Grace Presbyterian Church
February 19, 2023, Transfiguration A
Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-18; Matthew 17:1-9
What Is Revealed, What Is Concealed
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to drive around town or perhaps across the state on a cloudy day? Not a rainy day, but a cloudy one, when the sun isn’t constantly beating down and creating a glare that obscures everything? I know this is a little bit heretical to say in this state, but sometimes cloudiness can be a good thing.
In the Old Testament a cloud can in fact be a very good thing: it can, on occasion, be a manifestation of the presence of God.
It happens in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is making ready to go up the mountain called Sinai to receive instruction from God. Even from the moment the Israelites had first come to that mountain after their deliverance from Egypt (back in 19:9), God had made his presence to Moses there known by the appearance of a thick and dense cloud, from which God’s voice might be heard by the people. Even before that, during the Exodus from Egypt, a pillar of cloud had been the manifestation of God’s protection of the people as they traveled by day, with a pillar of fire taking its place by night. That cloud, in a sense, revealed God.
There are other accounts in Hebrew Scripture of cloud as manifestation of God, but my personal favorite is a little-known account from the little-read book of 2 Chronicles. In this account in chapter 5 the great Temple was being dedicated under King Solomon. At the climax of the dedication the Temple was filled with a cloud, “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” I mean, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool. And again, the cloud reveals the presence of God. (There is a parallel account in 1 Kings 8, but I prefer the Chronicles version because in that story, the cloud fills up the Temple only after the trumpeters have played and the choir has sung. Music, after all.)
So when we get to the account from Matthew’s gospel today, along with the account of going up a mountain, and the actual glowing transfiguration of Jesus, the bright, welling cloud as a manifestation of the glory of God would not have been unfamiliar to those to whom Matthew was writing. It is a scene in a gospel, but like so much of Matthew’s gospel it contains a host of echoes and resonances with Hebrew Scripture.
Still, though, there is something interesting about a cloud as a manifestation of the presence and glory of God. Clouds, after all, aren’t exactly known for their revealing properties most of the time. Clouds aren’t translucent; they obscure. The whole reason that the cloudiness makes that drive so bearable is that it obscures the sometimes-oppressive February summer sun (that’s a phrase that only applies in Florida).
And in the account from Exodus, that’s exactly what happens. The voice of God could be heard by the people, but God could not be seen, and when Moses went up the mountain to receive the commandments of God he also disappeared. Not that the people minded; already they were quite content to keep their distance; as early as Exodus 20 they were afraid that if God spoke to them directly – face to face, so to speak – they would die. In their minds, the cloud was protection.
(As for that lovely story from 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with a cloud was indeed enough to bring the dedication of the Temple to a halt; “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” as verse 14 describes. Not sure if it means the priests were physically unable to stand or simply couldn’t stand it.)
In Matthew, the cloud seems a little different. This event is taking place six days after Simon had made the great breakthrough confession of faith recorded in 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus had followed up this confession by giving him a new name – Peter – and by launching into an extended piece of instruction on his forthcoming death. The newly-christened Peter had taken Jesus aside to rebuke Jesus for such talk, only to get the rebuke back ten times over – “Get behind me, Satan!”
Despite that rebuke, Jesus took Peter up the mountain, along with James and John, where this Transfiguration took place. Jesus himself is transfigured and glowing and shining and dazzling, and then as Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets, so to speak – appear with him. You get a brief reminiscence of this in the reading from 2 Peter, likely written by a follower of that apostle recording his teacher’s recollection.
After this transfiguration, Peter steps into a role many of us might recognize, maybe, from times of great excitement or stress or fear in our own lives: the person whose mouth immediately starts running despite the fact that his brain is supplying absolutely nothing useful for his mouth to say. (Somehow, 2 Peter doesn’t include this part.) And then, when Peter is fumbling around about building booths for Moses and Elijah and Jesus as if this were the ancient Hebrew festival known as the Feast of Booths? That’s when the cloud takes over.
The cloud “overshadowed” them. And, as it was back in the days of Exodus, a voice (the voice of God?) spoke from the cloud, to the effect that the disciples fell to their knees in fear (not unlike their Hebrew ancestors at the prospect of the voice of God). What the voice said sounds familiar – “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” is an exact echo of what the voice from Heaven – from the clouds, so to speak – says at Jesus’s baptism, back in chapter 3. But there is added a command: “Listen to him!” (And don’t miss that exclamation point.) Only at the touch of Jesus (“Get up and do not be afraid”) do they look up to see the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah gone, and Jesus – “Jesus himself alone” in Matthews’ emphatic construction – is there. The cloud, the glory of God, has removed the distractions of Moses and Elijah, the safe and comfortable heroes of the faith Peter and James and John knew, and left them with “Jesus himself alone,” whom they have just seen as they had never seen or heard or understood him before.
In concealing Moses and Elijah from the overly enthusiastic disciples, the cloud also reveals; Jesus is revealed not merely as an equal to those two, but something completely other, something so far beyond what either of those figures could represent or offer. The Son of God, the Eternal, is revealed by what the clouds conceal.
As the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes in his The Faith of the Church:
Eternal does not mean “that which has no end” but “that which belongs to the world to come”. Eternity is not defined by its unlimited characteristic but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious kingdom of God.
“That which belongs to the world to come” – a world without end.
At a challenging time for the disciples, when Jesus insisted on his own death and severely rebuked those who could not accept it, these disciples are given a glimpse, however fleeting, of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. At a time and season nearly impossible time for us to bear, we receive this glimpse of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. Death does not, cannot, have the last word, no matter how dark our despair might seem, how much madness might seem to hold sway in the entire world, no matter how bleak the night. The clouds pull back and conceal what is not eternal, revealing the One who is eternal. And that, strange and puzzling as the story might be, is why the Transfiguration is a day of great hope.
This is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Listen to him!
(Stanza 4, “Upon a holy mountain”)
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #191, We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding; #365, God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!
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