I really enjoy this pairing that was chosen for this week’s lectionary. We have Moses’ mountaintop experience of meeting God juxtaposed with Peter’s, James’ and John’s mountaintop experience of seeing Jesus and hearing from God. Both experiences are noteworthy and deserve serious attention in their own right. But I think this year, I’d like to focus on conversations that happen on the mountains that are just outside of our lectionary texts. I think they help put into fuller context the passages that we are reading this week.
First in Exodus, Moses goes back up the mountain after coming down to tell the people what God has commanded. Mind you, this is the oral instruction that Moses heard and then wrote down (Exodus 24:3-4). The stone tablets will come 40 days later (Exodus 24:12, 31:18). Moses recited the commandments that he heard God speak, wrote them down and then performed a covenant ceremony, sprinkling blood on the people to remind them of their obligations. Then God called Moses back up the mountain—but not alone. Moses went with his brother Aaron, his nephews Nadav and Abihu, and a sort of proto-Sanhedrin of 70 elders. And. They. Saw. God!
Now, humans are frequently frightened when they see angels, let alone God. But in the Hebrew Bible, lots of people see God: Eve and Adam, Abraham, Hagar, Isaiah, Moses and his friends here, to name a few. And here in Exodus, we read specifically that all the assembled leaders saw God and were not harmed. Instead, they enjoyed food and wine with God (Exodus 24:11), sometimes referred to as the Sinai communion.
The context of Moses on the mountaintop with God is one of surprisingly deep intimacy and devotion from the God of the universe!
This is the context of God calling Moses into the cloud of God’s presence. God isn’t some terrifying, angry mountain God. To be sure, every single one of the assembled children of Israel at the base of the mountain beholds God’s glory (!!) as a consuming fire. But before any of that, God has already set out the terms of God’s relationship with the people. The people have already agreed to the covenant—twice (3, 7), and God has already shared a meal with the leaders of the community. The Israelite prophets will remember this as the royal wedding where God took the people as God’s spouse, complete with marriage contract and festive meal.
The 40-day extended period alone with Moses, as well as the 40 years in the wilderness in this context, can be read metaphorically as a kind of honeymoon, when a beloved leader of God’s beloved people spends time learning what God wants and how to live together in love and harmony (Jeremiah 2:1-2). The context of Moses on the mountaintop with God is one of surprisingly deep intimacy and devotion from the God of the universe!
In much the same way, reading the conversations that happen on the mountain of transfiguration help us see the depth of love, devotion and intimacy that Jesus displays. We know that Jesus led a core group of his disciples on a high mountain where he was transfigured before them. And we know that God spoke from the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). And we know that the disciples were terrified, as anyone would be.
But just as the leaders on Sinai had nothing to fear from a God who only wanted to show the fullness of divine love to them, Jesus’ disciples had nothing to fear from the Messiah who would show the lengths that Divine love would go to rescue them. While the disciples were still quaking with fear, Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus told them (not for the first time) that he would be killed and raised from the dead. In a moment of clarity, the disciples seem to have finally put together that Jesus was who God said he was: the Beloved Son. They simply ask if things are unfolding in the proper order: wasn’t Elijah supposed to return first (Malachi 4:5-6)? Jesus took the opportunity to say that the one coming in the spirit and power of Elijah (John the Baptizer) had already come and had been killed. The same would happen to Jesus (Matthew 17:11-13). Jesus would die to save them, and us, from the powers of sin and death.
Twice in these short passages, we have God appearing in a cloud on a mountain. And as neat as shiny clothes and consuming fires are, I think they are beside the point. God shows up, again and again, to enter into relationship with humanity, and to show how far God is willing to go to bring humanity to Godself.