Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in Epiphany before the season of Lent begins. We shift the focus from the expansion of Jesus’ earthly ministry to His willing journey toward the cross. The New Testament reading (Matthew 17: 1-9) brings us up a mountain with Jesus and His inner circle of disciples. Christ is transfigured into a radiance so brilliant that the disciples have to look away. The Old Testament lectionary reading (Exodus 24: 12-18) invites us to look in on a similar scene that takes us back nearly 1500 years from Jesus’ life. God has liberated the Jews from 400 years of slavery in Egypt by parting the waters of the Red Sea. They escape from their captors. Moses is their (sometimes) fearless leader and now they are safely in the wilderness where their future stretches before them with great uncertainty. How will they survive in the austere setting of the desert? Now that they can govern themselves, what laws will they follow? Who’s in charge? Do we believe God is still with us, as evidenced in the miracle of the parted sea? Or do the challenges of surviving each day blind us to the protective presence of God?
On Transfiguration Sunday we are reminded that things are not always as they appear! Moses is summoned by God to go up the mountain, leaving his people behind in the good care of his brother Aaron and Hur. Moses anticipates bickering because he announces, before turning with his walking stick toward the mountain, that all disputes can be brought to these two men. They will listen and serve as judges in Moses’ absence.
So Moses begins his hike with an aide, Joshua. God commands, “Come up and wait….”
Not many of us are good at waiting, especially when we’re in a setting where our creature comforts are absent! So Moses’ ascent, from the very beginning of the trip, is an act of obedience. If you read on in this story you see that he is called to “come up” four times, each time going higher and further away from his people. Hearing God’s voice, Moses obeys.
This passage marks the transition from the giving of the law to an act of worship. God’s voice prompts obedience and Moses waits at each juncture of the journey. The reward or culmination of his pilgrimage is a stunning encounter with God in the form of thunder and fire. The law is etched in stone to give a legal framework for the new life of the wandering Israelites. But their lives are not meant to simply be marked by blind obedience. God wants a relationship with them. So Moses is given a front row seat to the fantastic and holy fireworks show while the terrified Israelites watch with grim fascination from below. This God is worthy of their devotion!
Moses’ faith is in good shape before the climb. He doesn’t need this encounter with God. His people do! They need to know who is in charge and what power backs their leader. The Sinai experience offers this. God pulls out all the stops on that mountain peak to impress upon the skeptical Israelites the Divine endorsement of Moses. The very tangible take-away from this epiphany is a set of community rules that are etched in stone. But people typically need a reason to adhere to a new moral code so God offers that in a shock and awe presentation on the top of Mount Sinai. When Moses descends the mountain to rejoin his people, laden with 10 commandments carved on rock, his face is shining. The folks in the valley recognize that he spent time with the Almighty because God’s glory rubbed off on this faithful servant. They could only glance at Moses indirectly because his face was radiant. For a people embarking on a new journey with a God they barely know, this was the endorsement Moses needed to win their support. The journey that began with obedience and ended with worship prepares the people for what will be a 40-year trek through the wilderness. They could not know at the time how much they would need their faith in this God as a compass and traveling companion!
Moses is called up the mountain, which is risky business. But then he is told to wait when he gets to the right elevation. I wonder if we’re willing to sit and wait for God when answers to our deepest prayers take too long? Do we have the patience to accept God’s timeline so that we can become a beacon of light for others? Or will we get caught up in the arguments and popularity contests in the valley below? Maybe you remember that the people didn’t fare so well in their leader’s absence. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for more than 40 days with fire blazing at the crest. How could their leader survive this? Feeling abandoned they turned to Aaron and asked for answers. Aaron lost faith in God and doubted Moses return. He betrayed his brother’s trust and took the reins in hand. He ordered the people to bring any metal they had taken with them from Egypt. He melted it down and formed a golden calf which became the center of their worship. As Moses shows up, both weary and euphoric from his divine encounter, the people are dancing with wild adoration around a hand-crafted statue. Fear superseded faith. And these are the people who had just experienced God’s miraculous grace when the waters were parted and they crossed from slavery to freedom on the other side. What is our response to life’s challenges when God doesn’t show up soon enough? Do we grow fearful when we can’t force God’s appearance? Does our fear lead us to worship more tangible gods like money, beauty, intelligence, or professional success? How quickly do we forget the good things that God has done for us when we are asked to climb up a mountain for God—and then wait?
I wonder how readily we set the scale at zero before beginning something new? In our prayers we ask God to remove our prejudices and help us identify our wrong priorities so that we can see the face of Christ in those around us. Are we open and ready to listen to others and weigh in on what they say with loving honesty? Or are we so full of our own thoughts and opinions that we miss the gifts of those around us? When we are obedient to God and are willing to wait, we catch a glimpse of God’s glory. When we least expect it, like a flash of lightening against a blackened sky, God transfigures the ordinary into something glorious.
We stand at the foot of a mountain, understanding that we will embark on a 40-day journey called Lent this week. Erica Brown Wood writes, “Like Jesus, we set out into a spiritual wilderness to face temptations, to overcome our worst fears, to die to ourselves in order to gain faith that God is, indeed, present, loving, and wonderfully protective of our welfare.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1) Like Moses, we will be asked to keeping climbing higher, soldiering through our fears and into God’s glory. The Lenten journey offers the opportunity for us to situate ourselves at God’s feet, seeking obedience no matter the cost.
I had sinus surgery several weeks ago. My anesthesia for a one-hour probe through my sinus cavities was two Xanax! That actually did the job! The only thing I remember from the procedure is my surgeon’s voice saying two or three times, “Now, you’re going to feel some pressure.” And then I FELT this crunch that didn’t hurt but sounded impressive! At the one week re-check I asked the doctor if it was cartilage breaking. It turned out that was an optimistic guess. “No, it was actually your bone! We were reshaping your bone so that the sinus passages would be wider. Can you believe that we can do that?”
Well, no, not actually. I’m a bit sorry that I asked!
There are times when something as hard as bone or stone has to be chiseled away to open new passageways to God. God became a mason on the top of Mount Sinai, etching rules for living on heavy tablets. This holy order for the community would bring the Israelites peace. During the frenzy of worshiping an inanimate object, Moses descended the mountain and brought his frightened people a clear plan that we still follow today. There’s lots of pressure to deviate from the Ten Commandments. They sound pretty straightforward—until we begin to try them out. While we may not be tempted to murder someone, we probably harbor ill feelings toward them that hinder our interaction with them. While we may not covet our neighbor’s spouse, we undoubtedly feel jealous at times of those who seemingly have it all put together nicely. In Lent we invite God to put some pressure on us, to open up pathways to our heart that we have closed off for years. We place ourselves before God asking for a true read on our morality. Where do I need to direct my efforts? How have I blocked You from showcasing your power in the way I live each day? When have I failed to reset the scale to zero so that a broken relationship has a chance to heal? When have You invited me to go up another level in my faith walk, God, yet I’ve preferred to stay put?
In our congregation we are writing our names on stones and putting those in a basket near the exit. Folks will pick out somebody’s rock as they leave worship each Sunday and carry that person in their prayers for the week. The next Sunday they will bring that rock back and take a different one for the next week. Inanimate stones come to life with a name marked upon them, giving us the opportunity to expand our prayer life. As we enter into a 40-day period of heightened spiritual discipline consider what word of God needs to be chiseled into the hard places you have put in place for your own protection. God is willing to serve as the Divine Mason but you must be willing to be obedient. That which is etched in stone must be lived by heart or we lose God along the way.
This Ash Wednesday we begin a walk with Jesus that culminates with the cross. Erica Brown Wood offers us a reminder as our Lenten journey commences:
“If we would guard our epiphanies with our lives, as we guard our own children, then our faith might be strengthened step by step along the way of our pilgrimage, until we find ourselves headed toward the promised land that is the kingdom of God.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!