The Transfiguration of Our Lord, 6 August 2017

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99 or 99:5-9
II Peter 1:13-21
St. Luke 9:28-36

Background: Mountains

In the setting of the Transfiguration we have an adaptation of ancient belief about the abode of the gods in Canaanite culture. Here Jesus is placed into the traditional abode, and with the traditional council in attendance. In an Ugaritic text we have a vision of how the god El receives ‘Asherah, who comes to the great god with a request for the god Ba’l. Look for the clues as to place and company:

Then the two set their faces
Toward the mountain of El
Toward the gathered council.
Indeed the gods were sitting at table.
The sons of Qudšu-‘Elat at banquet,
Ba’l stands by El.[1]

This image of god, council, rivers, and mountain is repeated within the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (I Kings 22:19, Isaiah 33:20-22). The mountain is the seat of enthronement, and the rivers are the gates of the underworld. At this juncture sits the council who attends to the god. So Luke, as well as Mark and Matthew, places Jesus in the ancient place where gods and councils met. In addition, Luke often uses mountain sites as places of prayer, Jesus seeking the council of the Most High. So this scene is a connection to a broad tradition in the ancient near east, and more particularly, the scene that is repeated over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is placed into a tradition – a tradition that is broader than that of Israel.

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Here Moses is placed at the site of divine conjunction and presence and is visibly altered by the experience. This is common in ancient near eastern texts, and so Moses is a participant in an ancient tradition as well. It sets him apart from the people he has led to the mountain, and they can see the difference. Some commentators see in the veil that is used to moderate the divine radiance a reference to the veil both in tabernacle and in the temple as well. So Moses becomes a foreshadowing of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          Where and how do you see God?
2.          How are you changed by the experience?
3.          How do you “veil” it from others, or do you?

Psalm 99 or 99:5-9 Dominus regnavit

1      [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.

The psalm repeats the ancient tradition as well, with God seated on the “holy hill” and surrounded by the heavenly court (the cherubim) and earthly attendants (Moses, Aaron, and Samuel) both prophet and priest. The reaction of the people is similar to the reaction of the people in the first reading for the day. The people join with the ancient offices of prophet and priest in attending to God.

Breaking open Psalm 99:
1.     Where is your “holy hill”?
2.     What do you see there?
3.    Who is there with you?

The Second Reading: II Peter 1:13-21

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

For 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.

The author of this letter seeks to distinguish himself and his message from that of false teachers, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths.” He speaks as an eyewitness who had experienced the theophany on the Mount of Transfiguration. He goes beyond this human distinction of having witnessed this occasion in person, and calls to the mind the witness of the Holy Spirit who has moved men and women to be able to testify to the same truth.

Breaking open II Peter:
1.     How is what you read in the Bible true for you?
2.     How do you work to understand the Bible?
3.    How does the Holy Spirit help you?

The Gospel: St. Luke 9:28-36

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Who is this man that the disciples have been following? What they have witnessed so far is their own call as individuals, and then a series of healings, and contentions with local religious leaders. In addition there is teaching, and acts that impart salvation to people. There are questions as to his true nature and mission, notably even from John the Baptist. So this scene is an important one, in which the inner circle is let into the secret identity of Jesus. This is done in a setting redolent of ancient understandings of the divine (see Background, above) but thoroughly grounded in reality, as they are bidden to keep the secret and return to the stuff of daily life in the plain below. So this story connects Jesus not only to the ancient God and that God’s council (Moses and Elijah), but also connects Jesus to the needs of those who have followed him, and those who might follow him (Peter, James, and John). The problem that is explored is one of wondering what to do with this vision and this new knowledge. That will be the disciples’ labor over the time, as they walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and its decisive denouement.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What role do Moses and Elijah play in this scene?
2.     And what is the role of Peter, James, and John?
3.    How do you participate?

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

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]  Cross, F. (1973), Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, page 37.


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