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March 5, 2000
Last Sunday after Epiphany
Transfiguration Sunday

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Spiritual 20/20

"...we walk by faith, not by sight."

These were Paul's words to the Christians at Corinth.  He was talking about the hope for life everlasting  we Christians have in Christ.  In the creed we confess, "I believe in...  the life everlasting."

The First Letter of Peter speaks about the love and joy Christians have even though they have never seen Christ with physical eyes. "Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,"  [1 Peter 1:8]

All of this is to say that physical sight is not the only kind of seeing that matters.  We speak of that when we use the word insight.   There are people (you and I may know some of them) who have 20/20 vision in a physical sense, but who "don't have a clue!" in  In other words, they do not have psychological or social insight.

***

I can remember my high school algebra teacher trying to help me understand a particular set of equations I just could not get through my head.  After several abortive attempts to help me "get it," her frustration began to show a bit when she said, "Don't you see?  It's simple."   But I didn't see.  I did not have the insight that would give me that "aha" experience.  (I might add I still don't "get it" in algebraic terms.)

There are still men in this culture who do not understand what the gift of a dozen roses means to a woman. A married couple sat in my office trying to come to terms with the distance in their relationship.  During the conversation, the woman said, "He hasn't sent roses for over five years now."  Surprised, the husband responded, "But you said you didn't care about roses."  She looked at him like he was a dunce and snapped, "You don't get it!"  And of course, being from Mars, he didn't get it!

***

There is another kind of sight that is the most important kind of seeing of all.  Paul talked about this kind of sight in 1 Corinthians 2:14, "The man {person} without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." [NIV]  In other words, there is spiritual insight"Getting it...." in spiritual terms has to do with our relationship with God. Without being able to see in a spiritual way, we loose our bearings in terms of the purpose and meaning of our lives.

Our scripture readings for today are a wonderful weaving together of physical sight and spiritual insight.  They show the powerful nature of spiritual sight through physical events that are seen with the eyes. Elisha and the disciples of Jesus are given the gift of seeing spiritual reality with their physical vision.  Elisha is overcome and the disciples are terrified and confounded by the visions they see.  It is as though, for a brief moment, Elisha and the disciples are given a glimpse of spiritual reality.

The reading from 2 Corinthians is a statement about spiritual vision and how God lights up the darkness in our inner world. Just as light came to the physical creation when God said, "Let there be light,"    so spiritual light shines in our inner darkness when we believe the good news and receive Christ as Lord.

***

There is a sense in which the gospel reading points to one of the central themes of the whole of scripture.  The epistle reading puts that theme this way:

"For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."   [2 Cor. 4:6]

From Genesis to the end of Revelation, of of the foundation themes of the bible is God's attempt to restore the spiritual center of humanity.  In the transfiguration of Jesus, the disciples get a glimpse of God's plan and purpose.  Something amazing happens:

"And there appeared to them Elijah, with Moses, who were talking with Jesus." [Mk.9:4]

Why these three together?  What are they talking about?  There is something crucial going on here and we gain a clue by looking briefly at the three persons in the vision.

Moses
The appearance of Moses takes us back to the beginnings of the formation of God's people.  It was through the ministry of Moses that the word of God in the form of the law comes to Israel.  In the wilderness, the people learn absolute dependence upon the Lord.  Moses began his personal journey with the Lord through the overwhelming experience of encountering God in a burning bush.

In the wilderness, the people were led by a cloud by day and light by night as the light of the knowledge of God gave shape to a people.  Light was an important part of worship throughout Israel's history.

Yet, the heart of Israel was turned away from the Lord and fulfillment of God's purposes for their lives was delayed by the darkness that comes when spiritual vision is lost.

Moses, unable to accompany the people into the Promised land ascends Mt. Nebo where he gains a glimpse of the promised land before he dies.

Elijah
In the prophet Elijah ministered to Israel during one of the lowest points in Israel's history.  Ahab reigned as King and pagan worship was rampant as Elijah was sent to bring the word of God to the people of God.  Elisha's ministry was accompanied by powerful and miraculous acts of God in a way that reminds us of Moses' powerful ministry.

Yet for all his faithfulness, Elijah has to escape into the desert as Ahab's wife Jezebel vows to kill him.  2 Kings, chapter 19 tells the story of how Elijah wished for his own death and indulged himself in a bit of self pity.  An angel strengthens the prophet who makes a forty day journey to Mt. Horeb where he meets God once again.

Nevertheless, Israel continues to spurn the word of the Lord and instead of spiritual insight, the darkness remains on the people.

Jesus
In Jesus, everything is coming to a conclusion and the purposes of God will be fulfilled.  The disciples are invited to journey to a mountain with Jesus.   There is the sense of moving up and away from this world as a kind of physical representation of a spiritual reality.

There is a verse in the gospel of John that helps us understand why Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus.  When John the baptizer was conducting his ministry, some religious officials were sent to him to ask just who he was.  He tells them he is not the Messiah and they respond:

"What then, are you Elijah?"  When John says he is not, they continue, "Are you the prophet?"  [John 1:21]

There was an expectation that Elijah would appear right at the time when God was going to send Messiah and restore the reign of the Lord in the land.  Moses had promised the people of Israel in his farewell speech that God would send a prophet like him at a time in the future.

And now the disciples stand terrified as they see Jesus for who he really is.  With their physical sight, they are given the gift of seeing spiritual reality. And they can barely tolerate it.  It is too much for them.  Something very powerful and life changing is happening before their eyes in the transfiguration of Jesus.

A voice thunders through the cloud that has come over them.  A cloud, perhaps, much like the cloud that covered ancient Israel in the desert on their way to the promised land.

"This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"

Once again, the spiritual meaning of the physical event is contained in these words from the epistle reading:

"For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."   [2 Cor. 4:6]

And then, the vision ends.  "Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus."   And then they descend.  They can not remain on the mountain top.

The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top must now turn into the transformation of all those people who have yet to gain their spiritual insight.  And it will be these terrified, timid and tentative disciples who will bring the word of transformation to the world.

***

There are a few "take home" lessons in the story of Jesus' transfiguration:

  • The ability to see spiritual reality - that is to "get it" spiritually requires time away from the routine.  We need to take time to go apart.

  • Prayer in the life of the Christian is spiritual "mountain climbing."

  • It is in times of prayer that the purposes of God for our lives are seen most clearly.

  • As long as we are in this world, we can not stay on the mountain top.  After "going up" there has to be "coming down."  We might prefer the atmosphere of the mountain top, but Christ needs us to "descend" so that others might have the opportunity to gain spiritual insight.

  • Christ descended so that we could ascend.   We too must descend from our mountain top times with the Lord so that others might also ascend.

May God give you the joy of spiritual vision!

 


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

The texts speak of inner - or spiritual - vision.  In 2 Kings the ability of Elisha to see Elijah ascending into the heavenly realm it directly related to whether God will grant Elisha the prophetic spirit of Elijah.  "If you have it, you will see -- if you don't have it, you will not see."  In 2 Corinthians, spiritual insight is given by God who gives "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God."

The highpoint of the message of spiritual insight is in the gospel where there is an actual "highpoint" as Jesus takes the inner circle of three (Peter, James and John) with him in the transfiguration experience.

There is a play on words with this theme which might be used in a message. Instead of the old, "seeing is believing" -- these texts talk about, "believing is seeing."

Another thread that weaves through the texts is the issue of where spiritual insight comes from.  Think in terms of the question, "How can I get spiritual insight?"  The answer is, "You can't!"   Spiritual insight is a gift from God.  Elisha has to wait on God for the prophetic spirit.  It is God who gives light in the epistle and it is God who speaks the words that go to the heart of our Christian confesssion -- or Christian enlightenment --  "This is my beloved Son -- listen to him!"

2 Kings 2:1-12

There are some parallels between the experience of Elisha with his mentor Elijah and that of the disciples with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration.   It is in the company of the master that the disiples are enlightened and drawn coloser to God.  In each case, the disciples witness --  the ascention on the one hand and transfiguraiton on the other.

In 2 Kings, there is a model of discipleship.  Three times Elisha declares to Elijah, "I will not leave you."  This, after being told by Elijah to stay behind as Elijah makes his final earthly pilgrimage.   There is a hint of the "threeness" of Peter's denial of Jesus which would come later.  It is, however, only after pushing through Elijah's request that Elisha remain behind -- that Elisha finally receives the blessing of God.  Three times he says, "I will not leave you."  Then -- God's gift of Elijah's spirit is given in double measure.

Usually it is the promise of God, "I will never leave you or forsake you,"  that gives comfort to the disciple.   Elisha shows the disciple's response to the faithfulness of God -- "I will never leave you."

Mark 9:2-9

See from 2/28/99 on Matthew 17:1-7 with comparisons to this Markan text for additional notes.

Jesus' "inner three" Peter, James and John accompany Jesus in this experience and will later go with him deeper into the Garden of Gesthemane on the night of his arrest.

The transfiguration experience comes as Jesus takes the three disciples on a "retreat" -- "a high mountain apart, by themselves."  Seeing spiritual reality depends upon intentionally getting "away from it all" or "apart by ourselves" to reflect on our relationship with the Lord.

And then...  we need to come back!   It would be wonderful to stay on the mountain top -- but there is no "just me 'n my Jesus"  in authentic discipleship.  We are called to get close to the Master so that we can go back down the mountain and do our part to bring the world closer to the Master.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

This text is about "light and darkness" -- "seeing and not seeing,"  in a spiritual sense.  The "good news" is light in a dark world.  The letter points to the struggle between the "god of this world" and the "light of the gospel."   In other words, there is something that wants us to remain blind to spiritual reality.

The gospel is not simply words.  It is a message from God which has liberating power for those who can not see spiritual reality.   When Christ is proclaimed as Lord, there is the possibility of light shining within which brings knowledge of God.

Thus -- "Believing is seeing!"


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 50)

Leader:   It is the Lord our God who calls us to worship,
People:  As the rising of the sun, so is the Lord in our hearts.
Leader:   Let all those who love the Lord our God,
People:  Worship and rejoice in the Righteous One.
Leader:   The Lord alone is Judge of all,
Unison: 
The one who sheds light on the pathway of life.  Amen

A Prayer of Confession

Have mercy upon us O Lord, as we come before you today.  You are the light that shines in our hearts and yet we so often choose the darkness of our own way. We fail to take time for you and give ourselves to things that can not fulfill.  You call us to ministry in the larger world and we prefer the safety of our small inner circles.  O give us grace today to open our hearts more fully to the light of Christ and fill our spirits with courage to follow him into our broken world.   Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Leader:   God alone is a righteous judge and the Justifier of those who call upon the name of the Lord.  Let us open our hearts to the good news that as we confess our sin, we are forgiven.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

O Lord our God, we give you thanks and priase today that in a confusing and broken world, you have not left us without direction.  You have given us the light of your Son Jesus that our path might be clear.

We are grateful that there is always a place of rest with you and that even in the midst of troubled times and conflicted relationships there are quiet waters where we can be refreshed.  O God, give us the great joy of hearing the words of Jesus, "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  And as we rest in him, may we also learn from him so that we may know more fully the peace of Christ.

Lord of life, there is no way we can ever fully express the gratitude in our hearts for the gift of prayer you have given to us.  As we journey through the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows and the good and bad of our living, you are ever present to hear our cries.   It is difficult to imagine our lives without being able to turn to you in quiet moments.

We rejoice in the strength of spirit that comes only to those who trust in your holy name.  Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

As we bring these gifts, O Lord God, we rejoioce in the honor you bestow upon us.  How amazing to consider that you take the gifts we bring and use them to transform our world.  May we learn an even deeper generosity from the One who gave his life for us.  Amen.