Sermon on Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9 for Transfiguration Sunday, Year A, Feb. 26, 2017
The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
In nearby Foley they are making great progress on the Owa amusement park. According to their promotional materials there is going to be a big roller-coaster with a 360 degree loop. I love roller coasters. So do most people. Why? Because there is something fun about being scared. You get an adrenaline rush. Actually , they say that the adrenaline starts even when you are waiting in line, anticipating the ride.
We like feeling afraid and facing our fears in a roller-coaster because although it is scary, we believe it will be safe. Serious injuries are possible, but quite rare.
We do not at all like being afraid when we do not feel safe. I remember driving in Chicago in the winter on the freeway. I was on a clover leaf exit, going too fast for the icy conditions, and felt the car begin to slide. That feeling is like no other. It was terrifying. I thought it might be over, for me. I am happy to say that somehow, the car managed to stay on the road. But it was awful.
We use that word awful to describe feelings like that. It comes from the word awe. We feel awe, in its mild form when we encounter vastness, like large bodies of water, mountains, the night sky. But awe can be intense, and even fearful.
We are so used to thinking about God as good, as kind, as non-threatening, like a perfect Father, as Jesus called God, (I hope that is how you think of God) that we forget what a revolutionary shift this represents.
The God of Sinai
Think of that text we read from Exodus. It is part of that scene in which the Israelites, recently freed from being slaves in Egypt, have crossed the Red Sea and arrived at Mt. Sinai. In the story, there is a thick cloud on the mountain which represents the presence of God. The mountain shakes. There is a loud sound. It terrifies the people.
The people are so afraid of God that they ask Moses to speak to God and then tell them what God says – they do not even want to hear God directly. So Moses mediates God’s word to the people.
In the ancient world, gods could be terrifying for many reasons, chief among them being capriciousness. They were unpredictable. They were subject to moods. If the storm god is having a bad day, watch out for thunderbolts.
Israel’s God was terrifying too, so awesome is God’s power, but YHWH was not capricious. In fact, YHWH was morally good. This is a revolutionary innovation. Not only is God morally good, God expects and requires moral goodness from his people.
Of course, people understood all of this morality and goodness from the vantage point of the iron age. They believed in slavery and patriarchy, they had blood taboos and all kinds things that we think completely differently about today. But the fundamental and monumental innovation was that God was morally good and required moral goodness of us. That is why there are so many laws about helping the poor, the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen. God cares.
Building a Place for God
The God who is good, and who cares, however, does not stop being scary. How can God possibly, as it says, “dwell with” the people? Answer: they must build a mobile temple for God. Following the text we read is an elaborate set of instructions for building the tent-shrine they they will use for their journey through the wilderness and for many years following. We call it the tabernacle. It is simply a mobile temple.
The people were kept from God’s dangerous presence by concentrically arranged rooms which get progressively more holy, until you reach the inner room they called the “holy of holies”. Only the high priest could enter, and only on the Day of Atonement, and only after elaborate rituals of bathing, dressing, and sacrifice. The common people had to stay outside of all of those rooms within rooms, well away from God’s dangerous presence.
We must say that this is not the only way Israel conceived of God. God was also loving. God’s “steadfast love endures forever” we read countless times. God loves the people, God makes a covenant with them to bless them, God provides a good land for them. God is like a good shepherd. But if the people did the wrong thing, then retribution could expected. The God who could bless, could also curse. So, God remained dangerous.
The Vision on the Mountain
All of these ways of thinking about God were in the minds of Jesus’ followers. We read the story of the time Jesus took Peter, James and John, and they had a mystical experience. Jesus himself, Matthew says, called it a “vision”.
Matthew tells us that this takes place on a mountain – mirroring Sinai, the mountain on which Moses encountered God. In that vision, there is a cloud that overshadows them and from which a voice sounds – again, mirroring Moses’ experience of the voice from the cloud on Sinai.
Moses, as the story goes, received the instructions about the tabernacle there on the mountain. Is it any wonder then that Peter thinks the next thing they need to do is to build a tent-shrine? How else could God’s dangerous presence be encountered without danger?
Two things happen that make all the difference. First, the way they see Jesus is transformed. The word in English is “transfigured”. In Greek it is the word from which we get metamorphosis. In that vision they see Jesus as the Christ, shining with the light of divinity.
Later, the apostle Paul will say, in 2 Corinthians,
“we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”
But that vision of Jesus shining with the brightness of God is only momentary, not permanent.
Second, they hear a voice; the voice of God, from the cloud. The voice says,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
In other words, the point is not that we see Jesus the Christ differently, it is because of Jesus and what he taught us, we see everything differently.
For these Jewish men, this is a terrifying moment. It says,
“When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
Fear-based religion is what they were prepared for. Fear-based religion is what so many are caught up in. But when your understanding of what God is really like is transfigured by Jesus, watch what happens.
This is the moment that Jesus does something that transforms their understanding of God. He touches them and says,
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid
The message for all of us today is the same:
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
Listen to Jesus. Jesus is “the human face of God.” God is not to be feared; God is Father, or Mother (sine we do not believe God has gender) and God is good. If you need to see something to tell you what God is like, look at Jesus.
This is a message that should be encouraging to all of us. God is not looking for people to curse or to smite. God is reaching gout to touch us and then saying “Get up and do not be afraid.” God is not against you, God is for you.
In theological language, God is a God of grace and mercy. God takes the first move towards us, extending the hand to us, lifting us up, because we are made in God’s image, precious to God.
So, the story continues. They make their way down the mountain. Following Christ today does not leave us on a mountain shrine, but goes where Jesus led them, back down the mountain to where the people are. There are so many people all around us that need to hear that fear-based religion is not the faith Jesus taught us.
So, be encouraged! Get up and do not be afraid, keep listening to Jesus, as you have been doing.
Do not be afraid of God, and do not be afraid to put Jesus’ words into action. How?
Get up and do not be afraid to be the champions of the poor. Jesus said “blessed are the poor; theirs is the kingdom of God.” Get up and do not be afraid to stick up for the meek. Jesus said “blessed are the meek”, that is, the powerless the discriminated against; “they will inherit the earth.”
Get up and do not be afraid to welcome the stranger, even if she is Muslim, even if he speaks Spanish, because we welcome Jesus when we take in the strangers. These words of Jesus are direct and obvious.
As we think about the policies that affect how people live, we seek to find ways to bring Jesus’ teachings to bear in every realm of life. So we need to hear: Get up and do not be afraid to challenge elected officials when they enact policies that run counter to our Christian values.
When they open the door to let banks gamble with our economy, when they allow our rivers and streams to be polluted, when they let huge quantities of dark money into political campaigns, Get up and do not be afraid. When they try to make us fearful of people of other religions, get up and do not be afraid to challenge them.
Get up and do not be afraid because God is with us, and God is good, God is love. God is at work in every unfolding moment offering new possibilities for transformation. God is that power at work, luring us in a loving, non-controlling manner to embrace all that is good, all that is beautiful, and all that is true.