Encountering God seems dangerous. Unexpected things happen. Rules no longer apply. Math, physics, common understandings: all go out the window. Anything is possible. Everything is possible. Encounter God is risky business for encountering God is transformative.
Moses went up the mountain to encounter God, and left everyone else safely at the foot. There was thunder and lightening. A sound like a gigantic horn blowing. An earthquake. Smoke and fire. A volcano.
Up there, Moses encountered a fog, and light, and the very presence and glory of God. God handed Moses the commandments on stones God wrote with God’s own finger. You remember that this first set Moses broke in anger when he came down the mountain and found his people had already turned to worshiping the gods they had left in Egypt rather than The One God who they were camping near!
God was angry too. And told the people to go away. They said, “No, come with us! Make us special!” But God was worried God might be too much for them. They couldn’t handle camping near God’s presence – how could they handle the presence of God traveling WITH them all the time? Could they handle that much change, that much power in their lives?
But Moses was adamant. He said he could handle the presence of God. And through him, the people could handle the presence of God. Moses asked to see God’s glory and goodness, God’s love and shining greatness. God agreed, for the sake of Moses, but said no one can see God Face-to-Face and live. So God covered Moses with a hand, and then walked past him. Moses was allowed to see the back of God.
And just that glimpse of God’s shining glory, from the backside, was enough to radically change Moses. He didn’t even know how much he had change. When at last, after 40 days, Moses came down the mountain to the people, he glowed like a light bulb.
Quite naturally, the people were terrified of Moses.
But Moses called to them, “Hey! It’s me! Moses! Come back! You all know who I am!”
“But, Moses, you’re glowing! And it’s scaring us.” So Moses hid his glowing face with a veil; and the people knew God through Moses.
Encountering God is transformative. We get changed. Turned into something new. Moses was never the same again. He glowed. The Israelites were never the same again. Now they were God’s Chosen.
Over a thousand years later, Jesus goes up a mountain just like Moses and later Elijah did. Like them, he begins to pray to God. It must be pretty boring – all this prayer. Once again, Peter, John and James are getting sleepy. Their minds are beginning to wander and they’re beginning to get distracted. However- they rub the sand out of their eyes and keep to their task.
Because they are dedicated to staying awake, staying alert, they witness something very strange: they see Jesus’ face begin to change. His clothes become whiter. His face takes on a glow. And suddenly Moses and Elijah themselves appear. All three great prophets, all three great leaders, all three who have spoke with God on mountaintops and done miracles, are there in one place speaking. And they talk about Jesus’ exodus. Jesus’ departure, which is to occur at Jerusalem. They talk about how death leads to life.
John and James have nothing to say. They are silent. They can’t understand what their eyes are telling them. They can’t even begin to understand what they’re ears are saying.
Peter realizes this is just like the old stories — just like when everyone left Egypt and Moses led them. In celebration of the Exodus, of the departure, from Egypt, people celebrate the Festival of Booths. They set up tents and camp out to praise God for staying with them all that time in the wilderness and leading them to the Promised Land. Peter says, “Ah! Let’s build tents! Let’s celebrate! Let’s chat!” We’re told he has no idea what he is saying. He is just thinking aloud, trying to put the pieces together, trying to get a plan and to capture the moment.
He’s like those people who miss an entire party because they’re so busy trying to get the perfect photo.
As Peter is speaking, a cloud comes over the mountain. Just like it did for Moses and Elijah. And all three disciples are now terrified.
Don’t you remember God is risky and transformative? Being in the cloud with God changed Moses so much he forever glowed. Elijah received the words of the Still Small Voice and prophecies. And here — Jesus was also praying and he glowed. Now what? What is going to happen to these three men standing near Jesus? What’s going to happen to the poor guy who’s so nervous he just keeps blathering on?
The cloud settles over them as they break into cold sweats, and then there – in the mist, in the mysterious cloud, a voice rings out saying: “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”
And then they were left alone with Jesus.
No Moses, no Elijah, no cloud.
And everyone has realized they have had a close encounter with God.
They stay the night, then, on the mountain. I wonder – did Peter, John or James sleep a single wink that night? Did they keep waking up at every little sound, and looking around, expecting some other ghostly visitor to be speaking with their Rabbi?
Did they realize that their close encounter didn’t begin on that mountain or end on the mountain? Their close encounter is Jesus. They just haven’t seen the glory in Jesus until now.
They can’t even ask him why he was glowing. Why the greatest religious leaders in history spoke with him. Why the presence of God came about them. And what it means to be the Chosen, the Son of God. No, the disciples are in over their heads.
That’s how I feel this Sunday. In over my head.
You and I, we’re standing here right before Lent begins. Lent — those forty days, plus Sundays, before Easter. We’re on a mountain top looking out over a valley. I know there is Easter, there is joy and glory, on the other side of the valley. But between here and there is a period of wandering in the desert. A period of self reflection, of self assessment, a period of ashes and mourning.
A period of saying those words I really, really don’t like: “I’m wrong.” “I’m sorry.” “I’m at fault.”
Like Peter, it might be nice to pitch a tent here and just enjoy the view. Why do we need to go to Jerusalem? Why do we have to travel towards death and the cross and betrayal? Why not just sit here where it is comfortable and not move.
Like the Israelites, it might be nice to say ‘Later, God! This being responsible stuff stinks. Let me go back to my golden calf and slavery.’
Following God is risky because encountering God changes us. In God, we are asked to die to sin – to give it up. In God, we are no longer the same person. God is light, energy, growth – change. Change is uncomfortable. The unknown is very scary. How very true is the saying ‘better the devil we know than the devil we don’t!’
Most people would rather stay where they’re comfortably uncomfortable than to risk moving, changing, and facing challenges. Most people would rather camp in the tent and call it a permanent home.
But the tents were made for moving. For following the presence of God, the Spirit of God.
And Jesus is ever moving. Ever calling us along his way of going up to mountains for prayer, reflection, and rejuvenating encounters with God… and then down into valleys for work, ministry, and proclaiming God’s love.
Are we willing to come Face to Face with Jesus, with our Christ, our Messiah – and face the changes that happen in us from this encounter? Are we willing to come off this mountain and go into the valley of shadows, of death, of ashes, of Lent? Do we trust our Good Shepherd will lead us though this valley and into the Resurrection on the other side?
I believe in God’s promises. I believe in God’s grace and forgiveness. I believe in the baptizer’s call to repent and the Messiah’s call to preach the kindom of God.
Let us Commune with our savior. Amen.