March 3, 2019

Transfiguration Sunday

Psalm 99
Luke 9:28-36


When I was a boy, one thing that I liked to do was to share horror stories with my friends. And we would wait until it got dark to tell those stories. It was silly actually. We all knew that we all would get scared afterwards. Yet, we still did that and wouldn’t stop even after we got goosebumps.

 I tell you this because some people think that God is like a ghost. Now, I’m not saying that God is the same with a ghost. But, some people often mistake God for a ghost.

 Even Jesus’ disciples made this mistake. When they saw Jesus walking on water, they were all scared because they thought he was a ghost.[1]

 Indeed, the people of Israel themselves experience God as a terrifying presence. We can see this in our reading from the book of Psalm.

“The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
“He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
(Psalm 99:1 NRSV)

 Indeed, according to the Psalm, the most appropriate reaction when one meets God is fear. According to the Psalm, even the earth itself quakes when God sits on his throne.

 We can compare this with the reaction of Jesus’ disciples on top of the mountain in Mark’s Gospel. When a cloud engulfs the mountain where they are, they are terrified.[2] The experience must remind them about the experience of their ancestors in Mount Sinai. Their ancestors too were terrified when God revealed Himself as a dense cloud on top of Sinai.[3]

 So, the people of Israel experiences God as a Holy presence. Indeed, holy is the keyword in Psalm 99. It appears three times, each time as a conclusion of a section in the Psalm.

“... for the Lord our God is holy.”
(Psalm 99:9 – NRSV)

And, holiness here is about separation. God is a completely separate being, nothing like what they have encountered before in the world. 

But, the Holy Other that Israel worship is not completely transcendent and unapproachable. Psalm 99 proclaims:

“He sits enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion ...”
(Psalm 99:1-2 NRSV)

 The cherubim were the statues that accompanied the ark of the covenant in the temple. While Zion is the name of the hill where Jerusalem is located. By mentioning the two, the Psalm wants us to know that God can be known in a particular place. Indeed, God reaches out to a particular people in a particular place: the people of Israel.

 And, God reveals Himself to Israel as the One who loves and executes justice in the world.

“Mighty King, lover of justice,
    you have established equity;
you have executed justice ...”
(Psalm 99:4 - NRSV)

“...for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the people with his truth.”
(Psalm 96:13 - NRSV)

Indeed, God is not indifferent to our condition. Our God is a God who wants to get involved with the affair of His people and the world. God reveals Himself as the One who cares deeply about people, especially the weak and the vulnerable.

 One popular belief that influenced many Christian thinkers in the past was Deism. Google defines it as a “belief in the existence of ... a creator who does not intervene in the universe.” Indeed, for a deist, God is like a watch maker. Once the watch is finished, the maker doesn’t have anything to do with the watch any longer. The machine in the watch can work perfectly fine without his intervention.

 But, the Holy Other of Israel is nothing like the god of the deists. This God is deeply involved with the affair of the world. First and foremost, this God answers prayer.

“They cried to the Lord, and he answered them.”
(Psalm 99:6 - NRSV)

 And, all these big words in the Psalm: justice, equity, righteousness are all relational terms. Indeed, at the heart of the Holy Other of Israel is relationship.

 In other words, Psalm 99 redefines the definition of holiness in the Bible. Holiness in the Psalm is not about separateness or otherness anymore. Holiness is about involvement and relationship.[4]

 Another word that appears in Psalm 99 that is relational is the word ‘forgiveness’.

“... you were a forgiving God to them ...”
(Psalm 99:8 - NRSV)

But, the word translated as to “forgive” actually means to “bear” or to “carry”.[5] God loves the people so much that God is ready to carry and bear the burden of their disobedience.[6]

So, holiness is no longer about separation, especially from sinners. Holiness now is about intimate relationship with others, including with sinners. Holiness is now grounded in God’s grace.[7]

In Jesus’ time, holiness was about keeping oneself ritually clean. This was the common concept in some parts of Judaism then. But, how did one keep oneself clean? By staying away from those who were considered as unclean or impure.

Jesus has a different view. For him, holiness is about relating to those who are often been excluded by society. It is about befriending them so that, through their contact, they can find God’s holiness and be healed. Separation does not bring healing to sinners. It will only bring more bitterness and brokenness. Only forgiveness and intimate relationship can bring sinners to repentance.

Friends, today is the Transfiguration Sunday. Today, we hear again about Jesus’ glorification on the mountain. But, his glorification does not make him stay forever on the mountain. He comes down from the mountain to meet the people.

Holiness, for him, is not about being separated from the crowd. Holiness, for him, is about being in contact with all people, clean and unclean, pure and impure. Holiness, for him, is about serving and healing those people who come into contact with him. 

May we too reflect God’s holiness in our life. May we reflect this not by separating ourselves from others and creating an exclusive community. May we reflect this by meeting people where they are. Because, after all, this is what the Holy God is doing in the world.

Toby Keva

[1] Matthew 14:26.

[2] Mark 9:34.

[3] Exodus 19:16.

[4] Psalm 99 Commentary by J. Clinton McCann - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL), March 3, 2019.

[5] Psalm 99 Commentary by J. Clinton McCann - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL), March 3, 2019.

[6] Psalm 99 Commentary by J. Clinton McCann - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL), March 3, 2019.

[7] Psalm 99 Commentary by J. Clinton McCann - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL), March 3, 2019.