A Homily for 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A
See TEXT below Matthew 17:1-9
March 16, 2014
(revised from a post on 3.14.11)
TODAY is the Second Sunday in the Lenten Season, and the Gospel reading from the Lectionary for today offers us the rather mysterious account of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
What are we to make of this strange text that includes glowing raiments and conversations with long-dead people from Hebrew history? I would suggests there are at least three insights which offer us a perspective on this Gospel account.
The first insight we gain from the text is the perspective that GOD Almighty confronts Jesus and his inner-circle with and extraordinary experience of the HOLY. They go up the mountain only to uniquely meet GOD's unmediated glory.
Rudolf Otto, in his seminal work, The Idea of the HOLY, reminds us that there are the weaker (I would say normal) experiences of the HOLY: Feelings of gratitude, trust, love, reliance, humble submission, and dedication. These feelings of dependence (Schleiermacher) bring to us a "creature-feeling, a sense of dependence."
But, Otto goes on to assert that some have had other experiences of the HOLY, experiences when GOD's presence literally crashes in on their human terrain with an awfulness that leads to "tremors" or "shudders."
Here the HOLY shatters the human with an overpowering majesty that reveals GOD as unapproachable presence, an energy that conveys an urgency of life and power and activity, an utter aliveness. Otto calls this experience of the HOLY the mysterium tremendum.
The point at which Otto is driving is that the GOD who is wholly other -- or as I have often said the GOD who is mystery. To experience the HOLY, unmediated, is to be brought low to the ground and to blanche in the soul because of our own sinfulness and utter finiteness.
Said another way, quoting the German preacher Gerhard Tersteegen,
"A GOD comprehended is no GOD."
Should we ever experience GOD such as these texts describe we would not be able to comprehend the HOLY, but we would immediately comprehend our own need for cleansing and redemption, as when Peter confesses,
"LORD, is it good that we are here?"
This reminds one of the famous scene from Isaiah Six when the prophet is visioned with a confrontation of the HOLY:
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." 4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" (Isaiah 6:1-8)
As I said, this, of course, is a vision and no direct, unmediated experience of the HOLY, but Isaiah’s vision serves us by offering in human language what is most difficult to comprehend: GOD, existing as unapproachable power and incompressible light; GOD, the wholly other, who has become part of the human condition through the prophets and in the incarnation in order to reclaim the world toward which he constantly moves and to which he has inexplicably bound himself.
This is why it is called Good News.
The second insight we gain from the text is the perspective of Jesus' reliance upon his inner-circle of disciples -- Peter, James and John.
Remember, this inner-circle accompanies Jesus to Jarius' home to raise his daughter from death; these three (plus Andrew) ask him privately to further explain his words about the coming destruction of the Temple; and in Gethsemane, when he is so deeply stressed that he sweats great drops of blood, it was this inner-circle which he took a little deeper into his garden agony in order that they could share his heart and offer him support.
Did Jesus choose these men as his inner-circle to train them especially? Did he choose them because they were more fervent in their devotion? Were these three chosen at all, or did they just hang closer to their leader than others? We do not know.
But the really important question is this:
Could Jesus rely upon these men?
How reliable were they?
At first blush we must conclude that in fact they were not very reliable at all. In the present text Peter, out of sheer and utter awe offers:
"If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,"
…hardly appropriate to the occasion.
But this is just one of many gaffs and missteps he makes, even to the point were Jesus roughly rebukes the fisherman saying,
"Get behind me Satan."
The Jesus of the gospels is constantly reminded that these guys are weak and sinful, but he continues to rely upon them anyway. Perhaps he figured he had to work with what material he had — blockheads and all!
But, the question for us becomes: How are we any different? How are we any more reliable that they? And, if Jesus experienced their discipleship-unreliability, just what does he experience with our discipleship?
But, perhaps there is another way of understanding Jesus' purpose here. Perhaps Jesus sees in them, and us, something we do not see? Perhaps he sees the potential of, dare I say it, greatness. Perhaps he finds within the folds their souls and our souls the heartbeat of a titan, the promise of a true disciple. Perhaps, echoing through his mind are the words of his Father:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
and how those words would eventually apply to all of GOD’s children…
Now…wouldn’t that be something.
The third insight we gain from the text is the new perspective offered to us about Jesus himself.
Jesus, on the mountain with his inner-circle, is suddenly changed in appearance, and begins to glow with light. Then, he is somehow joined by Moses and Elijah and they begin a conversation on the new exodus (see my homily and also Luke 9:30-31). Then suddenly, there is a voice from heaven speaking in response to Peter's idea that three booths be built in honor of the occasion.
Douglas Hare, in his commentary on Matthew, reminds us that the transfiguration comes on the heels of Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mt. 16:13-20), and Jesus' passion announcement (Mt. 16:21-28). Hare asserts that the the voice speaking is meant by Matthew as a confirmation that Jesus, as the prophet who is also the suffering-servant and Messiah-King, was pleasing to the LORD, and that Jesus' approach to his Kingdom project was true to GOD's will.
Contextually, this sounds right, but the question that needs to be asked is who needs to know this information, the disciples or Jesus? Presumably, not Jesus for he has just glowed in the light from a heavenly encounter with the Almighty. No, the heavenly voice comes in response to the disciple's need to know that Jesus is truly GOD's Messiah, his agent of grace and truth (John 1:14).
And in fact this moment does just that, it informs the disciples that Jesus stands uniquely representing GOD. Peter, for one, never forgot this moment. Years later he recalls:
We have not depended on made-up stories in making known to you the mighty coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. With our own eyes we saw his greatness. We were there when he was given honor and glory by God the Father, when the voice came to him from the Supreme Glory, saying, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased!" We ourselves heard this voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
This means this morning’s text brings back to us the moment when Jesus became to his followers the living Christ. And, this text reminds us of the hour when Jesus' person became to us more than a man of history, but grew to be the cognitive motivator of our life-purpose and the orientation for our faith-mindset (our faith in the risen Christ has determine mindset and our behavior).
This new perspective offered to us about Jesus from the heavenly voice only mirrors, then, our own new frame of mind, experienced when we met the living, risen Christ, for in that meeting our entire course of life was altered and directed toward GOD's and the kingdom project.