Last Epiphany C
February 01, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Not for nothing are they called “Mountaintop Experiences”! In the Bible, when a story takes us up to a mountaintop, it’s a fair bet that something dramatic is going to happen—indeed, it’s a fair bet that something deeply revelatory is going to happen. Luke 9 is no exception. But the drama up there on that mountain seems to have been only partly intended to make an impression on the disciples. The rest of the event seems to have taken place for Jesus’ edification.
Consider the wider context of Luke here. As Jesus prepares to make his final trek toward Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51), he is talking increasingly about suffering, betrayal, and death. It’s weighing heavily on his mind. But the disciples seem lost in a fog of cluelessness. They are not really tracking all of what Jesus is saying, and so when Jesus speaks openly about his impending death, the disciples sometimes say nothing at all (note what happens after Luke 9:27: we fast-forward 8 whole days with no reported reactions whatsoever of the disciples to what Jesus had said). Or they find Jesus’ rhetoric merely baffling and bewildering (see what happens in Luke 9:45 after another direct prediction of betrayal). Or they respond to Jesus’ talk about sacrifice and humility by incarnating its opposite in a wrangling over and jockeying for power and privilege in Jesus’ coming kingdom (see Luke 9:46-50).
In other words, long about the time Jesus could use all the support he could get, the disciples are simply unavailable to him in any meaningful way. They cannot encourage Jesus to stick with what they don’t understand (and would resist if they did understand it). Indeed, by their very demeanor and words, they are actually tugging Jesus another direction! Every time they respond to Jesus’ predictions about suffering with indifference or with actions that tug another direction, Jesus must surely have heard the tempter’s voice whispering into his ear, “See, even your friends don’t buy it! Go another way! Seize the day! Go on and at least try to establish an earthly kingdom. For THAT your friends will follow you to the bitter end!”
With no human or earthly voices available to encourage Jesus, his Father steps in to provide new voices in the conversation. Commentators have long pointed out that Moses represented the Sinai Covenant/Law (as well as the Exodus) and that Elijah represented the prophetic voice of the Old Testament as well as God’s covenant faithfulness in sending servants to continue speaking to and ministering to even a wayward Israel.
Having both of them appear on the Mount of Transfiguration seems to be a neat way of coalescing the whole Old Testament into Jesus’ ministry. Probably there is something to all that, but it does not appear that Moses and Elijah spent their time with Jesus reflecting on the ins and outs of the Law and Prophets. Instead we are told only that they “discussed his departure.” That’s why they were there. These recognized giants of the faith come to point Jesus in the direction he needs to go and to encourage him that down that path lies the salvation of the world. If they were not there to encourage Jesus in the direction he had to go, I cannot think of what else they would have had to say about that departure.
But on a different note: it’s always been a mystery to me how the disciples recognized Moses and Elijah. It goes without saying they had no way to recognize them physically. It’s not like Moses had gotten his face onto the $1 bill or that Elijah had had his visage plastered all over the place in Israel the way we Americans do with Abraham Lincoln’s face. We are so familiar with Lincoln that we recognize even his silhouetted profile in an instant. But the disciples could have had no such visual associations with either Moses or Elijah. (In more cheeky moments I’ve wondered about these two men sporting “Hello! My Name Is _____” stick-on name badges. This, however, also seems unlikely.)
However it all happened, Luke alone tells us that these two showed up to encourage Jesus, to remind him that they, too, along with all the hosts of heaven were gearing up for the fulfillment of everything God had been aiming to accomplish ever since sin and evil showed up in this creation to sully God’s good intentions. The way Luke frames it, the whole dazzling event ends up being kind of sweet in its own way, as though the Father—sensing the apprehension of the Son—sent down some reinforcements to buck him up and help him make it across the finish line. It’s the kind of thing a loving Father does for his beloved Son. That Jesus perhaps needed this boost is testament to his true humanity. That Jesus did indeed go on to suffer and die is testament to his true divinity. That he will eventually be raised again bodily gets at both and assures us that the salvation about which Moses and Elijah showed up to discuss with Jesus is just the truest and grandest thing you could ever imagine!
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Since this part of my sermon starter is about “Questions,” I’ll just ask a few of the ones that come to my mind in this startlingly odd passage.
First, how in the world did the disciples come close to sleeping through this thing? We are told that the appearance of Jesus was as bright as “lightning.” Now lightning is pretty bright. A bolt of lightning is one of the most powerful forces on planet earth, discharging 1,000,000,000,000,000 watts of electricity (that’s 1 trillion if you don’t want to count up all the zeroes) at a temperature of 20,000 degrees centigrade (which is considerably hotter than even the surface of the sun). Anybody who manages to radiate the energy and light of a lightning bolt is mighty powerful and mighty bright.
Yet we are told that for a time during this epiphany of glory, the disciples were sleepy! It took a bit, apparently, before they even fully woke up (and then saw something so odd they must have wondered if they were not, in fact, still asleep and seeing a dream). But how could anyone be drowsy, even briefly, when such a spectacle was right in front of them?
Second, how could these disciples walk away from this event and yet, as verse 36 informs us, tell no one what they saw and experienced? In parallel accounts of this we are told that Jesus tells them to keep it under wraps but not here: they just don’t say anything. From the looks of the text, it would not be an unwarranted leap to think these three did not tell even the other nine disciples what had taken place. So what’s up with that?
Third, how can it be, following on one of the most dazzling visual spectacles that ever took place on this planet, that the bottom line from God the Father is “Listen to him.” Listen? Listen, and not “Look”? Why go through all this razzle-dazzle, bright-as-lightning stuff if the whole incident ends up being more about ears than eyes? It’s not what I expected to hear the Father say!
So often we read incidents like this one in the Bible and we rarify them, put them up on a pedestal, and assume that if such a thing were to happen today and to us, it would change the world and shake up everything. Yet in the Bible events like these sometimes play out rather differently than we think. In this case this stunning revelation of glory took place well out of the public eye and then, even for those human eyes that did take it in, there was a mixture of confusion, sleepiness, and then reticence to speak of it in the future.
It is not what you would expect. But maybe behind these questions something of the core truth of the gospel starts to come out. Maybe the sleepiness of the disciples is emblematic for how often they had missed the glory of Jesus when it shined right in front of them day in and day out throughout Jesus’ ministry. The truth is that Jesus did not need visibly to glow to display glory. His glory shined—for those with eyes to see—just as brightly when he talked to lonely prostitutes and outcast lepers, when he saved wayward tax collectors and offered forgiveness to people who had never heard a forgiving syllable their whole lives long up to that point. The glory was there. It’s still there today in the church if only we don’t just sleep through it.
And if we find it odd that the disciples kept mum about this then perhaps we can turn the camera around to ourselves to wonder how often we keep silent about the great and glorious truths of the Gospel that we celebrate in church on Sundays but then fail to mention in the week that follows.
And if it seems odd to hear God the Father follow up this visual display with advice that has to do with listening and not looking, maybe that’s because we, too, are often overly fixated on outward fame and power and glory as the world defines all those things and maybe that gets in the way of our truly listening to what Jesus says about humility and sacrifice and being servants of the lowest of the low in also our societies yet today.
Maybe this reminds us, as we in this Year C Lectionary cycle are on the cusp of the Season of Lent, that we need to listen really closely to what Jesus says from the cross when—having given the last full measure of his own devotion to this broken world—he cries out, “It is accomplished!”
We need to listen to him. Really carefully.
Luke says that this epiphany on the mountaintop took place “eight days” after Peter’s famous confession of Jesus as the Christ. The other gospels suggest that this took place six days later. Either expression, as Stephen Farris points out in “The Lectionary Commentary,” could be the loose equivalent of saying “about a week later.” Yet, as Farris also suggests, in Luke’s context “the eighth day” could be a prefigurement of the resurrection as well. Luke is mindful of that eighth day significance, after all (he is the only evangelist to give us the Emmaus Road story, replete with Jesus’ being made known to the disciples “in the breaking of the bread”). So it is possible that this little detail on the timing of the Transfiguration could be a hint pointing toward Easter and the glory that awaited Jesus also then.
Frederick Buechner once mused that maybe the oddness of the Transfiguration is not so odd after all. It is interesting to note that although Luke tells us that Jesus’ garments shone as bright as a flash of lightning, we are not told that Jesus’ face shone, only that it “changed.” In the Greek this is literally that the EIDOS of his face changed, the image, the appearance, of his face was altered. How so? We’re not told, but it seems that maybe the true image of God, the image of the Son, the spittin’ image of the Son who was his Father all over again—maybe this is what shone through in a way the disciples managed to miss seeing most days. But then we all often miss seeing this in each other as often as not. Scripture assures us that we were all created in the image of God, but as we hustle past people in the malls, as we jostle next to them on the train, as we get annoyed with them when they crowd us in our airplane seat, we miss it. But as Buechner says, there are moments of transfiguration in all our lives. No, not exactly on a par with what happened to Jesus but still . . . Or as Buechner put it, “Even with us something like this happens once in a while. The face of the man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the most unlikely person listen to a concert or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just have a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.” (From “Beyond Words” by Frederick Buechner, Harper San Francisco 2004).
Author: Scott Hoezee
To understand the end of Exodus 34, you need to catch up on two things: the immediate context of this chapter in Exodus and also what happened in the first 9 verses of this 34th chapter, the final effect of which you can read in the Lectionary selection of verses 29-35.
First of all, then, let’s recall that the setting for Exodus 34 is the immediate aftermath of one of Israel’s most glaring failures: worshiping the Golden Calf. There are multiple layers of both absurdity and tragedy in that incident. Granted, Moses had been up on Mount Sinai for nearly six weeks. But for goodness sake, the smoke of God’s presence and the flashes of divine lightning were still visible when the people told Aaron, “Moses must not be coming back so let’s make a new god!”
Aaron complied with sickening swiftness. But the problem with a god you make with your own hands is that it will not challenge you. Have you ever noticed that? When people worship something other than the God of the Bible, this God is always so tolerant. When we make our own gods, they tend to turn out to be very friendly to how we think already anyway.
Thus, not long after Aaron sculpted a golden calf, we are told that a kind of drunken orgy broke out. And that’s another funny thing about false gods: the first commandment of most false gods seems to be, “Thou shalt party!” And party is just what the people did until the sound of their whooping and drunken laughter wafted clear up to Moses’ ears and Yahweh’s ears. Yahweh got so mad at what he termed “this stiff-necked people” that he threatened to wipe out every last one of them and just start over with Moses. Moses convinced God not to do that but he then got so mad he took the tablets containing the Ten Commandments and smashed them into a thousand pieces. It was all very ugly and angry.
But now in Exodus 34 the smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and so Yahweh and Moses start all over with, literally, a clean slate. New tablets are chiseled, and God gives his law all over again. But not before the incredible lines we read in verses 6-7. God passes in front of Moses and says his holier than holy name, not once but twice, adding emphasis and letting us know that whatever God says next, it is going to be a decisive revelation of who God fundamentally is. “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate One, the gracious One, the abundantly forgiving One, the One brimming with lovingkindness.”
That last word, translated as “abounding love” is my all-time favorite Hebrew word chesed, which is the Old Testament equivalent of “grace” in the New Testament. It is also the central trait that the Israelites celebrated in God over and over and over. And in Exodus 34, because the name of Yahweh is thundered twice in a row, we see here the definitive declaration of God’s most basic nature. Despite all the bluster and divine fury and punishment that had just happened in the wake of Israel’s wanton idolatry, even still the very first thing God wants to make clear to Moses is that despite what had just happened, it is grace that will always set the tone of the divine heart.
But what makes that grace, that lovingkindness of God, truly luminous is precisely the fact that grace is not the same thing as moral laxity or softness. God does not and cannot merely shrug off the sin that marred his creation. If redemption and forgiveness come, then they come the hard way via a God who has done the cosmically difficult thing of looking everything that wounds him square in the face and still finding the ability to blot it out.
If God says he forgives you, it is never because to God it was no big deal anyway. No, grace is strong precisely because it co-exists with justice. Grace is lyrically beautiful exactly insofar as grace comes into play in just those places where something so serious has happened that a holy God recoils in horror. But if, despite your sin, you see on God’s face a look of love and not horror, it’s because God has done something miraculous: he has forgiven that which is at complete odds with his nature as a perfect divine Being.
That’s what Moses saw. That’s why in verse 9 he dares to speak the exact same phrase that two chapters earlier Yahweh had uttered: “a stiff-necked people.” In chapter 32, Yahweh used that line as the reason why he was going to kill of the whole lot of Israel. But now in Exodus 34 Moses is able to call the people stiff-necked but he doesn’t worry it will inflame Yahweh all over again. He’s seen the lovingkindness of God up close and personal now and so he knows the truth of what we saw Paul write last Sunday morning in Romans 5: where sin abounds, grace hyper-abounds all the more!
It is finally no wonder that when Moses came down from the mountain this second time, his own face was glowing. It was the reflection of grace that the people saw. It actually frightened them at first. Grace can be a bit scary. We don’t always realize that, but before grace is so beautiful as to make you weep, grace confronts you with your need for some serious forgiveness. Grace is fierce and it is strong and it penetrates right to the heart of each one of us. So if you end up finding that you want that grace, it is only because you know that right behind the grace is a galactic justice that would wipe you out were it not for the compassion of God that always rises to the top of the divine heart. If you receive God’s forgiveness as it finally comes through Jesus, you are not only eternally grateful and joyful, you are mighty relieved, too. Because when you look into God’s eyes, you see flickers of both his grand mercy but also of his uncompromising justice.
For obvious reasons, this Old Testament lection is paired on Transfiguration Sunday (Year C) with the Luke 9 account of Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah with him in that glory-filled spectacle on a mountaintop. But there are other similarities between this portion of Exodus and that incident in Luke 9. One thing that is common to both—but perhaps not as obvious to see—is the fact that in the midst of all the glory and holiness and glowing faces there is a serious engagement with sin and evil going on. Moses and Elijah did not show up in Luke 9 to shoot the breeze with Jesus or have a casual chat about the weather. No, Luke tells us (and Luke is along among the gospel writers to tell us this) that they were there very specifically to talk to Jesus about his impending death and all that this sacrifice would bring to final fulfillment. In other words, in the middle of the glory there was darkness. In the middle of all that seemed so highly unusual and other-worldly there was an engagement with something that is actually altogether too common and utterly mundane: human sin and our need for a Deliverer.
Later in the Bible—in a highly curious passage in II Corinthians 3—the Apostle Paul will revisit this Exodus 34 incident and the radiance of Moses’ face, his need to cover it with a veil for the sake of the people, etc. In essence Paul will claim that the radiance is the awful beauty of holiness in whose light the terrible truth of our sinfulness gets revealed. But we don’t want to acknowledge that and so a veil separates us from the truth. But in Christ that veil is removed. We are able to see the glory of holiness and the way that bright light reveals our every wart and wrinkle and sin but we can do so with hope in our hearts knowing that in Christ and because of his sacrifice, we are forgiven even so.
In the Year C Lectionary, this passage serves as a pivot point as we get ready to turn back toward the Season of Lent. As such, this passage—and its Luke 9 counterpart—do indeed focus us on the sin that will be the subject matter for Lent and for all that drove God’s only Son to a cross at the Place of the Skull. We should not get distracted by the light and the glory of it all as though those spectacles exist for their own sake. No, those are in service of the larger goal of getting us saved. And salvation begins with a frank acknowledgment that we need saving precisely because of what the light of divine holiness reveals about each one of us.
In her book Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor has a chapter that bears the rather startling title, “Sin Is Our Only Hope.” It seems an oddly perverse title and yet Brown Taylor makes a good point. After all, if we look around us in life, we see so much that is painful. We see children abused and spouses cheated on. We see corporate greed and wanton pollution of God’s beautiful earth. We see people who have fried their brains with cocaine and drunk drivers who run down children playing hopscotch on a sidewalk. We see suicide bombings that reduce precious human bodies, the very temple of God’s Spirit, to so many severed limbs and organs.
If there is no such thing as sin–and what’s more, if there is no God who can declare a definitive judgment on what is sinful–then there is no hope that anything can be salvaged. Sin is our only hope because if sin exists, then so does sin’s opposite: namely, a moral goodness to which God can restore us. But if there is no sin, then there is nothing to hope for because there never was any better world from which we fell away in the first place. If there was once what John Milton called a “paradise lost,” then there is the possibility that a gracious God can make possible a “paradise regained.” But if there is no sin, there is no paradise to restore because life turns out to be just a booming, buzzing confusion with no right, no wrong, and no God to tell the difference.
Author: Stan Mast
On this Transfiguration Sunday, Psalm 99 provides us with a tantalizingly different way to preach on that brilliant Epiphany of Christ’s glory on the mountain. In our Transfiguration Day sermon we could do what the disciples wanted to do in Luke 9; we could build shelters/booths/museums to preserve the moment. We could keep retelling the story so that we’ll never forget that time when people like us actually saw the hidden glory of Jesus. Or we could do what Psalm 99 calls us to do; we could fall down and worship the holy One who manifested his glory on the holy mountain. In other words, we could commemorate the event or we could celebrate Jesus as the Lord our God who reigns over all the earth and over each of us. Psalm 99 provides a kind of liturgical guide for our worship on Transfiguration Sunday. The three disciples in Luke 9 would have benefitted if they had used Psalm 99 in their response to Christ’s Transfiguration. So will we.
Like all Hebrew poetry, Psalm 99 is very carefully constructed, because, of course, the King of all the earth deserves our very best. While many contemporary Christians value spontaneity and informality in worship, the ancient people of God were thoughtful and deliberate in their praise. So, according to some scholars, this Psalm is composed of 4 stanzas of 3 lines each in the Hebrew. It deliberately uses the Hebrew number of perfection and completeness, the number 7, mentioning the Lord seven times and using 7 pronouns to refer to that Lord.
And most significantly, it repeats a refrain three times (verses 3, 5, 9), emphasizing the theme of the Psalm. This Lord is “holy.” As in Isaiah 6, the Lord who reveals his glory on the holy mountain is thrice holy. While probably not a hidden reference to the Trinity, this theme does help us to praise God for his multifaceted holiness. Picking up on the original sense of holiness, the idea that the Lord is “wholly other,” Psalm 99 focuses on the three crucial ways in which Yahweh is completely different than anything in all creation, especially other lords and kings and gods.
In verses 1-3, we are called to praise the Lord for his universal, worldwide reign. I say “we” deliberately, because the Psalmist calls “all the nations,” not just Israel, to “tremble,” and all the “earth,” not just the Promised Land, to “shake” before the Lord. The God who sits enthroned above the cherubim, that is, above the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple located in Zion (Jerusalem), is exalted over all the nations. Though Yahweh has chosen to dwell in that place among those people in a special way, Yahweh is not a local deity, a national God who reigns over just one people in only one geographical area, like the gods of the nations. Yahweh is holy, wholly other, in that he reigns over all people, whether they acknowledge him or not. Israel does not reign over all the earth, but Israel’s God does. So “let them (everyone on earth) praise your great and awesome name—he is holy.”
In verses 4-5, we are called to praise the Holy Lord, because of his justice. Not only is Israel’s God all powerful, but he is also completely just, unlike the other kings and lords and gods of the surrounding nations. Indeed, he “loves” justice; he has “established equity;” he always does “what is just and right.”
This emphasis on justice and righteousness is something many North American Christians don’t appreciate as much as we should. We praise God for his grace and mercy and love, not his righteousness and justice and judgment. We emphasize that Jesus has satisfied God’s justice on our behalf, so that we don’t have to fear judgment. Oh, we may be motivated to seek social justice on behalf of the oppressed of the earth, but we’re mostly relieved that we that we don’t have to keep God’s law in order to counted as righteous before God. Given our relatively privileged place in the world’s pecking order, we don’t experience injustice as often or as painfully as many others. And our emphasis on the personal dimension of salvation might keep us from appreciating the corporate, even cosmic, aspects of God’s redeeming plan.
The Old Testament doesn’t have our limitations. As a tightly knit minority community that was often oppressed by others, Israel longed for God’s justice and righteousness for individuals and for the community. They took great comfort in the fact that God’s rule would establish justice all over the earth, even as they themselves struggled with injustice. In a world where things had gone so terribly wrong, they relied on the justice of God to set things right. They yearned for the day when God would reestablish his Shalom, where everything was right again.
God had already begun his reign of justice and righteousness in Israel, having delivered them from bondage in Egypt, and having given them that marvelous law, and having spoken to them by his prophets and priests, and having given them kings to rule them in righteousness. As verse 4 says, “in Jacob you have done what is just and right.” Other kings and lords and gods have a mixed record with regard to justice and righteousness. Not Yahweh. “Thus to the eyes of faith Israel’s history is a living testimony to the reality of the divine justice as the principle governing History’s life in general. It illustrates this fundamental truth of national life: ‘Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people.’” (Artur Weiser) That’s why the Psalmist ends this section with these soaring words. “Exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy.”
Verses 6-9 are the climax of the Psalm. Verse 9 increases the volume of this call to praise by reminding us a third time that “the Lord our God is holy.” This time his wholly otherness is seen in his covenantal care for his people. As the previously quoted Artur Weiser put it: “The greatest statement the Psalmist is able to make with regard to God’s nature is neither that God’s universal might has a power that can shake the whole world nor that God has established a rule of law that governs every life, but that he has shown himself to be the God of grace, who transformed the history of Israel into a Heilsgeschichte (salvation history).”
Those are fancy words for what the Psalmist puts so simply. Identifying three of the major priests that God appointed to be intermediaries between his sinful people and his holy Self, the Psalmist says, “they called on the Lord and he answered them.” Unlike the gods of the nations who cannot hear or speak, God both hears the cries of his people and speaks in words they could hear. Referring to Israel’s experience at Sinai where God gave his “statues and decrees” and to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness where God gave them directions for the journey, he “spoke to them from the pillar of cloud.” Yahweh is wholly other in that his people can have a personal relationship with him. He is not only powerful and just, but he is also conversational and covenantal. You can talk to him and he will talk back.
Even better, what he says is not only righteous and just; it is also gracious and merciful. “O Lord our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God.” Over and over again, but especially in the moment of their greatest sin at the foot of Sinai, God forgave Israel’s grievous sin. He laid down his law, but then he “relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” (Exodus 32:14)
If you know that story, you know that Israel did not walk away from their sin unscarred. In Exodus 34:6,7, God summarizes his character in that famous epiphany to Moses. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….’”
It is those last words of Exodus 34:7 that we hear in Psalm 99:8b, when it says, “though you punished their misdeeds.” An alternate reading avoids the theological difficulty of those words by translating, “you were an avenger of the wrongs done to them.” But such a reading is not the natural or the most helpful understanding of these difficult words. As one scholar said, the Psalmist is saying, “don’t presume on God’s forgiveness as easy or routine. God’s freedom to forgive does not negate the importance of obedience to God’s requirement (verse 7b) or excuse individuals from the consequences of doing wrong (8b).”
Unlike other gods who either forgive or punish, who either look the other way or who lash out in blind fury, the Lord our God is both merciful and just, both gracious and righteous. He takes sin seriously and he takes the forgiveness of sin seriously. He is holy and he is wholly other. He will not simply clear the guilty, but he is also merciful and gracious, forgiving sin of all kinds.
This seems like an intractable theological problem, until we come to the cross, where God’s mercy and justice met in Christ. Paul addressed this authoritatively as he explained the Gospel of justification by faith. We “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through faith in his blood. God did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justified those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:24-26) We have an early intimation of that complex gospel here in Psalm 99. No wonder the Psalmist amps up his call to praise the God who dwells on his holy mountain. “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is (thrice) holy.”
How can we legitimately preach Christ from Psalm 99? The simplest way would be to connect the mountain of Psalm 99 with the Mount of Transfiguration, as I did in my opening words. Hebrews 1:1-3 might be helpful in making that connection. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….” A sermon that followed this tack would legitimately attribute to Jesus the three dimensions of God’s holiness in Psalm 99. Jesus is “holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.”
But I think the most profound way to preach Christ would be to focus on the third stanza of Psalm 99, which praises God’s holiness that shows itself in his fierce grace. The uncomfortable combination of forgiveness and punishment affords us a perfect opportunity to show the necessity and the graciousness of his substitutionary atonement. The clearest Epiphany of Christ’s glory was not on the Mount of Transfiguration, but on Mount Calvary, which some scholars identify as Mount Zion. Then we can indeed call all human beings to “exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord is God is holy.”
The uncomfortable but important connection between forgiveness and punishment in Psalm 99 reminded me of Robert Lewis Dear. He is the man who shot up the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last November. Unlike some other recent shooters who have been identified as radicalized Muslims, Dear called himself a Bible-believing Christian. One of his former wives summed him up in these words. “He claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but he does not follow the Bible in his actions. He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases.” What a classic distortion of the Gospel of justification! One can hear Paul bellowing, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1,2).
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Author: Scott Hoezee
Setting aside Donald Trump’s recent eisegetically disastrous and self-serving use of a verse in this week’s Epistle lection, most of us who preach would admit that this is not an easy text to get right. Paul’s second letter to Corinth contains wonderful pockets of now well-known words and images. But weaving in and around those better known words are long-ish patches of rambling prose containing Paul’s self-defense in the face of critics as well as some sets of images that are just plain puzzling.
This passage is one of them. On Transfiguration Sunday when we have a dramatic story about Jesus to preach on, I wonder how many preachers would opt to make their sermon all about 2 Corinthians 3-4. It’s clear enough why the Lectionary chose these verses as they tie in with a kind of pre-Transfiguration transfiguration of Moses’ face when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Law.
Moses was literally aglow with the glory of God—think of it as the equivalent of a holy sunburn—and even this reflected glory was more than the people could handle. Who knows whether the people just found it embarrassing that Moses was so radioactive with God’s holiness or if that same glow stood in such stark contrast to their own recent tawdry actions around a certain Golden Calf that they just couldn’t bear to see the truth of it all reflected on Moses’ face.
Either way or both ways they insisted he cover it up. Moses veiled his face so those with non-glorious visages could handle it until the glory faded away.
Now if you read Exodus and this story, then you know that we’re talking about the real man Moses here and a real glow and a real veil. For his part, however, Paul riffs on it all to turn the whole thing into a kind of allegorical metaphor. So it’s a good thing Paul can claim Holy Spirit inspiration in all this because otherwise—if, say, this were some seminary student making this move in a sermon written for one of my preaching classes—I’d have to chalk the whole thing up to a ridiculous over-extension of a narrative text’s imagery and detail. I mean, sometimes a veil is just a veil, a glow is just a glow. What’s all this old covenant / new covenant imagery that gets larded over the real narrative?
There is not a lot of middle ground here: Paul is either getting this spectacularly (albeit weirdly) right or this allegorical analogy is just plain goofy. A high view of Scripture commits me to pursuing the former option. Paul is onto something here as to the meaning of the original story in ways that went beyond what even the people in the original story could have been aware of. What might the meaning of it all be?
Well, I once heard a pastor suggest that among the things that were hard to bear when considering Moses’ glowing face was the fact—reflected in verse 13b—that as a matter of fact the glory was in the process of fading away. Great though the reception of the Law had been and wonderful though it was that Israel really was now a nation (in fulfillment of what God had promised in Genesis 12 to Abram), the fact is this was not the end of the line. This was not the end-all and be-all of God’s ultimate plans for this fallen creation.
Whatever glory there was to associate with this early part of God’s covenant relationship with human beings, it was temporary, stop-gap, not the end of the game. And there was something heartbreaking about that even as at the same time there was something hopeful about it—Moses’ reflected glory was a preview, a sneak peek, a sign of what was to come in all its abundant fullness when God finally fulfilled his covenant through the Messiah.
The Law, Paul writes in another place, was all along to be like our babysitter who would keep watch over us and keep us safe until the Father fully arrived for his children in the person of the Son, who was sent by the Father and was his Father all over again (cf. John 14). But until the Christ arrived in all his non-fading glory, we would never quite perceive the Law correctly—we’d always try to turn it into our ticket to heaven (“If only I can keep it perfectly on my own . . .”) instead of seeing it as God’s gift for grateful living that comes after salvation has already scooped us up into the divine embrace by grace alone. The only reason you keep looking to the Law as the source of your salvation is because your heart still has a veil over it—you’re not seeing clearly. Let Jesus take the veil away and shine on you with all his Transfigured glory and you will see as you need to see.
And what you will see is the glorious freedom of grace, the wonderful freedom of knowing that you are now a child of the heavenly Father and no one and no thing can remove you from his loving grasp and embrace. Better yet—and now Paul is really on a roll—far from being put off by the glory we see on Christ Jesus—far from having to then turn back to our own sorry reflections in the mirror only to be reminded how fall short we fall of the glory of God in our own lives—the glory of Christ is contagious! WE start to glow! WE start to be transformed more and more into what CHRIST looks like!
It’s a grand theological riff on the whole pattern of Jesus’ ministry. The rule in Jesus’ day was simple: touch a leper, touch a dead body, touch anyone deemed “unclean” and YOU become unclean. But not with Jesus. The contagion of holiness and healing was so powerful that when Jesus touched the unclean, they got infected with his glory, with his life. They became clean and Jesus stayed clean. Being associated with Christ means that his life is your life, his glory bit by bit becomes your glory.
So OK, yes, at first glance Paul’s curious wielding of a narrative’s details in such allegorical fashion looks sufficiently odd as to almost count as incorrect theologically and exegetically. But upon further reflection, it turns out to be not just correct but gloriously so. When you embrace Christ as the Lord of all, you are flooded with goodness and light and life and glory. And then everything that God has done from the beginning—including the place that the Law occupies in our lives and in salvation history—all falls into place. It all makes sense. No more veils. No more confusion. What remains is . . . glorious!
Indeed, what remains is our ever-increasing glory in Christ—the very glory of being the children of God that God had in mind when in the beginning he created the heavens and the earth.
2 Corinthians 3:17 has always generated for me a good Oral Comprehensive Exam question for seminary students. If Paul here claims that “the Lord” (who we presume is Jesus) “is the Spirit,” does this chip away at our Trinitarian notion that the Holy Spirit is a divine person in the Godhead in his own right? Should we be Binatarians and not Trinitarians after all? Is the person of the Son/the Lord identical to “the Spirit” such that they form one person and not two? Well, there is enough other evidence in the New Testament to warrant our Trinitarian conclusions that this one verse need not derail the whole doctrine. (There is, by the way, a similar line in The Nicene Creed when we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life.”) The meaning here seems to be that FOR NOW as Christ is the Ascended Lord at the right hand of the Father, the Spirit is the active presence of Christ as Lord in our lives today. The Spirit is effectively the Lord Jesus in that he is the living connection—the living mediator—who brings Jesus to us and us to Jesus. Jesus is Lord but we cannot access him without being filled with the Spirit.
In other words, “the Lord is the Spirit” can be seen as a functional reality not an ontological one.
The notion that Christ’s glory is contagious (as noted above in this sermon starter) and that we get infected with his life through our association with him reminds me of the movie The Green Mile. In it John Coffey is a man convicted (falsely) of murder. But John Coffey seems to be a special agent of God, possessed with divine powers of healing and with a kind of “second sight” that allows him to see into people’s souls to learn the truth about them.
At one point in the movie, Coffey revives (resurrects!) a fellow prisoner’s pet mouse after a cruel prison guard on Death Row had smashed the little critter to death. At another point Coffey shares some of his powerful insights with Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard played by Tom Hanks, whom Coffey had also previously healed of a painful infection.
When the movie ends, we flash forward about 70 some years only to discover at the end that the mouse, Mr. Jingles, is still alive and so—now well into his 100s—is Paul. In explaining to a friend why Mr. Jingles and he now have such extraordinary long life, the long-since retired Paul Edgecomb suspects that when someone with as much divine life in him as John Coffey had touches you and heals you, sparks of that divine life get into you (even if you’re a mouse!).
The Green Mile is just a movie and one that many would regard as a kind of fantasy at that. But theologically if we connect this idea to Christ and to what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3, it’s just right. When we become united with Christ in our baptisms, all his divine life flows into us and not just a little and not just temporarily but for all eternity as we transform from glory to glory until finally we by grace attain the full stature of Christ Jesus the Lord.