Pitching Tents

Scriptures: Matthew 17:1-9

Bulletin-TL 02-23-2020 YA Transfiguration

Let us pray:

Holy One, may the words that I craft and the thoughts and feelings they engender honor you. May your Holy Spirit intervene if needed, ensuring the message you wish to be known despite my attempt to witness. Amen.

         I used to love to pitch a tent on the ground; unroll my sleeping bag on a mat and listen to the silence of the wilderness seep into my soul, de-cluttering my life. On the occasions that I am able to spend the night up here in Trout Lake and open the window at night, listening again to the silence and the stars, I am also reminded to slow down and appreciate life’s pace at a different speed.

Jesus takes his three disciples up the mountain, and I wonder if he had some thought to the need for rest. Or, I wonder if he needed it himself. Or, did Jesus know that God, Moses, and Elijah would need to meet with him on a certain date; and that it would be instructive for these three to witness it?

We are taught from a literary standpoint that this passage of the Transfiguration is actually a foreshadowing of the Second Coming of Christ, when he comes in glory as the rightful ruler of the cosmos, the earth, all peoples, and all existence. Personally, where I am in my own journey of faith, I have a problem with that. Simply put, my problem is this: if Jesus is coming again to rule the earth personally, what about the argument offered by progressives that the second coming of Christ is nothing less than our acceptance of Christ as our Lord and Savior and living our lives as if Christ is head of our Church, head of our lives, and head of our personal choices as we live and move and have our being on this earth in temporal time?

What is the true story here? How are we to interpret it? What is our response, in faith, supposed to guide us into doing? One commentator wisely writes:

[The] moment of transfiguration … affirms Jesus’ divinity…[allowing] the disciples to see God’s light in the chaos to come: death, loss, fear and resurrection, the work of the early church. The challenge to the disciples is to live in a world without Jesus’ bodily presence.[1]

Another reason to consider this passage is for the enduring image of clarity of thinking found in mountain top experiences. C.S. Lewis writes, in the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia in Aslan’s voice,

Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.[2]

Put another way,

God prepares people in the transcendent encounters of our lives to endure [a] world that has the ability to break us and yet is never beyond God’s redemption. These encounters happen on mountaintops with a blinding light for some. For most, they happen in the ordinary moments of our classrooms, boardrooms, and soup kitchens—any place where we make a space for the Holy to be present.[3]

Which is precisely why Matthew chose to frame his account of the transfiguration event the way he did.

When Matthew preaches the transfiguration, he addresses a congregation for whom Moses is a compelling interpretative template. Matthew’s sermon is Moses–shaped and the mount of the transfiguration echoes Sinai. Just as Moses is born under Pharaoh’s death sentence, so Jesus is threatened by Herod; just as Moses receives the law on Mount Sinai, Jesus teaches the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt. 5–7). Moses interprets the commandments of God in Deuteronomy, and Jesus interprets the commandments, “You have heard that it was said” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43, etc.). The transfiguration tradition comes already thick with Mosaic themes (three companions [Exod. 24:1, 9]; the mountain [Exod. 24:16]; the cloud on the mount [Exod. 24:15]; “six days” [Exod. 24:16]), but when Matthew preaches the transfiguration, he intensifies the Moses theme in order to preach Christ.

Matthew adds description of a “bright cloud” (v. 5), evoking memory of the cloud that accompanied the ark and tabernacle, and tells how Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” (v. 2), as Moses’s face shone following his encounter with God (Exod. 34:29–30). The genius of Matthew’s preaching, however, centers on the way in verse 6 he echoes the terror and dismay of the Israelites who hear the voice of God (Exod. 20:18) and cry out, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exod. 20:19). The glorious presence and commanding voice of the Holy One of Israel threaten to overwhelm those who encounter them, but to the disciples overwhelmed by the presence and voice of God, Jesus reaches out his hand, touches them, and reassures them: “Do not be afraid” (v. 7).[4]

Ah, the power of the human touch! It can scar, but it can heal, it can threaten, but it can calm. It can work destruction in the earth, but if it is an extension of the body of Christ in us, it can work miracles. Extended in hatred, it is hell. Extended in love, it is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the name given to Jesus in the very beginning of Matthew’s account.

This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven, but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, “Do not be afraid.” God comes to us quietly, gently, that we may draw near and not be afraid. God’s glory is majestic and so far beyond our capacity to receive it that we can take just as much of God’s glory as a human hand can hold.[5]

The transfiguration is nothing less than a vision of God coming to earth and pitching a tent among us.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Maryetta Madeeine Anshutz, “Pastoral Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Harper Collins, 1981) 25-26.

[3] Maryetta Madeeine Anshutz, “Pastoral Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word.

[4] Patrick J. Wilson, “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[5] Ibid.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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