On height, Torah, time and glory

January 27, 2008

Transfiguration Sunday is the highpoint between Epiphany, when the
mystery is suddenly transparent, and the resurrection, when the
ultimate epiphany breaks through what we had imagined was the full stop
of death. Last year on Transfiguration Sunday our congregation hosted
the Rivercity Gospel Jazz band. The service was an explosion of song
and prayer and bold preaching that transfigured worship for a Sunday.
Something like that seems called for this week.

The texts are about a longing to know God’s way. With Peter in the
lead, the disciples are confounded when Jesus leads them down into a
world of suffering (Matt. 17:21ff). They imagined that the church was a
place of ease rather than a community that bears pain. Jesus takes them
up the mountain in the midst of their perplexity about the cruciform
way of the Messiah.

Moses and Joshua were also once in search
of God’s way of life in the Torah. In their absence, Moses leaves Aaron
and Hur in charge. They are left to adjudicate disputes in the absence
of Moses’ wisdom and of God’s law. They have only their own wits to
sort out the inevitably messy legal disputes and sordid family
arguments that are brought to them.

No wonder Psalm 1 speaks
of God’s law as delightful. Without it there is chaos and confusion.
With it, “law” is “gospel.” Our habitual theological framing of law
over against gospel can cause us to forget that while legalism is not gospel, being given a way to live—what Paul calls “the law of Christ”—is very good news.

The texts take note of time. Moses is on the mountain for 40 days and
nights—evoking the long days of the great flood and the long years of
the wilderness wandering and Jesus’ long wrestling with the Tempter.
Reception of God’s way did not happen overnight, and it does not happen
overnight now. Recall the early church’s long process of
catechesis—often three years of preparation before baptism. It takes a
long time for God to transfigure our lives.

Moses is called
out of the cloud on the seventh day. Jesus takes the disciples up the
mountain “six days later,” which suggests that the sabbath, or seventh
day, is also the day when life is transfigured and God’s way is
revealed with clarity. Given the name of our congregation—University
Hill—we often imagine that every time we gather to worship we embark on
the journey up the Mount of Transfiguration to see clearly what is
shrouded from Monday through Saturday.

• The texts take note of
glory. Given all the fire and brightness and dazzling clothes in these
texts, God’s glory apparently has to do with transcendent luminosity.
Our culture often equates glory with fame, and with glory in winners of
all kinds. But in Hebrew “glory” (kabod) means “weight” or “heaviness.” God’s glory is God’s gravitas.
To be in God’s presence is to experience the massiveness, the immensity
of God. When God’s glorious voice tells Jesus’ inner cabinet of three
to “listen to him,” there can be no lingering uncertainty. This is a
glorious exclamation mark.

In speaking of this announcement
Peter reflects, “We have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.”
One might expect him to say that because of the Transfiguration the
message has been guaranteed, but he hedges. Yes, the message is
more fully confirmed, but it’s not proven. Even the most incredible
divine intervention cannot prove that God’s way is revealed in Christ.
Peter says that the transfiguration is like the gift of a small
flashlight in the midst of a power outage, like a lantern in the deep
darkness—useful in the meantime “until the day dawns and the morning
star rises in our hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).