Readings: Exodus 24:12–18, 2 Peter 1:16–21 & Matthew 17:1–9
Today, on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, before we commence the Season of Lent, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus, the event where the Glory of God is revealed in and through Jesus on the mountain.
So the gospel reading for today in the Revised Common Lectionary is the account of the Transfiguration from the Gospel of Matthew, and the reading from the Old Testament is Exodus 24:12–18, which the gospel reading closely parallels.
The reading from Exodus tells the story of God’s call to Moses to go up on Mount Sinai to receive the commandments for the people of Israel, that were written on two tablets of stone. The pillar of cloud, one of the manifestations of God’s presence to the Israelites, settled on the mountain and covered it for six days. On the seventh day God called to Moses from the cloud. The use of the number seven at this point in the story is not random. Seven was (and still is) a significant number in Jewish religious tradition, because it is reference to the seven days of creation. It is reinforcement of the divine presence.
Moses entered the cloud and stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty’s nights. Once again the use of the number forty is not random. It is symbolic of the forty years the Israelites had wandered in the desert since the exodus from Egypt.
What follows this particular passage in the Book of Exodus, is that the people of Israel, fearing that Moses has deserted them, because he has been gone for so long, pressure Aaron, the brother of Moses, into making a golden calf that they can worship as a god. In the absence of Moses they need something tangible to put their trust in. In spite of how God has provided for them throughout the forty years of their wandering, the people of Israel don’t place their trust in God. Their fear has overcome their faith.
In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel it is Jesus who goes up on a mountain, taking with him Peter, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Jesus is transfigured before them, his face shining like the sun, and his clothes becoming dazzling white. And as Jesus is transfigured, he is joined on the mountain by Moses and Elijah. Then a bright cloud settles on the mountain, and God’s voice calls from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved: with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
What follows later in the Gospel of Matthew, is that like the people of Israel in the Book of Exodus, the disciples’ fear overcomes their faith. When Jesus is arrested and crucified, the disciples desert him and flee in fear of their own lives.
I often say that context is critical when we read Scripture, and that is true of today’s gospel passage. The author of the Gospel of Matthew is writing to, and for, a mainly Jewish community. The community is comprised of what we might call “traditional” Jews, who still worship in the local synagogue and follow the laws and commandments as set out in the Torah, but it also consists of what I will describe as “Jewish Christians”, people who still worship in the synagogue and observe the Torah, but who also believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and the Son of God. And there is an underlying tension between these two distinct groups within the community.
It is therefore not surprising that the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, as told by the author of Matthew, has close parallels with the story of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the commandments from God. Moses is arguably the most revered figure in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) for Jewish people, so by presenting Jesus in the manner in which he does in this story, ‘Matthew’ is telling the Jewish people that Jesus is not only comparable to Moses, he actually transcends Moses, because whereas God revealed His glory TO Moses on the mountain, in the case of Jesus, the Glory of God is revealed IN and THROUGH Jesus on the mountain.
As I have already alluded to, one important point to note in both situations, that is the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai and the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, is that despite the Glory of God being revealed to both the people of Israel and the disciples of Jesus, the fear of both groups proves to be stronger than their faith.
The people of Israel had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, following Moses as he led them towards the Promised Land, and now as they are poised to enter the Promised Land, they think that Moses has deserted them. In the case of Jesus, the disciples had been following him thinking him to be the Messiah, but of course their expectation of the Messiah was not that he would be crucified and killed. So both groups, face times of fear and uncertainty ahead.
Peter, James and John accompany Jesus up the mountain after hearing from Jesus about his imminent suffering and death that is to take place in Jerusalem. Being human, they want to prevent this from happening. They look for ways to save Jesus and themselves from the heartache to come. But they cannot.
We might catch recognise similar moments when we see two people in a hospital receiving the worst possible news that one of them has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The patient reaches out to their partner to try and comfort them by telling them that everything will be alright.
We might recognise it when we watch the evening news, seeing nothing but stories of chaos and tragedy, but then there is the one story of an act of kindness from someone towards another person who would normally be ignored or avoided by our society because they don’t conform to the social norms.
These are moments when we begin to understand that where there is suffering, God is present in that suffering, just as He is present in the promise and potential of our lives.
As we prepare to begin our journey through Lent, I wonder if we might be facing situations of our own where we might be tempted to let fear overwhelm our faith? In the face of such fear, might we panic and, like the people of Israel, seek to worship other, more instantly gratifying gods? Perhaps gods such as money and material objects? Or, is our faith strong enough to sustain us in times of crisis?