Lectionary Reflections on Transfiguration Sunday
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Psalm 99 or Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9, 14-21
Experiencing the glory of God transforms everything. The energy of the Big Bang streams forth from Jesus. Moses is enveloped in divine light. Divine energy and the power of God are not neutral: a theophany, the appearing of God to human beings, and axiology, reflection on value and ethics, are interconnected. The dazzling light of God reveals God’s vision for the universe. God seeks justice and wholeness in all things. Power often corrupts; it is often characterized by coercion and threat. The power of God, however, is relational. It aims at the healing of nations, just relationships, and spiritual illumination.
On the mountaintop, God’s appearance is like a devouring fire. Or, as C.S. Lewis says, there is nothing tame about Aslan, the lion-Christ, of the “Chronicles of Narnia.” God’s unbridled energy, however, propels the moral arc of the universe. Moses finds perspective and power on the mountaintop; he sees the world transformed and he also receives a moral framework for his nation’s future. Paul Tillich once spoke of the interplay of love, power, and justice, and this dynamic is at work on the mountaintop. The dazzling, devouring energy of God is loving energy that gives birth to a nation and sets the nation on its moral course. A relational God uses power for good and inspires just and healing relationships among God’s people.
Psalm 2 needs to be read with parental and theological discretion. Read literally and without exposition, it perpetuates the popular distinction between the Old Testament “god of wrath” and New Testament “god of love.” While the image of power in Psalm 2 may be justified from a nationalistic perspective, or from the image of a god who loves “his” people and no others, it is too ruthless and arbitrary. God is awesome and we would do well to speak of God with reverence. But, Psalm 2 presents an image of an easily angered, impatient, and vindictive of God, who has no tolerance for imperfection or otherness. If you don’t preach this Psalm, you shouldn’t read it!
If a Psalm is to be read this Sunday, choose Psalm 99 for the community’s worship. Psalm 99 connects divine power with justice seeking. Although there is a strong hint of punitive justice in the Psalm, God is also seen as personal and relational: when we call, God responds. God responds best when we are aligned with God’s vision of Shalom.2 Peter recounts Jesus’ transfiguration and connects it with prophetic authority in the church. On the mountaintop, Jesus’ uniqueness is revealed. Uniquely related to God, Jesus’ wisdom is unquestionable and becomes the criterion for all future prophetic wisdom. God calls and we respond; God is the source of prophetic inspiration and all future inspiration needs to be judged in relationship to God’s word and wisdom in Christ. This is not a call to passivity or exclusiveness: at the end of the day “interpretation” is necessary to prophetic utterance. Human interpretation and creativity ground prophetic words in the concreteness of our world and embody divine wisdom in our own unique settings. Still, we need to ascend to the mountaintop, looking for perspectives larger than our own to be faithful to God’s wisdom. Whether from pope or preacher, all prophetic interpretation is limited, imperfect, and time-bound; but its power is in its limitation and concrete, yet humble, address to the current situation and from a particular community’s perspective. Prophetic utterance goes awry when it claims superiority, infallibility, or exclusivity.
On the mountaintop, Jesus is revealed to be more than meets the eye. It is as if the quantum energy of the universe is localized in his mortal frame. Jesus radiates divine energy: the energy of incarnation and resurrection. He is found to be more than we can imagine. Yet, the mountaintop is not an end unto itself. Personally, I would add verses 14-21 to the gospel reading. As go forth from their ecstatic experiences, Jesus and the disciples encounter a desperate parent and a demon-possessed (epileptic) boy. We go from mystical heights to the messiness of human pain and the cross in the distance. The energy of the universe goes forth in healing and a child is transfigured and made whole.
In today’s passages, power aims at relationship and healing and mysticism leads to mission. Contemplation drives us to the messiness of life in our own households, congregations, community, and nation. From the mountaintop we gain perspective and energy and the ability to mediate God’s healing and justice-seeking energy to our worlds. We come away from the heights with new power, and it is the power of love.