Unfulfilled Promises, Silence and Glory

Posted on 1 Mar 2010 in Reveal | 0 comments

Based on the ancient doctor Luke’s telling of the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus:
Read the ancient text here

In this text in Luke, we have the Transfiguration. At first glance, it seems like a simple tale of Jesus’ glory revealed. But as I was trying to read more closely, I noticed a few things.
First, Moses and Elijah don’t just appear to cheer Jesus on. God does that himself a few verses later. Verse 31 talks about an Exodus and fulfillment. Considering that Luke puts this story between two stories about his prediction about his death, this makes a great deal of sense. Because Moses and Elijah are probably the best two people that God could have sent to Jesus to help him understand his mission there.
Moses – the son of unfulfilled promises and Elijah – the son of silence and glory…

Moses stayed with the Israelite people for decades. He brought them out of Egypt, showed them the mercy of God. He performed many signs and wonders and continued to shepherd his people through the wilderness of frustration and unfaithfulness. God entrusted this mighty nation to Moses, and also entrusted him with the promise of a home, a safe place, a place of freedom and grace and overflowing goodness. Yet, Moses had one slip-up, one momentary lack of faith (and not in God, but himself) and lost that promise for himself. Following and Remembering are at the core of the texts of the Torah. The two are interconnected in a profound way. Obedience is not expected simply as a blind set of behaviours and actions, but rather, as a complex part of an interconnected relationship between God and his people. The remembrance of this relationship is the only soil that allows proper obedience to grow. In Deuteronomy, Moses uses his dying words to remind people to retell the stories of the faithfulness of God, to remember his goodness and faithfulness. Moses is forbidden from entering the promised land because he uses his staff to bring forth water from the rock instead of simply calling it forth. He forgets that God calls him from greatness to greatness, glory to glory, rather than from repetition to repetition. Moses simply repeats his previous solution to a problem, not listening to the development plan that God has for him. God wants to show Moses that simply the power of a word spoken in God’s authority can draw water from a rock. But Moses simply thinks it is about doing what he’s always done. And this is how you begin to see that in the Bible, remembrance never simply looks back, but always looks forward. Remembrance in this instance would have been seeing what God had accomplished in the past and trusting him to do exactly as he has said he would, in the context of an ambassadorial, loving relationship. But Moses freezes in the task, rather than glorying in the mystery and doubt, and because of this, loses his right to enter the promised land.
So Moses becomes a beacon of those who don’t get to see the fulfilment of God’s promises while living. He doesn’t attempt to thwart God’s decision, even though it is terribly tragic, but rather uses the opportunity to bolster his community, encouraging them to remember God’s relationship with them, even in the midst of saying goodbye. He’s appointing his successor, he’s showing them the way through the promise into glory. He knows that he’ll be leaving people behind, confused, doubting, and afraid, but he wants to give them the encouragement and the cultural memory – the narrative – that will give them empowerment to continue on into Canaan, chasing after the Lord’s promises.
So I can imagine Moses encouraging Jesus on this Mount, talking to Jesus about his own story. I can imagine him standing there, looking out at Jerusalem, and being stunned and amazed at the fulfilment of the promises to him. Even though under occupation, even though it’s not perfect, Israel had a home, a temple, a place where they were mostly safe and God dwelt in their midst. I can picture the story that Moses tells to Jesus – reminding him of God’s faithfulness even when it seems darkest. Because Jesus has to die before the fulfilment of God’s promises to him, as well. He knows that what he does will usher in the Kingdom in a way never before seen – fulfilling prophecies that people will be stunned and amazed by. Yet, he has to die, to entrust those that he loves and has relationship with to hold it together while he’s gone. Moses probably reminds Jesus of the relationship that God has with him, and that obedience in this way is critical. It may seem impossible and daunting, and difficult to see the purpose or the hand of God in it – just in the way that there was randomness to calling forth water from a rock – but that it is important to remember the things that God has already done to and through Jesus. So I believe that Jesus was encouraged and fortified in his resolution to turn his face to Jerusalem. It cannot be an easy thing to contemplate holy suicide.
I think what breaks my heart is that Jesus didn’t want to die. I can remember the darkest time in my life, crawling into a bottle of pills and liquor, and praying that God would take me away. I wanted to go. I didn’t care about the people it would hurt, I didn’t care about what I would miss. I just wanted to die. I wanted everything about life to go away, and to disappear. I couldn’t imagine more pain, more sadness, more bleakness to my reality, and I figured – if this were all there were to life, I wanted no more of it.
But Jesus fully lived. He didn’t want to die. He loved his followers, and seemed to live abundantly in the midst of everything. He had seen the Kingdom of God come in extraordinary power, and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to cling to God’s promise in the face of death. And a gruesome, horrific death at that. Jesus wasn’t simply going to be able to take a few pills and slip quietly into the dark night of sleep. What God had asked of him was much worse. The blood, the scars, the pain, the relentless gore and suffering, all to accomplish something that he would not see this side of heaven. Pentecost would have to come before the beginning of the fulfilment of all things promised was accomplished – and that would not – could not- happen before he left. So I can picture Moses encouraging him, probably reframing his Deuteronomic addresses to speak into Jesus’ situation, to give him the strength he needed to face the cross of not-yet-fulfilled promises. To hold out through the difficulty of a broken heart, knowing that some would fall away. And in the midst of it, to trust in God’s deliverance and commitment to make all things new.
Elijah – the son of silence and glory
And then we have Elijah there with Jesus as well. Elijah, who had a profound prophetic ministry of signs and wonders, of ever-increasing glory of the Lord. But also the one who ran away to find God’s voice and heard it in the stillness. He was swept up in a chariot of fire, and never tasted death. I can also picture Elijah’s presence being painful to Jesus, because it must have reminded him of his cousin, John, who was beheaded. Jesus’ own cousin was ruthlessly beheaded, and seeing Elijah couldn’t have made it easy to remember that grief and sadness about prophets not being loved or accepted in their towns. So we see Elijah ministering to Jesus, as well. I would like to think that he is also encouraging Jesus for the task coming. Because Jesus knows that death will not be the final answer for him. Or at least that is what he’s been promised. So Elijah stands as one of the only people in all time (with the exception of Enoch in Genesis) that has not tasted death. Elijah knows what it means to be caught up to glory in the Lord’s care. But unfortunately, Jesus will have to face death and suffering before he gets to experience that glory. Elijah spent much of his life on the run, narrowly escaping death and suffering many times. But I don’t think that he encourages Jesus to run from his destiny. Rather, I think that he reminds Jesus of his relationship with his Father, and gives him tools for encountering God in the wilderness of the soul. I think Elijah knows that the cross is not going to be simple or quiet or even remotely pretty. But I think that Elijah tells Jesus the story about another mountain, one in which the wind and fire raged all around him, but God’s voice was to be heard in the silence. Perhaps Elijah was teaching Jesus about that time in a new way, giving him wisdom about finding God’s voice in the silence that accompanies pain and torture.
I can remember bits of my abusive relationship, which was not a pretty time, but one of the most poignant things that I remember is that in the midst of the worst pain, the most fiery violence, there was a place of stillness and surrender. I used to call it “the dead zone” because everything drifted away, and I completely checked out of the world of pain and hurt in order to protect myself. I almost wish I could go back and enter that place, because I’m utterly convinced that Jesus is standing right there in that “dead zone”, shielding me from pain and violence with his cross, his blood. In the story the Princess Bride, Wesley can withstand torture because he takes his mind away from the pain and turns it towards the image of his love. And I wonder if this isn’t the tool that Elijah uses to encourage Jesus – how to find Jesus in the still, small, quiet place that is the centre of the storm of suffering and torture. I wonder if Elijah tells Jesus how to see God’s face in that place – and the fulfilment of God’s promises as hope through the pain.
Because in order to ascend to heaven, Jesus has to get through the cross. And in order to see the Spirit come in power, glory and authority to his followers (in the same way that Elijah passed his mantle to Elisha), he has to endure through the darkness in order to bring them into the light.
So the Transfiguration story for me today was a story about two older men, who have been hanging out with the Lord, watching Jesus do his thing, who have one last chance to encourage him as he sets his face for Jerusalem. Now, Luke still puts about 12 chapters between this event and the Passion Week. In those chapters, there are more signs and wonders, but Jesus also teaches more and more about the Kingdom – the promised land. It’s almost an echo of the Deuteronomic address of Moses and the promise to Elisha. He seems to be trying to prepare his people for his inevitable departure, while assuring them that he is still with them.
It’s my prayer today that I can be more and more the kind of person who trusts in God’s promises, even when I don’t see any hope of them being fulfilled in my lifetime; the kind of person who remembers God and our relationship; the kind of person who moves from glory to glory; and the kind of person that seeks out God in the silence at the middle of a storm.