February 19th, 2023
Transfiguration – 2023
We have Matthew’s version of what happened on that mountain –
We have Peter’s memories (which are fascinating, by the way, as he assumes that “men and women” heard and spoke the “prophetic word” – one of the early evidences for Christian women serving as preachers without controversy,).
We have the story that is most commonly associated with the Transfiguration – the similar event in the life of Moses and his community.
Each of them offer a slightly different lens through which to see what they thought was happening in the days before Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem where he was eventually crucified.
But there’s one more I’d like to add to the mix – the passage from Exodus 33 where Jacob and Esau have their final, tearful reconciliation – and go their separate ways in peace.
If you have ever visited with Jews during the feast of booths, Sukkot – or helped build one – you’ll notice something else in this story that often gets misunderstood or overlooked.
When Jacob stops at Succoth and builds booths – temporary shelters – for himself and his cattle, it’s in this moment that he finds himself dwelling in, living in, the promised land, long before the actual Exodus. This is what the feast of booths remembers.
So to me, Peter’s response to the transfiguration doesn’t seem bumbling or weird, or exuberantly misguided. Peter seems to “get it” at an important level. He wants to “dwell” – and for Jesus, Elijah and Moses to “dwell” also in the land of promise, the eternal “now” that is God’s own dwelling place – He recognizes that this is THAT kind of moment.
When Jewish families build a temporary dwelling and live there for seven days, they are consciously expressing their desire to wait for God, to choose God, to opt for the everlasting peace that IS God, to hang out with God – to “dwell in the promised land.” And to do it even before any such permanent land is actually available to them – to dwell there in advance.
Even the land of Israel is not enough – It is in a sense the land of promise – but a political homeland where Jews can be secure does not answer the hunger for a final dwelling place with God – as the author of the book of Hebrews expresses so well.
And notice this, too – Jesus does not rebuke Peter. Neither does the Voice that they identify as God‘s. Instead, the Voice simply lets them understand that being with Jesus IS being in the promised land already. You do not need to build anything to show your desire to find it someday – You are already HERE – Here is my Beloved Son, Listen to Him.
Now that’s an interesting sequence. When the cloud clears – they see only Jesus – Moses and Elijah have faded. It is as if they have come to testify to Jesus that he really is who he understands himself to be – the Beloved of God: the one who as God’s own will lead his people through death to new life, as Moses did at the Exodus, the prophet of God who will teach and in fact become the teaching of God. He is the fulfillment of everything Moses and Elijah and all who came before Jesus ever did, or desired, or hoped for: Jesus is himself the land of promise, the homeland, the richness of milk and honey and Manna and water from the rock – and Light and joy everlasting.
This is what Peter and James and John saw, without fully grasping it, of course. Like each of us, it sometimes takes a whole lot of time to understand the power of some event, or experience – We think we “get it” – but its meaning continues to open up to us – to become more fully conscious to us over time – sometimes over years. You know that.
Lent begins this Wednesday – Ash Wednesday – May we, like Peter and James and John, hold on through these weeks to this truth: Jesus IS the promised land, the place of eternal joy and safety and love – He is Home, even when we walk into his suffering, and death, and learn the cost of discipleship during Lent and Holy Week. If we do it willingly, with our eyes open, we will see in advance that it is on the other side of our despair and hopelessness and loss that we will see him face to face and know that our hope was justified.