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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Transfiguration - 2/18/07

Every year, the story of the Transfiguration kind of stops us in our tracks.  The season of Epiphany always points to this story of Jesus climbing the mountain with three of his disciples, his appearance changing, his clothes becoming dazzling white, Moses and Elijah there with him, for awhile anyway; we know it’s coming, it’s one of the major festivals of every church year and it is important as the divine glory of Jesus is revealed, but despite or perhaps because of its fantastic nature, it doesn’t really seem to capture our imagination like some of the other stories about Jesus do.  But maybe it should.

The story of the Transfiguration is about glory, the glory of Jesus, the glory of God.  Now “glory” is one of those words that is part of our religious vocabulary; it’s all over both testaments of the Bible; in any liturgy that we do the glory of God is going to be mentioned a number of times and I think all of us would agree that glory is a dimension of God.  Still, it’s kind of an elusive term, exactly what is meant by glory may not be uniformly understood, but while the glory of God is associated with other events of Jesus’ life it’s in his Transfiguration that the fullness of God’s glory is revealed in Jesus.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all put the story of the Transfiguration about half way through their gospel.  They have already provided hints about who they understand Jesus to be but now, in telling this story, it’s as if they want to say, “In case you haven’t figured it out yet and before we go any further, Jesus is God.  He’s not just a prophet, a teacher and a miracle man, he is God.”  This is the ultimate epiphany, the ultimate revelation of who they understood Jesus to be and who we still understand Jesus to be.  The writers of the gospels don’t try to explain it; they leave that for the councils and the writers of the creeds.  They just say, “You’re still not sure who Jesus is?  Let me tell you a story.”

The Transfiguration is also something of a composite of the entire gospel story of Jesus as in this one story we get echoes of Jesus’ baptism, we get discussion of Jesus’ departure which hearkens back to his passion predictions as well as looking forward to his resurrection and ascension, there’s the presence of Moses and Elijah revealing Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy; it’s all in there with the voice of God from the cloud serving as something of an exclamation point, perhaps reminding us that all of these things have to do with Jesus’ glory.

Right there though, is part of the problem with the Transfiguration.  We’ve got Jesus in all his glory here, but not everything alluded to in this story sounds so glorious to us, most notably Jesus’ departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem as the text says.  Now, resurrection and ascension are glorious; Jesus baptism was pretty glorious, but throwing in allusions about the passion creates a bit of dissonance in our idea of glory.  Passion has to do with suffering and that doesn’t sound particularly glorious.  In our understanding of Jesus, we’re kind of like Peter.  There’s the temptation to want to leave Jesus up on the mountain, basking in what we think of as glory, but it’s not that simple.

As I said, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration but only Luke has the verse that mentions his departure.  I think you know that the gospels (except for John) are almost word for word the same in a lot of places but one of the things you learn is that it’s often useful to pay attention to things that are unique to a given gospel.  This verse in Luke is unique and what makes it even more interesting is that the Greek word that is translated as departure is actually the word for exodus.  So you have Jesus and Moses and Elijah speaking of Jesus’ exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

I don’t think we want to just casually pass by this verse or this word.  For any of Luke’s readers familiar with the Old Testament, exodus would be a red flag word, and I think it’s safe to say that Luke knew that.  It was a word that would get their attention as exodus is one of those recurring themes of the Bible, one of those story lines that is foundational as the story of God is told. 

The word exodus represents the intervention of God leading the people out of bondage into a new kind of freedom.  Exodus is God mixing into the lives of the people, into the struggles of everyday life.  Exodus is part of a covenant that God makes to establish his reign among all people.  An exodus is an event of rescue and a return to wholeness.

That’s what happened as Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness and finally to the promised land, which of course is the classic story of the book of Exodus.  It’s a story that is retold by the Old Testament prophets as the exiles of Israel undertake a new exodus and finally are allowed to return to the homeland.  Both are stories of promise, but promise which has been interrupted by a divide between God and God’s people; but finally they are both stories of deliverance, stories of God keeping his promises. 

In his telling of the Transfiguration story, Luke connects Jesus to this exodus tradition.  In this mountaintop moment where Jesus’ glory is revealed in awesome brilliance, Luke can’t and won’t leave Jesus there.  There is an exodus to be made; there is a cross waiting and that cross is where Jesus’ glory is really found.  It is this exodus to and through the cross that then opens the way for us to the kingdom Jesus talked about, our own exodus to new life.  So the story of Jesus is also about the promises of God, also about a divide between God and God’s people, but finally it too is a story of deliverance, of God keeping promises.

This story of deliverance through the cross has to do with what Luther called the hiddenness of God.  Luther meant a few things by this but part of God’s hiddenness has to do with how God relates to humanity in ways that seem contrary to human reason.  For example it doesn’t make sense to us that God would become human, never mind become human in the form of a baby born to poor, insignificant people; it doesn’t make sense as long as we think of God as almighty and all powerful anyway. 

But the primary example of this hiddenness is in the cross and death of Jesus.  This too doesn’t make sense to us.  It is not glory by our standards, but Luther’s insight was that if God is only found in what we think of as those glorious, mountaintop places, he’s pretty hard to find sometimes.  Too much of life is lived elsewhere and if God is absent from those places it paints a pretty bleak picture of our relationship with God. As Luther and many others after him have said, as irrational as it may seem, the only God who can help us is the crucified God revealed or hidden in weakness.  It’s hard for us to understand but we need to know that God is present with us at those times.

But I’m kind of jumping the gun to Lent here.  Luke does allude to this hidden dimension of Jesus’ glory.  All the gospels do have the disciples come down from the mountain.  Jesus can’t stay up there and neither can they and neither can we.  But starting on Wednesday we’ve got the whole season of Lent to deal with that dimension of things.

On Transfiguration Sunday we have this marvelous and mysterious story and image of the glory of Jesus, this image of Jesus as God.  Today I think we do well to stay with that image for awhile, to contemplate the majesty of Jesus as God.  “The Lord is king; let the people tremble; he is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake.  The Lord is great in Zion; he is above all peoples.  Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; he is the Holy One.”

The psalmist doesn’t use the word glory, but he doesn’t have to; he just utters the glorious words of praise.  Before we go down from the mountain into the valley of Lent, before we confess our sin, we need to know who we’re dealing with.  We take in these images of divine glory and know that Jesus is God.  That’s our starting point.  What happens during Lent has to do with Jesus’ glory too, but today we join Peter and James and John, Moses, Elijah and the psalmist in proclaiming the greatness of the Lord our God.     

 
 

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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