High on Tabor

Now it’s time for „tabor moments“ again. The gospel on the second Sunday of Lent is that of the transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus leads three of his disciples up Mount Tabor and is transformed before their eyes. The disciples see Jesus in the white robe, Moses and Elijah next to him and hear a voice from heaven that introduces Jesus to them as “the beloved son”. According to the usual sermon pattern for this gospel, „Tabor moments“ will be spoken of again. Depending on the preacher, what is meant are moments of fulfilment, of knowledge, sometimes just of relaxation, which tend to improve our everyday lives. Yes, the moment is so beautiful that you want to linger in it. Peter’s desire to build three tabernacles reflects that desire. But unfortunately, according to the standard sermon, one has to go back to everyday life. The beautiful moment was just a snapshot. Sometimes tabor moment sermons have a tendency towards calendar page wisdom. Who doesn’t want moments of relaxation, rest or happiness? Who doesn’t want to escape their everyday routine every now and then and experience something beautiful? I give that to everyone from the bottom of my heart. However, depicting the event of the Transfiguration as a “beautiful moment” of joy or relaxation is quite a trivialization of the Gospel. Let’s assume that the evangelists didn’t know anything about the plight of stressed city dwellers who often need to relax. Let us also assume that they usually wrote down things of importance to the believers of their day. The Tabor story has greater power and „existential heaviness“ than one would generally give it credit for.

The narratives of the evangelists are designed in such a way that we share in the experience of the transfiguration with the disciples. They report what is happening „before the eyes“ of the disciples, what they see and hear and how afraid they are. The tabor moment of the disciples is first of all not a beautiful moment, but a disturbing one. He uses patterns from the Old Testament. It is a manifestation of God. When people have such apparitions, they become afraid of the greatness of God. They prostrate themselves, try to cover themselves or flee from God. The disciples finally got inside the cloud. The cloud covered the glory of God in the book of Exodus. So within the cloud is the glory of God. Moses had entered the divine cloud when the law was given to him. Elijah was led to the encounter with God on Horeb, the mountain of God, and later ascended into the clouds on a chariot. The disciples are thus introduced to divine wisdom like these witnesses. This happens in the Old Testament with some of the prophets. The prophet Isaiah is allowed to see the divine throne and court of God. Ezekiel sees the divine chariot surrounded by mysterious beings. The disciples see nothing of the sort. You see the shining Jesus. The glow indicates the glory of God. In Jesus, God’s glory is found and revealed. The later statement „This is my beloved son“ confirms this. Before that, however, the disciples do not yet know exactly how to interpret what they have seen. Peter doesn’t understand everything when he talks about wanting to build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Elijah and one for Moses. Those who speak in this way place Jesus in a line with the two great prophets of the Old Testament. But Jesus is more than the prophets. The divine voice must then clarify this. So the disciples have a vision. You recognize and understand the importance of Jesus in this moment. The readers, who are led up the mountain with them, get a share in these events through their literary experience. Like the disciples, they too can experience and understand who Jesus is. He is more than one of the prophets but the Son of God. So the vision is not a private revelation, but a shared one. Whoever was at the Tabor saw God’s glory in Jesus Christ.

So is the Tabor experience a moment of religious realization and overpowering? This interpretation is also obvious. After all, faith also lives from the fact that there are moments of contact with God. Anyone who has ever had a real experience of grace knows how special and touching an encounter with God can be. This mystical experience is formative for a journey of faith. Big faith events and festivals, but also some charismatic or evangelical services can be understood as a taxi service to Tabor (which, by the way, also exists in real life; the only way to get to Mount Tabor in Israel these days is by taxi). People are taken along and led into an atmosphere of faith that makes a mystical experience easier. Music, prayers, the enthusiasm of the crowd, charismatic speakers often exert such an attraction even on the religiously unmusical that they are willing to abandon their skepticism and devote themselves to pure praise or faith. Those who are introduced to the faith on this mystical path usually want to learn more about it. There are believers who think they can only live their faith in a certain place, with a certain pastor or at a certain festival. For them, belief is connected with an experience. Faith can also get you high.

Faith as overwhelming is immature. And it has nothing to do with the Tabor. It is astonishing that the Tabor narrative in the middle of the Gospels does not seem to have any major consequences. The tales before „Tabor“ are no different than those after „Tabor“. One would think that after this experience of transfiguration, the disciples would descend from the mountain dancing. Instead, they must let Jesus teach them about his suffering. The disciples immediately come back to earth. The fact that they have seen and recognized who Jesus is, namely the Son of God, does not mean anything at first. They will quickly forget this knowledge as they flee from Christ’s suffering. The faith is by no means strengthened by the unique experience. He hasn’t worked his way through life yet. Experiencing and experiencing is not yet understanding. Understanding is not yet “translating” into a practice of faith. “Translating” is not yet a deeper life of faith. So the way of the disciples is still long. The readers of the text are also taken along on this path towards a mature, firm and mature faith. Tabor is a prelude. But the prelude sets a piece of music in motion. It will be a long time before the work is finished.





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