Scripture: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Feb 26, 2017
Last Sunday, Jeff Covert, one of the co-moderators of your Pastor Nominating Committee, reported that 43 Personal Information Forms, which are resumes of Presbyterian USA ministers, 43 had been received by Westminster's P.N.C, 25 computer matches and 18 self-referrals. Jeff requested two things, names of potential candidates - maybe pastors that you know who are serving effectively in their places of ministry but who may be open to another call here! (That's affectionately known as "shepherd stealing." And Jeff, on behalf of your PNC, asked for our prayers that God would give wisdom and guidance to the 10 women and men and Committee on Ministry liaison Rev. Kristie LaBarge who are searching for your next Pastor and Head of Staff as well as prayers for guidance and wisdom for that next pastor whomever she or he may be.
So this congregation, you at Westminster, are on a journey in transition as I have been with you as your Interim Pastor now for 15 months.
The church worldwide today is also in transition, "on a journey." Today, as we come to the end of the Epiphany season we move this Ash Wednesday into Lent. In Epiphany the church has had a long look at the majesty and glory of God. Indeed that glory has been shown in all God's majesty to the nations. Now it is time to move on.
As the church must move on from Epiphany to Lent, so Israel in today's Hebrew scripture from Exodus 24:12-18, Israel must also move from Sinai into the wilderness. Yet before Israel does, there is offered one more glimpse of the glory and majesty of God.
So this text in Exodus 24 begins in verses 12-14 with God, the Lord, Yahweh, calling a meeting. The meeting is initiated by God. The meeting of God and Moses is for the purpose of receiving the tablets of the law. It's on Yahweh's terms and for Yahweh's purpose. God is, from the start, in charge: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Come up to me on the mountain and wait there.'" The purpose of their gathering: "and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their [Israel's] instruction. Moses' response is immediate: he obeys. The meeting is so crucial and even dangerous that Moses takes an entourage with him. Moses takes with him his assistant Joshua upon whom the mantle of Israel's future leadership would rest after Moses' death. So Moses takes Joshua - drawing the next generation into the awesome presence of this meeting with God. Moses also takes with him the "elders," 70 of them! The elders were the influential leaders of the community, perhaps the trusted heads of the several tribes.
As the story proceeds, we learn that neither Joshua nor the elders can accompany Moses all the way to this meeting with God. Moses must go alone into the awesome presence of God's holiness.
God takes the initiative. God makes God's own self available, yet there is the hidden inscrutable splendor of God described, too there is the cloud. The cloud makes everything about God mysterious, threatening, beyond reach. (vs. 15). "Then Moses went up on the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain," The writer tells us that the glory of God, that Hebrew word "glory" comes to us in the New Testament as "doxa" - from which we get our word "doxology."
As we give our glory, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." So only in the cloud comes the glory of God. We recall that poignant conversation, between the Lord and Moses in Exodus 33 when Moses asked the Lord, "Please show me your glory," and God responds, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, but you cannot see my face for no one shall see me and live.
But the story concludes with God saying to Moses, "See there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock and I will cover you with my hand," says God to Moses, "until I have passed by, then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back but my face shall not be seen." Rev Augustus Toplady in 1763 wrote his hymn, "Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee," drew his inspiration from both this mysterious text in Exodus and an actual incident when Toplady was once caught in a storm near Blagdon, England; hid himself in a gorge, and finding shelter in the middle of that storm scribbled down the words to his famous hymn!
So God's light, the glory of the Lord, is veiled by the cloud in Exodus 24 for six days, and all Moses can do is ... wait. Moses waits in silence. He waits six days. He waits until God decides to act. Nothing is said. God will not be rushed The meeting is on God's terms, at God's pace, for God's purposes.
On the seventh day, three is a voice, It's the voice of the Holy One calling to Moses, addressing, summoning Moses and the writer - Moses or a scribe in the tradition of Moses - can only attempt to describe the indescribable, "Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a 'devouring fire' on top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel," As our Old Testament text concludes that "Moses entered the cloud and was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.
What are we to make of this God-Moses encounter story? Why has it been given to ancient Israel and now to us? Three brief observations. First of all, any speech, any act of worship, any prayer that we may offer to the living God has first been initiated, inaugurated, begun by God alone. God said in Genesis one, when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, into that nothingness, God said "Let there be light," God began the conversation of creation. Here in Exodus 24, God calls out to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain." The God of the Hebrew Bible first called Abram and Sari, first called young Samuel in the Temple. God called forth Jesse's 11th son David from tending sheep. In Jeremiah, Hosea Joel, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, they all begin, "The word of the Lord came to ... Jeremiah, Haggai, Malachi." Galatians 4:4 tells us that when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." God initiates the coming of Jesus, and with him, the Gospel that all who believe and follow him become the adopted children of God. 1 John 4:19 states it most simply and beautifully, "We love because God first loved us."
So when we come to worship on Sundays, when we gather in small groups for study and sharing personal stories, when we kneel by our beds in the privacy of our hearts, this mysterious story of God's encounter with Moses reminds us that God is always the first to arrive with you, with me. That's why we baptize infants before any word of theirs! "God first loved us."
Second observation: Moses waited six days for God to speak. Pastor Steve told us about his friend who waited 26 years in prayer to bring a brother to faith in Jesus. The 27th Psalm concludes, "Wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord." And Isaiah, in the 40th chapter, writes that "those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength..." Moses waited six days and then stayed for 40 days and 40 nights. In other words, a long time. Notice also that Moses was waiting in a dangerous place where "the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on top of the mountain." In worship, in community, in prayer, God always comes to us first; and secondly, we are called to wait.
The third observation about this Exodus 24 narrative may seem obvious but it is this: The reason the writer of Exodus goes to the trouble of telling us all the details of the origins of the law is to remind us of the Originator of the law; that the reason we as believers and followers of Jesus take seriously the commandments - no other gods, no idols or gods, no wrongful use of God's good name, Sabbath keeping, parent honoring, do not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet another's person or position - the reason that those 10 commandments are not 10 suggestions or 10 good ideas is that the Originator is the God who created the heavens and the earth, who is the God and Father of or Lord Jesus Christ. The practical implication of God first loving us? You first love someone that doesn't love or is indifferent to you. Will you reach out the first hand? Will I? And waiting. We are all this week waiting for a new pastor to be called. But remember... that pastor is called in their hearts and by this Presbytery and this congregation but ultimately he or she is called by God - and we will wait for that call. Commandments of God? You shall not steal Let's endeavor not to steal a person's name or reputation by speaking without full knowledge about them or gossiping about them. Let's not steal the image of God in people based on race or religion or age or gender or country of origin for the Originator of the commandments said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." and the second is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
The last Sunday after Epiphany, today, is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday, and our Gospel lesson that retells this story of the transfiguration of Jesus is found in Matthew 17:1-9. When I was in Sunday school, we knew this as the "Spooky Story." I wish to briefly touch on it.
Mount Tabor is a large, round top hill in central Galilee, I drove up there a few years ago. The road is treacherous! Most tourists arrive at the foot of Mt. Tabor by bus and then take a taxi because the buses won't. And they say that God is especially pleased with Mt. Tabor taxi drivers because more praying from tourists is going on in the few minutes hurtling up and down that narrow mountain road! Mt. Tabor is the traditional site of the transfiguration, but just the chapter before in Matthew 16, Jesus was with his disciples up in the coastal city of Caesarea Philippi, which is close to Mt. Hermon, which is really remote and inaccessible but was probably the mountain upon which the historical transfiguration occurred - Mt. Hermon not Mt. Tabor - but parties of pilgrims are told it's Tabor because you can get up Tabor - besides there's a church there that certainly Jesus visited. From both mountains you get a stunning view of Galilee.
The transfiguration story is strange indeed, and Peter's odd blurted out suggestion of building three shelters is awkward, to say the least, but three gospels, Mark, Luke and here in Matthew, all three record this event, so it must e important! Why? Preachers often say, my dad did, I did from this pulpit a year ago, when we look at the transfiguration story we see, if just for a moment, Jesus in his divinity - "He was shining so brightly" - Jesus sheds his humanity in the transfiguration, and the inner three disciples, and we, view Jesus as Son of God. But in Luke's account, Moses and Elijah are also shining, and they aren't divine, so it can't mean that. Back in Matthew 13 Jesus, quoting Daniel 12, said that all God's people would shine like stars in God's coming Kingdom. New Testament writers often talk about the glory of humanity. Could the bright shining Jesus of the transfiguration be a picture of Christ's perfect humanity? Could this dazzling appearance be a foretaste of the glory which all God's people will one day share? John's gospel insists that if we wish to see the divinity of Jesus, look to his humanity and especially to his suffering and shameful death.
Our good friend N. T. Wright wrote in his commentary, "Matthew for Everyone", on the transfiguration and crucifixion: "The scene at the transfiguration offers a strange parallel and contrast to the crucifixion. If you're going to meditate on the one, you might like to hold the other in your mind as well, as a sort of backdrop. Here, on a mountain, is Jesus revealed in glory; there, on a hill outside Jerusalem is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here, his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them. Here, he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel's greatest heroes, representing law and the prophets; there, he is flanked by two criminals, representing the level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land. Here, Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus. Here, a voice from God declares that this is God's wonderful son; there, a pagan soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God's son."
So the transfiguration helps us understand the crucifixion and the crucifixion enlightens this not-so-spooky transfiguration story.
We need them both side by side. We see the cross in the glory on Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday, today; and on April 14, Good Friday, we will see the glory in the cross. Moses received the law from God's fiery presence in Exodus 24. Toward the end of Moses' life in Deuteronomy 18, God promised to send the people a prophet "just like him." And then God gave Moses a command, "You must listen to him." In Matthew, Moses with Elijah is standing by Jesus, and the voice from heaven said exactly what the same divine voice said at Jesus' baptism, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased." But then the voice at the transfiguration adds a command, same command given to Moses of the promised prophet. The voice adds, "Listen to him." "Listen to him." Are we? Are we?
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church