Glimpses on the Mountain - Observations on Matthew 17
2008-01-28 by Bill Carter
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
Jesus takes the inner circle to the top of a mountain. No reason is given for their journey, and no hint is given of what they will see. The first clause ("Six days later") connects this story to what has come before: the call to self-denial, and the promise that some of the disciples "will not see death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." It's a naive reading of the text, but the transfiguration may have been what he was talking about. And keep the conjunction: the cross and the glory, self-denial and coming in power. One without the other is incomplete.
Matthew likes to take us to the mountain. For him, it is a place where Jesus' authority is exerted. Recall the other "mountain moments" in Matthew. Like a New Moses, he teaches a sermon on the mount; and folks say, "Wow! He didn't get his theological stuff from the scribes." According to chapter 4, Jesus was tempted on the top of a mountain to claim the kingdoms of the world through worship of the devil (4:18-19); he refused until God gave it to him under different circumstances.After Easter he charges his disciples from the top of a mountain, beginning with the words, "All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me."
Luke, by the way, says the mountain climbing excursion happened after eight days, not six days. Nobody is sure for the reason behind this discrepancy.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
"Transfigured" is a strange verb, rarely used. The Greek term is based on the same root as metamorphosis, and it refers to a total transformation. Other than here and in Mark's transfiguration story, it appears twice in the New Testament. In Romans 12:2, Paul exhorts us to be "transfigured" by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God. According to 2 Corinthians 3:18, believers like us are being "transfigured" into the same image of God-in-Christ; some of us, it seems, move slower in the process than others.
I found a gold mine of devotional material when I tapped "transfiguration" into my web browser. The biblical event strikes reformed people as a bit too mystical, and children of the enlightenment as downright weird. Not so, for sisters and brothers in the Orthodox churches. Their Christology can handle it. Here's a sample of their thinking, in commenting on this verse:
We see Jesus as God, wonderfully "wrapped in light as in a robe". The event on the mountain of Tabor is a window into the divinity of Jesus Christ, surrounded with the glory, intensely white. No earthly fuller could produce such brilliance. Jesus is God, and in his presence we worship in silence. Once before, Moses and Elijah worshipped God on the mount, and in silence fell on their faces before God. Here, now however, they are speaking with Jesus.
In the Tranfiguration, Jesus' clothing becomes dazzling white, while on the cross some soldiers gamble over his garments of Jesus (27:35).
His two companions on the mountain are Elijah and Moses, while on the cross he is accompanied by two criminals (27:38)
He is declared God's Son by a mysterious Voice on the mountain, and on the cross the declaration comes as a taunt of mockery (27:40-43) and a word from a fearful centurion and others (27:54).
At the end of the Transfiguration story, Jesus is alone in glory, but at the end of the cross narrative, he is alone in humiliation. Both ways, the focus is on him alone.
When he is transfigured, Jesus has three witnesses: Peter, James, and John. There are three witnesses to the cross, says Matthew: Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and the mother of James and John (27:56)
The negative parallels seem intentional. The glory of the transfiguration is contrasted to the humiliation on the cross. Both pictures form a composite portrait of Jesus Christ, especially for Matthew.
Moses and Elijah embody the law and prophets. Both "died" in unusual ways: Moses was buried in an unknown grave, and Elijah was snatched to heaven on a chariot. And now they are in dialogue with Jesus! It's an unusual trinity, to be sure, with all kinds of hermeneutical insinuations.
Recall, for instance, the repeated phrase from the Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you . . ." Jesus has the authority (a favorite word of Matthew) to speak with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. His teaching points to the apocalyptic completion of the Torah, and he comes in power far exceeding the fire of the Elijah and his guild. There is continuity with the past and hope for the future: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Matt. 5:17)." Up on the mountain, we caught a glimpse of God's final intention.
Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
Unlike other Gospels, there is no judgment that Peter says something stupid (Luke 9:33) or out of ignorant fear (Mark 9:6). He simply wants to mark the moment, until he is cut off by the Voice.Tradition holds that the mountain is Mount Tabor, an isolated hill with a switchback trail to the top. Those who have seen it from the Holy Land tour buses will affirm that it is a topographical anomaly - - a big "bump" that emerges from the plain, not far from the hilltop city of Nazareth.
Regarding the building of booths, Mount Tabor has had a curious history. Helena, mother of Constantine, built a church there in 326 AD. By the end of the sixth century, three churches stood on the mountain top, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. More shrines were built there over the next four hundred years, and all were destroyed in 1187 by Saladin. A fortress built in 1212 was destroyed by the end of the 13th century. The summit was abandoned for another six hundred years, until a Greek Orthodox community built a monastery. Some time later, the Franciscans built a Latin basilica on the highest point of the summit, where they maintain worship services and a website.Modern scholars tell us, however, that Mt. Tabor is an unlikely location, and probably is in the wrong part of the country. The actual location is never named, though the Franciscans are as persuasive as they can be.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"
The commentaries remind us of Old Testament symbolism breaking out all over the place. The bright cloud, like the six-day wait and the shining face, is directly out of the theophanies of Exodus. There is a Voice which needs no introduction. The Voice makes no apology for interrupting Simon Peter.
At this midpoint of Matthew's Gospel (dare we call it the "Half Time Show"?), there is a reminder of Jesus' baptism (3:13-17), as the Voice announces Jesus' identity. As in 3:16, the Voice adapts the coronation verse of Psalm 2:7 ("This is my Son"). It also alludes once again to the first Servant Song of Isaiah 42 ("the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased"), a text that Matthew will see fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus (Matt 12:17-21). Since the disciples weren't present at Jesus' baptism, they are now clued into his identity -- which the reader has been tracking for fourteen chapters.
The declaration also foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus (27:54). This Voice, of course, is not prompted by the terror of a Good Friday earthquake, and the announcement is spoken in the eternally present tense (rather than the past tense of the centurion). Since the words at the foot of the cross are spoken by a Roman soldier, they do not include the affirmation of Jesus as beloved and pleasing to God.
What is unique to this declaration is the exhortation, "Listen to him!" Jesus is Matthew's Teacher, who speaks with clarity and authority beyond that of the religious establishment. In one preacher's recollection, "Whenever Jesus spoke, he did not use footnotes." The word from his mouth was as direct and clear as the voice of God. As Dale Bruner notes, the Voice says, "Listen to him," not "Listen to me." The focal point is Jesus, the living Word of God. Bruner goes on:
God's authoritative "listen to him" requires Christians to read the Old Testament with their Jesus-glasses on, interpreting the words in light of Jesus' deeds, teaching, and emphases. Christians will revere the Old Testament and its words for one simple reason: Jesus did, and Jesus is Lord. The "listen to him," it should be stressed, obliges Christians to listen also to Jesus' reverence for the words of Hebrew Scripture and to find their way to his Scripture with a comparable devotion.
The main accent, however, belongs elsewhere . . . the gospel of Jesus must be placed above everything and everyone else in Scripture as the paramount authority in the church. Scripture is the norm over the church, and the gospel is the norm over scripture. The gospel is found nowhere else than in Scripture - it is the gospel of Scripture - but this gospel of Scripture imposes itself from scripture as the final norm over Scripture. The gospel is the canon within the canon. [F. Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Waco, TX: Word Publishing) 608-9 ]
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid."
Sounds like Easter, with its repeated emphasis on "fear." In Matthew's account of the empty tomb story, there is a similar tactile gesture. Two women throw themselves to the ground and take hold of Jesus' feet. Jesus replies in both situations, "Do not be afraid." There is a proper fear (ie. reverence, expressed through the Greek verb proskuneo) and an unnecessary fear (phobeo, or "sore afraid").
Here, the text emphasizes the initiative taken by Jesus: he touched them. It reminds us of Jesus reaching out to grab Sinking Simon (14:31), and then asking, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" The commentaries say this question is intended as a comforting word and gesture. It is possible to claim a bit of confidence in the presence of One so powerful. The difficulty, of course, is discerning a proper balance.
Dale Bruner, again, is helpful:
In a way, the entire gospel is present in this text of the disciples' reaction, for the church believes and teaches that God himself "came up to us, gripped us, and told us to get on our feet and not be afraid anymore" in the Incarnation, person, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. He came to us at Christmas, he grabbed us by his helping words and deeds in his ministry, he put us on our feet by his Good Friday death for us, and he banished fear from our hearts by his resurrection. Everything is in that little seventh verse, and in some ways this little grab-and-list at the end of the transfiguration story, often neglected in exposition as if a mere after-effect, may be one of the most important points in the story. For Jesus shines not just to shine, not just to impress, not even in the final analysis to make us obedient or trembling, but especially to help us up, to put us on our feet, to enable us to breathe again so that we can be obedient to his Word. (ibid, 612-13)
And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
We can take this verse literally and figuratively. The issue is the primacy of Jesus. There is nobody else with whom we have to deal. If Jesus fulfills law and prophets, nothing more needs to be added or said. If his touch provides assurance and comfort, we need not turn to another.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."In Matthew alone, we hear Jesus describe the moment as a "vision." Bruner notes that the term "vision" does not detract from the truth of the event, "but it does explain some of the unusual features of the story."
As Jesus commands the three to hush, the inference is that a vision like this will only make sense after the Resurrection. Like Easter, it is an Apocalyptic Glimpse of reality. We can't know it all, not yet, but we can catch a glimpse of what God has in store for the world without burning our retinas. There is a line from the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter that says, "In the Transfiguration, the Lord made known to Peter, James and John the garments of the last days, when the resurrection of the last day will come."
Welcome to this week's blog
2008-01-28 by Bill Carter
Hi everybody - this is Bill Carter, this week's blog host. Glad you've jumped into the hot tub!
I'm a pastor in northeastern Pennsylvania (www.fpccs.org), where I've served in my current church for seventeen years. I'm also a jazz pianist (www.presbybop.com) who weaves some creative music into the rest of my ministry.
We have a "mountain of a text" before us for Super Bowl Sunday -- to say nothing of the Feast of Transfiguration.
In my next note, I'll post some observations and reflections on the text. Let's stir up a conversation first about what we see and hear on the Mountain. Then, around Wednesday or so, I'll post some possible directions for developing a sermon.
Get on your hiking boots. Let's climb the mountain together, in the hope that we can hear a fresh Word.
Best wishes to all,
"Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-01-27 by David von Schlichten
We welcome to the hot tub Bill Carter and look forward to him splashing us with wisdom. Also, don't forget to enjoy the free sample, "Theological Themes" by Paul Galbreath from Lectionary Homiletics, which you can find by going to Share It!
I was unable to spend much time in the tub last week, but I am back. I also will be visiting the Sermon Feedback Cafe.
By the way, if you have not registered for the Festival of Homiletics, which will be in May in Minneapolis, be sure to do so. The feast of preaching will be sumptuous.
Here are my highlights from this week's articles in Lectionary Homiletics:
David Renwick provides a helpful subheadings of his article on Matthew's Transfiguration narrative. Renwick also offers intriguing insights such as the symbolism of the number six. The Transfiguration happens after six days and so represents Christ leading the disciples to a new seventh day, the ultimate sabbath.
In addition, Renwick writes about the parallels between this mountaintop experience and Old Testament mountaintop experiences on Sinai, of course, but also on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22).
“Preaching the Lesson”
Anna Carter Florence reveals that the Transfiguration does not just change the appearance of Christ but alters all. She teaches that the Transfiguration “ [ . . . ] floods our eyes with God-bright light” (p. 11).
As an illustration, Florence draws from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which tells of a Fleur, who is so beautiful that her appearance attracts everyone's attention away from others. On her wedding day, however, she wears a magical tiara that reveals the beauty of everyone around her.
Similarly, while the Transfiguration reveals Christ's pulchritduinous puissance, it also reveals to us our beauty and strength, which Christ makes possible.
In “Transfiguration: Jesus Redefines Reality,” Scott Cowdell proclaims that the purpose of worship, both corporate and private, is “[ . . . ] to open our hearts and to give us opportunities, so this transfiguring vision will come for us” (p. 12). Christ comes to us, revealing his glory and thereby transfiguring our lives.
Cowdell's proclamation can help our hearers to understand the paradigmatic nature of the Transfiguration. What is more important than whether and how the Transfiguration happened is what it represents: the glory of Christ being revealed to us and effecting a metamorphosis in us.
Soaking up these elucidating thoughts, I am, in the tub and always,
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2008-01-27 by CJ Teets
Bill Carter is "in the house" as our guest lectionary blogger. Bill practices ministry and jazz piano, hoping someday to get both right. He has served as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, PA for the past seventeen years. He is also founder and leader of the Presbybop Quartet(www.presbybop.com), a jazz group that travels nationally in presenting concerts and jazz worship services. A graduate of Binghamton University (B.A.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Bill is a popular preacher, teacher, and workshop leader around the ecumenical church. He is the author of six books, and was selected seven times to preach for the PC(USA) on "The Protestant Hour" (now known as Day 1).
His great vocational love is congregational ministry, where he says, "The Word keeps taking flesh in countless ways." Bill has been a mentor pastor for the PC(USA) program for The Company of New Pastors, and takes delight in encouraging his fellow partners in Christ’s ministry. He has recently returned from a pastoral sabbatical, where he spent a significant time with the psalms, both as prayers and as "texts that have lost their tunes."
2008-01-25 by Bill Carter
Thanks for logging on. I'll post some initial thoughts on a text or two on Sunday evening. See you then!
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