Today in the Spirit: The Last Sunday of Epiphany B (Transfiguration)

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On the Last Sunday of Epiphany each year, we contemplate the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. In this season of celebrating the power of God the Father to reveal the glory of the Son in the world, the various accounts of the Transfiguration in the Gospels form a bookend for the worshiper with those of the Baptism of Jesus assigned for the First Sunday of Epiphany. The church will have us recall the voice of the Father commending the Son to begin and end the season. In addition, the light and glory on the Mount of the Transfiguration will set up a point of contrast devotionally with the desolation of the Mount of Temptation on the First Sunday in Lent. 

In Year B, the assigned Gospel reading in Mark 9:2-9 is a pared-down account of the Transfiguration compared with Matthew and Luke. Leaving off such details as the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Luke 9:31), the disciples’ falling asleep (Luke 9:32-33), and the awed response of the disciples to the voice from heaven (Matthew 17:6-7) is, perhaps, to focus our attention solely on all that happens to Jesus.

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The appointed OT reading from 1 Kings 19:9-18 presents the worshiper on this Sunday a contrast between the mountaintop experiences of the prophet Elijah and Jesus Christ. We can identify with what happens with Elijah–his going to the mountain to hide from trouble, his complaining to God of his circumstances, his hesitation to leave the cave when commanded, and his hearing the word of God. It is comparable to our manner of interacting with the Father God in a way that Jesus’ glorious unveiling on the Mount of Transfiguration is not. The assigned Psalm 27 gives us words of worship to identify more with the character of Elijah than Jesus. But the first verse–The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?—are words we carry rightly and expectantly into the experience of hearing the Gospel reading with its account of divine light coming onto and out of Jesus’ face. 

In Year B, the assigned NT reading from 2 Peter 1:13-21 includes some of Peter’s first-hand testimony of being on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus of Nazareth: For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (17-18). This testimony is even more striking for us when we consider that Mark’s account of the Transfiguration was likely formulated by Peter’s memory of the event as it was related to Mark. The Collect for Last Epiphany is a petition that we might respond to the remembrance of the Transfiguration beyond paralyzing awe with faithful and sacrificial living, “that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”

The Collect

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Go Out and Stand Before the LORD on the Mount (1 Kings 19:9-18)

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Notice the repetition of the question from YHWH, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and Elijah’s of the same answer. What do we make of that? Has Elijah learned nothing after hearing YHWH speak in the low whisper? The critical difference, I believe, is that Elijah is still in the cave when he responds to the question the first time. He disobeys the initial command to go out and stand on the mount before the LORD. But God, in his mercy, still speaks to Elijah. From the cave, Elijah heard (not felt) the gentle sound and then went out and stood at the cave entrance. Yes, he makes the same complaint to God as before, but now out of the cave, out of himself, with an open heart and listening ears.

It’s when God pulls us out of the caves we have locked ourselves in that we can hear the question from him, “What are you doing here?” and begin to make some sense of it. We may have the same complaint going out that we had coming into the darkness of our own thinking, but the tone of voice with which we say the words will be different. We complain with righteous anger against God and the world lost inside ourselves, but when God manages to pull us even a little way out, the same diatribe exits our mouths with a spirit of humble readiness to change our minds and comply with a divine word. This passage is surely about the compassion and skill with which God meets us where we are and gently accompanies us forward.   

Today, in the Spirit, we give thanks that in Christ the word is near [us]; it is in [our] mouth and in [our] heart always (see Romans 10:5-9).     

Teach Me Your Way, O LORD (Psalm 27)

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.

Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they breathe out violence.

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!

Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord! (11-14).

Do you feel the tension in this psalm? “David” seeks to hold onto promises YHWH has given to him for the future–namely, the establishment of his kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12ff)–even as he faces adversaries all around him in the present. As we read, we feel that at any moment, the pressure from the second will overwhelm his hope for the first. But David prays Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. And YHWH responds: Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage. (Is this YHWH’s response to the prayer or David’s counsel in the psalm? Maybe both).

Has Jesus put on your heart some clear vision for Christian service that will not let go? Are there overwhelming obstacles in the way of answering that call? Speak honestly to Jesus as David does in this psalm. Hold nothing back, but in the end hold onto your resolution supplied by the Holy Spirit of Jesus in you that God is good, that you shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! 

Today, with the help of the Spirit, pray to Jesus for guidance, taking into account every bit of opposition, to stay on a level path and wait on him.

By Way of Reminder (2 Peter 1:13-21)

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this, first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Or, “Indeed, I will also make every effort that, after my departure, you have a testimony of these things” (NET). While we can’t be sure exactly what Peter has in mind to do (write more letters, help Mark compose his Gospel?), we see his pastor’s heart. He is near his departure, yet he will make every effort for the saints. And the principal burden he will undertake is to remind the saints of his experience as an apostle of Jesus, to help them recall

Sometimes, as a Christian, it can feel wearisome to be constantly under reminder. Is there nothing new in the transmission of the Good News? Must we, as pastors, always be content with rearranging words in a sermon to say the same thing? And do we, as members, really need to be told over and over again the same thing? Be careful here: in this clamoring for innovation, sown in the body, many of the most convincing and damaging heresies of the church have been conceived. One refreshing aspect of gospel transmission comes in that word testimony in the NET rendering of the verse above. Peter will state all the necessary doctrinal points he needs to make to his audience in his letters. However, in this part, it is his brief testimony of his experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus that will grab their attention—and he knows it.

We all have stories of how the old Good News has breathed new life into our bodies, hearts, minds, and our life situations. And, like Peter, we need to be eager to give testimony to them, always making the necessary connections with Scripture–mainly the promises of God in the Bible–to display the love of God through Jesus Christ. Today, Holy Spirit, give me Peter’s desire to make every effort to remind people of the news of the Father and the Son, using the spice my testimony can provide.

Jesus Only (Mark 9:2-9)

And after six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Why the appearance of Moses and Elijah? Jesus transfigured by himself combined with the voice from heaven would have been more than sufficient for setting apart in the hearts of the Twelve, and ours, Jesus Christ as Lord. Somehow, in the wisdom of the Father God, as much as Jesus taught on the point (Matthew 5:17ff, for instance), there had to be an essential linking together of Jesus of Nazareth with the highest representatives of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) before the profound vision of Jesus only. A linking together followed by a dissolution. Moses and Elijah, and the revelation they represent, must not be allowed to linger in their sub-consciences as, in any way, equally meaningful to that of Jesus. The law and the prophets must be shown to be under him, with the light of his face revealing theirs, not the other way around. Judging from Peter’s comments in our NT reading on this experience and the word of the prophets, it seems the point is made.

The gospel witness we make to our Jewish and even Muslim friends somehow needs to move in the direction of this narrative: from Abraham and Moses and Elijah to Jesus the Son of God as the way to salvation. Though telling the story of the Transfiguration of Christ from the Bible could be helpful at some point, at first, they need to see in our friendships with them Jesus Christ set apart in our hearts and the difference that makes in our lives. To make this happen, hospitality, brothers and sisters is the most essential tool in our ministry bags.

Today, in the Spirit, having understood the whole message of the Transfiguration, we pray for wisdom to commend the setting apart of Jesus Christ to others.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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