Feast of the Transfiguration, Church of Our Saviour, Gallatin

“Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Ex. 34:29).

God speaks: a basic conviction of ancient Israel. They believed that God communicated himself primarily through speech, through the “word of God” that was essential to God’s self-revelation. This contrasts with our own modern culture, which has become increasingly oriented on images, from those of movies and television (once celluloid, now digital) to the bright icons that populate our viewing screens. I love the way I press a button on my phone and suddenly programs and apps rush forward to fill the screen. They’re eager to do my bidding; panting at the prospect, they’ve even run to get in place. Then, of course, we click on the picture and things are revealed.

The Hebrews had a different way of viewing things, of understanding how things are revealed. Their God was famously suspicious of images, even commanding on Mount Sinai that the People make no images. “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth…” (Ex. 20:4). Put more positively, God revealed himself through speech, from the beginning. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen. 1:3). God actually “speaks” the universe into being, through the word of God that is spoken. When St. John wrote his Gospel, he even took the notion of the “word of God” and made it central to understanding Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jo. 1:1). God started out by speaking and has continued to do so.

Notice in our first reading today, which like the giving of the Ten Commandments also takes place on Mount Sinai, that speech is central to what takes place. It’s easy to miss this because the emphasis is on the word picture of Moses’ shining face. His face no doubt reflected the glory of the Lord, but his face was not shining because he had seen God but rather (as our reading says) because God had spoken with him (Ex. 34:29).

Exodus is a bit ambiguous about Moses’ encounter with the glory of the Lord: at one point God tells Moses that he will not be able to see his face but only his back (Ex. 33:23); while at another point Moses (and others) behold God, sitting to eat and drink with God (Ex. 24:11). However this may be as to what Moses saw, there’s no doubt that God speaks to Moses, from the burning bush onward, and his face shines as a result.

God speaks in order to provide information, sure enough; but more profoundly God speaks in order to shape and then transform his People. God reveals himself in our reading to this purpose: to call a People (notice the verb) and to give them a word, a commandment to live by.

The pattern of the word of God spoken continued with the prophets, who much later spoke a word of challenge that recalled the People to their identity as God’s own. The prophets spoke of God’s wrath against the faithless but also foretold return and restoration. It was a word of moral transformation spoken to the whole People of Israel, an opportunity for them to repent and turn again to the Lord their God.

We see the same pattern in our Gospel today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, but with a new dimension. Once again there is a mountain; once again God is revealed. Here again we see someone transformed, whose whole being shines. Jesus is transfigured; his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and the prophet Elijah appear, and they speak together about his exodus, his departure: that is, his crucifixion and resurrection about to be accomplished in Jerusalem. Then the voice of God is heard, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Lk. 9:35).

Once again God speaks, as he’s done through Moses and the prophets; God’s word is spoken to us to challenge and transform us and to make us shine. He tells us to listen to Jesus. The word Jesus is speaking on the Mountain of Transfiguration is a word of death and resurrection, the word of Jesus’ own exodus that means freedom for us from sin and death. Believing in him, staking our lives on his, has that power. Now that’s transformation, and it can raise us to new life in him.

God speaks in order to transform us, revealing himself and his will so that we can be changed. That’s the purpose of our worship here today: to reveal or show forth the glory of God in word and sacrament. God’s call has brought two members of the church here to receive the laying on of hands by the bishop: to stake their lives on Jesus’ life, reminding us that each of us is called to the same life. Remember what it says: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Lk. 9:35).

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee