12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” 13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.2 Peter 1:16-21
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
IntroductionOne of the basic problems with preaching from a particular passage—especially in the OT, but also in the NT—is the fact that each separate story actually means something based on the larger story of which it is part. The kind of preaching we do encourages us to separate one from another and turn them into something they were not meant to be.
The response to this problem is, of course, to set the small story in its big story, where it makes more sense, not to omit it or forget about it. With this task of remembering the grand story of redemption as we read our texts, we turn to the book of Exodus.
Exodus 24This whole scene begins in chapter 19, as Moses went up to God and receives the great vision of what God wants to do with Israel:
3 Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”This commission helps us to understand what God has been doing, first allowing the Israelites to become slaves in Egypt, and then setting them free in the Exodus from Egypt. God is preparing to redeem the world as a whole for himself—the same world that rebelled against him at the beginning of creation; the same world that rose in rebellion before (and after) the flood; the same world that tried to set itself up against God in building the tower of Babel. God called Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 to begin the process of redemption, and here God takes the next great step in bringing the world back to himself.
Then Moses ascends the mountain again, where God warns him to allow no one else to come up the mountain lest they be destroyed. Moses went back up the mountain and received the Ten Words, various Laws about how to live as God’s people, and the assurance of returning to the land of promise. So to chapter 24, in which Moses gives these beginning Laws to the people, and they receive them gladly. Then Moses goes back up for 40 days and nights to learn more to bring back to the people.
Chapters 25 to 31 contain this further revelation, primarily to do with the Tabernacle and the process of worshipping God, finishing with a command about the Sabbath. You remember what happens next. Moses comes back down the mountain, with Joshua who had attended him. They find the golden calf, which Aaron had made at the people’s request. They find rebellion. They find failure. They find people who could not wait for God to return, but had given up on God—even though a short time earlier they had proclaimed their joy and faith in this same God.
How can I title this sermon “the triumph of the law”? Should it not be the failure of the law? God gave the Law, and the people failed even before Moses could return to them with God’s revelation. This sounds more like a radical failure than any kind of triumph.
But of course God is not surprised by human failure, and God always finds a way to move forward. That’s why Paul can say (in Romans 8:28, a verse we sometimes misuse): “All things work together for good to those who love God….” God always finds a way forward, even when we conspire against God’s purposes in our world.
What is God’s triumph (which is what we are really talking about) here? Although the people turned aside from God, even the way that they turned aside reveals what God had planted deep inside them: “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” They knew that they could not move without God. They knew that they were helpless on their own. They knew their need, and they acted on it. From creation until now, like the Israelites we have inside of us a deep inconsolable longing for something beyond ourselves. Even those who say they need nothing betray their belief in their own transcendence.
Eternity in Their Hearts
The preacher describes this truth in Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” He has set eternity in the human heart.
There are those who say that belief in transcendence is not needed, and that we are enough in and of ourselves. Last Wednesday I listened to a story on NPR (in the States), describing a group of atheists in California who are as evangelistic (odd word, considering!) in their atheism as any Christian in his/her faith. One of the things that struck me was their ready acknowledgement of the awe and wonder the world creates in us. That awe is what I’m talking about: Eternity in the human heart. By itself, awe and wonder do not necessarily lead to God; the atheists in this particular news story make that clear. But the reality of this awareness of our smallness and of the greatness of something else around us is what I am referring to.
Human efforts to discern the truth behind the awe we feel lead in many different directions. The Israelites went in the direction of the gods around them. The golden calf has connections to the deities of the Egyptians and Canaanites, who formed the cultural background to the Children of Jacob/Israel. Chapter 32 raises many questions, which I leave aside this morning. We note simply the tendency to look for meaning and power and hope for the future.
Don Richardson has written a book called Eternity in Their Hearts, in which he gives examples of many different cultures and the way that God’s presence is already revealed before the Christians faith was brought by missionaries of one sort or another. I think of a different kind of example, which does not make its way into Richardson’s work—the way that other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism so often echo Christian themes. One such echo is in something called Pure Land Buddhism, in which the Buddha Amida allows his grace to overflow into the lives of anyone who will place their faith in him. If you hold Amida Buddha’s image in your mind as you die, you are said to come to his pure land (Heaven). We may evaluate Buddhism negatively—the desired final destiny for Buddhists is extinction, not union with God. But the way in which Amida Buddha gives grace freely to all echoes the way that Jesus gives grace to all. An echo of the gospel in the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.
God has so made us that we search all of our lives for something more. The Israelites were not satisfied to sit at Sinai and remember that God had spoken. They wanted more. I suspect that a basic reason some Christians lose their faith (as we say) is that they have stopped searching. If you sit there content with what you have and not pursuing God to the end of your life, something else will come in to fill that need we feel in the depths of our being, the need to see eternity.
The NT TextsAs an old man Peter recalls that great vision of Jesus transfigured on the mountain:
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.The triumph of the Law is to nurture this deep desire to see God. The Israelites took that desire and twisted into an awful rebellion—with awful consequences. But the desire remained, so that when God came to them they repented and followed God through the wilderness for 40 years. Through the years of the Judges they wavered back and forth, following the gods of the Canaanites around them; but when God would appear to them again, they recognized that he was the one they wanted; they knew that God was the only true God.
The story of the OT circles around these themes of grace and rebellion, followed by judgment and repentance, and new grace. The result was to form a people whom no conqueror could tame. The Persians tried, but the literature between the Testaments (especially Maccabees) testifies to their constant desire to know God. The Romans tried, but the Jews were stubborn and kept turning back to God. Finally God had formed them into the people to whom he could come in human form. So he came as the man, Jesus bar-Joseph, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He arrived on the scene as a preacher and teacher with the Twelve Disciples, including Peter. Peter remembers those days. Most people did not recognize God incarnate walking among them; but who could be expected to recognize such an absurdity, such an impossibility? Only those whom God had formed through the centuries through the triumph of the Law given at Sinai. So Peter remembers that day when Jesus went up the mountain with Peter and James and John:
“18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
The gospel account from Matthew 17 gives us the story that Peter remembers. God appears on earth, and the moment that the Law was given to prepare is finally revealed.
Living with this TriumphHow do we live with this action of God in our lives? The evidence of the atheists in California reminds us that the options in front of us today are many and varied. People can leave this church building this morning and search for transcendence in all kinds of places. Some analysts of the contemporary scene refer to the smorgasbord of religious options before us and note the way in which people pick and choose from those options to create their own religion, unique to themselves. The trouble with these efforts is the same (I think) as the problem with the Californian atheists—one ends up with something that is really no bigger than oneself.
The answer I believe resides with God. God was the only one who could break into the daily reality of the immigrant Israelis’ lives. They were stuck in the desert. They could not hope to find God on their own. Their efforts to do so led only to real trouble. The same thing is true for us today. If you try to find God on your own, most likely you will simply set up some human creation and worship it. Your God will become what keeps you from the true God.
The gospel passage, with Peter’s memory of that event, reminds us that God is the one who reveals himself to people. We are not the ones who can make God show himself. On the mountain with Moses, the initiative rested with God. On the mountain with Peter, James, and John, the initiative rested with God. We do have something they did not have—the record of God’s activity with the human race found in the Bible. But even the Bible tells us only Who we are waiting for.
God has given us glimpses of himself in the Bible, in the OT and the NT, giving the Law and in creating a People. And what a people! So messed up, so often pursuing other gods, so often practicing great injustice and trapped in bad social-political situations, so often rebellious and frustrating, but also so committed to God that they refused to bow down as a nation to any other ruler.
God has given us glimpses of himself in each other, in our history and in the stories of our families, in the story of this particular church (or cell within the larger church, as I heard Gerald Gerbrandt put it this past week). God has given us enough glimpses to know that God is there for you and for me.
So we wait for Jesus like the children of Israel waiting at the foot of the mountain. We wait for God like the disciples waiting for Jesus and his companions. We wait for Jesus to show himself making connections—bringing together the disparate elements of our past and present and making sense of them, like Jesus showing up with Moses and Elijah so that the disciples could see their lives gathered into the history of their people.
As we wait for Jesus we refuse to settle for any other substitute. We are waiting for Jesus to make us part of his new reality when our prayer comes true, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” And Jesus shows himself to us. Sometimes the wait is long, but Jesus always comes. And the joy when he comes is overwhelming. In that joy we can live God’s life in this world until we die, or until Jesus returns and brings in God’s reign in power and glory. As we wait, we sing,
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.