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Introduction To The Scripture For Transfiguration Sunday - Year B
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) 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 
     Transfiguration.


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 
holy site.  

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 
not sufficient.  

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 
9:5).

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 
like it." 

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-
take-all syndrome.

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 
occurrence." 

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 
universe.  

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 
most.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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