Sermon Given Feb. 27, 2022
In our reading from Exodus Moses walked up on the mountain to speak with God. He walked into a dense cloud filled with lightning and thunder. People were warned to keep their livestock back from and not touch the foot of the mountain. They could potentially be killed if they wandered too close to the presence of God. But Moses walked right into it. All the way in.
I can’t help but think that his strength and endurance comes not only from God, but from midwives who refused to kill him at birth and a mother who hid him away, put him in a basket on the water, and then pretended to simply be his wet nurse, and Pharaoh’s daughter, who kept up the facade with Moses’ mother and protected him from harm. There was a foundation from his birth of strength, of unwillingness to give into injustice, of deep reliance on God, and of love. He was who he was because the women who saved his life were compassionate, clever, and crafty. They worked with God to make things happen.
Through their example, Moses took his own stand, and decades after fleeing from the law, found himself having radical encounters with God. First through a burning bush, and then plagues, parting of the Red Sea, miracle upon miracle until he stood upon a mountain in God’s great thunder cloud, talking with God face to face. He spent a lot of time in the bright dazzling white glory of God, and he was not the same. His body shone in the pure light of God.
When he came down from those experiences, with his face glowing, the people were so scared he wore a veil. God was terrifying to them. They knew all of what God could do and they feared that God could very well do something bad to them. After all, this was the God who made the Nile run red with blood, who brought plagues upon their enemies, killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians’ households and drowned Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. They had just built a golden calf as a way to worship God and been swiftly rebuked. They knew very well of God’s strength and overwhelming power. They had felt it palpably. But as much as they knew of God’s power, they were still learning of God’s love and mercy. They believed in God, they just didn’t necessarily trust God. The relationship needed to be built. Their actions in the early days of their wilderness journey shows that they had much to learn and much to unlearn about who God was and how God worked in the world. They perhaps knew more about Egyptian deities than the God of their ancestors, so God had teach them how to be the children of Abraham.
As the rest of Exodus unfolds and we journey with the Israelites through Deuteronomy, they learn more. God provides food from heaven and water from rocks. The law became God’s love letter to them, a way of being in relationship with God. The law was not just a way of structuring their society, it was a framework for prayer, for study, for contemplation of the mysteries of divine power. The law, alongside the miraculous production of food and water, provided a platform to build a trusting relationship. It taught the people how to seek God’s desires.
But at this time in Exodus, when Moses is spending time face to face with God, learning the ten commandments and collecting laws, getting everything together to teach the Israelites about God’s heart, the people are scared of God. Moses hides his face so the people have a barrier between them and God. They need space. The veil was an act of kindness. God met them where they were at and provided them with what they needed at the time. There was no need to push them when they were adjusting and trying to figure everything out.
Paul’s words in Second Corinthians that we hear today about Moses’ veil have been used to degenerate Jewish people. It’s been used to say that Jewish people are dumb because they can’t see that Jesus is the Messiah. They have veils over their hearts that make it so they couldn’t see Jesus standing right in front of them. It is true that Paul says that the law is incomplete without Jesus. He believes that the law points to Jesus and the power of the resurrection. But he doesn’t say that Jewish people are to be ridiculed or called dumb. Paul is still a Jew and believes that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is still valid. That covenant, which Paul calls the old covenant, isn’t abolished, the new covenant expands upon it and opens it up in new ways. The new covenant is a miracle that Paul wants to share with everyone and have all experience. He writes not to put down the old covenant but to delight in the new one that this Gentile community he’s writing to now shares in as well.
Paul’s purpose is to bring us into the cloud with Moses as well. While people in Moses’ day were so overwhelmed with God’s power that they were afraid, Jesus has given us the ability to stand before God face to face. The Spirit enlivens us and flows through us. God is intimately close to us, and can shine through us. Since Pentecost, the Spirit that lived in that cloud has expanded out and given all, not just Moses, the glory of God, we can find God’s glory in our own bodies, in our own images, as if we were looking at God in the mirror.
This Spirit, God’s power, met with Jesus on the mountaintop. In the moment of transfiguration, we are able to look intimately into Jesus’ prayer life and support structure. How many times do the Gospels say when Jesus went to the mountain to pray? Now we get a glimpse into what his prayer life looked like and the disciples with him find themselves face to face with God. In Jesus’ prayer, he glows like Moses, his radiance is dazzling.
Jesus enters into deep conversation with Moses and Elijah. Who better to share his heart with, to process what he will experience with, than Moses and Elijah? These are two people who intimately knew God in their lifetimes and now live with God in their death. In them, Jesus found colleagues he could share his life and experiences with. They were the ones who could get Jesus. They understood the pressures he was under and how hard his mission and ministry was. Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand his purpose, they were learning more as they went along, but Moses and Elijah understood. They were his guides and his friends. They didn’t just come and stand alongside Jesus for a photo op. They talked about his journey to Jerusalem, his upcoming death, his fears, his struggles, his life. They were his counselors and companions. Jesus didn’t go it alone.
Peter, James, and John were exhausted, so they didn’t follow the conversation, but Peter was so impressed that he thought they needed to build some dwellings so the three could have all the time they needed. But when Jesus went away to pray, he was always able to access Moses and Elijah. They didn’t need a long time together, they knew each other and were mostly caught up on what was going on in Jesus’ life. They just needed a few hours for support and a debrief. Jesus spent plenty of time praying in conversation with others as well as praying alone.
Then the cloud comes down, the same cloud that enveloped Moses. It was just as powerful, just as frightening. But instead of turning away in fear, the disciples were able to remain. In that moment, they saw God. They beheld all the mystery, all the majesty, all the wonder. They were filled in abundance with the Holy Spirit and were struck silent in awe. It was unlike anything they had experienced before. They didn’t have the words to describe it, but there they were. And God left them with these words ringing in their ears, “This is my Son, my Chosen, Listen to him!” Just as Jesus had prayer companions, people he could converse and share his world with, the disciples were given them as well. Yes, Jesus was their prayer companion, but they were also bound together in a deep and lasting bond. Together, with each other’s help, they were able to listen to Jesus and interpret what he did. They were given the power to pray as Jesus did, both in conversation and alone. They were given the ability to pour out their whole hearts to God.
We too are given the power of the mountaintop moments. We are able to experience the full power of God in conversation with each other and private prayer. We have the power to bring everything before God, openly and honestly, pouring out our struggle and our hearts, releasing all of ourselves, not in the way that shoves our wounds, anger and fears into the corner, but releasing ourselves by expressing them and letting them out. We need not hold back. We have companions and a God that can hold us, every single piece of us. Even that piece.
In Adult Forum this week we continued watching a series called Exploring Prayer with Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He spoke of the power of lament. He spoke of the part of us that screams out in protest to God, that says, “This is not right and you, God, need to do something about it.” He shared the powerful experience of his wife leading a prayer group in Africa with women who had been abused. They expressed their anger and hurt together, some even rolling on the floor crying out to God. It was deeply holy and necessary. They were bonded together by the experience, given prayer companions who understood them completely and were able to go there with them. They were able to express the full power of Christ in that room as they cried out together against injustice.
I admit that I right now am lamenting. I think many if not all of us are. I’m so tired and frustrated by politics. I am angered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is wrong. I fear for people’s lives. I don’t want to see another child of God die, being labeled as a casualty of war. That’s not the world God wants. But that’s the world we’ve got. I want to go to the mountaintop, I want to enter the cloud, stare God in the face and just ask, “Why?” I want to let it all out, all the frustration, anger, and hurt. I want to pour it all out in that cloud, stare God right in the eye and ask, “What in the world can we do?”
I see Jesus bringing my closest friends, people with whom I can share my world, people I can process and plan with. I see communities of support surrounding and responding to the devastation, working to protect people. I even dare to dream that Jesus is working in the hearts and lives of political leaders to try to change such dire situations. I see him calling us up the mountain, asking that we might come and be filled with the radiant power of the Spirit. His call beckons us all forward, “Listen to me, I will show you the way.”
We don’t know how this moment in history will play out. But we know in whom we can put our trust, even if others go against God’s way. Paul reminds us that we already have the Spirit available within our own bodies. We have the ability to access the mountaintop when we need it. While going to certain physical locations helps, that cloud of God can come anytime. Even when we don’t feel God, God is moving. God is active. God is here. We can release all of ourselves to God, trusting that God can hold us and help us. God provides. Amen.