Passage: Exodus 34:29-34; Luke 9:28-36
Date: February 18, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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The story line of Moses begins with his birth into slavery in Egypt, his astonishing rescue and life into Egyptian adulthood, his trickery and rebellion against the Pharaoh, and his leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the Sinai. The wilderness wandering stops at Exodus 19, when Israel settles down at the foot of Mt Sinai. They do not move again for about 72 chapters, until Numbers 10. Instead, any movement is vertical: Moses hiking up and down the mountain. On the up side, he encounters the Holy, sometimes in smoke and fire, sometimes in cloud. On the downside, he interprets his holy engagements to the former slaves. He becomes God's mediator. This whole section explores the relationship between Yahweh, God, and the people. It becomes nearly a mythical mountain and encounter, with the deity located up there. In nearly all ancient Near Eastern religion, deities resided in high places. In our reading, Moses has ascended yet again, and received another copy of the laws for community which he had previously smashed. He embodies God's descent into the world. Listen: 34:29-34.
Each year on this Sunday, the Lord's day before Ash Wednesday, the designated gospel reading recounts Jesus' transfiguration. Instead of horizontal movement, Jesus going here and there, preaching, teaching, healing, this is a vertical episode. A holy encounter takes place. If you can, put aside your intellectual, scientific world view skepticism for a moment and listen. Open your spirit to hear God's word. Luke 9:28-36.
How many of you have ever climbed a mountain? How many of you are a member of or have been trained by the Mazamas? How many of you have ever been somewhere in nature where you were in awe, or afraid, where your hair stood up on the back of your neck or your legs felt weak because of the monument of it all or the felt presence of the Creator? If you could choose to spend time with Jesus-I know, this is a leap-but if you could, would you rather be with him on the mountain top or down in regular life?
Well, it was not Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams. That part of the Middle East does not have mountains like that. Maybe it was Mt. Hermon or Mt. Tabor there in Palestine. Far lower than ours. But, Jesus took them up there anyway, Peter, John and James. I can imagine them, sweaty, dusty, weary when they finally got to the top. He took them up there to pray. In Luke more than any other gospels, Jesus makes a practice of praying, of connecting with God. I can imagine the three followers collapsing there on top to rest, and their eyes got really heavy. Maybe because I have been there after a strenuous hike. But did they need to go up there to pray? Well, no, except that biblically, these high places made holy connections easier, more powerful. Remember Moses took a number of trips up the mountain. Elijah met God on a mountain. There was Jesus, on the top of some unnamed high place.
And there, in prayer, the holy broke through powerfully, uniquely. Up to this point, we can usually deal with the story. But now, bunches of us have difficulty, what with glistening garments, shining face, appearances, visions, a voice. Over the last 400 years or so, western writers have turned every which way to try to explain the text. As I have looked back on my sermons, I have followed in their ways. I know a number of preachers who make sure they do not have to preach on this text when it rolls around. Avoidance is easier. But in the last few years, I have begun to be changed. The little I know about quantum physics has helped, because it calls into question some of the basic ways in which we have thought about reality. Vast new and exciting possibilities are opening. Recent biblical scholarship has helped, especially that which pushes me to think differently about how we perceive, how we understand reality. That is, in many ancient cultures, and in many other than our own today, what we might call "altered states of consciousness" are accepted as part of the usual, the normal. For example, meditation practices can alter our spirits, moving them from where we are to another deeper place. They can also alter blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels. For many, meditation can connect us with the holy.
As you think about your lives, how many of you could point to an unexplainable experience with Jesus, with God, with mystery-even tentatively point to it? A number of years ago, a retired man asked if he could talk with me. He wanted to tell me something he did not dare tell anyone else. What unfolded was a deeply moving story of a time when he was sick in bed. One afternoon, he suddenly found himself looking down on himself. He watched his body rise from the bed, and float out through the wall into some other place. In this other place, he had a conversation with Jesus. Essentially, they talked about his future, and whether he wanted to get well and resume life, or to move on to the next. He said he wanted to stay. So, he watched himself float back through the wall and into bed. Soon, he was completely well. For a number of years, he had been afraid to tell anyone about that holy encounter. Surely, it was a gift to me to hear it. Explanation was not necessary. Rather, awe seemed appropriate.
Last weekend, I led a spiritual growth retreat for leaders in a congregation in Olympia. After some breathing and prayer exercises, I asked them to look at their lives, and to go back into some place where they felt themselves in the presence of Mystery, where they sensed God's love, where they encountered God's correction, where they experienced healing, where God's power changed their lives. After they wrote about those, I invited them to tell each other as much as they wanted to, in groups of two. The place exploded in holy story, and most of the people there were not what we would call "conservative" Christians.
Recently, a woman told of the tragic death of her mother in a head-on accident. Among other things, sudden death leaves so many loose ends. She did not hear the news until she received a phone message when she got home after work. That night, in bed with tears, she was given a vision: there was her mother, standing by her favorite horse. She was whole, happy. There was no fear in her eyes, but rather peace. It was as if she were getting ready to mount this treasured friend, and ride off into the foothills she loved so much. Imagine the peace that totally unexpected vision gave her deeply grieving daughter. Thank God.
There they were on the mountain, Moses, the law giver and intermediary; Elijah, the prophet, the one who was to return before the messiah. They talked with Jesus about his death, and the Greek word there is exodos. A new exodus, not just for Jesus, but for all those who would be with him, anywhere. And then the awesome experience of God's presence in the cloud and voice. Nine words: "This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!"
Friends, it is about Jesus, God's chosen stand-in. It is about Jesus, God's breakthrough to us, again. It is about Jesus, who embodies all of the law and all of the prophets, and more. It is about Jesus, this holy-human mediator. It is about Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem and to glory: to be betrayed, denied, arrested, condemned, tortured, executed. Some glory. No burning bright light. Rather the writhing form suspended in the air. No heavenly trumpets. Rather jeering and tears. No voice from heaven. Rather abandonment.
In a few moments, we will hear asked, "Who is your Lord and Savior?" Who is it? The response of our minds and hearts: "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior."
"Listen to him," commands our God. Listen for dear life. Listen to the holy in the silence. Listen with the eyes of your soul. Listen to God's decision for us through him. Listen to astonishing words of forgiveness and mercy, words from the cross. Give yourself permission to stand in awe. Listen with your heart in deepest communion. Taste unbounded love. Listen without ceasing, on the edge of glory and on the brink of death. Listen today on this hill and later on another where light is exchanged for darkness; and then, then listen on that morning of utter newness. (Idea from Christian Century, 2/6/07, p. 16) Glory in that perfect love through the chosen One, God breaking through to us. It is about Jesus, thank God.