Propers: Transfiguration, A.D. 2017 A
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
God always seems to be showing up on mountaintops. Part of this is because the land of the Bible is indeed quite mountainous. You’d be amazed how close things are horizontally, yet how distant vertically. You’re always either climbing up or coming down. But it’s also very natural for us to seek God atop the mountain. Up there the petty cares of the world seem to fall away, as we draw closer to nature and to nature’s God. Mt Sinai, Mt Zion, Mt Tabor—God always seems to meet us in that liminal space, halfway, where heaven touches the earth.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus leads Peter and James and John up a high mountain by themselves, and there they experience something wonderful. Jesus is transfigured before them, His face shining like the sun, His clothes a dazzling white. He looks for all the world like the divine Son of Man prophesied by Daniel centuries ago. The Shekinah, the cloud of God’s own presence, descends upon them, and the great heroes of old, Moses and Elijah, the prophets and leaders of God’s people, appear before them, conversing with Christ. And the voice of the Almighty Father proclaims: “This is My Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!”
So much is happening, so much going on. The Transfiguration recalls Moses receiving the Law atop Sinai. It recalls Jesus’ own Baptism, when the heavens were rent asunder. But most remarkably, it reveals to us Moses and Elijah—the great figures of the Law and the Prophets, famous for ascending mountains in order to speak with God—here again atop a mountain conversing with Christ. The message could not be clearer. The same God whom Moses and Elijah met upon the mountaintop appears now before them transfigured in the flesh.
It’s all so overwhelming that we nearly forget the timing of this miracle. The Transfiguration takes place during Sukkoth, the Old Testament Festival of Tabernacles. Now, tabernacle is a fairly common word in the Bible, as one might expect from a book written by missionaries, nomads, and shepherds. A tabernacle is a tent or a booth—any temporary dwelling—and they appear time and again in the Scriptures: God “tabernacles” with Adam and Eve in the Garden; Noah’s Ark is a type of tabernacle; Moses speaks to God in the great Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. And most notably, John’s Gospel begins by proclaiming that the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us.
Tabernacles, tents, are where God comes down to dwell with humankind.
The Festival of Tabernacles fell at harvest time, which was quite convenient, as little tents or booths allowed farmers to remain in the fields. It recalled the historical period of 40 years that the Hebrews spent wandering in the desert, sojourning from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But more than this, the Festival of Tabernacles recalled how God dwelt with Moses face-to-face, as it were, in the great Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. Someday, they knew, the Messiah would come and bring about the New Age, the New Creation. Then would everyone see God face-to-face, like Moses, in little tents of our own. Then would God dwell among us again, as He did in Eden, so long ago.
That’s why Peter blurts out, apparently at random, “Lord, I will make three tabernacles! One for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” To us his reaction seems crazy. Peter witnesses this astonishing revelation, and he starts babbling on about tents? But to a faithful First Century Jew, this response makes perfect sense. Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And when he sees Jesus’ glory unveiled, amidst the witness of Moses and Elijah, surrounded by the cloud of the Holy Spirit and the thunderous voice of the Father—well, naturally He knows that the end of the world has come! The Messianic Age is at hand! God has come to dwell on earth, and when God comes down, people who know their Bible expect to meet Him, as Moses did, in tabernacles.
It’s the end of the world, Peter says. Time to pitch a tent!
But then all of a sudden, as abruptly as it began, this vision of Transfiguration passes away. No more Moses or Elijah. No more cloud of the Spirit or voice of the Father. No more blazing skin or shining clothes. All of a sudden it’s just Peter and James and John and Jesus. And He says to them, “Tell no one of this vision until after I have been raised from the dead.” Then He sets His face toward Jerusalem—toward the Passover and the Cross and the tomb—and He descends from the mountain of glory down, down into the valley of the shadow of death.
Peter gets it right: the long-awaited Messiah has come. But not in the manner expected. His ways are stranger, deeper than that.
At either end of Lent there stands a mountain. Here at the beginning, on this last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we see the Transfiguration atop Mt Tabor, a vision of glory, Christ’s divinity revealed to the world. At the other ends stands Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where the King of Kings shall be crowned with thorns and enthroned upon a Roman Cross. These two mountains mirror one another. They are two sides of a single coin. The Transfiguration is the Crucifixion’s reflection, revealing it for what it truly is: the moment when God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, pouring out His life from the Cross, going all the way to hell and back, so that we His murderers might know forgiveness and salvation.
The End of the Age is upon us; God walks again on the earth. But the glory of the Lord will not appear as we expect it to, all fanfare and shouts of Hosanna. And the coming of His Kingdom will not be the triumph anticipated by mortal eyes. No. It will be something far greater, far more terrifying, and far more wonderful. The Transfiguration has shown us the end, but the journey lies yet before us. We must descend now, brothers and sisters, from the mountain of glory down into the valley of shadows. We must follow our Lord into the 40 days of Lent.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.