Transfiguration • 26 Feb 2017

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Rev. Dr Bruce Roy

No ordinary event

“The coming of the power of God into the midst of human reality is no ordinary event.
It is not easily or precisely described. In the Bible as much as anywhere.
Nevertheless it is clear that God’s sovereign presence
does indeed invade and inhabit ordinary events to make them extra-ordinary.
And to do so the Bible, and we, must find language that will witness to that reality
whilst invoking a sense of awe, splendour, hiddenness and mystery.
God’s glory can only be mediated by human beings using human speech,
both of which are totally inadequate for the task.
But some people seem to have a greater experience,
or at least be able to describe their experience,
of God’s glory in a way that excites or impresses others.”

Walter Brueggemann et al Texts for Preaching: Year A p 164

In our Exodus reading,
Moses experiences the glory of God
through mountain height and cloud,
after a long period of meditation and silence.
Moses spent a lot of time waiting to get God’s message,
but he made it possible by setting time apart to wait on God.

In Matthew, Jesus does likewise.

Jesus experiences the glory of God on the mountain,
his face and clothes shine.
Peter is one of the witnesses to this,
and in the letter called 2 Peter (not written by Peter himself),
he is described as being an eyewitness
of Jesus’ majesty whilst on the holy mountain.
The letter goes on to suggest that as we attend to this event,
we will experience light as from a lamp or the sun.
Light is commonly associated with God’s glory.

Incidentally, if you notice some similarities
between the events we describe as
the transfiguration of Jesus
and his ascension (forty days after Easter)
then you will have anticipated some expert opinions
which suggest that they are in fact
the same event told differently.

Such stories assert that
the world is filled, visited, invaded
with a purpose and authority other than our own.

To witness to these experiences
of God breaking into our consciousness
in awesome and holy ways
is the whole point of the season of epiphany,
which ends on Tuesday.
During the season of epiphany
we look at revelations of the majesty and glory of God.
The season begins on 6 January
with the star guiding the magi to Behtlehem.
On the following Sunday
we remembered
the Father’s endorsement of the Son at his baptism.
And today we celebrate the story of the transfiguration.

The Bible was not written in modern English
but 2000 plus years ago in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
And we live in a post-enlightment age
so our “take” on some of these events
is different to the way the peoples of the biblical era
see and describe their experiences.

This means that
to understand some of the nuances and agendas,
we need to understand the original language
and the original culture
of the people who wrote, read and heard them.

If you were one of the Jewish Christians
to whom Matthew addressed his gospel,
you would quickly recognise several themes.

First, this story of the transfiguration
is a mirror image of the story of Moses receiving the law.
Second, you would pick up on the fact
that Jesus is the central figure in this story
and Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet
are acknowledging Jesus as the central figure.

Thirdly, the witnesses to this event,
Peter, James and John,
are in fact the leaders of the early Christian community
and their authority is endorsed by this account.

So Matthew’s agenda was to establish Jesus
as greater than Moses and Elijah,
and to establish the disciples’ authority
as leaders of the early church by divine endordsement.

An epiphany, according to the dictionary,
is an experience of sudden and striking realization.

In the cultures of 2000 years ago
this was communicated through imagery and drama.

So let me share a more contemporary epiphany
- another story from a Defence Force Chaplains Retreat.
As I mentioned last week,
Defence Force Protestant Denomination chaplains
met in a Catholic retreat centre at Point Piper.
I recall a new Navy Baptist Chaplain
who was taken aback by our Catholic surroundings.
Each room had a crucifix on the wall.
He removed the one in his room and put it in a drawer.
The chapel had a huge illuminated crucifix at the rear
so fortunately he did not have to face it in chapel
but it was very evident as you left the chapel.
He was challenged by
our use of the chapel.
our use of a formal liturgy,
our kneeling for prayers, and
our daily communion service.

In one of our sessions, he voiced his opposition
to these practices and surroundings.
One of our older Chaplains, a Uniting Church chaplain,
became most passionate about what it meant for him
to kneel at the front of the chapel
with head bowed and hands cupped above his head
to receive the body of our Lord.

His passion was palpable and
evoked an epiphany for the Navy chaplain.
He saw things in a new light.
He too began to kneel in our chapel devotions
and confessed that he now also knelt
before the crucifix in his room
when doing his daily devotions.

Two points about epiphanies.

1. First, we need to notice that
these high experiences are not ends in themselves.
They always point beyond the experience to God.
The transfiguration was not an end in itself.
The significance of the disciples’ mountain-top experience
is dependent on looking forward
to what ultimately makes that experience significant.

Christians are always at risk of seeing themselves
as having arrived at the point
at which they discover or own faith in God.
But it is only the beginning.
Faith is a journey that anticipates
the suffering of the Cross
and the triumph of the Resurrection
just as surely as does the transfiguration epiphany.
We do not arrive at faith -
it is the beginning of an ongoing journey with God.

2. The second point is for those
who feel that they must have missed out on significant
or even spectacular spiritual experiences,
when they hear of others’ experiences
or read of the spectacular epiphanies in the scriptures.

Too often we search for something spectacular and significant
that will transform our being
when our own epiphany is really right there in front of us.
It is how we perceive rather than what we perceive
that is the more important.

We read of clouds descending,
mythic figures and voices,
glistening whiteness,
voices calling to people like Samuel,
apparently instantaneous responses
from fishermen called by Jesus,
and we say, ‘Nothing like that ever happens to me,
so God is not active in my world.’
How we perceive things
(and how we might describe what we perceive) is important,
especially to twenty-first century Western Christians
brought up on diets of TV exposés
that presume to give us the truth,
or on a scientific deductive view of the world.
The psychologist might suggest that
the disciples had some fantasy,
a projection of their desires about Jesus.
The gospel writer says that they had a vision.
Who has the reality?
It depends on how you see it.

“Excuse me,”
said a small ocean fish to a fellow swimmer.
“You are older than I so can you please tell me
where to find this thing they call The Ocean.”
The older fish was somewhat taken aback,
and exclaimed, “The Ocean?
But that is what you are swimming in right now.”
“Oh, this?” said the younger fish,
“But this is just water.
What I am looking for is The Ocean.”
And he swam away disappointed
and continued to look for this significant experience
he desired so much,
to swim in The Ocean.