Transfigur. . uh. . . what?

Posted: 2014/02/18 in Christianity, Preaching
Tags: , , ,

Right there in the middle (plotwise) of the first three gospels, something magnificent, profound, and bizarre happens. Upon reaching the top of a mountain, Jesus’ appearance changes. His clothing becomes brilliantly white and “his face shone like the sun.” (Matt 17.2) To add to the freakiness, Moses and Elijah appear and the three have a convivial chat.

Theologians and the Church have managed to obscure the strangeness and wonder of this event behind the awkward title, “Transfiguration.”

Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him. In addition to what they saw, they heard the voice of God say that Jesus is his Son and is to be listened to.

One purpose of this scene in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is to nail down Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and Messiah who fulfills the expectations of both the Mosaic Law and the visioneering of the prophets. It is centrally placed in each narrative to highlight the pivot from an almost directionless roaming ministry among his own people to a straight and intentional journey to the cross and the salvation of the world.

Another purpose of this mountaintop event has just recently worked its way into my thick head. It’s about Jesus unbinding himself from human attempts to categorize, co-opt, and control him. It’s Jesus telling us that we cannot define him or his saving work. And this becomes even more clear when we pull back and read the passages just before the mountaintop experience, particularly in Matthew. There, Jesus tells his inner circle of disciples (the Twelve) that he is headed to his death at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious leaders and will be raised from death just a few days later. Peter goes ballistic and scolds Jesus for even saying such a thing. Jesus returns a verbal body blow by calling Peter “Satan” (meaning “Tempter”, among other things), and telling him not to be a stumbling block.

Shifting gears just a bit, Jesus teaches that “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16.24) In other words, Jesus has a job to do (saving the world) that needs to be done a specific way (through his suffering and death), and to follow him requires becoming ready for a similar sacrifice by letting go of one’s own life to make God’s redemptive purpose the higher priority.

Before we’ve even begun to climb the mountain with Jesus, he has made it clear that only God and God’s redemptive, world-saving purpose defines who he is and what he does. We can make no claims on him and what he is about. Pretty powerful and jarring stuff on an era when we try in many ways to shape God in our own image and tell Jesus his business in order to protect or give advantage to the Church or our politics.

So. . . for the next few Sundays, I’ll be trying let Jesus tell us who he is through the passages mentioned above while also identifying how we try to define Jesus in some rather unhelpful ways.

Of course, this means I’ll be talking about religion and politics, two of three things one should never discuss at a dinner party. Praise God we’ll be in a church.

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