Old Testament: Genesis (32:22-31)
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The Response: Psalm 99
1 The Lord is King; let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
2 The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
3 Let them confess his Name,
which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
4 “O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.”
5 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
6 Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he
7 He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
8 “O Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.”
9 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.
The Epistle: 2 Peter (1:13-21)
I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
The Gospel: Luke (9:28-36)
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
While the first reading that we used today is not the one appointed for this feast of the Transfiguration, it actually dovetails quite well with today’s celebration. The gospel story that we just heard paints a portrait in which Jesus’ appearance is changed in such a way that his three closest disciples catch a temporary glimpse of who he really is and of the glory in which he will one day appear. The story in Genesis does not portray any change in Jacob’s outward appearance, but it does present the first of two steps in his inward transformation.
When we began our Sunday series of excerpts from the saga of Jacob, we found ourselves presented with the image of a young man who betrayed his father and his twin brother, extorting from Esau the right of the firstborn and later lying to and humiliating his elderly, blind, dying father, Isaac, in order to steal a special blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother. Jacob had to flee for his life; and now, after 20 years in exile, he was daring to come home. The man who had fled was in the process of being transformed into the very different man who returned; but his transformation was not yet complete: not until he faced up to what he had done and to his need for reconciliation both with God and with his brother, Esau.
Twenty years earlier, as Jacob was desperately fleeing into exile, he had encountered God at a non-place that, with the coming of God, had become a crucial place, a sacred place: Bethel, the “House of God.” Over the years, he seems to have developed some notion that he had restored his relationship with the God of his ancestors, but he soon learned differently.
As he prepared to cross over into his homeland, he spent the strange and terrifying night described in today’s first reading. He wrestled all night long with a mysterious stranger, whom he later came to identify as God. That struggle began Jacob’s transformation: a dramatic change that is symbolized by God changing his name to “Israel.” The old man, Jacob, had to be left behind so that a new and far better man, Israel, might emerge.
At the end of their nocturnal contest, he was awe-struck and was amazed that he had seen God face to face and yet had lived to tell about it. The ancient author of the story emphasizes the centrality of that word “face” as he repeats it when Israel names the place “Peniel”: a name that signifies “my face [has seen] God.” Yet Israel’s sight was still blurry. His awakening was still incomplete. There was still one more awakening that was needed before he could truly see the face of God.
That full awakening takes place in the next part of the journey, in which he finally comes face to face with Esau, who receives him graciously. Suddenly, it is as if a veil is lifted, and Israel finally sees the truth that he has tried to avoid for so many years. As the two brothers speak for the first time in two decades, Israel declares to Esau (33:10): “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” That realization is the real denouement of the saga. The dawn has finally arrived. The deceiver, the supplanter, the wrestler, the wanderer has finally come upon and embraced the truth: you cannot truly see the face of God until you are able to see it in the face of your brother.
Jacob’s, Israel’s, long journey of faith had finally reached its culmination. His transformation was now complete; but what about ours? Has that fundamental and profound truth really dawned on us in all its power: the fact that we can never truly see the face of God until we are able to see it in the face of our sisters and brothers?
One of the enduring realities among people of faith, one that has persisted through the ages, is the repeated attempt to separate one’s relationship with God from one’s relationship with one’s fellow human beings. People faithfully attend a church or a synagogue or a mosque or a temple in an attempt to draw closer to the divine. But then they retreat into their own lives, avoiding, consciously or unconsciously, many of the other people who share their wider community with them. They shield themselves especially from having to encounter and get to know those who seem to be different from them; from having to address the struggles that many men, women, and children living around them face every day; and from getting personally involved in making a positive difference in the lives of those in need.
Essentially, they are trying to do what Jacob did for so many years: to have a living relationship with God that is separate from their relationship, or lack of relationship, with their fellow human beings. It never worked for Jacob, and it will never work for us either. We will never truly see the face of God until we see the face of God in the faces of our sisters and brothers.
Embracing that simple fact brings many implications, both for our life as a society and for our lives as individuals. It compels us to remember, as we, for example, talk about health care policy, that our primary concern must be, not just the profits of corporations, but caring for the needs of our people. It demands, when we consider issues relating to immigration, that we welcome not just those whose special skills will benefit companies’ bottom lines, as if people were mere commodities to be used, but also those who are fleeing persecution or severe poverty and who long for a better life for themselves and for their children: the same reasons that most of our own families came to this country. It insists that, when we consider the work of caring for our environment, we take into account not only financial implications for those who are polluting God’s world, but also our fundamental responsibility to be faithful stewards of God’s creation.
For us as individuals and as households and as a church, it means stepping out of the places where we probably feel most comfortable and intentionally getting to know and to serve those in our greater-Dayton community who are in need or who may not have had the opportunities that we have had.
And if we, as a nation and as individuals, are willing to make that journey out of self-interest and into the lives of others, we might just find ourselves transformed by the experience. And we might just find ourselves looking into the face of someone whom we never really knew before and declaring along with Israel: “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”