Texts for reflection: Ex 24:12-18; Mt 17:1-9
Good biblical study benefits from a contextual reading of a passage. What this looks like in our story about Jesus’ transfiguration is at the very least to read before and after the text in question. Just before today’s passage Jesus predicts his own death (16:21-23) and describes the way of the cross: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:24-25). Just after the transfiguration, Jesus cures a boy with a demon and then goes on to predict his own death again. How does Jesus’ death help us understand Jesus’ Transfiguration? In short: to be God cannot be separated from the cross. Consequently, to follow Jesus cannot be separated from the cross. In other words, Jesus’ way of being God is the way of the cross.
It always helps to remember here that following the way of the cross as Christians is not a glorification of suffering. Jesus says “those who lose their lives for my sake.” The pain that we experience in life might seem pointless and hopeless; God doesn't want people to suffer. Instead, when we search for a life-giving way through our pain we are walking the way of the cross; this is what it means to lose our lives for Christ's sake. If we are truly stuck, then Jesus' cross reminds us that we do not suffer in isolation, but inescapable suffering is never part of God's plan.
God’s revelation to Moses is a parallel story to Jesus’ revelation to the disciples. One interpretation of this parallelism is that Jesus is replacing or superseding the previous covenant that God made with Moses and Israel. This interpretation (called supersessionism) is inaccurate because:
it doesn’t take seriously Jesus’ own words that he—Jesus—did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
Furthermore, this interpretation tends to fall into the trap of Manichaeism, which is an us-versus-them mentality; this mentality itself minimizes God’s efficacy in the world (i.e., God is God for all → “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God; the Lord your God is one.”).
Lastly, the supersessionist interpretation can lead us to believe that we (Christians) have nothing to gain from the Old Testament, such as God’s revelation to Moses on Sinai. Christians hold together the whole Bible as a revelation of the Word of God, not just the New Testament. Therefore, when we read the Bible, we seek—and expect to find—God’s will for us throughout the texts, not just in one part. We seek both law and gospel in every text, not just one or the other.
In this light, the story of God’s revelation to Moses is not to be replaced by Jesus, but is instead indicative of a pattern of God’s revelation to God’s people: God consistently reveals himself, and we consistently fail to recognize God in our midst. This should be no surprise to us Christians if we are paying attention to our lives and the words of worship! Moses had to go back up the mountain to get the commandments a second time because the Israelites had already crafted their golden calf as a false god. God’s people did “whatever they pleased” to Elijah, and John the Baptist was put to death. Finally, we know what happened to Jesus. We can interpret the parallelism of Moses on Sinai and Jesus on the high mountain as a pattern: God reveals herself as God, and people—we—fail to recognize this revelation.
We might be tempted to say, “Oh, but we confess Jesus as Lord, so we get it!” But this confession is just a preconception—a prejudice—about who we think Jesus is; it is not the living Word of Jesus, who is always new, surprising, and life-giving. If we have an authentic realization of Jesus as Lord, just as Peter did, this realization—this recognition—is good only for a moment. We will be tempted to fall down and build a tent for Jesus on the mountain, but Jesus in his wisdom says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Our conversion to Christ must be continual, just as Luther reminds us that the whole Christian life is one of repentance, which is a turning, turning, turning toward God—just this moment.
So now, what is God saying to us (Good Shepherd) in this time and place? For one, take heart that Jesus is Lord and holds the entire Universe together. This is one clear message from the Transfiguration. As a monk friend of mine said, “If it weren’t for the love of God, we would all spontaneously disintegrate into our constituent molecules.” The Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is Lord, and thus the Universe holds together.
There is one small catch, however, which is that Jesus’ way of being Lord—of holding the entire Universe together—is by following the way of the cross. As Jesus says in Matthew, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:24-25).
So what does it mean to “deny ourselves”? To answer this question, we have an interesting answer in the text itself: to recognize (17:12), to wake up to, Jesus’ presence among us. Jesus is Lord, but we do not recognize this gift of God-with-us easily or often. We are called to wake up.
Notice Jesus’ words when the disciples question him: “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus’ answer is “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased.”
Denying ourselves as individuals might mean being honest about our prejudices and assumptions and holding them lightly. For example, in Dwelling in the Word we share each other’s interpretations of Scripture, and these interpretations are often reflective of our own biases, prejudices, and assumptions. Reading the Bible together gives us a chance to question our own preconceptions, and possibly surrender them if they don’t lead to life and love. Dwelling in the Word focuses on listening, and this listening is denying our small selves: our prejudices, etc... Listening in this way is an act of transformative love.
Denying ourselves as a community can involve putting time, creative energy, and faith into our mission of supporting Good Shepherd Lutheran School. This self-denial means that we will have less financial certainty moving into uncharted territory in the next phase of our shared mission to educate all generations to be the Body of Christ. However, by placing our trust in God, we will have more financial security (see Psalm 4:9).
As a nation, denying ourselves can at least mean abandoning party allegiance as less important than national allegiance. We don’t need a war or a common enemy in order to cooperate with each other on a national agenda. Denying ourselves as a nation in this way is sorely needed.
As a planet, we are at a pivotal juncture—and have been for centuries now. Will we voluntary surrender the anthropocentric values that lead to environmental destruction by excessive consumption, over-population, and international war? Will we deny ourselves? The lessons of nature have taught us that our population will be limited one way or another. I just pray that we choose a restructuring of values voluntarily as a species rather than the inevitable alternatives, which are chronic disease epidemics, international warfare, and ecological destruction leading to famine and mass migration. Will we recognize God in our midst, that is, in the plants and other-than-human animals that form the global community? Or will we crucify her—ourselves—all over again?
It is good news that we don’t need to completely understand or “get” God-among-us in order to be saved. Jesus’ Transfiguration says that Jesus is Lord, which means the Universe holds together because of who God is, not because of who we are or aren’t, what we do or don’t do, what we recognize or fail to recognize. We simply remember that our call is literally to recognize God among us, who is Jesus shining in glory on the mountain of the present moment, the mountain of this very space. Here and now Jesus is Lord. Relationships at every level will be transformed toward life and love when we follow the way of the cross, denying ourselves. Jesus is ready to be revealed to you. Do you recognize him?