Last Sunday after Epiphany; 23 February 2020; Last Epiphany A (RCL); Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9.
The church calendar always gives us an account of the transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent begins, as the collect says, so that we may be strengthened to bear our cross, and at Easter be changed into Christ’s likeness. And the account of the transfiguration does feel like a resurrection appearance retrojected back into the earthly life of Jesus. But it is about much more than nerving us up for Lent.
On the mountaintop, Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah, both of whom had their own mountaintop experiences (presumably on the same mountain). In this year’s Old Testament reading, we hear of Moses’ experience. On the mountaintop, he receives the law, and in the process receives instructions for the making of the tabernacle. In Exodus 24, we are given the layout of the later Temple. The people are on the plain, separated from the mountain side by the altar. The seventy (or seventy two) elders feast on the mountainside (like the priesthood feasting in the court of the priests), while Moses (like the high priest) is on the mountain top (or in the holy of holies). The law establishes the cult.
Elijah, on the other hand, after slaughtering the 400 prophets of Ba’al, flees to the same mountain, and hides in the same cave where Moses hid when God passed him by and let him see the divine backside (1 Kings 19). Elijah survives the storm and the earthquake (a volcanic eruption?), but God is not in the storm or earthquake. Then in the sheer silence, Elijah hears God’s voice (a second time), “Elijah, what are you doing here?” He responds that he alone has been zealous for God while the Israelites have been unfaithful, and now they are seeking his own life.
God tells Elijah to return by the wilderness road to Damascus and to anoint Hazael king of Aram, Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha his own successor. Whom Hazael does not kill, Jehu will kill; whom Jehu does not kill, Elisha will kill, until only 7000 are left. Not a happy prophetic message.
When the voice come to Jesus out of the cloud, it quotes Psalm 2 (which we read this Sunday). Psalm 2 is a coronation psalm, imagining the king vanquishing all those who rebel against their subjugation. He will smash his enemies like pottery with an iron rod. The voice also quotes Isaiah 42, the first Servant Song. The Gospel writers are making a mash-up of king and servant in the person of Jesus.
And when the cloud (the glory of God, the pillar of fire and cloud) lifts, Jesus is found alone. The law, with its cult, is gone. Vindication at the edge of the sword is gone. Jesus alone is left, the same Jesus making his way to Jerusalem. A great deal of reflection has gone into this story. Jesus is tying up a number of strands of tradition: Moses, temple cult, wilderness journey, prophetic linked to dynastic, and prophetic linked to Israel’s vocation. The whole traditional record comes to focus on Jesus.
In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, it is not surprising that heirs to that tradition would invest a lot of intellectual energy and creativity into mapping a way forward. It is surprising that this little band of those heirs would map their way forward onto the life of the crucified Jesus. What an odd place to invest one’s hope. It would require a complete rethinking of what we thought we knew about God — and it still does. We all too easily fall into one or other of the modes of thinking that Jesus replace: triumphalism, cult, vindication, escapism, or even despair. No wonder Paul said, “We preach only Christ, and him crucified.” The crucified and risen Christ is all we can know about God.