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A Majesty So Great (and Small)

San Williams

March 2, 2014
Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration story is a bit overwhelming. Jesus’ face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling white. The ghostly appearance of Moses and Elijah, a bright cloud overshadowing them, a voice thundering from heaven, disciples falling to the ground in fear.  This theophany   radiates such wonder and amazement that we scarcely know what to make of it.  Without question, this is one of those stories that offend our science-bound mentality.  Even those of us who are especially open to mystery may feel uneasy in the presence of a story that doesn’t conform to empirically demonstrable truth. Thus to enter into this strange story, we need to tune our ears to wonder and open our eyes to amazement.

To start, it may help us if we first grasp how Matthew grounds the transfiguration story in Israel’s ancient past.  If we imagine the transfiguration as a painting, and Matthew as the  painter, it’s clear that he is working from a template, and that template is the story of Moses on Mount Sinai.  In that story, Moses goes up to the mountain, bringing three companions. Accordingly, Jesus goes up the mountain bringing Andrew, James and John.  The mention of six days occurs in both stories.  A cloud covers Mount Sinai, just as a cloud overshadows the disciples.  Following his encounter with God, Moses’ face was all aglow.  Likewise, Jesus’ face shines like the sun. The voice of God thundered on Sinai just as it does in Matthew’s account.  And in each account, those witnessing this theophany fall to the ground confused, fearful, and overwhelmed.

In his classic book, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto describes what it is like to be in the presence of God;  “…we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum’…it may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what?  In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.” (p. 13).

But then Matthew adds a human element that wasn’t present in the Moses story, or in any of the biblical theophanies. Jesus came to the disciples and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” Truly, there are amazing elements in the transfiguration story, but most amazing of all is not the shining face and glistening clothes of Jesus; not the mysterious cloud or even the voice from heaven. No, it’s in the almost inconceivable notion that the Creator of the Cosmos so loved the world that, in the words of John Calvin, “God makes himself little, in order to lower himself to our capacity”

Commenting on Calvin’s words, Patrick Wilson wrote, “For John Calvin, this was the great genius of God.  God, who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them; God whose greatness is so vast that not even the heavens above the heavens can contain it; God, whose we are, is so magnificent that God is willing to come among us to reach out, touch us, and still our fears…Jesus’ hand on the shoulder of the disciples, therefore, is nothing less than God’s own touch.”

I wonder if the poet/writer Robert Penn Warren sensed something of this when he wrote a short poem titled:  “What you Sometimes Feel on your Face at Night”:

Out of mist, God’s

Blind hand gropes to find

Your face.  The fingers

Want to memorize your face.  The fingers

Will be wet with the tears of your eyes.  God

Wants only to love you, perhaps.

The presence of God n the touch of Jesus turns Robert Penn Warren’s “perhaps” into “most assuredly.”  The wonder of wonders is that God’s glory and magnificence and power and majesty are surpassed by God’s willingness to shed them all in order that we might finally recognize and experience God’s love and gentleness. It was as if the measureless power that created infinitely vast universe was somehow gathered up and contracted to something so small that a human hand could hold it.

The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel once wrote that “to be spiritual is to be amazed.”   The transfiguration story does amaze us.  It describe as a mysterium trememdum that left the disciples trembling and afraid. But most amazing of all is how this incomparable mystery we call God graciously stoops to us by becoming flesh and blood in the person of Jesus.

A number of years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote an important book titled, Your God is too Small.  We get his point.  No doctrine, ritual or religion can claim to have the full truth of God.  Certainly God is much too much to be constrained within the walls of a church. And we agree with our Reformed teaching that the infinite cannot be contained in the finite.

But while all that is true, we hasten to add this good news: God, who is infinite in power and glory, deigns to be with us in something so tiny that a human hand can hold it…a crumb of bread, a sip of wine.  Amazing!