YEAR A: TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
(The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany; the Sunday immediately before Ash Wednesday)
Todayís passage gives the story of Moses going up to Mt. Sinai, where he encounters the glory of the Lordís presence. It is the first of several such accounts, a precursor to the tradition found in Exodus 34.
Moses goes up in response to the Lordís invitation and command, ĎCome 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.í This instruction is not just for Mosesí sake. It is a call for him to be the conduit through whom God makes the law available to the people. It is for their instruction that Moses is summoned.
Moses is Godís obedient servant, and sets out straightaway in the next verse. He travels with his assistant Joshua. There is, thus, already a sense of the passing generations. At the end of the long journey in the wilderness Moses will not be allowed to enter the promised land. It will be Joshua who will take the people to that promised place. He will need to be a conduit for the law between God and the people as much as Moses himself.
With the two leaders to be away from the camp, Moses puts in place designated leaders to hear the peopleís disputes in his absence. This foreshadows the rebellion that did transpire in Mosesí absence, just as Joshuaís presence foreshadows the end of the wilderness period. In parallel with Godís injunction that Moses should wait on the mountain, so Mosesí enjoins the elders to wait for his return with Joshua. His patience will prove more than their own.
Moses waits on the mountain where the cloud covers it for six days. The cloud, like the pillar of cloud that led the people out of Egypt, is the ephemeral sign of Godís presence. It cannot be grasped or encapsulated, but is nonetheless a metaphor of Godís glory. Only on the seventh day does the Lord call to Moses out of the cloud, presumably inviting him further up the mountain into the cloud. There is perhaps an implicit message in this time of waiting, that might be explored in the context of preaching. God does encounter Moses, but not immediately. There is a patience required in seeking God that runs counter to our contemporary culture of wanting things now. Those who seek God cannot set the terms of the encounter with the divine, but need to wait until they are summoned by God.
The Lordís glory is likened not only to cloud, but also to a devouring fire, again a similar image to the pillar of fire that led the people by night in the Exodus. The people waiting below were able to see the fire, and thereby to know that Moses was in the presence of God. The devouring fire is a fearful sign, one suggesting purification and destruction. It is also a sign of light, the theme of Epiphany. But there is another paradox here that could be explored in preaching. The glory of the Lord and the fire signal a source of light, but for Moses and especially the people the source of the light is shrouded in cloud. The presence of God revealed in all glory is obscured. The presence is hidden in its very manifestation.
Moses enters the cloud, crossing the boundary between the earthly and the heavenly. Here, he goes a step beyond his encounter with God in the burning bush, where he kept a safe distance. Here, Moses is in the realm of God, with his entry a sign of his close relation to the divine. It was thought that human beings could not look on God and live (Exod 19:21), so powerful and overwhelming was the divine presence. So it is that Moses is revered in Judaism to this day as one who knew God face to face. Moses remained in the cloud on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, a complete cycle of time in Hebrew numerology.
The passage following the verses selected for the lectionary
reading details Godís plans for an ark of the covenant to be made. This
will prove a more visible and permanent sign of Godís presence with this
In the Gospel reading for today (Matt 17:1-9), the transfiguration of Jesus shares many details with this earlier story. There is a mountain, clouds, and light. Moses is present along with Elijah, perhaps to indicate that Jesus had come to fulfill the law and the prophets. Jesusí face is described as shining with the glory of God (as was the face of Moses in the later version of his being transfigured in Exodus 34). It is no coincidence that our Gospel readings over the last few weeks have come from Matthewsís account of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6). The revelation of Godís glory is never disassociated from the giving of the law in the Old Testament and Jesusí instruction on discipleship in his sermon.
We can read todayís passage in one of two contexts. First, at the end of the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, during which we have celebrated the appearance of the Word in the flesh. It is the culmination of all that we waited for in Advent. Secondly, our minds are half-turned already toward the season of Lent when we again wait and prepare for a further understanding of how the Lord is present in our midst. In either case one could explore the sense of expectant waiting for a word from the Lord for Godís people, and the inevitable Ďunexpectednessí in the eventual coming of that word. That word and the divine presence itself cannot be contained or controlled, even by our waiting and preparation, but burn with a devouring fire that cannot be domesticated.
Preaching todayís passages in an Australian context, one might allude to the dazzling quality of the light we encounter here, similar to that described in the two transfiguration stories. The transfiguration of Moses suggests that people cannot come away from an encounter with God without being in some way profoundly altered. In the connection with the gospel reading there is also a sense that at times the fabric of life tears open, the veil is rent, and the glory of God, always present, shines through.
Psalms 2 or 99
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