No one in Exodus 24 gets transfigured in this Old Testament Transfiguration Sunday Lectionary text, but it’s exceedingly easy to see why this text is featured for this particular Sunday. The whole thing is all about mountains and glory and the shining effulgence of God, and if that does not remind you at least a bit of what happens in Matthew 17 and its parallel passages in the gospels, nothing will.
One major difference here is the duration: near as we can tell the event the disciples witnessed lasted only a short while whereas Moses stayed up in God’s glory cloud for over a month. One wonders what the elders of Israel did that whole time seeing as Moses told them in verse 14 to “Wait here until we come back to you”!! It reminds me of Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away getting ready to board his soon-to-be doomed airplane and shouting back to his fiance, “I’ll be right back.” Well, no. Not really!
In one sense you could contrast Exodus 24 with Matthew 17 by saying that whereas Jesus’s transfiguration is all about Grace, the glory in Exodus 24 and the following half-dozen or so chapters is all about Law. After all, the purpose behind Moses’ entering into God’s presence on Mount Sinai was to receive God’s commands, rules, statutes, and regulations. Yet there is more to it than that.
After all, those who know the trajectory of the Book of Exodus know that God did not give his people the Law as a precondition to their getting saved. First God made his people into a mighty nation (in fulfillment of promises God started making to Abram way back in Genesis 12) and then secondly God rescued his enslaved people from the clutches of Pharaoh. Only after all that did the Law come. The Law, then, was a way to live now that salvation had already come (and so was not to be seen as a way to earn salvation).
But it was more than even just that. Because the Book of Exodus has two goals: one is to get the people out of Egypt (mission accomplished by Exodus 24) and the other was to find a way for a holy God to live in the midst of his often unholy people. All the laws and regulations that you can read about starting in Exodus 25 all add up to one thing: they point the way forward to ensure that God can do what God so dearly wants to do, and that is to live in the midst of his people.
By the time you get to Exodus 40, that goal is realized as the glory of God at long last moves off the mountain into the Tabernacle. God wanted to live close to the people he loved. The Law would help ensure that the relationship could continue. Think of it as sort of like the “rules” that a husband and wife do not cheat on each other, do not abuse one another, and treat each other with respect and love every day. The reason such guidelines exist is to keep the loving relationship of the marriage going, to ensure that these two people can stay living together under the same roof.
It’s too easy to lose sight of that relationship goal in the flurry of laws and regulations that follow, but that is indeed where this whole thing is headed for Israel. Of course, ultimately we know that the Law was just a temporary stage, a babysitter (to invoke a Pauline image from the New Testament) that would bring us to the more mature stage when God himself would take care of all the details necessary to make an intimate relationship between God and his people possible forever and ever. The goal is the same: intimacy, God dwelling with his beloved creatures. But the ultimate way that goal gets achieved takes the surprising twist that just is the incarnation of the only Son of God into human flesh. The incandescence of God’s white-hot glory was finally poured out into a human being yet without the flesh of that man being seared beyond recognition as a result.
In Exodus, God ends up living in a tent. This is a real tent. It’s made of cloth and other such typical elements. It was a profoundly good thing when in Exodus 40 the glory of God comes down into that tent, that Tabernacle in the wilderness, but you get the overwhelming sense that this arrangement is temporary. Something better will one day come.
And it does. As John 1 tells us, finally the day came when the very Word of God “tented” among us through the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth and that same Word was shining (for those with the eyes to see it) with the effulgence of God’s radiant glory. And if all of that does not get you to Matthew 17 and the transfiguration of Jesus . . .
In Matthew 17 Peter mistakenly asks that they erect three tents, skene in the Greek and “tabernacle” in the Old Testament sense, to capture the glory of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But that was not necessary. Because once Moses and Elijah disappeared and Jesus went back to looking like his ordinary, guy-from-Nazareth self, they still had standing right in front of them a living, breathing incarnation of the ultimate tent, the final Tabernacle containing both the glory of God and creation’s goal of God dwelling right in the midst of his people: Jesus himself. Here at last was the fulfillment of what Exodus 40 had all along been shooting at.
And so here at last is our own best and brightest hope that one day also the promise of Revelation’s final vision will come true: “The dwelling of God is with people.” Because we know that that will be glorious indeed!
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
In a sermon on John 17 that you can hear here on the CEP website, preacher Debbie Blue said that our society overuses the word “glory” and it gets to the point where the word is drained of color and meaning. “Come and luxuriate in the glory of our outdoor pool” some Arizona resort might say in its promotional brochure. A fitness company tells us that “Glory is not a destination, it’s a journey.” Athletes are said to “bring home the glory” and detergents claim they can make your clothes shine with radiant and glorious results.
The Bible talks a lot about glory, too, of course, and certainly we are told that Jesus himself is full of glory. But how instructive it is to note, Rev. Blue says, that for the most part in the New Testament, glory doesn’t shine, it bleeds. We see the glory of Jesus only after he’s been made a little lower than the angels, having a body of flesh susceptible to lots of mayhem and harm. We see Jesus’ talking about glorifying God even while hanging on a cross.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus has brought many children to glory but only because Jesus himself learned a lot by suffering and dying quite horribly. Even in John’s initial heavenly visions as recorded earlier in the Book of Revelation, John many wondrous and downright glorious things but at the center of all he saw there stood a Lamb, “looking like it had been slain.”
For the New Testament and certainly for the Savior at its center, there is no getting past the fact that by grace, glory doesn’t shine, it bleeds.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 19, 2023
Exodus 24:12-18 Commentary