The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.” (Ex. 24:12)
Moses had never asked for a special relationship with God. He was not especially prone to a life of prayer. His first encounter with God came while he was tending the flock of his father-in-law and he stumbled across a burning bush. Had God called Moses to the burning bush? Or had Moses simply been the first one to come across it? He had sometimes wondered about this, because it was by no means clear that he was a good choice to be God’s intermediary. When the Lord said to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people… and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,” Moses was not enthusiastic. “Who am I,” he asked, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
His experience as emissary to Pharaoh was not an entirely pleasant one. Bringing word of the ten plagues, one by one, that would descend on Egypt was no easy task. Overseeing the first Passover was a logistical and emotional nightmare, but nothing compared to leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, eventually with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. The stunning crossing of the Red Sea did not fill Moses with confidence, (Though it did give him a song of praise to sing); he might never have managed without the pillar of cloud and fire to lead them. And wandering in the wilderness had been no easy life for Moses or for Israel. The Lord had once already given Moses a lengthy list of laws to follow, and we have every reason to believe that Moses took these seriously. But now the Lord has called Moses up onto the mountain to wait.
You and I already know what will happen while Moses is waiting on Mount Sinai, covered in cloud. God will write with his own finger the terms of his covenant with his people on the two tablets of stone. Back on the ground, Aaron, unsteady in his faith and in his leadership, will make a golden calf for the people to worship. In his anger and disappointment, Moses will throw the tablets to the ground on his return to his wayward brother and all the people. And he will go back up the mountain to receive new tablets. There Moses will ask God to at least let him see him, and God agrees to let Moses see his backside, but not his face, because, as he says, “No one shall see my face and live.” And the Lord puts Moses in the cleft of a rock, for his own safety I suppose, and covers Moses with his hand as he passes by. And when he has passed by, the Lord removes his hand and allows Moses to see him from behind. And then God writes a new set of tablets and gives them to Moses and sends him back down the mountain.
But today the Lord asks Moses to come up to the mountain and wait. And Moses waits for six days on the cloud-covered mountaintop.
Peter and James and John surely know the details of this story when Jesus leads them up a mountain. I wonder if they were expecting to have to wait with Jesus on the mountain for six days before the purpose of their visit became clear. But it does not take six days at all. Very quickly, it seems, Jesus is transfigured, his face shining like the sun, and his clothes dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear and speak with him.
When reading this story, we normally assume that the appearance of Moses and Elijah is for our sake – or at least for the sake of Peter and James and John, who God intends to see this vision of Jesus flanked by these figures who represent the law and the prophets, as if the transfiguring light, the dazzling clothes, the bright cloud overshadowing them, and the voice from the cloud were not strong enough signs to make a point. But I wonder if the unexpected appearance of Moses and Elijah is not intended primarily for the onlookers, but is intended for their own benefit, for Moses and Elijah.
Here, indeed, are two of God’s great men, the intermediaries of God’s work among and for his people. Both of them share a link to Mount Horeb, Mount Sinai’s other name. For, there, Elijah, protected by the mouth of a cave, was also allowed to witness the Lord passing by. He was not permitted to see any part of God. He was assaulted by earthquake, wind and fire, none of which revealed God, until, in the silence that followed, Elijah heard the still, small voice of God speaking to him, perhaps not very far from the place where Moses was allowed to see the back of God’s glory after he passed by.
And here they are on a mountain again, a cloud overhead, Peter and James and John looking on. Moses and Elijah had both wished to see the face of the God they served. Is this Transfiguration primarily for their benefit, primarily intended to give them, at long last, their heart’s desire, as the others look on and realize that they, too are looking at the face of God?
These stories, of course, are widely discredited, they are counted as little more than fairy tales in our society, even by many who profess and call themselves believers, but who find so much of this all too fanciful to be actually believed. But I am encouraged by the thought that Moses was called by God up onto the mountain to wait there. To me, this sounds very much like my own experience of God – who insists on doing things in his own time, at his own pace, and who seems to leave me waiting again and again, when what I want is to look him in the eye and get the answers I need, now!
Those six days of waiting may well have seemed like an eternity to Moses, the arrangements in the cleft of the rock, God’s hand holding him there, shielding his eyes must have seemed so restricting. And Elijah’s frightening night in the cave, surrounded by wind and earthquake and fire must have been more than he had bargained for.
The waiting, the misdirection, the over-wrought drama are all very much the trademarks of God. As is the very real suspicion that we shall never set eyes on him, never really know God, who has so much power over the things in life that we have no power over, and yet who makes us wait and wait and wait, we know not why.
What could it have meant to Moses and Elijah, I wonder, to see Peter and James and John standing there, watching it all unfold before them? How could those three stand out there in the open – no rock surrounding them, no cloaks even to wrap around their faces, no hand of God pressing against them, holding them at bay, keeping their eyes from seeing things they are not meant to see? Did the two old men allow themselves a smile, when at the blast of the voice from heaven those three puny disciples fell to the ground in fear, thinking “That’s more like it!”?
And in the moments that Peter, James, and John were all face down, did Moses and Elijah indulge in an embrace with Jesus, I wonder? Did they each take his face into their hands, gaze into his eyes, and allow themselves to kiss him on the head, the cheek, or even right on the lips?
And did they then realize then that this would be God’s last mountaintop moment, could they see so clearly that from now on the Lord would be visiting his people, face to face, and his glory would be right here on the ground for anyone to see?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
6 March 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia