Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Narrative Lectionary: Transfiguration, Matthew 16:24-17:8 (Psalm 41:7-10)
Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday in this season after the Epiphany, preparing us for Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday (this year, February 22nd).
We begin with Exodus 24:12-18, when Moses went up the mountain to receive tablets from God with the instructions and commandments God had given Moses for the people. God’s glory appeared like a cloud on the mountain, and it remained for six days, before God called up Moses to enter the cloud on the seventh day. In a sense, this was a new creation, the creating of God’s people through the covenant at Mt. Sinai. And Moses remained up on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Psalm 2 is a song questioning the authority of earthly kings when God is the one who reigns. God has appointed an earthly king (the king of Israel in vs. 7). The psalmist warns the earthly kings and rulers to turn to wisdom and serve God, because God has called the king of Israel to serve them, and other kings must follow.
An alternative reading is Psalm 99, which is also a royal psalm, calling the people to worship God as their king. God is committed to justice and equity and has established justice in Israel. Moses and Aaron were priests who served God, along with the prophet Samuel. As God spoke with them and they followed God’s ways, so the people ought to serve and worship God. The psalmist recalls how God spoke through the pillar of cloud at Sinai and how these ancestral leaders remained faithful to God. The psalmist concludes by calling the people to worship God at the holy mountain (Sinai for the people in the wilderness, Zion for the people in Jerusalem, where the temple was erected), for God is holy.
The Epistle reading is 2 Peter 1:16-21. The writer purports to be Peter who witnessed the transfiguration on the mountain. The writer uses this moment to justify their letter and beliefs, for a church well after the time of Jesus’s death and resurrection that was beginning to question whether Christ would return. The writer states they are not embellishing anything, they are merely sharing what they experienced and saw and learned. This comes from God, not from any human authority.
Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus occurs in 17:1-9. Echoing Moses’s experience on Mount Sinai, Jesus went up the mountain and was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, in that his appearance changed. And like on Mount Sinai, God’s glory appears through a cloud, coming upon them while Peter is still speaking, trying to make sense of what happened when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. In most English translations, the word used for dwelling is translated as tents, suggesting giving Moses, Elijah, and Jesus equal authority. The Common English Bible uses the word shines, which suggests perhaps worship or elevated significance. In any case, Peter has missed the point, and the point is to listen to God’s beloved Son. The disciples are full of awe, trembling, but Jesus tells them to get up and not be afraid. In verse 9, Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about what they saw or experienced until he was raised from the dead. The Transfiguration is a mystery—what exactly happened, we cannot know. But what we can understand is that God is the God of the living, that the same God who spoke through Moses and Elijah spoke through Jesus, and that God is still speaking to us, calling us to listen to the Beloved One.
The Narrative Lectionary also follows the Transfiguration in Matthew, but begins in 16:24, with Jesus’s instructions on denying themselves and taking up their cross in order to follow him. Those who want to save their lives here in this world (the world we have made, of systems of wealth and power) will lose their lives, and those who lose their lives in this world will find life with Christ. The world we have made values life with worldly measures of success, security, wealth and power; finding life with Christ means denying those things have value and instead values relationship, mercy, compassion, justice and love. Why gain everything of the world we have made and have nothing at the end of it? There will come a reckoning where people will be paid back for what they have done, according to the writer of Matthew. A vision of what is to come occurs in 17:1-8, the Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah, who gave up their worldly life, having eternity with God.
The supplementary verses of Psalm 41:7-10 are the cries of a psalmist in anguish as people plot against them. They have been betrayed even by their closest friends. But they pray to God for mercy, to be raised up so they can pay back what others have done to them.
The Transfiguration is perhaps one of my least favorite stories personally because it is so mysterious. We don’t really know what happened on the mountain, or why Peter said what he said. We have lost much to history and cultural understandings that we no longer hold. However, in the ancient world, mountaintops were places where it was understood that heaven and earth met. The veil between this life and eternal life was thin. While we no longer physically understand heaven to be above us, we do understand that there are times in our lives when we feel closer to God and to those who have gone before us. What do we learn from them and those experiences? What does it teach us when we impose worldly values on our beliefs of heaven? Do we think we can take worldly wealth and power with us? Jesus, time and again, spoke of becoming last of all and servant of all. Denying ourselves to take up our cross to follow him. Denying the power and sway of the world we have made—our systems of economic injustice, inequality, oppression and marginalization—and instead, living for others in the reign of God. Serving one another, caring for one another, laying down our lives for one another—Christ has shown us the way in this life, now, for how to live in eternity.
Call to Worship (paraphrase of Psalm 99)
The Lord is Creator of all! May we tremble in awe.
May we praise God’s great and awesome name.
Our Mighty God is a lover of justice,
May we strive for equity and righteousness.
When our ancestors cried out to God, God answered them,
And God responds to our prayers and pleas.
Worship the Wondrous and Mighty One,
Holy is our God!
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Mystery of Mysteries, we confess that we think we know far too much than we actually do. We think we know right from wrong, good from bad. We think we know who is beloved by You and who is not. We think we have the authority to judge. We have messed up badly. Wondrous God, call us back into Your ways of love and mercy and turn us away from snap judgments and overconfident perceptions. Remind us that of all You have made in this universe, we are but a grain of sand. Yet You have loved us, molded and shaped us. Call us back into a place of awe and wonder, a place where we question and listen more than we demand and answer. May we become slow to judge, quick to forgive, develop a posture of compassionate listening, and silence the voices that make us think we know better. In the name of our Wise God, our Savior Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
The Beloved One loves us all, and has shown us the way, the truth, and the life. Love one another. Serve one another. Be moved by empathy and compassion and love, and not by measures of success in this world such as wealth and fame and worldly power. Listen, seek, serve, and love, and it shall go well with you. You are God’s beloved, and God calls you to follow the Beloved One, Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom you are forgiven, loved and restored. Amen.
God of Mystery, God of Transfiguration, help us to view the world differently. Help us to experience places where heaven and earth meet, where the veil is thin, where we view life through Your lens. Help us to find the holy wherever we are, to experience mystery and wonder. May we experience awe that causes us to tremble in Your presence. May we hear Your voice call to us, and may we feel You gently help us up when we are down. May we experience the holy all around us, knowing You are ever-present and faithful. Your steadfast love endures forever, in us, around us, and beyond us. Amen.