This morning we have heard two marvellous stories of mountain-top experiences and shining faces. It makes sense that they would go together. I am not trying to diminish the significance of either of these accounts, and there must be degrees of shining, but honestly, have you never seen a shining face? I can think of a few weddings when I could hardly bear to look at the brilliant joy of a bride and groom as they stood there. I remember the face of my husband when we brought our first newborn home from the hospital. Glowing, emitting energy. You have your own memories, and I suggest, your own mountain-top experiences also.
What then about these stories? The Book of Exodus is part of the history of the Hebrew people and their relationship with their God. Moses, in the 13th or 14th century BCE led a few hundred of his people out of slavery in Egypt toward a Promised Land somewhere in the future. In the previous chapter of Exodus, it is clear that Moses is losing his authority as a leader and the people are losing their will to continue. They had even started worshipping the images of other tribes along the way.
Moses complained to the Lord, “You chose me to do this! Where are you? If you do not show your Presence to us, how do we know that we are your people, and how do I know that I am to lead them?”
The Lord answered, “I hear you. Meet me in the morning up on the mountain, and I’ll show you my glory. Oh, and by the way, cut two tablets of stone and I’ll write words on them.” And so it was.
As our text begins this morning, we heard, “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that his face shone because he had been talking with God.
Moses was a changed man, so changed that the people were afraid, in awe of him. Now with his authority confirmed, he was strengthened ; just to make sure, he put a veil over his face before the shining faded.. The decision was made. Their journey to the Promised Land continued.
The other Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of Luke, the account of an event known as the Transfiguration. It is some indication of how little we understand this event that the word “transfiguration” itself means only literally “a change in appearance”. Over the years theologically, however, transfiguration has taken on the additional “heaven comes down to earth” meaning of this pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry.
As Luke tells us, in the preceding chapter, Jesus is at the height of his ministry. His healing and his teaching are gaining much attention throughout Galilee and beyond. Just a few days earlier, a huge group of people around him, maybe as many as five thousand, had been fed miraculously when there seemed to have been no food.
A little later he asked his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?”
“I don’t know”, they answered. “Maybe John the Baptist, maybe Elijah, maybe one of the old prophets, come back to life.”
Then, to the disciples again, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter’s insight , “You are the Christ of God.”
Hearing that, Jesus confided in them, that the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected by everyone, be killed, and on the third day be raised.
I wonder how much of that the disciples were able to hear.
Now we come to the passage Marilyn read this morning.
A few days later, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, and he took Peter and James and John with him. Apparently the disciples were weary and took a little nap. While Jesus was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes turned dazzling white. The disciples half-asleep nearby saw the change in his appearance and also two men with him, Moses, the Law-Giver and Elijah, the Prophet. They were all speaking together about the death of Jesus!
Peter jumped up, half awake, and said something like, “Oh Master, I’m so glad we came! We should build three shrines for the occasion, one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah!” Peter had no idea what he was saying.
As soon as he said this, as if to correct him, a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Silence. The cloud fades, and they see only Jesus. They come down from the mountain, speechless.
Shortly after this, the Gospel-writer says, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, a journey that would lead not to another mountain but rather to a cross on a hill.
What then, did this mean, what we call the Transfiguration? I don’t know. But, if Jesus had not set his face toward Jerusalem, had not gone to Jerusalem, to his crucifixion, death and resurrection, we might not have heard of him again and not been here this morning. Is this the way it happened that day on that mountain? I don’t know.
There is, however, one lesson we can take away. Peter, we have so much to learn from Peter. Even in the presence of his Master, Peter is so uncomfortable with the cloud, so afraid of the vision of two men dead centuries before. He tries to make sense of the awesome happening in front of him. “Let’s do something! I don’t understand this! Let’s take a picture to commemorate this!’
Peter, this is a holy moment. Stay with God’s glory! Don’t be afraid of it because you don’t understand what is happening. Transfiguration? More than a change of appearance. An experience of the Holy.
The Idea of the Holy
The Idea of the Holy. Almost one hundred years ago, in 1917, a German theologian by the name of Rudolf Otto wrote a book, Das Heilege translated as “The Idea of the Holy”. His thesis is that believers of any religion, particularly Christians, pay too little attention to the irrational experiences of our faith. He says that there is an experience of God separate from the moral and the rational; the experience of the Holy.
He says that this experience of God that is unutterable, for which we have no words, separate from our experience of trying to live a good life or understanding our belief. Otto gave this experience a name; he called it the “numinous”. That which is ineffable, in his opinion, the very core of our life of faith.
Perhaps one way to hear the story of The Transfiguration is to hear it in the context of the Idea of the Holy. As one of my teachers used to say, “I don’t know if it happened that way, but I know it is true.”
It seems to me that in our Protestantism we have become at times too reasonable in the exercise of our faith. I must admit that at times I am a bit envious when I go to Mass with my granddaughters, not because I can’t take communion with them, but because when the priest consecrates the host and lifts it up with thanks, a little bell rings, and the believers in that church KNOW that in that moment the bread and wine have become the very body and blood of Christ. And I’m a little envious when I watch folks at the Mosque carefully remove their shoes, and in some cases their socks, because they KNOW that over that threshold is Holy Ground.
Oh No, not really, we don’t need to envy anyone because we know that mountaintop experiences are available to us all in the here and now.
This Sunday we celebrate the Sacrament of Communion. In a few moments, our minister will invite us to a feast at the table. Rationally, literally, the feast will consist of a small piece of gluten-free bread and a tiny glass of grape juice. In the idea of the Holy we come, hungry to be fed, looking forward to being satisfied in the symbols of the body and blood of Christ.
With such faith let us come to the table in the atmosphere of the Holy. In this mountaintop experience let us listen to who we are, each of us a Child of God and a member of the Body of Christ. Let it not make sense, let us be overcome by the cloud of God’s Presence, and let our faces shine.
In Life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
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