Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
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Transforming Moments

Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-13

 Our Old Testament text from Exodus begins with the words, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain.’”  There are few words in Scripture that resonate more strongly with me!  

 There is something about mountains that connects us to God.  Maybe it’s just because mountains are places of great beauty and wonder.  Perhaps it’s because from the mountain top, we can see so much.  We are reminded of just how small and insignificant we are, and so our minds are drawn to thinking about greater things.  And nothing is greater than God.  

 I don’t think I have to tell you that I love the mountains.  Many of the times of pure delight in my life have been on the top of mountains.  In 1996 and 1998, my brother and I took two trips to New England and Quebec to climb mountains.  We climbed Mt. Mansfield, the highest in Vermont, Mt. Washington, the highest in New Hampshire, and the Katahdin, the highest in Maine.  We also went into Quebec and climbed several mountains in a range called the Chic-Chocs.  It might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.  Last summer, on the trip with my brother and Joshua, we climbed Maple Mountain, the second highest peak in Ontario.  Several years ago my brother and I went backpacking in the Dolly Sods, one of the highest places in West Virginia.  Each of those experiences was a time of pure joy.  Certainly there were challenges, like 60 mile per hour winds and snow on Mt. Washington, but they were joyful challenges.  

 So Moses and Joshua go up on the mountain.  It’s always good to have a partner when you’re climbing a mountain.  And God says, “Stay here till I give you the tablets of stone inscribed with my instructions.”  It was a common in the ancient Near East world to inscribe important documents, things like law codes and royal histories, on stone so that they would be preserved.  It’s a good thing, too, since much of our knowledge of ancient history comes from stone inscriptions.  Paper just doesn’t last.  

 Moses and Joshua climb up and a cloud covers the mountain.  The Hebrew people referred to this cloud of God’s glory as the Shekinah.  At several critical points in the story of the Exodus, this cloud covers the mountain and fills the Tabernacle as a visible manifestation of God’s presence.  

 I can tell you from experience that there is something mysterious and other-worldly about being on top of a mountain in the clouds.  When my brother climbed

Katahdin in Maine and the Chic-Chocs in Quebec, we had that experience several times.  High mountains have a way of forming their own weather systems.  In both places we would be hiking along in the clear one minute, the next minute we would be in clouds so thick you couldn’t see 100 feet, and then the next minute the sky would clear.  It was beautiful and entrancing.  

 Moses and Joshua stay on the mountain for six days before God speaks.  Maybe this is part of our problem.  We live in a society obsessed with instant gratification.  We don’t want to wait.  We want things to happen right now.  We sit down for our quiet time with God and if nothing happens in five minutes, we give up.  Think about waiting six days!  God comes in his timing, not ours.

 Finally, on the 7th day, God speaks from the cloud.  Of course, the seventh day is significant.  It is the Sabbath, the holy day.  Maybe there’s the rest of the problem.  We no longer have a holy day.  Every day is another day to work, another day to get things done, another day to get ahead.  We don’t have a holy day.  We don’t have a day set apart for reflection, contemplation, worship, and wonder.  

 But God finally does speak to Moses on the mountain.  Again, I can echo with that experience.  Several of the times in my life that I have heard from God have been on the mountain, if not literally then at least figuratively, meaning that they are times when I have intentionally gotten away from life as normal.  Several times I’ve heard from God on the Algonquin canoe trips.  My brother and I did a backpacking trip in the mountains of Newfoundland 13 years ago, just about the time I was starting to pastor.  And God spoke to me there.  I’ve heard from God at Jumonville, our United Methodist Church camp built on a mountaintop near Uniontown.  

 From the perspective of the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain, the glorious presence of God in the cloud appears to be a devouring fire.  This is reminiscent of another text from Exodus, one that would be very familiar to Moses:  the burning bush.  Moses is intrigued by the burning bush not because it was on fire but because, in spite of the fire, the bush was not consumed or destroyed.  That’s what God does.  God transforms things but he doesn’t destroy them.  God transforms our lives; he doesn’t destroy them.  He takes them from ordinary to holy.  

 About 1500 years later, we find Jesus going up on the mountain.  It happens soon after Caesarea Philippi.  That is the place where Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And Jesus

proceeds to tell them that he is going to suffer and die, and soon some of them would see the Kingdom of God coming in glory.  The Transfiguration is that event, which Peter, James, and John are privileged to see.  

 According to tradition, the Transfiguration happened on a hill called Mt. Tabor.  Most Bible scholars say that is not where it happened.  Mt. Tabor is nowhere close to Caesarea Philippi, nor is a particularly high mountain, only about 1500 feet above the surrounding plains.  Plus, in the first century, there was a Roman fortress on top of Mt. Tabor, so not a good place for a spiritual retreat.

More likely, the Transfiguration happened at Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel, about 9400 feet in elevation.  Caesarea Philippi is at the base of Mt. Hermon, so it was quite handy.  

There Jesus is transfigured.  His face shone like the sun, recalling Exodus 34, where Moses’ face shines after he comes from God’s presence.  

Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus.  Together, they represent the Old Covenant.  Moses represents the Law, the first five books of the Bible, and Elijah represents the prophets, which was most of the rest of the Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible.  Both these men had experiences with God on Mt. Sinai.  We heard about Moses’.  Elijah’s experience with God came after his contest with the prophets of Baal, in 1 Kings 19.  The Jewish people expected both to reappear when Messiah came.    

They begin talking with Jesus.  Luke adds the detail that they talk with Jesus about his “departure,” that is his death.  But the Greek word for departure is EXODUS, again recalling the experience at Sinai.  

The disciples are overwhelmed.  Luke adds the detail that they had fallen asleep while Jesus was praying, hinting that this might have happened at night, which would make it an even more startling experience.  Peter says, “Let me make three tabernacles,” that is tents or shelters; again recalling the Exodus and the time Israel spent in the wilderness.  

Peter was always ready for action, always wanting to do something.  Perhaps what he really needed to learn was how to be silent and still, how to contemplate, how to live in wonder, and not just do something.  Some of us need to learn that, too.  I know I do.

God speaks from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am pleased, listen to him.”  It recalls the experience of Jesus’ baptism.  Certainly this would have been a confirmation to Jesus of his identity and purpose.  If he was human, then he struggled with doubt.  It also recalls Isaiah 42:1, one of the passages describing the Messiah as a suffering servant.  And it recalls Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses’ promise of a greater prophet to come, and the instruction to listen to him.

The disciples are overwhelmed, and then, suddenly, it’s all over.    

On the way down, Jesus tells them not to share this event until after he has risen.  The transfiguration is a foretaste of the resurrection, the ascension, and the second coming of Christ.  So the disciples are not able to understand it just yet.  As if we are ever capable of understanding experiences of God.

On the way down, they ask about Elijah, and Jesus tells them, “He has already come,” meaning John the Baptist, and “he was mistreated.  The same thing will happen to the Son of Man.”  John was the New Testament equivalent of Elijah, the great prophet.  Jesus is the New Testament equivalent of Moses, bringer of a new covenant.  Both suffered and died.  

The story speaks, to me, about how we experience God in the transformative moments of life.  When we are changed, God is there.  God transforms our lives without destroying them.  

It also reminds me that we need to seek out those times in our lives when we come apart from the world to be transformed and renewed by God.  I heard last fall from another pastor in our conference who tells his church members that they should think in terms of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly in their faith journey.  Daily they should read the Scriptures and pray.  Weekly they should worship.  Monthly they should serve, put their faith into practice.  And yearly they should come apart.  They should go on a retreat or a mission trip.  They should spend a week at summer camp.  They should go somewhere for more than a day where they can completely devote themselves to God.  I think that’s a good practice.  We need to take those times when we come apart from the world and go to the mountain, literally or figuratively, and wait for God to speak to us so that we can be transformed.  

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