The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (email@example.com) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Transfiguration Sunday - Year B
On this last Sunday before Lent, we celebrate one of the most
mysterious incidents in Jesus' ministry called the
2 KINGS 2:1-12 This story of Elijah's passing his
role as the leading prophet of Israel to his disciple, Elisha, has the
markings of a heroic folktale preserved as oral history. The miraculous
crossing of the Jordan River also recalls the story of Moses leading the
Israelites across the Red Sea. The story is intended to show that the
spiritual gifts Elisha inherited were the same as those of his predecessor
Elijah and in the same tradition as Moses.
PSALM 50:1-6 While these few verses do not show
it, the whole of psalm is unusual in that in seems to denounce sacrificial
worship in favour of more spiritual forms. Zion (i.e. the temple in
Jerusalem) has replaced Mount Sinai as the place from which God delivers
authentic messages about righteousness and justice.
2 CORINTHIANS 4:3-6 Paul tries to explain why some
people believe and some do not. He believed that the eternal struggle
between good and evil, God and Satan, was still going on. But the claim
of the gospel he preached was that Christ had already won the battle over
sin and death. With Jesus' resurrection a whole new creation had begun.
Those who believe have not only seen the light as at the first creation;
their lives are filled with the spiritual presence of God in Jesus Christ
as if created anew.
MARK 9:2-9 Mark tells of Jesus'
transfiguration immediately after Peter's confession that Jesus is the
Messiah/Christ to show that Jesus stands in the historic prophetic
tradition of Moses and Elijah. This continuity of ancient Israel's faith
and the church in Rome for which Mark was writing said to both Jew and
Gentile Christians that they belong to the same faith tradition designed
and now fully realized by the same God through Jesus Christ. As disciples
of Jesus today, we share that same tradition.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:
2 KINGS 2:1-12 This story of Elijah's passing his role as the leading
prophet of Israel his time to his disciple, Elisha, has the markings of a
heroic folktale preserved as oral history. It even has an element of an
oft sung ballad about it. The story tells of the journey for Gilgal to
Bethel and on to Jericho where the two prophets miraculously crossed the
Jordan and Elijah ascended in a chariot of fire. Elisha's refusal to stay
at either Gilgal or Bethel ultimately gained its reward as he finally
witnessed Elijah's ascension. Elijah's repeated rejection of Elijah's
instructions sounds very much like the refrain of a minstrel's song. So
does Elisha's instructions to the company of prophets the two meet at each
The exact site of Gilgal is still uncertain, because several have been
proposed. The most likely location is about seven miles north of Bethel,
a shrine in the central mountains north of Jerusalem. Both may have early
sanctuaries sacred to the Canaanites before the Israelite invasion in the
13th century BCE. Bethel, of course, was famous in Israelite religious
history as the place where centuries earlier the patriarch Jacob had his
dream and received a renewal of the divine covenant made with his father
Isaac and grandfather Abraham (Genesis 28). By the time of Elijah and
Elisha in the 9th century BCE, both Gilgal and Bethel had become the
location of prophetic guilds associated with these spiritual leaders of
Yahwism in their struggle against the syncretistic tendencies of monarchs
such as Ahab and Jezebel. It was members of these guilds who followed
Elijah and Elisha on their journey.
The miraculous crossing of the Jordan River (vs. 8) also recalls the story
of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. At first, Elijah
divided the waters so that he and Elisha could cross over on dry ground,
but eastward bound. In vs. 14, having seen Elijah ascend in a chariot of
fire, Elisha repeated the same miracle crossing, returning to the west
side of the river bearing Elijah's mantle. As it stands now, the whole
story shows that the spiritual gifts Elisha inherited were the same as
those of his predecessor and in the same prophetic and covenantal
tradition as Moses and the patriarchs.
This story had an important place at the beginning of what scholars define
as "the Elisha cycle." This series of stories has much similarity to those
about Elijah, but were collected at a later date. They were intended to
describe how Yahweh directed the historical events of the kingdom of
Israel through a line of great prophets. In spite of his request that he
receive "a double share of (Elijah's) spirit" (vs. 9), which was granted
on condition that he witness Elijah's ascension, Elisha never quite
attained the prominence of his predecessor in subsequent religious thought
and biblical literature. As popular as the miracle stories of both
prophets may have been in 19th and 20th century Sunday schools, this legend
does not contain much preaching content. It does serve, however, as a
prelude to the Transfiguration narrative in the Gospel.
PSALM 50:1-6 While these few verses do not show it, the whole of this
psalm is unusual in that in seems to denounce sacrificial worship in
favour of more spiritual forms. Zion (i.e. the temple in Jerusalem) has
replaced Mount Sinai as the place from which God delivers authentic
messages about righteousness and justice similar to those of the great
prophets Isaiah, Hosea, Micah and Jeremiah.
Despite this initial appearance of dependence on prophetic oracles of the
pre-exilic period, the influence of the post-exilic priesthood in the
reconstructed temple can be detected in the later verses. Emphasis on the
close relationship between sacrificial worship and faithful obedience to
the covenant takes the psalm beyond the prophetic message. It asserts
that the sacrifices of the insincere are to be condemned no less severely
than in the oracles of the prophets. The mere performance of ritual is
This introductory selection sets the stage for the theophany which
follows. The scene takes the form of an assize in which Yahweh appears as
judge. Yahweh enters in the midst of a great storm (vs. 3), quite
possibly a real phenomenon witnessed by the psalmist at some time.
Ancient temples would not necessarily have been weatherproof. The noise
of a violent thunderstorm would echo through the temple courts and strike
fear into the hearts of the most attentive worshippers. "Faithful ones"
(i.e. those who have kept the covenant) receive a summons to Yahweh's
presence (vs. 5) and the heavens declare the divine judgment (vs. 6).
Could the "devouring fire" (vs. 3) and "the heavens declare..." (vs. 6)
refer to lightening and thunder?
The passage recalls similar theophanies at Sinai found in Exodus 19:16 and
before the death of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 33:2 with which the
psalmist must surely have been familiar. Is there also some similarity to
the opening assize found in the Book of Job? In essence, the psalm strikes
a genuine compromise between the traditional message of the great prophets
and the temple rituals of sacrifice, praise and thanksgiving.
2 CORINTHIANS 4:3-6 In this brief excerpt Paul tries to explain why some
people believe and some do not. He obviously believed that the eternal
struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, was still going on. But
the gospel he preached proclaimed that Christ had already won the battle
over sin, death and all the powers of evil present in the world. With
Jesus a whole new creation had begun. Those who believe have not only
seen the light as at the first creation; their lives are filled with the
spiritual presence of God in Jesus Christ as if created anew. On them the
light of the Gospel had dawned as Second Isaiah had prophesied and the
apostolic church fervently believed (Isaiah 60:1-3; Matthew 5:14-16; John
This text provides an excellent opportunity to discuss several aspects of
the problem of evil and the way Jesus Christ has overcome it. In our
post-enlightenment and post-Christendom age, we still need to make a
credible interpretation of biblical terms, metaphors and mythology. We
may no longer believe in a personal Satan, but as a wise professor of mine
who had witnessed trench warfare in World War I said, "It looks mighty
Evil is still very much present in the world. This has been very evident
throughout the past century. We need look not further back than the past
decade. Belief in the inevitability of progress toward a peaceful world
of good neighbourliness has proven to be a credulous vanity. We need to
explain something about the "already, but not yet" aspect of our faith in
terms that can be understood by contemporary worshippers. The redemption
happened long ago; our reconciliation to it is still going on. We also
need to provide everyone to whom we make our witness with the opportunity
to decide for themselves where they stand in relation to the new order
instituted by God through Jesus Christ.
A colleague, a native of Vienna, Austria, who lost members of his family
in the Holocaust, has told me that he has seen Satan. Our television
screens have vividly portrayed for us the horrors of the Gulf Wars,
genocide, the expulsion of many ethnic peoples from their historic
homelands and the indiscriminate bombing of innocent victims in many parts
o f the world. In the corporate business circles where only lower taxes,
faster growth and greater profits count, are not immune to the winner-
On the other hand, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said that only the Spirit
of God could have brought about the degree of forgiveness and
reconciliation evident in South Africa since the end of apartheid. Since
his retirement as South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela has
become a roving ambassador of reconciliation and peace among African
nations in the throes of civil war. In every Canadian city and many
smaller towns, food banks and second hand clothes shops struggle to supply
essentials to those with insufficient incomes to meet their basic needs.
On cold winter nights, Good Samaritan patrols make rounds of the hideouts
of street people handing out sandwiches, hot soup and sleeping bags to
those who are unable or refuse to seek more adequate shelter. Is Christ
not there among those whose need is greatest for whatever reason?
Is this not "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of
Jesus Christ"? The God of creation is the God who redeems the world from
evil through Christ. Paul repeatedly told of the brilliant light he saw
at his conversion on the Damascus Road. Perhaps he also had heard from
Peter himself the tradition of the Transfiguration. Was his epiphany a
vision of the face of the risen Lord as Floyd V. Filson suggested in his
exegesis of this passage? (*The Interpreter's Bible* vol. 10, p. 317) He
wrote: "(Paul) evidently thinks of a visible brightness, for he saw the
face of Christ, but it was more than external light; it also suffused his
whole life and was a spiritual presence and power, not a merely physical
Is it not those of us who by faith have this same light "suffusing our
whole life" who carry on the seemingly endless, redemptive struggle
against evil wherever it may be found?
MARK 9:2-9 Immediately after Peter's confession that Jesus is the
Messiah/Christ, Mark tells of Jesus' transfiguration to show that Jesus
stands in the historic prophetic tradition of Moses and Elijah. This
continuity of ancient Israel's faith and the church in Rome for which Mark
was writing said to both Jew and Gentile Christians that they belong to
the same faith tradition. The same God who had covenanted with Israel and
inspired the prophets had now fully realized through Jesus Christ God's
magnificent purpose of salvation designed before the creation of the
About 140 CE, Bishop Papias of Hierapolis reported that Mark had committed
to writing what he remembered of Peter's recollections of Jesus. This
pericope could well have been one of those recollections. While it does
have the sense of immediacy found in an eyewitness account, it also has
literary qualities in that it fulfills the intent of Mark's gospel of
identifying exactly who Jesus is.
There is, however, an unmistakable difference from Peter's confession.
The voice from the cloud not only confirmed Peter's confession but
recalled the voice of Yahweh speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus
19:7-25. Mark undoubtedly wanted his audience to make that connection.
Jesus being transfigured and having his clothes become dazzling white also
made another significant connection with the Jewish tradition. The
*shekinah* of Yahweh, a word used in rabbinic writings but not in the Old
Testament, expressed divine imminence by circumlocution. The word
literally meant "that which dwells" and clearly designated Yahweh's
dwelling on earth as in heaven. This spiritual manifestation of the
divine presence had a close association with the OT term "the glory of the
Lord" represented by dazzling light. In the Corinthians reference above,
Paul also saw "a light from heaven, brighter than the sun" (Acts 26:12-18;
cf. 9:3-9; 22:6-11). So also did the shepherds in Luke 2:9. Wherever it
appeared in the apostolic record, this phenomenon reiterated both divine
presence and the element of continuity between the Old and New Testaments.
Bruce Chilton reiterates an interesting if unusual interpretation of the
Transfiguration experience in his new imprint, *Mary Magdalene: A
Biography.* (Doubleday, 2005. 77-80). He claims that before the 1st
century CE the chariot/throne had become "the master symbol of Jewish
mysticism." He interprets the Transfiguration in a similar vein. He sees
it as Jesus teaching the three disciples the techniques of mystical vision
which had been the significant feature of Jesus' mysticism which he had
learned from John the Baptist.
Chilton draws a parallel with the experience of Moses, Aaron, Nadab and
Abihu seeing Yahweh, God of Israel, on Mount Sinai as told in Exodus 24:1-
11. In his previous work, *Rabbi Jesus,* (Doubleday, 2000) Chilton had
discussed the chariot vision of Ezekiel (Heb. *merkavah* Ezek: 1:4-28),
symbol of the universally mobile throne of God. He also linked the
chariot experience with Elijah being transported from Elisha's sight in a
chariot of fire swept heavenward by a whirlwind. The chariot, he avers,
symbolized "the source of God's energy and intelligence, the origin of his
power to create and destroy. By meditating on the Chariot, John and his
disciples aspired to become one with God's Throne." (Chilton, 2000. 50-
51. Note: He capitalized both Chariot and Throne throughout both works.)
The point of Jesus' teaching the disciples how to enter into this mystical
experience was that each of them could also become a "son of God" as he
had known himself to be since his baptism by John and once again
experienced in the Transfiguration.
This lectionary selection moves the gospel narrative forward toward its
climax in Jerusalem. That is the significance of Jesus' order to the
three disciples not to say anything to anyone about what they had seen
until after his resurrection. Breathless as his narrative had been thus
far, Mark still had much more to tell. It would not be finished until the
resurrection had taken place. That was to be to ultimate manifestation of
the divine purpose and glory.
As disciples of Jesus today, we share that same tradition as the Christian
community in Rome in the 60s CE and the Israelites of the 13th, 9th and 6th
centuries BCE. When we read and study this passage about the
Transfiguration, the covenanting, reconciling God again speaks to us in
Jesus Christ confirming our faith that we too are children of God and
reaffirming our commitment to follow him.
Peter's desire to build three tabernacles to commemorate the occasion
leaves us with a question too: How shall we express our devotion? And as
for the disciples, it will have to be carried out, not on the mountain of
mystical experience, but in the plain where there is suffering and danger
and evil that would prohibit the gospel from reaching those who need it
copyright - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.