the turning of pages as people wonder, “What did he forget?  Why isn’t something happening?  Maybe it’s the organist’s fault.  Is this going to make the service longer?”  If you’ve ever tried to include silence as part of your own personal devotional life, I’ll bet you found it frustrating.  If you’re like me it’s hard to quiet your mind, to be still, so that you can truly listen for God.

The presence though of stories like Moses in the cloud on Mt. Sinai and the Transfiguration suggest that contemplation of the glory of God, contemplation of the holy is important in our life of faith.  There is a lot of theological interpretation around both of these stories and such interpretation does have value; but situated as both of these stories are in the midst of teaching material, I think they can be seen as something of a moment of recess, an invitation to step away from all the law and teaching and to simply consider the holiness of God.  This is reinforced by what follows the Moses in the cloud story in Exodus. 

The better part of the next 6 chapters goes into meticulous detail about how to build the Ark of the Covenant, the tabernacle, the altar and other worship furnishings along with descriptions of the vestments the priests are to wear.  Again, it doesn’t make for very stimulating reading, but the point of it all is to create an environment where God’s glory can be perceived and contemplated, to in a sense recapture what Moses experienced in the cloud.  The people couldn’t go with Moses up on the mountain, but through worship they could share in what Moses had experienced first hand. 

Transfiguration Sunday is a day to contemplate the glory of God.  It’s a reminder that part of what we do every week is to gather in sacred space, holy space which with its furnishings and ornamentation and paraments and vestments is designed to mediate the glory of God.  Part of worship isn’t doing anything; it’s just being here in the presence, taking time to consider the glory.  Situated quietly in the glory of Jesus, God’s Son, the beloved, we can then hear the voice that calls us to listen.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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