LAST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — 14 February 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.
Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-43a
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
It has been the custom for many many years now that on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, and before the beginning of the Lenten season this coming Wednesday, we read for the Gospel the account of the Transfiguration of Christ — in a three year rotation from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and this year Luke. (I remember before this became our custom. Some of you probably do too, but I’ll leave it up to you to confess whether you do or not!) I remember thinking at the time, what a splendid way to conclude the Epiphany season celebrating the Manifestation of Christ before entering our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross and the Resurrection. I still think that!
So today we celebrate this climactic vision of Jesus Christ in glory by his closest disciples, Peter and John and James. But it may be helpful to back up a little and pick up the context. About eight days earlier (Mark and Matthew say it was six, but I’m not going to go there just now!), Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter replied, “You are God’s Messiah” [9:20]. We know that story. And Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone” [9:21], and went on to predict his upcoming suffering and death. And he continued, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” [9:23-24].
So it is in this context that the disciples of Jesus — Peter and John and James, and all of us through the centuries — now are given the vision of Christ in glory. In glory — in Biblical imagery, the presence of God — and in that divine glory appear also Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, the great figures of God’s chosen people Israel. Moses, of whom we hear in the first reading today, coming down the mountain with the tablets of the covenant, his face shining with the glory of God [Ex. 34:29]. And the prophet Elijah, who you may recall was whirled up to heaven in a chariot of fire [2 Kings 2:11]. And Moses and Elijah converse with Jesus about his “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” [9:31]. “Departure” — a word that can also be translated as “death.” In the midst of the divine glory, they talk about Jesus’ death. Hold that thought.
In the original Greek of Luke’s account, the word most English translations render as “departure” is exodos, literally “going out,” and thus figuratively “departure” (that is, from this life) or “death.” But here’s Moses, talking with Jesus about his “exodus.” How do you suppose Luke means his readers and hearers to understand this? I think so, too. All of the above. For the people of Israel, the Exodus from Egypt was their deliverance from slavery into freedom. And now, for the people of God, the Exodus of Jesus on the cross is our deliverance through death into life.
But I think it’s interesting to see just where this event, this experience, goes. First of all, Peter — God bless Peter, his mouth well ahead of his brain, as usual — Peter says, “This is great! This is so religious! Let’s build shrines!” Whereupon God interrupts with the cloud of the divine presence, and proclaims, “This is my chosen Son — listen to him! Did I say build shrines? I said listen to him!” And then it’s all over. The three say nothing about this at the time, as well they might not. They go with Jesus back down the mountain, and the next thing that happens is that Jesus heals an epileptic boy. Everything is back to normal. To the extent that Jesus’ ministry of healing is “normal.”
One of the deep questions with which many people wrestle — actually, most people wrestle with this at least sometimes, including me, and I assume including you — anyone who doesn’t wrestle with this at least sometimes just isn’t paying attention — is: “If God is good and God is omnipotent, why is the world so screwed up?” This question is called “theodicy,” which is derived from Greek words and means, roughly, “God’s justice.” (Although the word does not occur in ancient or biblical or patristic Greek, as far as I know; it was coined in the early eighteenth century by the philosopher [Gottfried Wilhelm] Leibniz.) We talked a little about this question last fall when we were reading Job. The problem is that there just are no easy answers to this, on either side. Christian or other “religious” answers, in the way they are articulated, often seem to me to be shallow and cheap. On the other hand, agnostic or atheist answers — or refusal to seek answers — also seem to me to be shallow and cheap. I don’t want to seem to be minimizing the seriousness of this question; nor do the Scriptures themselves have any simple solutions.
But there are some hints, some directions, and I think the Gospel today offers them, in the turn from the Mount of the Transfiguration to ministering to the needs of people, a second prediction of the Passion, and the start of the trek up to Jerusalem where the cross awaits. What God is up to in Jesus is not about power, not as we understand power. But what we want is power — God’s power, especially as it may serve as source and support for our own power. And it can be a severe test of our faith when God does not exercise divine power, particularly in the way that we want God to exercise power, in the way that we want God to enable our own exercise of power.
So now we prepare to enter into the Lenten season, to start our own trek up to Jerusalem, where the cross awaits. And yes, in the end there is power — but no kind of power we could ever have imagined.
[See Walter Brueggemann’s Reflections on this Exodus passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible; he includes references to Paul’s discussion in 2 Corinthians 3 as well as the Transfiguration narratives in the synoptic Gospels.]