Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 26, 2017
Exodus 24:12-18 Commentary
Perhaps few preachers and teachers will tackle Exodus 24 as a stand-alone passage, even on Transfiguration Sunday. That’s, however, at least somewhat regrettable. The Spirit has, after all, embedded at least a few gems into this passage.
Exodus 24 functions as a kind of “swing chapter,” in the words of Old Testament scholar, Terrence Fretheim. We might also (far less eloquently) call it a kind of “peanut better and jelly” chapter. The Spirit “sandwiches” it, after all, between chapters 20-23 and 25-32’s guides for holy living. Among the things that distinguishes those two “slices of bread” is that while God speaks chapters 20-23 to all the people of Israel, God addresses chapters 25-32 to Moses, whom God, in turn, expects to relay that message to the Israelites.
Moses spends a fair bit of Exodus 19-33 clambering up and down Mt. Sinai, sometimes alone, sometimes with a hiking party. However, he’s always alone when he reaches its summit. There he sees and hears things no one on this side of the new creation’s curtain can even begin to imagine. After all, on Mount Sinai, Israel’s leader, encounters Yahweh, the living God of heaven and earth.
Exodus 24:1 reports that God calls Moses to leave most of the Israelites at Sinai’s base, but to take Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, as well as Israel’s seventy elders with him part way up the mountain. On their way, we learn in verse 10 (what the Lectionary for some unknown reason omits from its appointed text for this Sunday) that while they may join ancient cultures in expecting some kind of divine revelation, they actually glimpse the Divine himself: “the God of Israel.” We can only imagine how it must have made the Israelites’ eyes almost pop out of their heads and tongues nearly fall out of their mouths.
Does this sight so rattle the members of the Israelite religious leaders’ hiking party so deeply that they forget to record what God looked like? After all, Exodus 24 doesn’t describe God’s physical appearance. It’s almost as if it can only stammer out what the ground on which God stood looks like: “something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.” It’s all enough to make Exodus’ narrator marvel: “God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, they ate and they drank.” Is it almost a picture of God somehow almost sharing a kind of picnic with the Israelite leaders?
It’s no wonder, then, that when Moses obeys the Lord by telling all but Aaron to “Wait here for us until we come back to you,” those leaders don’t argue with him the way they so often do. Who on earth, after all, would want to risk running into the God of Israel a second time? Of course, those leaders eventually get so sick of waiting for Moses to come back to them that they do lethally dangerous things. But that’s another grim story for another Sunday.
In verse 12 of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, God picks up on verse 2’s theme by telling Moses to come closer so that God can give him “two tablets of stone, with the laws and commands” God has “written for” the Israelites’ instruction. Though our text doesn’t actually say so, it implies that Moses sheds even Joshua on the final leg of his climb to the top. After all, God has insisted even Joshua “must not come near” (2) the Lord.
God (and Israel, cf. Exodus 20:19) gave Moses the unique and, as it will turn out, dangerous job of serving as a mediator between the Lord and Israel. Moses speaks to Israel for God and for God to Israel. So the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday serves to impress on God’s Israelite sons and daughters that what Moses eventually brings back to them is not the result of his own brainstorm, but the very message of God delivered through him. It is to be faithfully obeyed in grateful response to God’s saving and sustaining work for her.
As Moses approaches Sinai’s summit, a “cloud” swallows him up. However, this cloud isn’t just the typical collection of water droplets. This is somehow none other than “the glory of the Lord” (16). Yet while the biblical writers portray God’s presence with God’s people in a number of ways, including in the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle and temple, “God in a cloud” is a bit unique.
It’s interesting to note that when the Israelites catch a glimpse of Mount Sinai, they don’t apparently see the cloud that has swallowed up Moses. Verse 17 says, “The glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.” God is, after all, utterly holy. This God, the sight of whose glory must surely almost make the Israelites tremble, is no one to be trifled with. This Lord is majestic and holy, to be approached only with complete awe and reverence.
And yet Moses, at God’s gracious summons, does approach the Lord. With what I imagine to be fear and trembling, with each passing day, six of them, in fact, he sits before the holy and living God of heaven and earth. Only on the seventh day does God finally call him to come even closer to the Lord. Where Moses promptly ends up sitting forty more days and nights. Where Moses hears God explain just what it will mean for Israel to live in holy ways when they finally arrive in the land of promise.
On this Transfiguration Sunday the parallels between the Old and New Testament texts the Lectionary appoints are almost too numerous to list. Of course, no one gets transfigured in Exodus 24. But Moses does appear, of course, both there and in Matthew 17. On a mountain. In a cloud. From which people hear God speaking.
However, Moses doesn’t really share Matthew’s spotlight with God the way he does in Exodus 24. He, in fact, seems to play a more minor part. After all, at the center of Matthew 17 is Jesus, the one whom the voice from the cloud calls God’s “Son,” with whom God is well-pleased and whom God wants Jesus’ followers to listen to.
There’s no direct mention of God’s glory in Matthew 17. But it’s there. After all, John 1 tells us we have seen God’s “glory, the glory of the One and Only.” Who is that one in whom we see God’s glory, not just on the mountain where he’s transfigured, but also throughout the gospels? It’s Jesus.
Only in his case, God’s glory doesn’t strike fear and trembling in the hearts of even those who glimpse it from a distance. God doesn’t even tell everyone but one chosen leader to keep a distance from God’s holiness in Jesus Christ. Instead, God summons us in God’s glorious Son to approach the Lord in hope, faith and love. And people do approach him, sometimes with anger and frustration, but often, propelled by the Spirit, with faith and hope.
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In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes, “I have never understood why so many mystics of all creeds experience the presence of God on mountaintops. Aren’t they afraid of being blown away? God said to Moses on Sinai that even the priests, who have access to the Lord, must hallow themselves, for fear that the Lord may break out against them.”
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