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Sunday next before Lent

05 February 2016

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Exodus 34.29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2; Luke 9.28-36 [37-43a]

 

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

 

“LOOK at my son,” the father of the epileptic boy begs Jesus, the day after the extraordinary events on the mountain, witnessed by Peter, James, and John (Luke 9.38). Although Luke’s telling of the story follows Mark’s quite closely (Mark 9.2-27, Matthew 17.1-18), in this detail, it is original.

He is adding to the discussion of faith (Luke 9.41) a striking connection between the transfiguration of Jesus and the healing of the boy. Surely the essence of what God has said to the disciples, as Moses and Elijah vanish and the voice speaks from the cloud, is also “Look at my son.” If they are to listen to him, they must first grasp the glorious evidence that he is indeed the Son of God.

The privilege of seeing the face of God has only one precedent, in the relationship of Moses to Yahweh, who had led the people of Israel out of Egypt. His law and covenant with the chosen nation was mediated by Moses, with whom he used to speak “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33.11, NRSV).

Even at one remove, in the radiance of Moses’s face, the power of this encounter was too much for a people who were not yet ready to enter into the same kind of friendship. Their disobedience and idolatry, culminating in the orgy round the golden calf, placed them in a different sort of relationship (Exodus 32). So Moses veiled his face whenever he left the tent of meeting (Exodus 34.29, 34-35).

Paul takes up the motif of the veil in describing to the Christians at Corinth a very different and immediate way of relating to God, through Christ (2 Corinthians 3.12-18). In his reworking, matters become personal. A whole community was kept at a certain distance in the Exodus narrative. Now it is possible for anyone who “turns to the Lord” to approach the face of God in Christ, unhampered by barriers (2 Corinthians 3.16).

Victor Hamilton interprets this as a conversion experience, comparing it to the way that the Thessalonians “turned from idols to be servants of the true and living God” (1 Thessalonians 1.9). Believers, Hamilton argues, are like Moses in one way, if he is taken to be a type of the disciple of Christ. Yet, in another way, they are completely unlike Moses; for they need no veil to hide the glory of God. Instead, “they proclaim God’s glory openly and boldly” (2 Corinthians 3.12-13, Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An exegetical commentary, Baker Academic, 2011). This is the visible evidence of the “transformative grace” of conversion (2 Corinthians 3.18).

Peter, James, and John see, without fully grasping what they are seeing. They had not been present at the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3.21-22), and, although they had observed healings and miracles at his hand, it was perhaps still as “a great prophet” that they perceived him (Luke 7.16), an impression reinforced by the appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside him (Luke 9.30).

The means to make sense of their vision is offered in a way that would have been obvious to those who knew what they were looking for, but was still opaque to the disciples. Juxtaposed with Jesus’s transfigured face, they see the tormented and disfigured appearance of a child in the grip of a power intent on destroying him.

“Look at my son,” his father pleads. Jesus sees what his disciples did not see, even in their earnest attempts to cast out the evil cause of the boy’s seizures: a beloved human being — his father’s “only child” (Luke 9.38) — made in God’s image.

As he restores the boy to health and gives him back to his father, Jesus signals that this transformation of imperfect humanity is God’s will. The disfiguring death he has hinted at before his own transfiguration (Luke 9.23-27) closes the gap, as God hides his glory to suffer mortality in the fullest sense of that word.

It is on the cross that God says: “Look at my Son, my only Son,” summoning us to see through the veil of blood and grime to the glory that cannot be extinguished by cruelty and indifference. Sunday’s collect invites us to pray, as we prepare for Lent, that God will “give us grace to perceive Christ’s glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory.”

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