Sunday, March 6, 2011

Transfiguration of Our Lord
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Serve Jehovah with fear, And rejoice with trembling.

One of my claims to fame (or so I joke) is that Iíve eaten at every one of Queen Elizabeth of Englandís homes. I had tea at Sandringham, her country estate. I had a ham sandwich while walking around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. I had sugar cookies at Windsor Castle and a chocolate bar at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Finally, I had tea and an apple at Balmoral, the queenís country estate in Scotland. Of course, I ate the food as a tourist, not as a guest, items purchased in the tea or gift shops. The ham sandwich was the lunch we carried with us from home on the day we visited London.

But, I can still claim that I ate at every one of Queen Elizabethís homes. Now, I have to stretch the truth a little bit with Holyrood because we were unable to go into the palace the day we visited. As it turned out, the queen was in residence and the gates were shut to tourists for her safety and comfort. But one of the guards was kind enough to allow me to stick my foot through the gate, so that I could be Ďstandingí in the palace grounds when I ate my chocolate. I know it is a silly claim to fame, but I like to tell the story.

When we were at Holyrood Palace, one of the clerks in the gift shop let us in on a secret. She told us that the queen likes to mingle with visitors at Balmoral when she is in residence. She also told us that she would be there a few days later. We were still going to be in Scotland, so we decided to make the very long drive through tiny Scottish roads covered in flocks of highland sheep to see if we might catch a glimpse. The place was all abuzz when we arrived, as the staff prepared for the upcoming visit. We didnít know when she would arrive, but knew she would get there by helicopter. We took the tour and sat down in the tea shop for a bite to eat as we waited. Unfortunately, the long trip meant that we had to leave too early, so we missed meeting her that day.

I like that she takes the time to mingle with the visitors to Balmoral. Iím sure that she sees it as a safe place to do so, since the castle is way out of the way of most peopleís ability to travel. We drove for at least five hours from our hotel. It is the farthest north place we visited during our time in England and it is set far out in the countryside. It is easy to protect the queen from crowds and it is an idyllic setting for relaxed interaction. As you watch Queen Elizabeth interact with the crowds at other times, you can see that she enjoys being with her people, but in many cases it is simply too dangerous to allow her to mingle. She has to allow the wall to be built that will protect her while still being available to those who love her. Balmoral is the place where the monarchy can meet the people.

In the Old Testament lesson from Exodus, the Lord says to Moses, ďCome up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that thou mayest teach them.Ē That place was where heaven and earth mingled, where God met man face to face. The man, in this case, was Moses. All others were warned to stay at the foot of the mountain. Iím not sure many of those people would have wanted to climb the mountain, since it seemed to burn with fire. A cloud covered the mountain and the earth trembled at the presence of God.

Imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the mountain when Moses went to talk with God. Though the God on that mountain was the God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Hebrews did not know Him very well. They had spent four hundred years in Egypt. They had lost touch with their God. They knew the foreign gods and recognized that the signs of nature could be interpreted as communication from the divine. It must have been frightening to see that cloud descend down the mountain as Moses was climbing up. Was it a bad sign? Was Moses going to be safe? What did the fire mean? Would this God really save them from their suffering?

They werenít very patient people. Moses was on the mountain for forty days, and the people feared he was dead. Instead of waiting for him to come, they turned to the gods they knew from Egypt and convinced Aaron to create an idol of gold. They worshipped the idol and sought its protection and guidance. God was not idle during those days and Moses was not dead. The people looked to themselves for salvation instead of waiting for God. They tried to take the divine into their own hands, to lift themselves into heaven.

As we consider the actions of those Israelites who were waiting at the base of the mountain, we wonder why they couldnít wait just a few weeks for God to give Moses His Word. After all, forty days is not that long a period of time. The psalmist asks, ďWhy do the nations rage, And the peoples meditate a vain thing?Ē (Psalm 2) We might ask the same question of those Israelites on the foot of the mountain. We are equally as surprised at their lack of trust in the God who saved them from Egypt as the psalmist is in the nations who cannot see that the Lord is Lord over all the earth. The kings set themselves as rulers over themselves and others just as the people set themselves and their gods above the God on the mountain.

The psalmist warns the kings, ďServe Jehovah with fear, And rejoice with trembling.Ē We are given the same warning. We are called to worship God, to trust in Him and to keep Him as ruler of our lives.

The cloud covered the mountain for six days and then God called Moses out of the cloud. He was invited into the presence of God, and during the forty days Moses received Godís Word for His people. They received that Word, but failed to live by it over and over again. They revolted against God, not in an open rebellion as it at the foot of Mount Sinai; they revolted by turning to the strength and power of men and nations for help. They revolted by going their own way instead of the way of God. They revolted by doing their own thing. Thatís sin. We are all guilty of that sin. We all go our own way. We all think that we know better than God. We all think that our way is the right way.

But the psalmist in our second psalm (Psalm 99) reminds us that the Lord is King. He sits enthroned in heaven and He is great in Zion. He is holy. We are called to praise Him for all that He has done and all that He is able to do. He is worthy of our worship and our trust. But we tend to look at life from our own point of view, with a need to control our own circumstances and set our own paths. When Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the others whom God called to speak His Word into the lives of His people, cried out to the Lord, He heard their cry. He heard them because they listened and they lived the Word in this world. They were not perfect, they failed at times, just as we all do. But they experienced Godís grace and knew His forgiveness. They kept Him at the center of their life and lifted as Creator and King as He should be.

This Psalm was probably used during the Feast of Tabernacles. This festival is held in the fall, and is reminiscent of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. We see, once again, the number forty, just as Moses was on the mountain for forty days. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years because they were unfaithful to God. He caused them to wander so that the generation who failed Him did not have the chance to enter the Promised Land. Once they had died, the people were led to the Jordan and were invited to receive Godís promise.

The Feast of Tabernacles is a joyous occasion because it is a festival of ingathering. The people attended the festival in Jerusalem, taking with them the fruits of their harvests. They built booths, or tabernacles, in which they ate and slept during the festival, as a reminder of the temporary structures their forefathers used during the wilderness wandering. It was a joyous occasion of thanksgiving for Godís salvation from Egypt and His provision in the Promised Land. We donít see Jesus celebrating this festival in the book of Matthew, but John places the timing of this festival in the last six months of Jesusí ministry, shortly after He began the final journey to Jerusalem. It is likely that the feast was just two months after the Transfiguration.

We have reached the end of a very long Epiphany. Weíve seen the Light of God shining in the world and experienced Jesusí presence with us in the reading of the Sermon on the Mount. Weíve learned what it means to live as Christians in this world. We are blessed not when we live on the mountain top, but when we wallow in the valley with the poor, sad, meek and hungry. We are blessed, happy, when we are dwelling among those upon whom God has mercy. We celebrate the holiness of God when we praise Him and obey His Word. We are saved and forgiven so that we will be like Him, sharing His light and His mercy in the world.

But now that Epiphany is over, we are about to set out on another long journey, that of Lent. Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday, but we donít get there until we see the Light glorified on the mountain. The Transfiguration is the end of Jesusí ministry and the beginning of His journey to the cross. Things will change now, as we begin to see the world reacting to Godís grace with confusion and hatred.

But first we see Jesus as He is completely and perfectly. He is transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him will know that He is all that He has said that He is. There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. First of all, Moses waits on the side of the mountain for six days before he is invited into the presence of God and Jesus climbs the mountain six days after predicting His death. In the case of Moses, the people thought that he would die. Jesus knew he would. Both trusted in Godís Word and obeyed Godís command, knowing that He would do what was necessary for the sake of His people. Both Moses and Jesus entered into the glory of God. Both were totally covered by His Light. Both heard the voice of God and experienced His presence. In the Old Testament story of Moses and the Gospel story about Jesus, we see the place where heaven meets earth, where God mingles with His people.

I think it is interesting that Jesus begins and ends His ministry with a mountaintop experience. In Matthew 4, Jesus is taken to a high mountain and offered the kingdoms of the world by Satan. In that temptation, Jesus is given the opportunity to avoid all the messiness of obeying Godís expectation of Him. Satan gives him the chance to rule without the cross. It would be easy for any of us to take the easy way out, to accept our own ideas and take control of our own destiny. But Jesus knew that Godís way is the right way. He had to go through the cross to complete what God began in the beginning. Godís justice demanded a price and Jesus was willing to be the sacrificial lamb. On the mountain of Transfiguration, God commended Jesus for His obedience and called Him the Son. With Him, God was well-pleased.

Peter reacts to the transfiguration as we all might have done: with his own idea of how to commemorate the moment. ďLet us build booths,Ē he said. Peter wanted some sort of control, even in the things of God. He was trying to have a hand in establishing the rule. By building the tabernacles, Peter thought to seat Jesus as king over an earthly kingdom. But just as he begins to speak, God interrupts, ďThis is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.Ē God tells them to listen to Jesus, who is the Word incarnate. He is the culmination of what was begun on Mount Sinai. He is the Word made real and sent to dwell among Godís people. He is the place where heaven and earth meet.

We can study God, know the history of His people, learn and follow His law. We can try to live according to His wisdom and His love. However, there is no way we can possibly even imagine the holiness of God. His ways, His thoughts, His purposes are higher than human flesh can attain. The best we can do is to know Jesus Christ, and in Him we see the holiness in flesh and through Him we have a glimpse of what we will one day know in eternity.

Peter, James and John received a glimpse of heaven one day on the top of a mountain. They witnessed a miraculous event where Jesus was transfigured into a divinely shining being standing among the great men of their faith. Moses, the father of the Law and Elijah the father of the prophets, stood for everything on which their faith was built. Peter wanted to capture the moment, to build a temple on the spot to honor Jesus and hold on to the glory. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came over the scene and a voice commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus. Peterís sense of assurance was overpowered by a sense of fear. All three fell on their faces when they heard the voice.

God is a loving God, and that is the trait we all prefer to embrace. However God in His fullness is something to fear. The Israelites feared the fiery glory on Mount Sinai, and the disciples feared the voice they heard. God has the power and might to bring down nations and kings. He has the strength and the wisdom to change the course of human events. He has the authority to bring judgment. Yet, those who know God do not fear Him as we would fear a volcano. We know that He does all things righteously with love and mercy. We fall on our faces not because we are terrified but out of a sense of wonder and awe. Our fear acknowledges Godís greatness and our humility before Him.

But Jesus touched them, and in that touch they experienced the healing grace of God. ďGet up and letís goĒ is Jesusí invitation to us. We arenít meant to stay on the mountaintop because thatís not where Jesus is. Heís in the valley, with the people, reaching out to those who need Godís grace.

In the Old Testament lesson we see where heaven and earth meet, but that begs the question for us. Where does heaven and earth meet for us today? Is it on a mountaintop as many would assume? Or is it in the fellowship of believers, in our worship together and the work that we do? Where does the world experience God? Will they see Him if we lift ourselves onto the mountaintop and build tabernacles there? Or will they see Him in our hope, faith, trust and obedience to His Word?

Peter reminds us that we do not follow cleverly devised myths but the witness of those who were with Jesus in those days. He talked about what he experienced on that mountain, ďFor he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount.Ē

On the mountaintop, the voice of God told Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus. Jesus then invited the three to follow Him to the valley, to do the work of God. He did not tell the disciples to seek after the riches of the world or avoid suffering. He took them into the midst of poverty and pain. He taught them to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. He encouraged them to endure persecution. He died on the cross and invited all those who believe to follow Him. He experienced the glory on the mountain but left it behind for the true glory that comes with sacrifice. We might not understand. It is certainly easier to seek after the good things in life than to experience the bad. But God knows His plan and His purpose. He knows His grace. And He is faithful.

Where does heaven and earth touch? Where does God mingle with me? This happens anywhere that Godís Word is spoken and obeyed, and Godís people are touched and healed. It happens in worship and in service, in sacrament and prayer. He mingles with us in His Word as we praise Him and sing songs of thanksgiving for His many blessings on our lives. We donít need to build tabernacles on the mountaintop to experience Godís presence. We will find Him as we gather together in hope and peace and faith, trusting in His mercy and grace.

Moses was on the mountain forty days. The Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years. Jesus was tempted for forty days. We are about to enter into a period forty days as we seek to experience the presence of God. Will we try to climb up to the top of the mountain to see God in His glory? Or will follow Jesus into the valley, seeking to do His will in the world? How will we spend those days? These scriptures signal the beginning of the end, and Jesus invites us to join Him as He goes to the cross. Will we continue with Him, no matter where He takes us? Or will we try to avoid the pain and suffering as we lift ourselves toward heaven? Thatís the question we ask today as we get ready for Lent.

We might be surprised that the Israelites turned from God during those days at the foot of the mountain, but we are no different. We might be surprised that Peter wanted to build tabernacles at the top of the mountain, but we are no different. We still try to carve our own path, to establish our own power, to set the agenda for Godís kingdom on earth. We shouldnít be surprised because we are the same as all those who have come before us. But Jesus was different, and we are touched and transformed by His grace. God heals us and grants us a new life. He calls us to serve with fear with trembling, to kneel at the foot of His throne and to kiss His feet. He invites us to take refuge in Him, to dwell in the very place where heaven and earth meet: Jesus.

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