A Time of Unveiling -- A Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday
A Time of Unveiling
Transfiguration Sunday brings to a close the journey we call Epiphany. Throughout this season we have considered the ways in which God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus. That which is veiled is unveiled. The Word is made flesh and dwells among us. The divine encounters the human and we are drawn into the presence of God. Now is the time of the unveiling, when at least for a moment we are allowed to see the glory of God, and in this moment the world is transformed.
In this Transfiguration moment there is a passing of the mantle and a bearing witness to this exchange. Elijah passes the mantle of prophethood to Elisha, with the prophets of the Jordan bearing witness. Then there’s Moses and Elijah in conversation with Jesus, essentially passing the prophetic mantle on to Jesus – as witnessed by three of disciples. And as Paul says to us we have been given the “light of the knowledge of God’s glory” as revealed in the “face of Jesus Christ.” How might we bear witness to the work of God and in that moment be transformed?
There is a strong connection between this passage in 2 Kings and the Transfiguration story in Mark 9. In one Elijah goes into the heavens leaving behind Elisha to carry on the work. In Mark Elijah and Moses both appear and then leave behind Jesus to carry on the work. Elijah is the prototypical prophet. He speaks truth to power and causes great angst in high places. He boldly speaks the message of God, which means that he’s not all that popular. But those who are attuned to his message, they are loyal. At least Elisha is loyal.
The passage in 2 Kings begins with a summary statement – It’s time for the LORD to take Elijah into heaven. His work is done. It’s time for another to pick it up. But when is the right moment. Elijah is accompanied by Elisha, and Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind, first at Gilgal, but Elisha won’t stay behind. Instead Elisha says: “As the LORD lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” The same response is given at Bethel, after a group of prophets come out and tell Elisha that God is going to take away his master. That may be, but Elisha isn’t ready to talk about it. They go to Jericho, though Elijah again tells his disciple to stay behind. Elisha isn’t willing to abide this directive, because as long as God is alive and you are alive, I’m with you. They go to the Jordan and the same thing occurs; only this time there are fifty prophets who come out to meet them. When Elisha again refuses to stay behind, the prophets follow them to the river, though at a distance. Once there, Elijah takes off his coat, rolls it up, hits the water, dividing the river so that they can walk across on dry land.
Elisha has been true to his word. He will not abandon his master. His loyalty is resolute, but now the time comes when Elijah must depart. Now that they’ve arrived at the river of departure, Elijah asks his disciple and successor – what do you want from me – and Elisha responds: “Let me have twice your spirit.” This is a bold request. Is it brash? Is it a sense of personal need for power? Or is it simply a voicing of a desire to continue the prophetic work that he has witnessed? Elijah tells his disciple – “If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours . . .” And when the fiery chariot arrives to take Elijah away, Elisha doesn’t flinch, but keeps his focus until he could no longer see Elijah and the chariot of heaven. Then he takes hold of his clothes and rends them in two, as a sign of grief. Now it is upon him. Something similar, it seems, happens in Acts 1, when the disciples continue looking into the heavens as Jesus ascends. The angels must snap them out of their gaze, so that they can continue on the work. Elisha grieves, but he must also continue on for he asked and shall receive the mantle of his master.
In Mark 9 we have Mark’s account of the Transfiguration. Together with Peter, James and John, Jesus goes to a high mountain. He is “translated” (CEB) or “transfigured before their eyes. The clothes are as bleached white, dazzling them. And Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the prophet paramount appear and talk with Jesus. We’re never told what their talking about. As a baseball fan it has the appearance of a gathering at the mound for a strategy session. Whatever is the case, Mark wants us to realize that Jesus stands in important company. He is one who continues the ministries of Moses and Elijah. Their appearance serves to bear witness to his primacy. Peter seems to understand this. Like Elisha he is loyal and brash. Yes, he will flee when the time of trouble arrives, but he will also return and will take up the mantle.
In this setting, Peter feels the need to do something. He’s not sure what that should be so he offers to build tents or shrines for the three figures. Does he expect Moses and Elijah to camp out with them? Or is he seeking to create a place of reverence and even worship? Is he affirming Jesus’ place amongst the greats of Israel’s history? Does he understand Jesus to be the recipient of this mantle, that Jesus is the fulfillment or climax of Israel’s history? Mark says that Peter really didn’t know how to respond, so this was his best effort.
While all of this is going on a cloud overshadows them, even as a cloud overshadowed Moses and Elijah had disappeared into the clouds, and a voice from the cloud declared: “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” At that moment Peter, James and John find themselves alone with Jesus. Does this mean that Jesus supersedes his predecessors? Some have taken it this way, and in doing so have denigrated Judaism. Does this mean that the witness of the Moses and Elijah has been sufficiently affirmed by God that their work is done, and Jesus can no go forward? We must ponder these questions. Whatever the case, Jesus is not ready for this revelation to be made known broadly. Not until after the resurrection will they be free to share this word. First things first!
I close with Paul, not because Paul supersedes these first two texts, but in part because the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading fit together. But I think too that Paul is on to something. There is a sense of veiling and unveiling going on in these texts. Elisha must keep watching if he is to receive the mantle – keep your eyes on the prize. Peter must keep his eyes on Jesus if he is to fulfill his calling. They may not completely understand, but they have seen into the other side. They have crossed the river and climbed the mountain. They must process the realities they have observed and experience, but at the right time they must reveal what they have seen and heard. Now Paul’s word about the road to destruction is off-putting. It seems to suggest a sort of “double predestination” idea. God unveils the truth to some and keeps it veiled to others who are on the road to destruction. I would rather see this not as God veiling our eyes, but our unwillingness to see and hear. Elisha must keep focused. Some are willing to do so. Others get distracted and their lives end up on a road to destruction. I believe that even here God is able to redeem them, but are willing to hear the witness of God and follow it?
For Paul Jesus is the image of God. Yes, we are all created in the image of God, but Jesus is the full embodiment of that image. For Paul, Jesus is the second Adam, the one who walks in obedience and shows us the way to life. We have a choice – do we follow the first Adam or the second Adam? To follow the second Adam, for Paul, involves preaching not one’s self, but Christ as Lord. To do so is to be a slave for the sake of Jesus. Slavery is, for us, a rather problematic term. Our understanding of slavery is so defined by American ante-bellum slavery, and how Paul was used to uphold it, that we’re not comfortable with it. But, can we walk boldly, but humbly, with Jesus. Will we, like Elisha, stand firm, come what may? If so, then will we be the means by which the light will shine in the darkness? Paul closes with these words:
He is the One who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
Are we willing to look at the face of Jesus so that we might truly see God’s glory? I know that some of my co-religionists are uncomfortable with the emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus. I know that in the context of religious pluralism that this emphasis is problematic, but if you remove Jesus from the center is there anything left? In our conversation on Islam, my Islamic scholar friend, answered the question of whether Muslims consider the Qur’an to be inerrant. This is, he said, an article of faith. You remove it, and the religion collapses, even as removing the divinity of Christ pulls the rug out from under Christianity.
So I wonder, with Paul and with Mark, are we ready to embrace a robust understanding of the person of Christ. When we look into his face, do we see the glory of God in a way that actually transforms our lives? Are we any different as a result of our confession? This doesn’t have to be seen in some kind of haughty superiority with regard to other faith traditions. The point is, am I a transformed person as a result of my engagement with Jesus? Or is this simply a game to play?
I close with a quote from venerable theologian John Cobb as recorded by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp:
The more progressive denominations on the whole have been losing members and resources. There are many reasons. But I think the deepest one may be what we do and say does not seem to be terribly important. This is true with regard to our children whom we bring upon the church. They may have a positive attitude toward it, but they may not see any reason to give much, if any, of their time and energy to its support. (Quoted in The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith, p. 151).
For Paul, Elijah and Elisha, for Moses, and for Jesus, this is rather important. Is it true for us? Will it transfigure us as well?