Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18 Commentary
We come at last to the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany began with the proclamation of Christ to the nations, represented by the Magi from the East, and it ends with an even more dramatic presentation of God’s glory on a mountain. Indeed, all of the lectionary readings for today feature a mountain topped with the Glory of the Lord.
Our passage in Exodus is a foretaste of Christ’s transfiguration. As God confirms his covenant with Israel, he calls Moses, the mediator of that covenant, to the top of Mt. Sinai for a close encounter of the best kind. He will receive tablets of stone on which God has written his covenant Law, so that God’s people will never have to wonder how to live in this world before their God. His will is written in stone.
This episode explains why it was Moses who appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Along with Elijah, he was the premier Old Testament channel of God’s revelation to his people. So, when the final and ultimate revelation of God came in Jesus Christ, it was fitting that Moses and Elijah would be appear with Jesus to “validate” that revelation. Their appearance was one final proof to the disciples that Jesus was everything they thought he was, and more. As John 1:17 puts it, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
So, if the Transfiguration of Jesus was the pinnacle of Epiphany, why would any preacher want to focus on this foretaste epiphany in Exodus 24? Why linger here in the Old Testament when we can go to the fulfillment in the New? Well, for the same reason we preach any Old Testament text—for the way it enriches our understanding of the New Testament. The old saw said, “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed.” But it is also true that the Old gives us the background that shows the full meaning of the New. You can’t really make sense of the New without the Old.
We can see that here by asking the question, how should we preach this text? It has two parts, the ascent of Moses in verses 12-14 and the descent of God in verses 15-18. So, is this text about Moses’ ascent or God’s descent? Is it a paradigm demonstrating how we should ascend into God’s presence or is it a prophecy revealing how God will descend into our time and space? Is it about deification or incarnation?
I use those last two terms because Exodus 24 was a key text in the ancient Christian ascetic and mystical tradition. That tradition saw this text as a paradigm for every person’s approach to God. Those ancient mystics focused on the progression in the story: the people as a whole had to stay at a distance from the mountain; a select few (Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 elders) were allowed to go up on the mountain where they “saw the God of Israel” and weren’t killed; Moses then went up higher on the mountain where he had to wait 6 days (an obvious reference to the creation account in Genesis 1); finally on the seventh day he entered the cloud where he spent 40 days and nights with God.
By entering that great “cloud of unknowing,” where he came to know God face to face, Moses became more like God than anyone else in history. Thus, he is a model for the process of deification which is so central in Eastern Christianity.
While this doctrine is largely ignored in the West, it definitely has some biblical roots. Consider II Peter 1:4, “he has given us his very great and precious promises so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Or think of these words of I John 3:1-2, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Or, reflect on II Corinthians 3:18 which is rooted in this story. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Shall we take this opportunity to preach on this relatively unknown aspect of the Gospel truth on this Transfiguration Sunday? Shall we focus on Moses ascent, on deification? Or should we zero in on God’s descent, on incarnation?
In my humble opinion (strongly shaped by the Western tradition), this is mostly about God’s descent. Yes, Moses went up, but, more dramatically and centrally, God came down. “When Moses wen up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sanai.” That’s the gospel in the text; the glory of the Lord settled on Sinai, even as, hundreds of years later, the glory of God would settle on Christ. Here, Israel could see the glory from a distance blazing like a consuming fire. There, the disciples could see the glory up close and personal in the face of Christ.
I think that’s the message of this text not only because of my doctrinal leanings, but also because of textual considerations. This episode is a midway point between Israel’s arrival at Sinai and the complete condescension of God to dwell with his people in the tabernacle. This onetime event points ahead to the everyday meeting of God’s glory in the liturgy of the Tabernacle and Temple.
Or to put it a bit differently, this is the climax of the story of “the God who condescends,” who came down to his sinful people in all his glory. Instead of destroying them, he instructs them about the tabernacle (chapters 25-31). And when they infuriate God by making that Golden Calf, Moses intercedes for them and God relents and forgives. Harking back to this story in Exodus 24, Moses asks for proof that God’s presence will continue to be with such a sinful people. “Now show me your glory (Exodus 33:18).” God responds by showing Moses his back in a cloud and proclaiming his name as the compassionate and gracious God.
So, there can be no doubt that this text focuses on the condescension of God, which came to a climax in the incarnation. As John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling (‘tabernacled’ in the Greek) among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Verse 18 continues, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” On the Mount of Transfiguration, God declared that Jesus was, indeed, that one and only Son who came to make the Unknown and Unknowable God known. As one scholar summarizes, “All of these themes—appearance of the glory, divine condescension, building of a tabernacle—return in the tale of the transfiguration.” So, we see how the Old Testament story shows the fullness of the New Testament Gospel.
That’s what we should preach if we choose this Old Testament text. The Law given by God up on that mountain is important and helpful, in fact, invaluable. It tells us how to approach God, how to walk with God, how to get closer to God. That law is a gift of God’s grace, and we should be grateful, and we should try to live it. But, as the book of Hebrews says again and again, Jesus is better, because he fulfilled the Law that cannot save us because we cannot keep it. In the Gospel we are told how God approached us, how he walked with us, how he died and rose for us, and how he is with us always.
Speaking of Hebrews, the end of chapter 12 gives us a potential angle into this story in Exodus. Hebrews 12:18-24 speaks of two mountains, Mt. Sinai that is burning with fire and cannot be touched and Mt. Zion that is populated by countless sinners who have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. That is the conclusion of the writer’s appeal to second generation Christians who were tempted to go back to Judaism, attracted by all the rituals and symbols of the Old Testament, thinking that by those means they could climb the mountain into God’s presence, as Moses did.
The author of Hebrews begs them not to go that route. The only way in to God’s presence is through Christ. That is a message people need to hear in this post-modern syncretistic age, when people are always looking for other ways to God and glory. Preach Christ in whom God settled into human history.
When I read about God’s glory appearing as a consuming fire on top of Sinai, I instantly pictured the mountains and hills of California ablaze with wildfires that consumed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and thousands of man-made structures. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples saw God not as a consuming fire, but as the compassionate face of the Christ. No wonder Paul would later write, “God… made the light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Corinthians 4:6).”
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