Thursday, February 27, 2014
March 2, Transfiguration: Missing the Point, #3 (revised) in a Series on Sin
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, 16-23, Matthew 17:1-9
What did Jesus know and when did he know it?
Did the Transfiguration take Jesus by surprise or did he know it beforehand, or did he make it happen? Did he anticipate that his physical body would light up from the inside? Did he summon Moses and Elijah? Did he call on God the Father, and did his Father listen to him, just as the Father told the disciples they must do? Was this for his own benefit, or for the benefit of Peter, James, and John? Did he take them up for company, or that they be eyewitnesses? That after his resurrection they could connect the dots and imagine its significance? How did Peter know that it was Moses and Elijah? Matthew gives us very little explanation.
Of the three eyewitnesses, Peter was the only one to write about it afterwards, in his second epistle, which you just heard. But many scholars regard this epistle as pseudepigraphal, that it was written by some later author who attributed it to Peter to give it authority. This hypothesis causes more problems than it solves (violating Occam's Razor), and it makes the anonymous writer a liar in his claim to have been an eyewitness. (I don't think the early church was that stupid, and I think it says more about scholarship's lack of imagination. We have no proof that Peter did not write it.) James wrote an epistle, but he never mentions the Transfiguration. Neither does John in the gospel he wrote. He didn’t need to, because Matthew, Mark, and Luke already had, and apparently it did not contribute to his literary plan.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all telling it second-hand, so it’s not surprising that they report the details differently, though not drastically so. You’d expect them to select and describe the details to fit their respective literary plans. The details in Matthew typically evoke the Torah and the Prophets. Matthew always shows Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament.
You’d also expect these variations in reported details in the case of a real event in history which is also a singularity and thus a mystery.
As an event in history it has real details which are textured and complex, the varied meanings of which are brought out by the different reporters.
As a singularity it stands outside our categories and normalities and every description is approximate at best.
As a mystery it calls to us beyond our comprehension. The details are offered to us but they are not explained. They are windows for your wonder. You have to look through them. You engage this story with your imagination no less than with your understanding, and these two of your faculties serve and discipline each other.
It’s obvious that Peter did not understand what they were seeing. He was trying to understand it, which is why he made that comment. Peter was trying to use his knowledge of the Torah, of when Moses came back down from Mount Sinai, when his face was shining with real light from having reflected the glory of God for forty days, and so they built a separate tent for him. “See, Jesus, I know my stuff.” Nice try, Peter, but you’re missing it.
Notice that in this case Jesus does not rebuke him, as he does several times elsewhere. He doesn’t respond at all. Matthew doesn’t explicitly judge what Peter says. It’s the later gospels of Mark and Luke that tell us that Peter did not know what he was saying. But there is a judgment implied in what God says from the cloud: “Listen to him!” That implies: “Peter, will you just shut up!” So it’s no wonder they fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. Of course the cloud and the light and the voice are enough to overcome anyone, but what if that voice behind the cloud is telling you off!
They were witnesses of something they were missing the point of. You know what that’s like. You’ve had it that you’ve seen things directly but you did not get what was going on. You have observed events of which you’ve missed the point. Later on you figure it out, or someone explains it, and you wonder how you missed it. I can remember my father sitting in his chair and shaking his head and saying to himself, “Meeter, you dope.” It’s a double failure: your failure of understanding and your failure of imagination, each compounding the other.
I suspect it was their missing the point of the Transfiguration that Jesus ordered them not to speak of it until after his resurrection. The Resurrection was the greater event and singularity and mystery for them to embrace and imagine and understand, which they then had to read back into what they had witnessed on the mountain.
So you can hardly blame them for having missed the point. They do not yet have the categories by which even to imagine it. And Jesus does not rebuke them. It’s only a mild and minimal judgment on them that they should keep it mum. He nudges them kindly and gets them up and tells them not to fear. He did not say it, but I’ll bet he was thinking, “Father forgive them; they just don’t get it, what they do.”
Missing the point. Is that a sin? It can be innocent. Like in math class, or like not getting a joke. The method of this sermon series is to ask each set of scripture lessons what they might tell us about sin, but is that even fair to the story? Would Matthew glare at me, and say, “You know that’s not the reason I wrote this story down for you. It’s not about sin. It’s not about your problems. It’s about the Lord Jesus, and how the light of the glory of God was fully within him. You know it’s not always about you. You’re the one that’s missing the point.”
But St. Matthew, you like rabbinic methods, and you like to interpret one scripture by another, and I don’t know if you read the correspondence of your upstart colleague, St. Paul, but in his letter to the Romans he wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and if these three guys fall short of God’s glory then we can see in them our sinful state, with their faces in the dirt and overcome with fear. Not any specific sinful actions, but our sinful condition. We generally and typically fail to imagine and we fail to understand, and we fall short and we miss. It’s our habit, it’s our inclination, when left to ourselves, and to our own devices and desires.
You know what the children of Israel did, when Moses was up on the mountain those forty days and he left Aaron and Hur and the elders in charge. They made a graven image of a golden calf and worshiped it as their god, just a few weeks after they had all agreed to the covenant. And Aaron made it for them, just a month after he and the elders had enjoyed a sit-down dinner on the mountain with the Lord. “What’s wrong with you people? Can’t I leave you kids alone for one minute?”
We miss the point because we have our agendas, our expectations, our prior understandings, and our preferred imaginations. This is what we want, that is what we’re looking for. We fail to understand ourselves as existing for the glory of God and not for ourselves, and we fail to imagine ourselves as enjoying God forever. We hugely miss the point. We tragically miss the point. Because falling short of God we fall short of ourselves. We fail in our expectations of ourselves and our desires for ourselves. We fail to understand God’s purpose for us and we fail to imagine God’s vision for us.
Do you get it that what was suddenly visible in Jesus was not only the glory of God but also the human future? This story calls Jesus both the Son of God and the Son of Man. The vision the disciples see is God’s vision for you. You’re meant to be something like Jesus. As I have said many times before, you were designed to have the capacity for that.
You will be photo-luminescent. It is not impossible. You’ve heard of fireflies and lightning bugs. You’ve heard of electric eels, and the wonder that they survive their own voltage in the water that kills their prey. You will have power. You will have energy. You will light up, you will shine from the inside, you will be glorious. But not for yourself. I’m pushing the metaphor, but I’d rather push it than miss it. I’m talking about your moral and spiritual capacity, your capacity for mercy and service and justice and love, your capacity for holiness and righteousness, the capacity which you fall short of now.
It’s not so much the specific sins you do, it’s that you settle for the disappointment that you are. It’s from your doubts and your despair, it’s from the general sadness of life and its shortness and its frailty, it’s from domestic violence and civil wars and the prevalence of greed within the marketplace, and that the world is manifestly so unfair. It’s from your guilt that hobbles you and weakens you. The problem of your guilt is the real problem of your sin.
The problem of your guilt is what we deal with in the season of Lent, which begins this Wednesday. So stand up on your ground and offer up your face and get some ashes on it and wear the symbol of your condition.
In our opening collect, you just prayed, “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Changed into his likeness will be Easter, and bearing your cross is Lent. The doorway into Lent is the Transfiguration, which both knocks you down and picks you up. God the Father says, “Listen to Jesus,” and the first thing Jesus says to you is, “Rise up, don’t be afraid.” God kneels down and touches you.
God says, “Get up, let’s go, I’m with you now before you have arrived. I’m giving you my glory now; not the glory of perfection but the glory of your reconciliation. You are translucent with my mercy, you are translucent with my love.” You see, you are like stained glass with all your stains and streaks and ripples and distortions. But all that sin in you just gives more color and texture to God’s light in you.
Get your faces up from the dirt and look around you. You can see the same translucence in each other, and you can love each other for it, how the veins and the ripples of your condition display the greater depth and power of the glorious light of the love of God in you. The light that shines out of Jesus in the Transfiguration is the light of God’s free love. The Lord Jesus Christ is the wonder of the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.