Brief synopsis of the readings: In a passage well known to most Jews and Christians, Abram is called by God to leave with his family from where they live to a new home chosen by God. God promises that Abram will found a new nation and he will be famous. Matthew’s Gospel describes what we now call the Transfiguration. Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain. There Jesus’ “face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared and began speaking to Jesus.” Peter said: “Lord, how good that we are here! With your permission I will erect three booths here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” A voice then came from a bright cloud and said: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him.” Fearfully the disciples fell on their faces. Jesus then told them to stand up and they then saw only Jesus.
From childhood we’ve read both of these stories and sometimes it can be difficult to move beyond the images we were given from childhood.
When we think of Abram (later Abraham) we think of the man who left his home and family and moved to a new place where he will lay claim to a new people. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all recognize the role this man played in our histories.
Moses comes into our history after Abraham when his nation was in bondage in Egypt. Moses also answered God’s call and liberated our ancestors who then traveled to the promised land.
On the other hand, Elijah is a more enigmatic figure. We read of him in the 2 books of Kings. He performed miracles, including showing the followers of Baal that God can do what Baal could not do. But Elijah fascinates us because of his departure. Instead of dying, in 2 Kings 2:11 a flaming chariot arrived and took Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind.
He is the source of the famous hymn Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. It’s also believed in Jewish circles that Elijah will be the “harbinger of the Messiah” and his name is invoked each week at the end of the Sabbath (Saturday at sunset) in the hopes that this is the week the Messiah will come.
And so when Peter proclaims: “Lord, how good that we are here!” and suggested they build monuments to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah he kind of missed the point of these events. I’ve always loved Peter’s enthusiasm and I’ve sometimes described him as “more gas pedal than steering wheel.” In fairness we can imagine Peter, James, and John: they knew Jesus but they had only read about the greatness of Moses and Elijah. Standing in their presence must have seemed overwhelming and we can understand why Peter would want to commemorate that moment.
Let’s face it: we are a people who love monuments. I grew up close to monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Also Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, but that’s grist for another day. Monuments recall people and events but they don’t necessarily move us forward (particularly in the monument for Stonewall Jackson).
Jesus doesn’t explicitly tell them not to build monuments but we have no evidence that they ever existed and Jesus did tell them not to talk about this event “until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
But I suggest that when we look at Abraham, Moses, and Elijah we can see the way forward for those who follow Jesus.
We can’t think about Abraham without thinking about how many people in the world look to “Father Abraham.” A quick internet search tells me that over 4 billion people belong to faiths that recognize him. We recognize his courage in following God’s call to leave the land but we also recognize that he wasn’t perfect. In Genesis 12 Abram and his wife traveled to Egypt and Abram passed off his wife as his sister and gave her to Pharaoh (who presumably slept with her) for fear that the Egyptians would murder Abram because his wife was so beautiful.
Nevertheless we recognize that we owe our existence to Abraham. I write this with the humility of recognizing that I don’t have children and depend on others to procreate humanity’s future. But Abraham reminds us that the only way we can keep the Word of God and Salvation History alive is by procreating the next generation. From time to time I speak with people who are convinced that God will shortly give up on us because of our sinfulness and I remind them that every time a child is born it’s a reminder that not only has God not given up on us, but that God reminds us of the promise that Abraham’s descendants will be greater than the stars in the heavens.
Moses’ presence at the Transfiguration reminds us that existing isn’t enough. If Abraham tells us that we owe our existence to God, Moses tells us that slavery is evil and we are promised better. God didn’t choose Abraham and walk away and about 550 years after Abraham his descendants found themselves in slavery in Egypt and cried to God for liberation. God heard the cry of the poor and chose Moses to deliver them (and us). Moses reminds us of the need for social justice, that slaves deserve freedom, then and now.
Finally, Elijah tells us what awaits us. He was a good man: he promised a widow that she and her son wouldn’t starve and he showed the followers of the pagan god Baal that they were on the wrong path. But the best part of ELijah’s earthly life was its end. Instead of dying like the rest of us, he was taken to heaven. If Abraham calls us to continue generations who will continue to recognize God’s love and if Moses calls us to continue to liberate slaves to freedom, Elijah calls us to recognize that the fiery chariot will someday come for us all. Swing Low Sweet Chariot sings for all of us.
As we journey in this the 2nd Sunday of Lent, let us recognize our past with an eye toward our future.