Back in the 1960’s, the Catholic Church decided that its priests were not preaching from the Bible in any sufficiently broad way. That is, priests would pick their favorite passages and preach on those, neglecting the bulk of the Bible. And so, as part of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, they published something called the Ordo Lectionum Missae to create a schedule of readings that would be used throughout the churches that would guarantee that a wide selection of Biblical texts would get preached on.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
Sunday, February 23, 2020—Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 24:12–18; Matthew 17:1–9
The Protestant churches liked the idea so much that we stole it outright, tweaking it a little bit to avoid some of the deuterocanonical books like Tobit that we don’t have in our Bibles and eventually revised and standardized the various denominational lists to arrive at what we now know as the Revised Common Lectionary—one of the few great accomplishments in Christian unity.
Now, to be fair, the aim of the lectionary is to ensure broad coverage of the Biblical text so it’s not always the case that the four readings have anything to do with each other. This is especially the case when we’re in the middle of “ordinary time”—away from major holidays or seasons. Sometimes during those times the readings are worlds apart.
But not today. Today, on Transfiguration Sunday, the Old Testament lesson from Exodus and the Gospel lesson from Matthew have everything to do with each other.
II. THE TEXT
The Exodus text begins with God summoning Moses up a mountain, where he will reveal to Moses the tablets of the law. Moses takes his lieutenant Joshua with him.
In the Gospel, Jesus goes up a mountain and takes his inner circle—Peter, James, and John—with him.
In the Exodus text, a cloud covers the mountain for six days, after which a voice calls to Moses from out of the cloud, summoning him up further. In the gospel, a cloud appears over the mountain, a mountain they climbed six days after Peter had declared Jesus the messiah, and out of this cloud comes a voice telling the disciples to listen to Jesus.
Some chapters after our particular Exodus passage, Moses returns with the tablets of the law and we read:
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.Exodus 34:29 NRSV
In the Matthew passage, Jesus is transfigured so that his clothes are dazzling white and his “face shone like the sun.”
There are a lot of similarities in these two stories.
In fact, so similar are these texts that when Luke tells this same story he writes: “They [Moses and Elijah] were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31 CEB) The Greek word for “departure” is έξοδός Exodos.
And then, as if to drive the point home, who should appear in the gospel story but Moses himself, accompanied by the prophet Elijah.
III. A PROPHET LIKE MOSES
A. Exodus Typology
Now, these similarities are no accident. The way Matthew tells us this story, also found in Mark’s gospel, fits right in with much of Matthew’s intention to present Jesus as a new and greater Moses, whose authority to interpret the law is greater than that of the Pharisees. Here Jesus has all the same experiences as Moses, but even more so. A voice speaks out of the cloud again but unlike the Exodus story where it speaks only to Moses here it speaks to everyone else about Jesus, confirming the words spoken at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” and then concludes with “listen to him!” echoing the great Hebrew confession of faith “Hear, O Israel!”
So, Matthew’s purpose of lifting up Jesus as the New Moses is definitely fulfilled by the way the narrative is presented to us here.
Further, the special emphasis we find in Matthew’s gospel on continuity between the Old Testament law and the Christian tradition is also served by the appearance of Moses and Elijah who represent “the Law and the Prophets”—two of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish tradition. It’s like Jesus has the Bible personified, standing alongside him on the mountaintop as God’s voice tells us to listen to him.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that in Jewish tradition, both Moses and Elijah were prophets rejected by the people but vindicated by God. That sets up a nice theme that will be repeated with Jesus. And, also in Jewish tradition, it was believed that Elijah was still alive, having been taken into heaven on a chariot of fire, thus prefiguring the Christ who would also still be alive and taken into heaven until his return.
So, there are a lot of things going on in this text. There’s a ton of what we’d call Christology—theology about Christ—that is being served up here.
B. Three Dwellings
But amidst all of the Old Testament literary allusion and thematic typology and other fancy concepts, I can’t get past one thing: what is the deal with Peter?
I mean, he’s been called up the mountainside with Jesus and while there sees Jesus transfigured, sees Moses and Elijah appear alongside him, and his best response is, “So, Jesus, if you like I’ll make three dwellings for you, Moses, and Elijah.”
I’ll make three dwellings for you?
What makes this weirder is that it’s never addressed. The next thing that happens is that the voice speaks out of the cloud confirming Jesus’ identity and authority and the disciples drop to the ground out of fear. There’s not even any time for Jesus to say, “Three dwellings?”
So, what on earth is going on here? Why does Peter say this, of all things?
And what exactly is he offering to build?
C. Tents, Tabernacles, and Huts
The word that’s translated as “dwelling” is the Greek word σκηνή skēnē that just means “tent.” It could have a couple of meanings. It could just refer to an ordinary tent. It could refer to the kind of temporary shelter that the Israelites made in the Exodus, the kind that they rebuild every fall for the festival of Sukkot. It could refer to the Tabernacle—the movable tent sanctuary of Ancient Israel in which the Ark of the Covenant was stored and in which the Divine Presence—the sh’khinah—of God dwelled. It could be that this is another point of Matthew’s theology that Jesus doesn’t need a tabernacle, Jesus is the tabernacle. Perhaps.
But I think Peter’s motivation here is revealed by how he begins this proposal. “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
IV. “IT’S GOOD FOR US TO BE HERE”
As a kid, I remember noticing that the journey to a place always seemed to take longer than the journey home afterwards. Objectively speaking, of course, it was the same distance. Undoubtedly my father was driving at the same speed. So, why did it always seem that the journey there was longer than the journey back?
My father himself once told me either his theory or one that he’d heard somewhere, but the theory made sense to me. It’s because, he said, we anticipate the special place we’re going and it’s our excitement and anticipation that makes the minutes drag on until we get there. And then the visit or special time is over faster than we thought and before you know it, we’re home again, wishing we were still there.
This is a kind of relativity that Einstein never talked about, but time always moves slower when we’re waiting for something we want than it does when that thing has come and gone. There’s always a desire to speed up time when we’re waiting for something special and to slow it down once it’s arrived.
That must be what Peter is thinking in today’s scripture lesson. It’s the only thing that makes sense of what he says.
See, “It is good for us to be here” isn’t Peter saying “oh! How fortunate that we’re here right as three people who need a place to sleep should arrive. Fortunately, I know how to make tents!” That’s not what Peter is saying. He’s saying, “It’s good, us being here.”
He’s expressing a desire to linger. To stay for a while longer. If you like, I can make some tents and we can stay here overnight.
It’s not hard to understand Peter’s point of view. What’s happening is clearly something incredibly special. There’s Jesus transformed. There’s Moses and Elijah. Can’t we just stay here for a bit? I’ll even make the tents.
This is a feeling we know and not just with vacations and special visits to friends. This is a feeling we frequently get in church, where the fellowship is so meaningful, the loving community so strong, the music uplifting, and the sermon occasionally decent. It creates a desire to remain in this experience. Let’s just stay for a bit longer before we have to go out into the cold and brutal world. We can build a few tents and stay the night, even.
If we have any doubts as to what God thinks of Peter’s plan, it’s instructive to note that God cuts Peter off. The text says, “While he was still speaking…” the light emanated from the cloud and the voice spoke, “This is my Son, the Beloved…” It’s as if God’s cutting off that babbling officemate by saying, “So, anyway. This is my Son…”
Because here’s the thing: it’s nice on the mountaintop—it really is.
A. The Mountaintop Experience
So many of us spend our entire lives looking for that mountaintop experience. I remember in seminary, my small group was going around and telling their call stories. One of my colleagues told a story of being on a church retreat and having a vision of flaming chariots racing across the horizon and this, he felt, was God calling him to ministry. I remember thinking, are we all supposed to have an experience like that? I never had. Apparently God thinks I can handle subtlety.
But we read about St. Paul’s Road to Damascus experience. And we hear about Augustine hearing voices say “Take and read” and he looks down at a verse that changes his life forever. And we read of John Wesley’s heart being “strangely warmed.” And we no doubt know people who talk proudly of the moment they “got saved” and many of us can wonder where our mountaintop experience is.
Such that when it happens, when we find that moment when God’s presence is clearly felt, when heaven kisses earth, we just want to stay there. To linger. To put up a tent and camp out there on the mountaintop.
But what happens on the mountaintop doesn’t stay on the mountaintop. It comes down and moves out into the world.
Moses came down from that mountaintop and went on to deliver the law to the people, who would prove rebellious and ungrateful, to him and to the prophets who followed afterward. Jesus came down from that mountaintop and headed on his journey that would take him ultimately to the cross.
The revelation that takes place on the mountaintop is for the sake of the world; it’s not there to be admired as a thing of beauty on its own, far from the people. Those powerful experiences of the divine are meant to send us right back out into the mundane and ordinary.
What happens on the mountaintop comes down the mountain, and heads toward Jerusalem.
There’s so much about the Christian experience that would be so nice to linger with. Just stay here for a minute, let me enjoy this for a bit. But the Gospel calls us back to engage with the world.
It’s not easy—and both Peter’s desire to linger and the disciples fearful response at the voice of God illustrate this. But what was true of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament is true of Jesus in the New. Jesus is the reality of God’s abiding presence with us in the world. Like the tabernacle of old, this abiding presence moves throughout the land. This tabernacle goes before us in our wanderings.
At the end of the day, the disciples descend the mountain after this incredible, supernatural, wondrous revelatory experience of God, to go back to the mundane world of suffering and mission.
But they, like us, do not go alone. They go accompanied by Jesus—God with us—who goes with us in through all the paths our journey takes us.
What happens on the mountaintop does not stay on the mountaintop. What happens there goes down onto the plains, and into the valleys, and the streets, the alleys, the towns and cities, into all the places where the people God loves are.
We may, as the disciples did, respond at first with fear. But now, as then, Jesus’ response is the same: he comes to us, places his hand on us, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Exodus 24:12–18 • The Lord said to Moses, “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, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 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. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Matthew 17:1–9 • Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.” 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!” 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.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
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.”