The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 26 February 2017

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
II Peter 1:16-21
Saint Matthew 17:1-9

Background: Theophanies

Not peculiar to Hebrew culture in particular, theophanies are found throughout ancient near eastern culture and classical culture as well. The first theophany that we are aware of is in the Gilgamesh Epic where Utnapishtim receives advance warning of the flood from an appearance of Ea. There also examples of theophanies in the classical period and in the literature from that period. The Greek theophany is more centered about the revelation of an image, such as the ceremonies surrounding the return of Apollo in the spring. There are other examples in Roman and Greek mystery religions.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, theophanies are a revelation of God to a human being, as to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:9-19, or Noah in Genesis 6:13. Some of these visions are of a general nature, while some are more intimate. The vision given to prophets falls in the first category, but those granted to Moses are of a special nature. “The LORD said: Now listen to my words: If there are prophets among you, in visions I reveal myself to them, in dreams I speak to them; Not so with my servant Moses! Throughout my house he is worthy of trust: *face to face I speak to him, plainly and not in riddles.”

The Christian experience is such that it required a new word – one that described a more particular theophany – the Christophany. The Gospel text for today is a physical appearance and thus would be typed as a theophany. The resurrection appearances of Jesus would be a more typical example of a Christophany, as is the appearance to Paul in Acts 9. One other series of Christophanies are the visions recorded by Saint John the Divine in the Book of Revelation.

The First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18

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.

Here we are impressed with the physical nature of the “words”. The commandments are inscribed, written on a stone. Thus there will be a more permanent record of God’s will. As if to offer further comment on the problems of daily life that the words seek to mediate, Moses commands the elders of Israel to arbitrate any disputes that might arise amongst the people of Israel. Thus the text supplies two examples of God’s law – the actual words, and then the interpretation and living out of them in daily life.

What follows is a theophany, seen even from a distance, as the people observe the mountain with its fiery top – further described as “consuming” or “devouring”. Such distinctions added to the “threat” within the vision. It is into this region of terror and dread that Moses willingly enters. His experience there is not for a moment but rather for a “fullness” of time – 40 days and 40 nights.

Breaking open Exodus:
1.          What are the compelling visuals in this pericope?
2.          Words written, or words spoken – which is the more important to you?
3.         How would you describe Moses’ emotions in this scene?

Psalm 2 Quare fremuerunt gentes?

     Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
2      Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
and the princes plot together, *
against the Lord and against his Anointed?
3      "Let us break their yoke," they say; *
"let us cast off their bonds from us."
4      He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.
5      Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.
6      "I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion."
7      Let me announce the decree of the Lord: *
he said to me, "You are my Son;
this day have I begotten you.
8      Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
9      You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery."
10    And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11    Submit to the Lord with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;
12    Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
13    Happy are they all *
who take refuge in him!

The scene seems to be specific in nature, but the details are unavailable to us at this point. Its inclusion in the lectionary here seems to be an attempt to describe kingship in relationship to the transfigured Jesus. The object of the ire of the kings of the earth is YHWH and the Anointed One. Is this the Messiah of hope or is this the intended heir of the current Davidid king? Both might be possible. The point of the psalm is to laud the power and suasion of the God of Israel.


Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

     The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
2      The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
3      Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
4      "O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
5      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
6      Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
7      He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
8      Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
9      Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.

Again we meet God in the guise of a cosmic ruler, who is enthroned upon the cherubim, as would be any ancient near eastern monarch.  In verse 6 we see God’s kingship displayed with the prophetic (Samuel and Moses) and the priestly (Aaron). This is the context within which to view God’s total presence with the people.

Breaking open the Psalms:
1.     In what ways is God a king?
2.     Who is God’s anointed one?
3.    What do you understand by the term “messiah”?

II 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.

Two forms are evident in II Peter; that of the letter sent to Christians, and that of the testament, usually given at the end of life. Here the author seeks to address a church that has disappointments and challenges. Paul might help us understand this situation when he writes to Timothy about the challenges that he is facing in his ministry, “I repeat the request I made of you when I was on my way to Macedonia, c that you stay in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to teach false doctrines or to concern themselves with myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the plan of God that is to be received by faith.” Thus the person writing as Peter begins this pericope with the passage on “cleverly devised myths.” What he does is set up a contrast between a faith based on mythology, or a faith based on the apostolic witness – “but we had been eyewitnesses.” This is the stuff of divine revelation, a glimpse of God’s true glory, much like that witnessed by Peter, James, and John witnessed on the mountain,

  1. What is a myth to you?
  2. What is the apostolic witness?
  3. What are compelling myths in your life?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, 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.”

In this possible remembrance on the part of Peter we see Jesus in the midst of a very real world, suddenly revealed as the divine Beloved One, much as he was at his baptism. The claim here is that Jesus is the Messiah, and a careful review of Psalm 2 above can help us to see all of the expectations that come out of such a viewpoint. Albright, in his commentary on Matthew, notes the common phraseology that appears in this pericope as well as in resurrection and ascension pericopes as well. This seems to be a unique event, rather than a retrojected resurrection appearance. It has a place in the accounts of three evangelists, and the passion prediction with which Jesus’ justifies the silence that he requires, ties the transfiguration of a newly figured messiah as well. Thus the glory witnessed by the three is mediated by the realization that this is the Son of Man who must die (be raised from the dead.) What might be seen as a fantasy is actually a call to see Jesus in the reality of the situation.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the root of your life in Christ?
2.     How do you try to meet the letter of the law?
3.    What do you do when you fail?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

O God, who before the passion of your only begotten 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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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