What are we supposed to make of this? Why are these readings included in the Lectionary, and during Lent of all times. Fact is, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration always comes on the 2nd Sunday of Lent. Every year. Did you know that? Last year, we heard the story from Matthew. Today, we hear it from Mark. Next year, Luke. It’s obviously important to our Lenten journey. Which means, we’ve got to do better than Peter who goes a bit bonkers wanting to create little huts for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.
Hmmm. But before we go there, we’ve got to make at least some sense of our first reading. What kind of God would ask Abraham to take his son up into the heights and sacrifice him? As a father of two sons, I’m struggling with this!
So let’s dig deeper. Scholars have at least three ways to explain this story.
First, like the story of Jonah and the Big Fish, or like the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho, this story is not meant to be taken as an actual historical event (front page news), but rather more like a legend with an important message (think: Sunday editorial). Don’t take the plot literally, instead focus on the moral of the story: love God and remain devoted to God in the same manner that you love and remain devoted to your child. Do this and you will be truly blessed. The original readers/hearers of Genesis may well have got this point right off.
Second, in his zeal to please God, Abraham may have gotten the wrong message. God never intended for him to sacrifice Isaac, and so at the last moment, God intervened and saved them both. And in this manner, Abraham sees for the first time, God’s huge heart of compassion. Again, the original audience of Genesis may have grasped this message rather easily.
Third, since the time of Abraham, and the writing of the Book of Genesis, several thousand years ago, there has been an evolution of how God is understood by humans, rendering a strictly black & white, friend or foe, loyal or traitor relationship with an all-powerful God obsolete and inadequate. It’s an image of God we humans have outgrown.
I’m finding comfort here, you? I think all three interpretations have validity, and, when I think about it, I don’t have to choose one over the others. I can embrace all three:
Okay, let’s crack this other nut: why do we get the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration every year on the second Sunday of Lent?
In short, this dazzling-white vision points us toward Easter, and challenges us to envision our hopes and prayers for transformation and renewal during Lent.
Lent calls us not just to change, but to be transformed. In other words, don’t let your little Lenten promises get in the way of God calling you to something much bigger than you might imagine.
Extraordinary events transform and change us . . . but only if we reflect on them, and lean into the change to which we are called. We have had no shortage of extraordinary events in the last year. How do we allow those events to teach us, to change us?
Jesus spent 40 days in the desert and it transformed him. It launched him into his ministry of itinerant preaching and healing. But then came this bizarre, dazzling event of the Transfiguration . . . and it changed him again. Only then did he tell his disciples that his ministry is turning from preaching and healing in Galilee to confronting religious authorities in Jerusalem. Only then does Jesus anticipate he will suffer, die, and rise after three days.
All the while, the ones whom we are supposed to identify with, Peter, James, and John, are fearful, bewildered, and confused. They don’t know what to make of it, and so Jesus wisely tells them not to talk about it.
Ironically, it’s also Peter, James, and John who accompanied Jesus in the Garden the night he was betrayed and handed over to the authorities. They couldn’t stay awake that night. On this occasion, they are hyped up . . . and clueless. On the next occasion, they are drowsy. . . and clueless. Would you or I have behaved any differently? Likely not.
Yet, we have one advantage over Peter, James, and John. Sure, they were eyewitnesses to all that Jesus did and said, but they were forced to embrace each event in the moment, as it happened, and try to figure it all out on the fly.
We, on the other hand, already know what’s going to happen in four weeks’ time. We are going to relive the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have four weeks to pray and discern what this transfigured vision of Jesus and the prophets means. So that when we are sitting right here on Good Friday hearing the story of Jesus’ agony in the garden, we won’t go drowsy. Rather, we will draw on our prayers and promises of this Lent and see our way through his passion and death on the cross, all the way to his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. We will.
What’s the kicker here? Jesus left his movement in the hands of some pretty confused, bewildered, and bumbling disciples . . . and yet, it took off. Similarly, Jesus leaves his ministry of compassion and justice in our hands. Will it continue?