Transfiguration Sunday (March 2 • 2014)
ROCKINGHAM UNITING CHURCH
Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was over. It finished with a bang, quite literally. Its closing ceremony ended with a spectacular display of fireworks. I was only able to watch it from my television screen, but, even on the screen, it was still quite spectacular. I can’t even imagine what it would be like being physically present in the stadium in Sochi itself. It must have been a mind-blowing experience.
Fireworks have indeed been used in modern time to mark special events. In Australia, we too have the tradition of having quite spectacular display of fireworks in New Year's Eve and Australia Day. But we use fireworks not only to mark special events, but also to entertain. Most people enjoy watching fireworks. Part of the enjoyment is knowing that, even though the noise and the sudden brightness of the fireworks can actually be quite terrifying for some people, especially children (after all, many explosives are needed to create spectacular fireworks), we know that our safety is assured.
In our reading from the book of Exodus, I don’t think the people of Israel enjoyed what they witnessed from the foot of Mount Sinai. Like Jesus’ disciples on top of a high mountain, the people of Israel must have been trembling with fear. For them, the manifestation of God’s glory was not to be taken lightly. They had learnt to respect such presence because if they did not respect it, they knew that they would be devoured by it. God revealed God-self, on top of mount Sinai, in the form of a devouring fire; and fire is indeed an image of destruction (remember that Sodom and Gomorah were destroyed by sulphur and fire coming down from the sky [Gen. 19: 24].) The spectacle, without a doubt, must have been a terrifying spectacle.
Indeed, for the Jewish people, encountering the very presence of God was a terrifying experience. The Jewish mystics said that there was nothing tender, loving, or personal about the God whom they saw, in their visions, as the One sitting on a throne. A song, by a Jewish mystic, describes God’s quality as:
“A quality of holiness, a quality of power, a fearful quality, a dreaded quality, a quality of awe, a quality of dismay, a quality of terror – Such is the quality ... of the Creator, Adonai, God of Israel ...”
In the Jewish tradition, God is seen as holy. In the Jewish mindset, however, holiness has less to do with sin and more to do with God’s ‘otherness’. God is holy does not necessarily means that God is sinless; God is holy means that God is nothing like us or like anything that we know of in the entire universe. God is the ‘Ultimate-Other’. Again, in the words of the mystics, God is encountered as the ‘mysterium tremendum and fascinans’, a Latin phrase that can be loosely translated as ‘a terrifying yet fascinating presence’.
So, for the Jews, God is the ‘Complete-Other’. No one can see God’s inner being. What the people can see was simply the manifestation of God’s glory. In our Exodus reading, this manifestation came in the form of cloud and devouring fire on top of Mount Sinai. These cloud and fire remind us of the pillars of cloud and fire that led the people of Israel on their way in the wilderness to the Promised Land. Both were indeed the manifestation of God’s presence amongst the people and both gave a sense of awe and mystery.
So when Jesus’ disciples saw the bright cloud and heard the voice from within it, they knew what it was all about; they knew what they were dealing with. As Jews, the disciples must have been familiar with the story of God’s manifestation in cloud and devouring fire on top of Mt Sinai. They must also have been familiar with the verse in their sacred Scriptures that tells that no one could see God face to face and live (Exodus 33:20).
That’s why they fell to the ground. Their knees must have lost their strength because of terror. Yet, Jesus asked them to get up and not be afraid. Here, Jesus used the same words that he used previously when he ‘called’ the dead back to life.
Unlike what many Jews had experienced, God’s revelation in Jesus empowered and strengthened the disciples, not terrified them. Later on, the writer of the second letter to Timothy proclaimed that God “gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline” (2:1-ASV). Indeed, the manifestation of Jesus’ glory on top of that mountain reveals to the disciples and to us, the readers of this story today, who Jesus is. As important, it also reveals who God is. In Jesus, God is seen as no longer a fearsome being.
In the past, many people tried to ‘persuade’ other people to follow God by making them afraid. Sadly, even today, some people still use the same method to call people to follow God. These people often say that, unless you do what, according to them, God tells you to do, God will punish you.
But the true meaning of fear in the presence of God is to have great awe and reverence, not to live in terror. Terror cannot produce genuine obedience. A child who does what his parents asks him to do because he is terrorised by them does not obey his parents out of genuine obedience, but out of fear for his own safety. When we are afraid, we can not truly and genuinely listen to the person that we are afraid of. That’s why, after the voice from within the cloud that asked the disciples to listen to Jesus, the first words that Jesus uttered to the disciples were words that asked them not to be afraid.
In our Exodus reading, the cloud represented the mystery of God. The real presence of God was hidden behind the cloud. No one could see God face to face, but Moses was invited to enter into the cloud to see God. The other person in the Old Testament who was accorded such privilege was Elijah who was taken to the presence of God by chariot of fire and a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).
in Matthew, however, Jesus surpassed both Moses and Elijah. He was declared as God’s son, thus he had an even more intimate relationship with God than these two most revered figures in Israel.
Jesus is indeed the manifestation of God in the flesh. He reveals who God is. No longer we need the commandments, written on tablets, to be able to listen to God’s words; listening to Jesus’ words is the same with listening to God’s voice. No longer we need a person like Moses to mediate between God and us; in Jesus, we encounter the Holy God of Israel face to face without fear of being devoured by God’s holiness.
Friends, I always believe that loving God is far more important and fruitful than being terrified by God. The writer of the first letter of John (4:18-NIV) said, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
We are indeed called to follow God by following Jesus; to listen to God’s voice by listening to Jesus. Let us do this not out of fear, but out of love.
Let us pray.
O Mystery, O Holy Love, may our hearts be stilled. May our souls be porous to absorb your divine grace. May we hear, feel, and understand the words that quench our burning desire: “My Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Amen.
 Armstrong, Karen, A History of God, London: Vintage Books (1999).
 Macdonald, Michael A., A Kinder, Gentler God, on http://devotional.upperroom.org (September 27th, 2009)
 Season of the Spirit – Transfiguration Sunday (March 9, 2014)