The Transfiguration of Law

THE TRANSFIGURATION OF LAW: Exodus 34: 29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2; Luke 9: 28 – 43a.

Last week, Arlette, Anita and I went to hear Justice James Clarke read some of his poetry and to talk about his life as a judge and as self-described “wannabe” Christian. For me, at least, it was an afternoon well spent. I heard a voice ripe with a gentle wisdom, one chastened by hardship but aware of the place that good luck and grace have played in his life – a man humble in the face of life’s limitations and those realities (including perfect justice) that lie beyond us. I came away wanting to read and hear more from him.  Stories from his childhood or some of his poems may well turn up in a sermon. I just hope that he is not the last of his kind, and that there are still some judges like him being promoted to the bench.

He got me thinking about law; about where it comes from, its necessity and its limitations. Simply following the law doesn’t always add up to justice. The standard that criminal law applies is “reasonable doubt”. Quite often, Justice Clarke would go home at the end of the day suspecting that someone in his courtroom had probably been guilty of the offence with which they were charged, but being unable convict them because there was still some “reasonable doubt” about their guilt on the basis of the evidence presented to the court. There are lots of things that human beings simply do not know. Some people are very good liars; other people speak the truth in ways that sound fishy, hesitant and unconvincing. Sometimes you learn things after the trial that you wish you had known when it was time to render judgment.

We were told of of a case of an Jamaican elderly couple who had invested their life savings in a boat and a truck. They planned to finance their retirement using them to set up a business back home. Through no fault of their own, the ship on which their good were transported ran into heavy seas. Neither boat nor truck had been securely enough fastened to withstand the storm. When the cargo arrived in Kingston, their life savings was worthless wreckage. Their case came before Justice Clarke because, although they had engaged lawyer, their claim for damages exceeded the three month statue of limitations. It had been filed three days late. He had a sleepless night as he struggled to avoid handing down the verdict, but he could see no way to avoid it. The law, in this case, was clear – even though the result was not right, not fair.  They were entitled to no compensation. As a judge, it was his job to administer the law as he receieved it, not to make it up as he went along on the basis of his own sense of right and wrong. Life is unfair, partly because of  inecapable limitations in the law.

Although a measure of justice is available in Canadian courts, it is skewed in favour of the wealthy and the powerful. They hire the best lawyers, call in the high-powered experts and and can pay all their witnesses to turn up at court. At best human judgments are one-sided and incomplete. Imperfect. (Many of the Pslams involve an appeal to God from the vagaries and crooked ways of human justice.)

Christians recognize the law as necessary but also limited and provisional, an imperfect instrument that looks forward to the great court of appeal which is the Last Judgment, when the judge will be all knowing, the law not distorted by technicalities, justice will be pefectly tempered with mercy and we will have, in the Son, the best lawyer on our side.

Where does law come from? The Bible is clear. It comes from God. That is what the light on Moses’s face signifies. Moses has talked with God and his face shines because he has been in the very presence of God at the top of Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commnadments. Law is not something that human beings just make up for themselves.  It is not arbitrary. In some countries you are supposed to drive on the right side of the road, on others on the left. But beneath superficial differences there is a consistancy that is tied to the rational order of nature and the God of creation.

Ultimately, law comes from the God who has rightly distinguished between light and darkness, divided good and evil, right from wrong. But law doesn’t come to us directly  – but through human intermediaries like Moses or Mohammed.  And even Moses has not looked at God face to face (or at least the tradtion is clouded with ambiguity on this point)! His vision of God is real but veiled and indirect – as the law is a real although veiled and imperfect expression of God’s will and purpose. The law as it comes down to human beings from Mount Sinai is not to be mistaken for Godself, or turned into an idol.

Christians affirm that the law is not absolute. It is a guide, an approximation, a teacher, as we strive for the perfect righteousness of Christ. So there is no place in Christian faith for the equivalent of sharia law; no place for chopping off someone’s hand or head and then holding it up in triumph as the absolute expression of the will of Allah. No place for the endless scrutinizing of egg yokes and lettuce in supposed obedience to Torah, as in some versions of Judaism. There is a false legalism, says Jesus, which strains out insects and swallows camels.

In the Transfiguration, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law once given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and preached by prophets like Elijah. Jesus sums up that tradition in his own person. All the glimmerings of God justice’s converge and come to completion in Him who is and will always be the world true light and ultimate judge.

In his courtroom everything will be taken in to account because he is all-knowing, unconstrained by the “reasonable doubt” that attends all human endevour. In Him, we see what God’s perfect justice looks like. In Him, the Torah, once given to Moses in words on tablets of stone is made flesh, made incarnate, lived and continues as a living presence in our midst.

Our Old Testament lesson points to both the ultimate origin of Torah and the indirectness of God’s self-disclosure in the law. Study of the law, like the study of nature teaches us something of God’s nature and being. And yet there is something lacking which is only revealed in Christ. Only in Him, and not Moses, St. Paul insists, that we see “with unveiled face and behold the glory of the Lord.”

Paul says that some of his contemporaries –  in looking to Moses as the ultimate ruler, legislator and prophet – forget what the text in Exodus says about his face being ‘veiled’. There is something that gets in the way of complete sight, of a comprehensive understanding. Moses’ grasp of God’s purposes is limited, incomplete, imperfect. Only in Christ do we see God’s face directly.

That’s what the account of the Transfiguration is telling us. In looking on the face of Jesus, radiant with the divine light, we see the unveiled face of God. In Him the office of ruler (Moses) and prophet (Elijah) are combined and Luke is now going to show us how, in going to the temple in Jerusalem,  Jesus becomes the world’s true and ultimate priest.

Jesus is Israel’s prophet, priest and King. In human law courts, the judge who pronounces the just sentence of the law and priest or minister who points to the mercy and reconciliation of God are different people. But in Jesus the roles are combined in the one person, the one Lord in whom all things cohere. He is both Judge and Saviour and the one in whom the light of God’s presence is perfectly revealed and perfectly transparent. It all comes together at the Transfiguration.

Its all here.  The whole Trinity is manifest for the strengthening of the faithful says Martin Luther; “Christ, the Son in his glory, the Father in the voice which declares the Son to be Lord and heir, the Holy Spirit in the shining cloud or in the generating of faith.” God is this One who lies mysteriously above and beyond law or any other human appropriation or claim to divine authority. Here is God’s great Yes to the world.

That is why the Transfiguration is the favourite image in the Eastern Orthodox church, the image in which the good news for the world is summed up. Here is the mosaic in the orthodox monastery of St. Catherine, at the foot of Mount Sinai.

To say that Christ is the light of the world is to make a deep confession of faith about the world about the shape of reality. It is to say that here is the key to human relationship and human destiny. The appropriate response is to fall on our knees like Moses before the burning bush because we find ourselves on holy ground. It is not a confession to be made carelessly, thoughtlessly, casually. “Well, whatever.”

Which takes us back to the question of baptism. What does it mean to be baptized into such a faith?  It means, at the very least,  that we want to walk in the light and become people of light. To be called children of light. That is what the Christian life is about; becoming more and more filled, more and more transparent to the light of God so that we, like Moses and Jesus, begin to radiate God’s glorious light in a dark world.

That’s why in the olden days, saints were portrayed in paintings with halos. They had begun to reflect the glory of God. John Calvin writes, “During our whole life…God makes His glory to shine on us little by little. Our present knowledge of God,’ he says, ‘is indeed obscure and feeble in comparison with the glorious vision we shall have at Christ’s last appearing.” Our knowledge of God is obscure and feeble; God remains hidden, illusive and always just beyond our grasp but, in prayer, meditation and contemplation, we can glimpse fleetingly something of the glory of God in Christ. Over a lifetime of worship and obedience, of gazing at Christ, we will be transformed and  transfigured by God’s Light.’

The law – Torah – which comes from God and reflects God’s radiance on Moses’ face , returns in Christ to the light of perfect completion and perfection. The partial is overcome in the complete. What Paul says about the resurrection is anticipated in this story of the Transfiguration. “The glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.

The vision of transfiguration granted to the disciples anticipates the glory of the resurrected One. Here is the prototype of the new humanity into whom we are summoned by our Maker and Redeemer.

“The first man, Adam, was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

That is the contrast set out in the Transfiguration. Part of what it means is that human law, human justice, human courts, will be transfigured by God’s glory into a perfect righteousness and an absolute justice, freed from all of the constraints and limitations and compromises that human justice necessarily involves.

In Exodus, chapter 33, just before the text that Nancy read us, it says that Moses pitched his tent outside the camp. This tent became the place of meeting with the LORD, the place where a ‘cloud’ descended and the LORD spoke to Him. In the Bible, the cloud descending, the holy cloud, is the Shekinah, the sign of God’s Presence.

This is the story that obviously lies in the background of Peter’s unexpected suggestion (“not knowing what he said”) that he and James and John build three “booths” or “tents” for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. It is a silly suggestion because Jesus doesn’t need a booth. It is unnecessary because He is, himself, God’s “tent of meeting.” In the prologue of John’s gospel, we read, ‘And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.’  Jesus is where we encounter God and God dwells in our midst. He is where we are transformed and transfigured by the divine glory and prepared for life in the Kingdom. Or not.