Grace Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2017, Transfiguration A
Exodus 24:12-18: Matthew 17:1-9
Epiphanies and Cloudy Mountains
Back on Wednesday I had to do a bit of driving around. It was not too much, but it was made better by the fact that Wednesday was a mostly cloudy day, on which the sometimes-oppressive Florida sun was not able to make the car time quite as miserable as it might be otherwise. No squinting, no fumbling for sunglasses. Easy.
I know this is a little bit heretical to say in this state, but sometimes cloudiness can be a good thing.
In the Old Testament a cloud can in fact be a very good thing: it can, on occasion, be a manifestation of the presence of God.
It happens in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is making ready to go up the mountain called Sinai to receive instruction from God. Even from the moment the Israelites had first come to that mountain after their deliverance from Egypt (back in 19:9), God had made his presence to Moses there known by the appearance of a thick and dense cloud, from which God’s voice might be heard by the people. Even before that, during the Exodus from Egypt, a pillar of cloud had been the manifestation of God’s protection of the people as they traveled by day, with a pillar of fire taking its place by night.
There are other accounts in Hebrew Scripture of cloud as manifestation of God, but my personal favorite is a little-known account from the little-read book of 2 Chronicles. In this account in chapter 5 the great Temple was being dedicated under King Solomon. At the climax of the dedication the Temple was filled with a cloud, “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” I mean, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool. (There is a parallel account in 1 Kings 8, but I prefer the Chronicles version because in that story, the cloud fills up the Temple only after the trumpeters have played and the choir has sung. I am a musician of sorts, after all.)
So when we get to the account from Matthew’s gospel today, along with the account of going up a mountain, and the actual glowing transfiguration of Jesus, the bright, welling cloud as a manifestation of the glory of God would not have been unfamiliar to those to whom Matthew was writing. It is a scene in a gospel, but like so much of Matthew’s gospel it contains a host of echoes and resonances with Hebrew Scripture.
Still, though, there is something interesting about a cloud as a manifestation of the presence and glory of God. Clouds, after all, aren’t exactly known for their revealing properties. Clouds aren’t translucent; they obscure. The whole reason that the cloudiness made that drive the other day so bearable is that it obscured the sometimes-oppressive February summer sun (that’s a phrase that only applies in Florida).
And in the account from Exodus, that’s exactly what happens. The voice of God could be heard by the people, but God could not be seen, and when Moses went up the mountain to receive the commandments of God he also disappeared. Not that the people minded; already they were quite content to keep their distance; as early as Exodus 20 they were afraid that if God spoke to them directly – face to face, so to speak – they would die. In their minds, the cloud was protection.
(As for that lovely story from 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with a cloud was indeed enough to bring the dedication of the Temple to a halt; “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” as verse 14 describes. Not sure if it means the priests were physically unable to stand or simply couldn’t stand it.)
In Matthew, the cloud seems a little different. This event is taking place six days after Simon had made the great breakthrough confession of faith recorded in 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus had followed up this confession by giving him a new name – Peter – and by launching into an extended piece of instruction on his forthcoming death. The newly-christened Peter had taken Jesus aside to rebuke Jesus for such talk, only to get the rebuke back ten times over – “Get behind me, Satan!”
Despite that rebuke, Jesus took Peter up the mountain, along with James and John, where this Transfiguration took place. As it happens, as Jesus himself is transfigured and glowing and shining and dazzling, and then as Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets, so to speak – appear with him, Peter steps into a role many of us might recognize, maybe, from times of great excitement or stress or fear in our own lives: the person whose mouth immediately starts running despite the fact that his brain is supplying absolutely nothing useful for his mouth to say.
And then, when Peter is fumbling around about building booths for Moses and Elijah and Jesus as if this were the ancient Hebrew festival known as the Feast of Booths? That’s when the cloud appears.
The cloud “overshadowed” them. And, as it was back in the days of Exodus, a voice (the voice of God?) spoke from the cloud, to the effect that the disciples fell to their knees in fear (not unlike their Hebrew ancestors at the prospect of the voice of God). What the voice said sounds familiar – “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” is an exact echo of what the voice from Heaven – from the clouds, so to speak – says at Jesus’s baptism, back in chapter 3. But there is added a command: “Listen to him!” (And don’t miss that exclamation point.) Only at the touch of Jesus (“Get up and do not be afraid”) do they look up to see the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah gone, and Jesus – “Jesus himself alone” in Matthews’ emphatic construction – is there. The cloud, the glory of God, has removed the distractions of Moses and Elijah, the safe and comfortable heroes of the faith Peter and James and John knew, and left them with “Jesus himself alone,” whom they have just seen as they had never seen or heard or understood him before.
You might notice that at the beginning of each service lately I have referred to that day as the second or fourth or fifth or seventh Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany, of course, marks the occasion of the visit of the Magi to welcome and bring gifts to the child Jesus, an event that theologically can be taken to refer to a revealing of Jesus not just to the people of Israel but to all the world. Not everyone is big on the idea of a “season” of Epiphany, but reviewing the scriptures we’ve heard does seem to suggest a theme of Jesus being revealed:
--Jesus is revealed at his baptism by John, who reluctantly baptizes him so “that all might be fulfilled”;
--Jesus is revealed as he begins his public ministry with acts of healing, so that so many came to him from all across the region to be healed;
--Jesus is revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, in the teaching about being salt and light, in his declaration that he comes “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law and yet overturns everything we thought we knew about keeping the law, challenging us instead to fulfill the law.
And now in the Transfiguration Jesus is revealed again, in a glory his disciples had not comprehend and we do not comprehend. We see Jesus transfigured; we see Jesus glorified; we see Jesus in his eternal-ness.
As the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes in his The Faith of the Church:
Eternal does not mean "that which has no end" but "that which belongs to the world to come". Eternity is not defined by its unlimited characteristic but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious kingdom of God.
“That which belongs to the world to come."
At a challenging time for the disciples, when Jesus insisted on his own death and severely rebuked those who could not accept it, these disciples are given a glimpse, however fleeting, of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. At a nearly impossible time for us, we receive this glimpse of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. Death does not, cannot, have the last word, no matter how dark our despair might seem, how much madness might seem to hold sway in the entire world, no matter how bleak the night. The clouds pull back and conceal what is not eternal, revealing the One who is eternal. And that, strange and puzzling as the story might be, is why the Transfiguration is a day of great hope.
This is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased.
Listen to him!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#634 To God Be the Glory
#11 Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
#189 O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair
#156 Sing of God Made Manifest