A New Theophany – February 23, 2020, Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 19:16-25, Mark 9:2-13
February 23, 2020
I’ve used this word before. “Theophany.” It means, “An appearance of God.” I use it today because I believe this is what’s happening here at this event we call “The Transfiguration.” This is an “Appearance of God,” a Theophany, in the classic sense of the word!
When I think of this event, I also think of the time God appeared to the people on Mount Sinai. This is our reading from the book of Exodus, The Hebrew people had just been brought out of Egypt, and they were gathered at the mountain. And here’s the description. “And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. And the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 19:18-19)
Now, that is a theophany! And I believe the people in our story for today would have remembered that event. It was one of the most dramatic appearances of God in their history – or in all of history, for that matter. And it was a very important story to them. As I said before, the Jewish people were very connected with their history. They put themselves into their stories. They believed these stories were their stories. “The Lord brought us up out of Egypt with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm.” And here they would have said, “And he met us there on the holy mountain.”
I think we miss that. We don’t have that history, at least we don’t think of it like they did. In this story for today we think, “Ok, Jesus went up on the mountain with his disciples and there he took on this heavenly appearance. He was shining and brilliantly white. That’s nice.” We think that’s a good story. We might even have seen artists depictions of this event. And I’m sure they too are nice. But I don’t think they come anywhere close to what it was like. I don’t think anyone’s ever captured how powerful and fearful this event was!
I think Mark, a good Jewish boy, saw the importance of this event, the Transfiguration, in the history of God’s people. This was a theophany! And it was the second time it had happened! Do you remember the first one? It was at the baptism of Jesus. That too was a Theophany! The voice of God was heard then, too. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I’m well pleased!” It was almost the same words this time. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Here we have the cloud, the overshadowing, the transfiguration, shining appearance, the voice of God… this was a theophany.
There was one other story that may have come to mind for the disciples that day. They may have recalled the story of Moses in Exodus 25. That’s was where Moses’ face glowed after he had been speaking with God. They knew that story, too. And again, our image of that probably falls short. How do we picture the face of Moses? Is he like we see on TV sometimes, where one person is in color while everyone else was in black and white? Actually, that might not be a bad way of thinking about this. But, how ever it looked, one thing we know is that it was frightening to the people!
So, this event, the Transfiguration, is a New Theophany. It was new in Jesus’ ministry, and it was new in the history of God’s people! Jesus was changed before them into a heavenly appearance. And, if all that wasn’t enough, Moses himself appeared with Jesus. And Elijah, too!
That would have been huge for these Jewish men! Moses was their great deliverer. He was the savior of the Old Testament, and the great giver of the Law. And Elijah was seen as the greatest of the Prophets. And here, according to Luke’s account, both of those patriarchs were in this vision with Jesus, and what were they doing? They were talking together. And they weren’t talking about Moses and Elijah. No, Moses and Elijah were talking about Jesus! They were discussing his “departure in Jerusalem.” In other words, they were discussing his crucifixion. They were discussing this event, the event that would become this sacrament, that we celebrate today! Does that give this an even greater significance for us? I hope it does!
So, as we prepare for this sacrament, think about this whole story, this whole picture. Think about Jesus on the mountaintop. At the same time, think about the people before the holy mountain in Exodus. What does all of that say to the disciples about the importance of Jesus? Can we even imagine it? Peter, James, and John got a huge message that day about how important their master really was! I hope it helps us to see that, too!
Eternal God, help us to feel the touch of your spirit as we come to this sacrament. Help us to know the joy of our salvation, as we think of the sacrifice made on our behalf. And help us to know, beyond a doubt that Jesus is your Son, in whom you are well pleased. These things we pray in his name, Amen.