The Glory of the Lord

Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 24:12–18
Matthew 17:1–9

“Transfiguration” has always struck me as a funny word. The gospel writers never define it; they just use it matter-of-factly and expect us to know what it means. They describe the phenomena, of course, of Jesus’s face and clothes glowing, but why that should be called transfiguration is never explained. We’re left to our own devices to figure it out.

I’m not being exactly fair, I realize, because it was the English translators who came up with that word, not Mark, Matthew, or Luke. The Greek word they use is metemorphothe, from which we get the word metamorphosis. Jesus was metamorphosed—he changed form. The text tells us that the disciples who witnessed this change “were overcome with fear” (v. 6). Imagine how they would have felt if he had turned into a giant cockroach!

So the story we have here in Matthew 17 is one of change, but not just any change. Matthew says that Jesus’s “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (v. 2). Heavenly figures wear white clothing, as do martyrs and the righteous who are vindicated. As Jesus declares a few chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:43). Jesus’s shining face is a clear echo of the story of Moses in Exodus 34, whose face glows from his encounter with the glory of God long after he comes back down the mountain.

Matthew is kind of obsessed with depicting Jesus as a new Moses, and asserting his superiority over that revered figure from Israelite history. As a child he escapes death at the hands of a murderous king, just like Moses. He goes to Egypt, just like Moses. He sits on a mountain and gives a sermon that is in many ways a new law for the people of God, just like Moses. And here, not only does he have that whole shining face thing going on, just like Moses, but Moses himself shows up to have a chat.

Elijah is there, too, representing the prophets, just as Moses represents the law. Both men had powerful encounters with God on Mount Sinai—God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and later gives him the ten commandments; and Elijah hears from God’s “still, small voice.” Jesus’s career also has strong parallels with Elijah’s, such as in his control of nature and when he raises a widow’s son from the dead. Now he goes up on a mountain—probably not Mount Sinai, but Matthew doesn’t specify, so we are left to draw our own conclusions—and has a conference with these two great men from the past.

And he has witnesses. Jesus brings with him his so-called “inner circle” of disciples, Peter, James, and John, when he climbs the mountain. Moses also had witnesses for part of his time with God on Mount Sinai, as we see in the verses just before today’s reading.

The Israelites have come out of Egypt, liberated by the mighty hand of God, and have made it all the way to the mysterious holy mountain on the Sinai peninsula, variously called Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb. Here they set up camp and watch in abject terror as the mountain begins to tremble, a fiery cloud descends upon it, and smoke goes up “like the smoke of a kiln” (Exod 19:18), and God speaks to Moses in the hearing of the people in a voice of thunder. “Awesome” is a word that gets bandied about far too freely these days—your mom’s lasagna may be delicious, but it’s not awesome—but the vision of God descending upon the mountain in fire is truly an awesome sight.

From this cloud God thunders forth four chapters’ worth of laws, some transcendent—think of the ten commandments and the injunctions about caring for widows, orphans, and resident aliens—others a bit more obscure, such as these doozies: “If you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it” (Exod 20:25–26), or, “When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free” (Exod 23:5). I understand the principle involved in that second one, but it seems like an awfully specific example to be issued in a voice of thunder from a cloud of fire.

At any rate, after all this, God invites Moses to come up, and to bring witnesses who will worship at a distance. So he goes up with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy elders of the people, and Exodus 24:10 tells us, “They saw the God of Israel.” But what do they really see? The verse goes on to say, “Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” No other description is offered, except to say, “They beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exod 24:11). They take part in a covenant meal in the very presence of the awesome and smoky glory of the Lord. Talk about communion!

Here we see a good example of the way the Bible balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence—the God who is “high and lifted up” and the God who is as close as one’s own skin. Moses and the elders have a meal in the presence of God—a mundane event that establishes intimacy—but they cannot for a moment forget that they are dealing with a majestic, mysterious, and possibly volatile deity. As verse 17 from today’s reading puts it, “The appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” They can get close, but God is ultimately unknowable. In the Bible, Samuel Terrien says, “[there] exists [a] dynamic tension between divine self-disclosure and divine self-concealment. The proximity of God creates a memory and an anticipation of certitude, but it always defies human appropriation. The presence remains elusive” (Terrien, Elusive Presence, 43).

Terry Taylor, principal songwriter of the band Daniel Amos, captures the elusiveness of God as well as anyone I know. On the band’s 1987 tour de force album Darn Floor Big Bite, the songs touch on the knowing/unknowing polarity of the human’s interaction with God with poetic grace. The album’s title comes from an exchange between the gorilla Koko and one of the humans who taught her sign language. In the liner notes, the band expresses the theme of the album with this snippet of dialogue:

Man: Describe an earthquake.
Gorilla: (in sign language) Darn floor — big bite.
God: Describe me.
Man: A roaring lion and a consuming fire.

Consider these excerpts from the lyrics of the songs on Darn Floor Big Bite:

From “Strange Animals”:
[Lyrics removed due to copyright concerns. View the song lyrics at DanielAmos.com]

From the title song:
[Lyrics removed due to copyright concerns. View the song lyrics at DanielAmos.com]

From “Half Light, Epoch, and Phase:
[Lyrics removed due to copyright concerns. View the song lyrics at DanielAmos.com]

And from “The Unattainable Earth”:
[Lyrics removed due to copyright concerns. View the song lyrics at DanielAmos.com]

These songs describe the impossibility of comprehending the full mystery of God and the limitations of language for plumbing the depths even of human relationships, let alone human-divine ones. Especially when talking about God, something always lies beyond our grasp, unattainable. Metaphor, or sign language, is the best we can do. Where we get into trouble is when we forget that all our language about God is metaphorical. When we go from saying that God is in some ways like a father to saying God is a father, for instance, all sorts of repressive patriarchal stuff can result, from the silencing of women’s voices to the justification of abuse.

In the end, though, we have to learn, as Iris DeMent advises us, to let the mystery be. Just as Moses tries to gain some semblance of control over God at the burning bush by asking God’s name, and just as Peter tries to bottle his experience on the mount of transfiguration by setting up shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, we try to tame God, make God manageable, cut God down into bite-size chunks. In another line from “Half Light, Epoch, and Phase,” Taylor sings, “Everyone seems to think they’ve got it made, / that you’re on a rack by the door.” We have to resist this impulse to understand, to control. We have to learn to let God be God.

Peter’s desire to build shelters, or dwellings, provides another echo of the Exodus story. Another word for the kind of dwelling he wants to set up is “tabernacle.” One of the major festivals God instructs the Israelites to observe every year is the Feast of Tabernacles, during which they are to live for a week in temporary shelters to commemorate their ancestors’ time of wandering in the wilderness. And a big part of God’s conversation with Moses on the mountain has to do with the construction and operation of the tabernacle, the tent in which God’s glory would rest during the Israelites’ encampments, and where the priests were to bring offerings and sacrifices and conduct the daily liturgy.

Peter’s instincts may be good, and his heart is surely in the right place, but he errs because he doesn’t comprehend how Jesus has changed the rules of the game. “While he was still speaking,” Matthew tells us, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” (v. 5). I have usually heard that verse in my head with the emphasis on the word “listen”; as though God were saying in exasperation, “Shut up for a second and listen to him!” But hear how it sounds if we put the stress on “him” instead: “Listen to him!” The disciples need not build any tabernacles on the mountain, because Jesus is now the tabernacle.

The original tabernacle was a mobile home, so to speak, in which God could dwell in the midst of the Israelites as they moved about. Jesus as the new tabernacle also moves about, and to follow him is to dwell in the presence of the glory of God. To be on the move with Jesus—to walk with him on the way of the cross—is to be at home with God. The gospel of John even uses the terminology of the tabernacle to depict the Incarnation: “The Word became flesh and lived [or pitched his tent] among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Jesus is the “human face of God,” as John A. T. Robinson famously put it. The glory of the Lord that shattered the rocks and shook the earth at Mount Sinai dwelt within the tabernacle of Jesus and shone forth in works of compassion and healing by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We still look to Jesus to demonstrate God for us in ways we can understand and relate to. In Christ, God comes near.

The disciples know Jesus intimately as a friend, teacher, and traveling companion. They have seen him wield his power to cast out unclean spirits, give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and multiply loaves and fish to feed multitudes. But they have also seen him in unguarded moments relaxing by the fire after a long day. They have seen him when he is grumpy and irritable. They have seen him scratch his feet and blow his nose and heard him tell his funny stories and bad puns and one-liners. They know him.

But now they have seen him transfigured—metamorphosed into a radiant figure conversing with two great heroes from Israel’s past. Now they have heard God’s voice, coming once again from within a cloud that has descended on a mountain, proclaiming their friend to be God’s beloved son and chosen one. Who knows but that the voice they hear sounds like thunder?

It’s a terrifying thing to witness the glory of the Lord up close, so Peter, James, and John fall on their faces and tremble in fear. But Jesus comes to them, touches them, and tells them not to be afraid. When they look up, they are again alone with Jesus, and the radiance of his glory has once again been veiled, so they are able to get up and come with him down the mountain to continue the work they have been called to do.

At Mount Sinai, the people freak out when they witness the awesome descent of God in smoke and fire and thunder, and they beg Moses to serve as their go-between: “Do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exod 19:19). Like the Israelites, the disciples cannot bear to hear God speak, but they can listen to Jesus. As Judith Jones puts it, “The word of God comes to them now, not as a thunderous voice from heaven or letters written on tablets of stone, but in the words and actions of Jesus. The Son of God speaks to them as one human speaks to another, and they rise and follow him” (Jones, “Commentary,” n.p.).

Jesus wants to come to us today as well, touch us, and take away our fear. The glory of the Lord dwells now in the tabernacle of Jesus, and we too have the opportunity to see that glory—the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. Jesus is heading down the mountain now, moving back into a world thirsting for a glimpse of grace and truth, ready to travel the road that will take him to a cross and, beyond the cross, to an empty tomb.

Let us rise and follow him.


References
Jones, Judith. 2014. “Commentary.” Working Preacher. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2039

Taylor, Terry S. 1987. “Darn Floor Big Bite.” Darn Floor Big Bite. Alarma.

________. 1987. “Half Light, Epoch, and Phase.” Darn Floor Big Bite. Alarma.

________. 1987. “Strange Animals.” Darn Floor Big Bite. Alarma.

________. 1987. “The Unattainable Earth.” Darn Floor Big Bite. Alarma.

Terrien, Samuel. The Elusive Presence. Quoted in Juliana Claasens, “Commentary.” 2014. Working Preacher. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1976

Robert Turner