The Transfiguration of Jesus Matthew 17
Have you; have we ever glimpsed the transcendent or are we preoccupied with the immanent?
Ok, so you may not know what these two words mean: transcendent and immanent. I will try to explain them, as I understand them.
In Christian theology, the transcendence of God is his complete otherness to us. He is different beyond everything else. This is not surprising, as he is the creator of the universe. He is not a created thing, like us and like everything around us; he is beyond; surpassing different, beyond time, before creation, the Alpha and Omega….
In the Bible, the people react to the transcendence of God with fear and trembling but the transcendence of God can suggest that he is distant – separate – uninvolved in our lives: emphasis on the transcendence of God has led people to the idea of Deism: that there is a God who created everything, but now he has gone away and is not interested in the day to day aspects of our lives.
The immanence of God, on the other hand, is the indwelling of God in creation how we see him in others, as they are made in his image, so we might see the immanence of God as the basis for many beautiful characteristics of humanity: kindness, altruism, much Christian work in the world, perhaps the beauty of the world in so many places.
The people react to the immanence of God with casualness; they see his immanence as characteristic of humanity, not God. But the immanence of God tends to suggest characteristics limited to the created world; and emphasis on God’s immanence can lead to paganism: the idea of worshipping the world itself and the created order, god being in everything and in everyone ‘all is one’; that there is nothing outside creation. This is the basis for so many Eastern religions and suggests the immanence of god, it can lead to praising humanity and idolising human ability, human ingenuity and genius; fertility
But Christianity insists that God is both transcendent and immanent.
At the transfiguration we see both the transcendence and the immanence of God in Jesus Christ: Jesus the man, the greatest example of altruism, of sacrificial love, of God’s immanence, takes his friends, the disciples up the mountain and Jesus is transfigured before them. His face shines like the sun, his clothes became white and two figures appear, who the disciples instantly recognise as Moses and Elijah, the two cornerstones of Judaism: Moses who, for the Jews, represented the Jewish Law and Elijah who, for the Jews, represented the Jewish Prophets.
Then a bright cloud covers them and a voice from the cloud (fulfilling a prophesy from Deuteronomy) says ‘this is my Son, whom I love with him I am well pleased. Listen to him’
Throughout the Old Testament, when man engages with God, something transcendent happens, something beyond the usual in creation, often a cloud appears and a voice comes out of the cloud, for example you can think of Moses going up Mount Sinai to get the 10 commandments, who comes down with a shining face (Exodus 34:29) which was so frightening to the Israelites that they had to put a veil over his face.
Here we see Jesus shining; Here we see God speaking from a cloud (as at Jesus’ baptism); Here we see Judaism’s two principal cornerstones: Moses and Elijah approving Jesus and the Father transcendently, speaking from cloud for the benefit of the disciples, the same words spoken at Jesus baptism, speaking of Jesus as his son (thus of greater authority than Moses and Elijah) in whom he is well pleased; and saying to the disciples ‘listen to him’.
Then we see Jesus telling the terrified disciples (who have by now thrown themselves face down) to get back up off the floor. Here again is their friend Jesus, God the immanent, in the usual, the natural rather than the supernatural!
We might think that this demonstration of the transcendence of God in Jesus Christ would be enough, for the disciples to set them on the path for the rest of their lives, but, of course, before long we have Jesus arrest and crucifixion, Peter denies Christ and the disciples scatter. Its only when they have the ultimate transcendental experience of experiencing Jesus being actually raised from the dead that their lives are set for ever on a course of making disciples throughout the world and starting the church; changing everything. Yet they saw Jesus shining; they heard God speaking from the cloud, in that astonishing experience.
But experiences of the transcendent God are not limited to the accounts of the apostles. A few years ago a monk called Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who is preacher to the papal household, found himself attending a conference led by American pentecostals; although he had been a Catholic priest and a theologian for many years, he had for the first time a profound encounter at this conference of the Holy Spirit. As he travelled home from the conference in a train, his face was shining. A woman got into the same compartment as him and started staring at him. Without any preliminary conversation she said ‘don’t imagine that you can get me to believe in God simply by looking like that!’. So even today the transcendent presence of God can have a physical effect on believers.
I think that we in Itchen Valley can miss the transcendent. We do not expect to encounter God transcendently in our worship, in our daily lives and we can end up thinking that there is no more to Christianity, to God than the immanent; as if kindness and altruism, which are, of course, very important and in which we do glimpse one facet of God, is all there is….
We can miss that God has been transcendentally present in our worship, indeed the whole aim of our worship should be to encounter him transcendentally. When we invite the Holy Spirit to be present in our services, we should expect God to show up in this way, but also we should expect to encounter him in other ways:
Most astonishingly, we can encounter the transcendent God is when people who are not believers ‘get it’, the penny drops and their hearts are changed, we can encounter the transcendent God in our conversations, with our neighbours, as we pray that we are guided to say words that enable them to encounter Christ, we can encounter the transcendent God in our encounters with our neighbours as we see God working mysteriously in people’s lives, in ways which are not predictable, logical reasonable in the circumstances and I have had lots of conversations and encounters of this kind while I have been in this Valley over the last eight years.
You see it doesn’t matter how religious we are, how good we are at attending church services, we can miss the transcendent, if we are not looking for him.
As Jesus takes the disciples down the mountain, they ask him a problem which has been bothering them; the prophesies in the Old Testament seemed to suggest that before the Messiah would come that the prophet Elijah would return first. Effectively they were saying; ‘if you are really the Messiah…then how come the religious experts say that Elijah will come back first?
Jesus said (verse 12) ‘I tell you Elijah has already come and they did not recognise him….’ Matthew tells us that they understood that Jesus was talking about John the Baptist.
The Jewish religious experts had missed the significance of John the Baptist. And they had missed seeing the transcendent in Jesus Christ. They had missed seeing the transcendent when he was present with them.
We must not make the same mistake.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 17:1–13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.