Sunday, March 06, 2011

Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

In Ben Hur (1959) the Romans have British accents and the Jews have American accents. The lone Arab accent comes from a Welsh actor.

In Gladiator (2000) everyone has British accent, despite the three stars of the movie being Australian, American and Danish.

In Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) the rebels have American accents and the evil empire actors have British accents.

In the series Rome (2005) and the film Caligula (1979) class divisions were identified by the type of British accents, from upper-class snob to working-class bloke.

In The Prince of Egypt (1998) all the Egyptians have British accents, and the Jews sound American. Moses, with the only American accent in Pharaoh's palace, should have figured out is ancestry a bit quicker.

Finally, “almost every single Christ movie in film history has given the title character an extremely thick British accent,” ( making the normally Jewish Jesus somehow Roman, Egyptian or an opponent of the Rebel Alliance.

With so many voices in Matthew 17—God, Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John—it would be nearly impossible to assign accents. There is also a flurry of movement: up the mountain, into the cloud, falling to the ground, and lifted up by Jesus. Through it all we hear described one of the most unusual events in scripture with strange appearances, a flood of divine light and a voice from the cloud.

Before we look in more detail, though, it is important to imagine the Bible as a storehouse of clues. It contains a vast web of interconnecting references, pointing to themes and stories that add meaning and flesh out the narrative. These clues, sometimes called intertextual links, add a secondary layer of meaning to the text. And sometimes they cause tension in the text, teasing us to ask why the link might appear in the first place.

Matthew 17, our example, contains two giant intertextual links in the persons of Moses and Elijah. Moses is the liberator of the Hebrew people from Egypt and Elijah is Israel’s greatest prophet (something I believe strongly, until my resident OT scholar tells me otherwise over lunch). The two add multiple layers of meaning to an already busy text and may even force us to decide, or at least cut through some of the layers to make some sense of the passage for today.

So, let’s get started. We have two paths to follow, Moses or Elijah, and the clues are in the story. They appear on the mountain with Jesus, and both come with mountain traditions: Moses on Mt. Sinai (receiving the law) and Elijah on Mt. Carmel (defeating the priests of Baal). They speak to Jesus, a parallel to the ongoing conversation both Moses and Elijah have with God. They enter a cloud, an echo of Mt. Sinai but perhaps an echo of the whirlwind from 2 Kings 2.

So here is the clue I like the best: At the very beginning of the passage, at the beginning of the chapter, we read these words:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

After six days of what? In the middle of the previous chapter Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi and he is quizzing them on his identity. The he predicts his death, rebukes Peter, and invites them to “pick up your cross and follow me.” There is not timeline, no geographic marker of any consequence and no introduction to the statement. Just three words: After six days.

More in that in a moment. At the end of the passage Taye read, the disciples only want to talk about Elijah. And there are a few reasons why. First, Elijah is associated with the advent of the Messiah, a top-of-mind topic for everyone in the story. Second, Elijah is more contemporary, and more human in the sense that the role of prophet is closer to the experience of the disciples than the far off Moses. Third, Elijah is cool, making a barbeque of the priests of Baal and defeating an evil queen and all that.

Okay, but after six days of what? It’s here that we discover that the passage is really about Moses. For you see, six days is the time that God makes Moses wait, six days he spends on Sinai waiting in a cloud:

On the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

They had a lot to talk about. God had a list of items to be custom made on his return to the people: ark of tokens, table of bread, golden lamp-stand, tabernacle, alter, vestments, another alter, and a bronze basin. God said “by the way, take these two tablets” and off Moses went. And what did he find when he returned, list under one arm and tablets under the other? A golden calf. Things went further downhill from there, no pun intended.

But let me back-up: Just before he left, God noticed the golden calf making and the partying and seems to have a change of heart:

“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

Moses is a little taken aback. ‘Lord,’ he says, ‘why kill the very people you just liberated from Egypt?’ And in a wonderful turn he says ‘why let the Egyptians mock you by saying “he liberated them only to kill them in the desert.”’ Moses begs God to turn from anger, and them the knock-out punch: ‘remember the covenant you made with Abraham and Isaac, that you would make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky?’ God relents.

After six days Jesus meets Moses and Elijah, but the primary message is from Moses, and the six days is the very same six days that Moses waited, and the message is this: You will intervene to save the people from themselves. Jesus is the new Moses, arguing with God to redeem the frail creatures that hardly deserve redemption.

The disciples witness the transfiguration and can only think about building three shelters. The Israelites see what appears to be devouring fire atop Mt. Sinai and all then can think about is making a golden calf. God gave us metallurgy and chemistry and mechanics and all we can think about is making the weapons of war. Our entire classification system for the ancient world—stone age, bronze age, iron age—is based on the ability to make better and better weapons, right up to the nuclear age, when we have the capacity to send ourselves right back to the stone age.

But after six days Jesus knew. He knew that his primary activity in eternity would be doing the very same thing Moses did so well: Forgive then, Father, for they know not what they do; forgive them their trespasses, that they may forgive those that trespass against them. I can’t even imagine that God is still angry, it’s just that God has seen it all, and Jesus remains ever patient.

“With sighs too deep for words” the Spirit intercedes for us, giving us the words to ask for help, the words that seek redemption, the words that bring new life, now and always, amen.


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