Transfiguration A (February 26, 2017)

God conceals as God reveals. It is an aspect of biblical and Christian doctrine of God. God conceals as God reveals. So, in Exodus, the cloud reveals God—great big glowing cloud is hard to miss—and it conceals God—Moses goes inside and the Israelites don’t see him for 40 days and he doesn’t see much, because it’s a great big glowing cloud. The Israelites prefer a God who does not conceal as God reveals—they’ll make a golden calf, a Baal, god of storms and fertility. Baal is simple: good rains, good crops, good god. What’s good for us is from Baal. In the gospel, Peter does not make a Baal; Peter does decide to impose his own meaning on what is happening. We are going to get the Official Simon Peter Explanation. What’s good for Peter is from God. His comments seem harmless enough, but clearly he does not understand what is happening.

Peter is speaking as what Luther calls in his Heidelberg Disputation a “theologian of glory.” It is not a good thing to be in Luther’s estimation. Peter says, “How good to be here!” Oh, really? You think so? You think being invited by God incarnate to go up a mountain to watch him glow with divine power and talk to the two greatest prophets is good? You’re a freaking genius, you idiot! Of course it’s good for you! But what is obviously good for you is not necessarily what God is doing. It may even be against God.

How to illustrate this? It is the Feast of Transfiguration. In the West, it emerged only in the Fifteenth Century. Those of us who grew up Episcopalian or Roman Catholic may remember celebrating this feast on August 6. That’s because on August 6, 1456, Pope Callixtus III announced that the Christian army defending Belgrade had defeated a Muslim Turkish army, and so in response we would celebrate the Transfiguration. The next year, he decreed that this feast was to be celebrated on every August 6 to mark the Christian victory over Islam. The Lutheran reformers moved the feast to the end of the Season after Epiphany because the whole glowing Christ thing fit well with the theme of light that has run since we lit the candles on Christmas Eve.

Now, if in 1456 you were Serbian, Romanian, or Hungarian, the Battle of Belgrade was almost certainly good news. Most of us prefer our countries not to be overrun or conquered. If you were a Habsburg prince and the ruler of the lands being overrun by the Turks, this was obviously good news. Your empire stopped shrinking. If you were a member of the powerful Borgia family aiming to rule the world through the Church, and you saw the Turks as a threat and you managed to get yourself elected Pope Callixtus III, this was obviously good news. The Family Power Grab could continue. As Luther says, “the recognition of goodness does not make one worthy or wise.” Just because God is good and the victory at Belgrade was good for you does not mean God gave it. Remember, God gets crucified. God calls Christians to see through the cross. Luther writes, “That person deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” Luther does not mean that God would’ve preferred the Turks to have won at Belgrade or for the people of the Balkans to suffer. Rather, Luther means that the God who saves us from Sin, Death, and the Devil is a crucified man. God’s work isn’t as obvious as a “win.
On this Feast of Transfiguration, we live with the legacy of the theology of glory. We expect God to do good for us, we impose our definitions of good and evil on the world and on God. American culture has struggled to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists. In this struggle, we find ourselves covering familiar territory. Our faith background consists of a period when Europeans identified Islam with the Ottoman Turks, who ruled a multiethnic multi-religious world power that like all other world powers was intent on expansion and domination. When we translate Luther’s hymns into contemporary English we occasionally have to remove his anti-Turkish slurs. Our Western background includes the fact that while European kingdoms officially opposed Islam, some of them were happy to ally themselves with the Turks if they thought it would improve business or political interests.

So, I am not surprised. I am not surprised to hear Islam characterized as a violent movement bent on destroying me and my daughters. I am not surprised that a large percentage of Americans are okay with banning Muslims from entering the country. I am not surprised that exceptions are made for financial gain. I am not even surprised that there are folks who believe in a vast conspiracy to cover up the non-existent Muslim terrorist attacks in Sweden, and who also refuse to believe that Muslims are the ones usually killed by terrorists in attacks in the Middle East. It all fits with Thesis 21 of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil.” When I treat what is obviously a win for me—my safety and my security, regardless of the consequences—as good for everyone, when I expect it all to be clear and straightforward, good guys versus bad guys, I do terrible things. I start worshipping a golden calf, or vilifying billions of people, or denying the truth in favor of my personal interpretation of events, just as Peter decides that Jesus glowing between Moses and Elijah really needs the Official Simon Peter Explanation.

There is an Official Simon Peter Explanation for everything. A week before the Transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples he is going to be crucified. Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” “What do you mean, ‘God forbid’? I am God. I just told you what I’m gonna do!” The cross is obviously bad. Yet it, too, is a place of revelation and concealment. Luther contrasts a good theology, or a Theology of the Cross, with the deadly Theology of Glory. It is not that the cross is lovely; it’s horrible. But God is concealed in it.

For on that Cross dies every attempt of ours to impose our meaning on others. For it is on the cross that Jesus dies because some people decided he was their enemy, and they made up a story about him. They imposed on Jesus the “Official Explanation,” that he threatened to destroy the Temple and called himself King. So from that cross, Jesus asks, “Who are we crucifying today? Who has a backstory we made up and imposed on them?” On that cross the Official Simon Peter Explanation is officially a waste of breath. On that cross our legacy of vilifying Islam gets exposed as fear of the other, our desire for wealth or security, our need for an enemy. It gets exposed as a meaning we have imposed on real people who really do not match what is claimed about them. That meaning is not what really is, and the cross makes that clear. “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil,” says Luther, but “a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.” God is at work in the cross.

God is at work in Jesus. God is, really, concealed in Jesus. God conceals as God reveals. Jesus is God, and yet Jesus is Jesus. He’s this guy who does guy stuff, while God, presumably, is invisible and scary, a sort of ultimate power who may crush our enemies and make us rich if we pray hard enough, but who also will seriously mess us up if we don’t perform the necessary sacrifices and stay out of his way. That’s the stereotypical view of Jesus and his Father, and it seems to be the one the disciples have. That glowing cloud that enveloped Moses now envelops Moses and Elijah and Jesus and Peter and James and John and the voice booms and the disciples fall on their faces they’re so scared, and Jesus touches them…and they look up, and there is no cloud, no Moses, no Elijah. There’s just Jesus, saying, “Get up. Don’t be afraid. Geez! It’s me.” Because God is concealed in Jesus, the disciples don’t need to be afraid. The disciples can listen to him.

On this Feast of Transfiguration, God conceals God in Jesus even as God reveals God in Jesus. So, today, God concealed in Christ is not an invisible, scary ultimate power who makes me rich but could mess me up. Instead, God is the friend who can say, “Don’t be afraid; it’s me.” So, today, God concealed in the crucified and risen Christ gives us the hope of escaping our own imposed meanings. We do not have to be defined by imposed meanings: we don’t have to be who our enemies imagine us to be, and we don’t have to be the people who imagine others to be our enemies. We can…I don’t know…enjoy the glow. Jesus is glowing like a “lamp shining in a dark place,” shining through our Muslim neighbors trying to navigate a hostile world, through our Jewish neighbors picking up vandalized tombstones, shining through our transgender neighbors whose bathroom usage is again an issue, shining through our indigenous neighbors whose water is threatened, and, by the grace of God, shining through us.