Thursday, February 23, 2017
February 26, Transfiguration, Righteousness #8: Chabod
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
The word “Transfiguration” is from the Latin but the original Greek is metamorphosis. It means that the body of the Lord Jesus kept his identity but changed in appearance. Matthew reports it without explaining it. His interest is not the how but the what for; the physical phenomena are for their Biblical fulfillment, to show the recapitulation of ancient details from the times of Moses and Elijah.
Matthew reports with metaphors that Jesus’ face and body generated light, from inside him, through his clothing, thus not reflected. How was that possible, for the living tissues of a mammal to generate light? Fireflies do it, but he didn’t just glow, he shone like the sun, too bright to look at directly. Biologists wonder how electric eels are able to survive their own deadly voltage in the water. How could a human body shine far brighter than a burning bush, and be not consumed?
Matthew was not an eyewitness. Neither were the gospel writers Mark and Luke, though they report it too. The eyewitnesses were Peter, James, and John. Peter and James did not write gospels, they wrote epistles, and it’s the second epistle of Peter that uses the word “glory” for what they saw.
The word “glory,” in the Bible, is a technical term. In Greek it is doxa and in Hebrew it’s chabod. The chabod was unique to God. The chabod was the visible sign of God’s presence. Most of the time God’s presence is invisible and apparent only to our belief, but on a few occasions, God made God’s presence visible to human sight, when God was up to something and had something to say.
Sometimes the chabod was light and sometimes darkness, sometimes like a flame and sometime like a cloud. In our reading from Exodus it was the burning cloud upon Mount Sinai, like a volcano, huge and ominous, while earlier in Exodus it was as small and curious as a burning bush. The Biblical editors did not force consistency on the variations because no single visible phenomenon can capture God’s glory.
According to both Peter and Matthew, the glory was in two places at once at the Transfiguration, in two persons simultaneously. The glory was in the body of Jesus and also in the cloud that over-shadowed the group. You have the Old Testament chabod of God, both revealed and hidden in the cloud, the God whom Jesus called his Father, at the same time as the chabod shining from Jesus, whom God called his Son.
Matthew has offered us our first glimpse of the divinity of Jesus. He takes to a new level that old terminology of “Son of God,” which had been only an honorific for the rightful king of Israel of the House of David. Now it means that and more than that—some special identity on a par with God. This was beyond the disciples’ comprehension at this point.
But that’s where the third eyewitness eventually took it. John. When John wrote his gospel, that of Matthew was available, so John need not report the Transfiguration, but he evokes it right off in his first chapter, in the famous prologue that you hear on Christmas Eve, when “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The true light that enlightens every human was coming into the world. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.’”
And thus the Nicene Creed: “god from god, light from light, true god from true god.” Whatever else we say about the Transfiguration, it calls us to worship. “Glory be to you, Lord Jesus Christ. Glory, Glory. Glory.”
There’s more. It’s remarkable in Matthew that the Son of God is just three verses later called the Son of Man. For once, both titles for Jesus are in the same story. So the Transfiguration is both a vision of Our Lord’s divinity and a vision of his humanity. He is uniquely divine, and representationally human. He is the new model human, he shows us a humanity with the capacity to hold God’s glory.
He represents you. The story is about both him and you. You are intended by God for this glory, you are made to be enlightened so that God’s light shines through you. Not that you’re all electric eels, but you might well glow in the dark. Your Christian life is to develop your capacity.
In the Old Testament understanding, as I said, the glory is unique to God, and we who are in God’s image reflect that glory, like shining brass. The New Testament innovation is that God’s glory is inside you. In the New Testament, God’s glory is the expression of God’s Holy Spirit, and the glory inside you is the energy of God’s Holy Spirit. I am multiplying images and mixing metaphors, but what is promised us is a mystery and what’s expected of us is beyond precise comprehension.
I have said that you are finally a mystery even to yourself. Your Christian identity is not precisely comprehensible to yourself. It is a modern presumption to think that we can expertly understand ourselves, or even need to. Your best self-knowledge comes from enlightenment, that is, seeing yourself within God’s light and listening to what God says to you, as God said to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Your self-knowledge comes from what God tells you about God’s relationship to you, and that is the light that illuminates all of your insides.
So here is my main message today, and the summation of this sermon series on righteousness: The active expression of God’s glory in you is your righteousness. As I’ve been saying, your righteousness is God’s righteousness manifest through you. Your glory, your chabod, is an ethical one. The glory of Jesus was both ethical and ontological, and he is unique. Yours is ontological only as derivative, in that you are in Christ, but it is ethical in your own reality. How you live each day by loving God and your neighbor as yourself is the manifestation that God is present in you.
God is up to something in the world in the way that you do righteousness. God is doing something in the world by means of the choices that you make, your judgment calls, your guesses, your getting it close, your just missing it and even botching it, your repairing it and making it back, your making peace, your going a second mile for your enemy, your taking a hit, your apologizing, your reconciling, your bearing burdens, your speaking up, your speaking out, your shouting, your chanting, your song, your prayer, your praise and glory back to God. In the words of Psalm 99, O Lord, “O lover of justice, you have established equity, you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” God executes justice and righteousness in you. That is your sharing in God’s glory.
Of course your light flickers. Of course your glory is stained, and your image of God is dirty. So there’s wisdom that the Transfiguration is the last Sunday before Lent. This week is Ash Wednesday. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You have to die, and your light go out.
Even Jesus, full of glory, knew he had to die. He ordered the disciples, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” His real glory came after his rising from the dead. His death was not an obstacle, an interruption, but the necessary means, the fuel, the tree that burns but is not consumed. His ethical self-sacrifice is the inexhaustible fuel of his ontological glory.
Just so the glory of your righteousness is not other than you dealing with your sin. Your faults and your flaws are not the opposite of righteousness but the charcoal and kindling of your glory, when you accept the forgiveness of God in your repentance and reconciliation. It is your desire for God’s righteousness by which you receive the Kingdom of Heaven, not your success. And even if your light is flickering, let it shine, you don’t need much light to offer hope within the darkness.
You prayed this in our collect today: “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. The God who is hidden in the cloud says, “Listen to Jesus,” and the first thing Jesus says to you is, “Rise up, do not be afraid.” I’m with you now before you have arrived. I shine my light in you. You are transparent to my mercy, you are translucent with my love. This is the color of the light that is shining in you, it is the color of God’s love.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.