The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2 March 2014
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
II Peter 1:16-21
St. Matthew 17:1-9
Background: Sacred Mountains
I just finished reading Joan Breton Connelly’s excellent book The Parthenon Enigma – a new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it. Her first chapter is entitled “The Sacred Rock – the Myth and Power of Place.” It was not only in the ancient near east that mountains captured the spiritual imagination of people, but throughout the entire world men and women have found something divine in the heights of the mountains. Perhaps people moving from above Lake Van into the Greek islands and Tigris – Euphrates river valley retained ancient memories of the mountains and rekindled their old stories as they built artificial mountains (the ziggurat) in the flat plains of Mesopotamia, and honored the Acropolis and Olympus as places where gods touched the earth. Such places were known to the people of Israel as well, and in our readings we have remembrances of these high places: Sinai, Zion, and the Mount of the Transfiguration. In writing their application of Bowen Family Systems Theory to the work place, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky talk about “the balcony”, i.e. a high place from which a greater perspective can be gained. “The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray.”
Any military person would have been able to share such knowledge with us. In the ancient world, however, military matters were more often than not connected with spiritual and religious matters as well. Of course the gods could make decisions – they had the perspective. It is religious thinkers, such as Moses, who also gain this perspective as well. It is Elijah who climbs Horeb (Sinai) and there knows God in a “still, small, and quiet voice.” So Jesus takes the disciples to the Mount of the Transfiguration and gives them perspective, but takes them to other heights as well: the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, and finally Golgotha. Such perspectives allow us to pull together not only a vision of the Divine, but also our inclusion in God’s design and family. Psalm 121:1 puts it best:
“I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
From whence shall come my help?
My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.”
The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction." So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, "Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them."
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
There are two aspects to this pericope that are overwhelming. The most apparent is the stunning nature of God’s revelation, God’s epiphany in fire and light and cloud. A Hebrew word comes to mind here, shekinah, which means to “settle, inhabit, or dwell”. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the shekinah describes God’s presence in both Tabernacle and Temple. Here the shekinah, the indwelling of God on the mountain, is indicated by both cloud and fire – a reality into which Moses is invited.
The other aspect of this pericope, which we may miss because it is lacking in the splendor of the former, is the nature of what it is that God gives – words. God invites Moses to the mountain for one purpose, to “give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” If we are unclear about what the purposes of these words are, the text quickly indicates the true purpose. The elders are sent back from where Moses and Joshua are. They are sent back with Aaron and Hur so that “whoever has a dispute may go to them.” These words are not like the fire and the cloud, they are very life itself. These are the words, which order in the same way that the Word orders chaos at the beginning of creation. So let us not be distracted as Peter will be, but let us listen and let us then live.
Breaking open Exodus:
- Have you ever been in the presence of God? Where?
- How is God’s Word (and here I don’t necessarily mean the Bible) living?
- What words of God do you find most compelling?
Psalm 2 Quare fremuerunt gentes?
Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
and the princes plot together, *
against the LORD and against his Anointed?
"Let us break their yoke," they say; *
"let us cast off their bonds from us."
He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.
Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.
"I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion."
Let me announce the decree of the LORD: *
he said to me, "You are my Son;
this day have I begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery."
And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Submit to the LORD with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;
Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are they all *
who take refuge in him!
The psalmist gives us the perspective of someone viewing a great tumult. Its breadth encompasses a wide vision of “the nations” and the “the kings of the earth.” What may have been local conflict involving subject nations “Let us tear off their fetters, let us fling away their bonds!” (Verse 3), is now expanded into a trial in which God presides as judge, and God judges from Zion, “my holy mountain.” The verses go on to describe the divine origins of the Davidid dynasty. It is God who appoints and who sets the king “upon my holy hill of Zion.” Though the viewpoint may be local, the psalmist has made it cosmic in nature.
At verse seven, the speaker changes. Now it is the “anointed one”, the mashiah, who speaks, and announces his “son ship,” in words that will be familiar to Christian ears. This is not new theological ground here, but rather a following suit to the protocol and style of ancient near eastern kings. It is an all-encompassing kingship that is described here, again leaving behind the local and taking on something broader. The kingship that God sets up in Zion is but a sign of God’s suasion in all the earth. Words of wrath and anger are quickly followed with a compelling verse: “Happy are they all who take refuge in (God).”
Breaking open Psalm 2:
- What does it mean to be an “anointed one”?
- Have you ever been anointed? When? Why?
- Have you ever been sent? For what purpose?
Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit
The LORD is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
The LORD is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the LORD our God is the Holy One.
We have been talking about perspective in these notes, and here the psalmist has a perspective that enfolds the great history of the people. The One enthroned upon the cherubim rules with righteousness and justice. It is interesting that before the hyperbole that describe God’s rule, these fundamental notions are spelled out first. The verse is unambiguous, “He loves justice.” Moses and Aaron (the priesthood) are mentioned along with the prophet Samuel. The “pillar of cloud” is recalled along with God’s precepts and statutes. In light of all this, all are called to “bow to his holy mountain.”
Breaking open Psalm 99:
- Where do you see evidence of God’s rule of justice and righteousness?
- How can you be a part of providing for justice and righteousness?
- What is justice in your world?
2 Peter 1:16-21
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Written in the style of a “last testament”, and reflecting the views of much later church, IInd Peter is not from the apostle’s hand, but rather from the hand of a later writer who seeks to restate apostolic teaching for his time. What the author wrestles with at the end of his life is his defense of the “second coming” of Jesus, the parousia. The author wishes to underscore the apostolic witness here, and thus points to Peter’s experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. In a challenge to those who disputed this belief in Christ’s coming again, the author points out that the belief is not “myth” but rather the testimony of the scriptures. The notion of human invention is completely removed from his argument, and the movement of the Holy Spirit becomes the foundation of belief and witness.
Breaking open II Peter:
- What is a second coming of Jesus like for you?
- What might that mean for you? For the world?
- How does the Holy Spirit move you in your faith and hope?
St. Matthew 17:1-9
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
The Moses story has made previous appearances in the Gospel of Matthew the most notable of which are the murder of the Holy Innocents, which is modeled on Pharaoh’s killing of the first born of Israel, and the reverse story of Jesus fleeing Israel for Egypt, and Moses’ fleeing Egypt because of Pharaoh’s wrath. Jesus imparts wisdom from the Mount in the Sermon on the Mount, just as Moses imparts the Law from Sinai. In this reading we not only see Jesus as transfigured, but also consulting Moses in the glory of the Transfiguration (along with Elijah as well.) The location of this revelation on a mountain bespeaks other such revelations in the past. Here, however, the story is told from the disciples’ point of view. It is they who are “in the cloud” along with Jesus, and there is a repetition of the words of approval first heard at the baptism. What Peter witnesses is the shekinah, the dwelling-with-us of God, and so on this basis wishes to continue the visitation with the construction of tents (usually built for the Feast of Tabernacles – the autumn harvest festival.) And just as Moses was not only graced with fire and cloud, but also with “the words”, so the voice imparts a command to the witnesses, “listen to him.”
Matthew makes a point when, after the disciples lift their eyes again, they see only Jesus. There is a sense of a “returned reality” in this scene, when Jesus comes and “touches them.” Unlike the scene with the Magdalene in John, where she is bidden, “nolo me tangere” (do not touch me) here there is the welcome touch – for the parousia is not yet here. There is a sense of imperfect action. No one is to be told until the Son of Man is raised. You might want to follow on into the succeeding verses and chapters, where the instruction to the disciples continues. The wanderings in the Sinai do not end with the giving of the Law there, but continue on. So here, the ministry does not end with the Vision, but continues on, awaiting the promise.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Where have you seen God’s glory?
- Were you tempted to stay a while? Why?
- Where is there glory in your life?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, who before the passion of your onlybegotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: 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; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.