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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2:1-11 OR Psalm 99:1-9, II Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

This is Transfiguration Sunday, a day that commemorates the experience Peter and James and John had with Jesus on top of a mountain.  (Matthew 17:1)  Something happened that changed the way they saw and experienced Jesus.  One of the definitions of “transfiguration” is “a dramatic change in appearance, especially one that reveals great beauty, spirituality, or magnificence.”  Matthew reports that, when Jesus was “transfigured,” “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  (vs. 2)  Moses and Elijah appeared there with them.  (vs. 3)

The story appears also in Mark (Mark 9:2-8) and Luke (Luke 9:28-36).  We could comment on minor variations in the telling of the story, but the main point (in my opinion---or at least my focus as of this moment) is about identity.  It is an identity story.  Jesus, and those with him, hear the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  (vs. 5)  Wrapped up in those words are the struggle of the early church to define who Jesus was, and perhaps Jesus’ own coming to clarity about his identity and mission.

Much discussion (mostly a waste of breath) has speculated on when Jesus became aware of power of God within him.  When, some ask, did he become the Son of God, or was he born that way?  The same words were heard when he was baptized: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

I’m not going to add to the theological/philosophical speculation about how Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  We are told that, in some mysterious way, we share in his identity, told that we are to be like him, that we too are filled with the divine in the midst of our human existence.  What I suggest we might focus upon as we consider this story of transfiguration is the discovery and living out of that mysterious identity within ourselves.

Identity is expressed in us in a variety of ways.  For some, our identity comes to its fullest expression in the political arena.  For some, it is creating things with our hands.  Others thrive on the building of relationships or on teaching or writing or painting.  I’ve known people who found a great deal of fulfillment in tinkering with engines.  Some seem to be most at home in silent contemplation.  Even Jesus, during his time of temptation, faced alternative directions in which his identity could be expressed.

I believe that the punch line, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased,” which appears in three of this week’s lectionary readings, is ultimately meant for us as well as Jesus.  Before further comment on that, however, let’s look at the three other readings.

From Exodus, we have another mountaintop experience, this time with Moses.  The Lord invites Moses to “come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment . . .”  (Exodus 24:12)  Moses, like Jesus (or is it the other way around), is dazzled.  “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.”  (vs. 17)  Here we are coming to the close of the season of Epiphany and we are surrounded by illumination.

The stories lend themselves to recalling mountaintop experiences and moments in our own lives, a direction we took in some of our discussion at the lectionary breakfast this morning.  Many of us have experienced high moments literally from atop mountains.  We also came to the conclusion that not all “epiphanies” are grand, nor do they require presence on a literal mountain.  They may sneak up and surprise us in the everyday experiences of life, while crossing a bridge or noticing a child.

This story is another story about identity, not just Moses’ identity but the identity of a whole people.  What Moses is given on that mountain shapes and guides all of Israel in its development.  Congregations and families and nations need a sense of direction in their life and ministry together.  You might want to reflect further on where that comes from and how we nurture its development in our midst.

Some of us continue to be troubled by the sense of entitlement at work in some of present-day Israel’s actions in relation to Palestine.  It’s there in the Old Testament and, for some, it reaches across the centuries out of all proportion.  The first Psalm can be read through that lens.  It seems to set Israel above all other nations as the seat of power.  “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”  (Psalm 2:6)  I prefer to see it as a reminder that kings continue to plot with and against one another, forgetting that they are not the final word, that there is a higher power at work behind our human machinations.  “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” the Psalmist asks, noting that “he who sits in the heavens laughs . . .”  (vs. 4)

There is an alternative to the kings and powers of this earth.  We are not to bow down to them and give them ultimate authority.  That’s why, in the New Testament, Jesus is such a threat.  He shows that there is an alternative to Roman oppression, another way to live empowered by love.

The other Psalm declares unabashedly, “The Lord is king . . . The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.”  (Psalm 99:1-2)  Note that this king is a “lover of justice,” one who has “established equity.”  (vs. 4)  Note also the connection of this Psalm with the Exodus reading.  It speaks of Moses and Aaron, “the statutes he gave them,” and calls the people to worship at God’s “holy mountain.”  (vss. 6-7, 9)

Psalm 2 was probably an identity statement for Israel, quite likely used at the inauguration of each new king.  The words heard at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration are spoken to each new king, and perhaps to the entire nation, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”  (Psalm 2:7)

The same words are recalled in the reading from II Peter as well.  Jesus, the writer says, “received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  (II Peter 1:17)  It catches our attention, doesn’t it, when God is referred to as “Majestic Glory”?  What a name for the mysterious and powerful Love at work among us!  It is written at this point as an “eyewitness” account. “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”  (vs. 18)

There are other intriguing phrases in this reading:  “cleverly devised myths” (vs. 16), “a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (vs. 19---epiphany light?), the contrast between “one’s own interpretation” and the movement of the Spirit (vss. 20-21).  Go for it, if they grab you in some way.

I’m going back to the focus on identity---Who are we?  Notice that in both II Peter and Matthew the words refer to Jesus as “my Beloved.”  That’s the identity that counts.  Who are we?  Like Jesus, we are ones who are loved beyond measure.  What a mountaintop experience it is to know that we are loved!  What more powerful truth and experience could be at the heart of who we are?  Moments when that truth bursts into our being are to be treasured.  Be alert to be awestruck by it at the most unexpected places in life!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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