Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Getting Close To God

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-42:

We start today with a confession.  This week we will celebrate Ash Wednesday, although perhaps celebrate is the wrong word to use, but in the Christian calendar the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday is known as Transfiguration Sunday, the day in which we hear one of the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain with three disciples.  A few weeks ago as I was doing worship planning, I wasn’t really thinking about this being the last Sunday before Lent, and so turned to the lectionary readings for today, and said, “Oh man, I don’t want to preach on the transfiguration again this year.”  While nowhere near as significant for most people, this story is sort of like Christmas and Easter in that it comes around every single year and we preachers get to a point and think, “what can I possibly say about this that hasn’t already been said.”  So my intention was to ignore Jesus on the mountain and instead talk about Moses on the mountain, which is also one of the traditional  readings for today.  But as I began to think about it more and more, I found myself seeing the connections and similarities between these two stories, and because God has a sense of humor, found myself coming back to preaching about the transfiguration, while at the same time trying to ignore it, because what I felt a pull towards in these two stories was not really what happens on the mountaintop, but instead what happens afterwards.

Moses has been up on the mountain talking with God, want to guess for how many days? 40.  And he comes down with the two tablets with the ten commandments in his hands.  This is actually the second set of tablets because he had shattered the first set he was given when he came down off the mountain and found that the people had constructed a golden calf and were worshipping it.  So Moses goes and meets with God again and comes down with a new set, which are the ones that end up in the Ark of the Covenant which makes Indiana Jones necessary.  But, when he comes off the mountain this time, in addition to the tablets, Moses’ face is also glowing from being in the presence of God, and the people are afraid to come near him, so Moses ends up putting a veil on his face, not to protect the people from what they see, but in order to try and quell their fear about what it means.  To put a distance between them and the presence of God.  Moses takes of the veil when he is with God, but then puts it on when he is with the people.  As an aside, when this passage was translated into Latin for the Vulgate, which is the Latin Bible, Jerome translated the word glows as horns, which is not really as strange as it may sound based on the Hebrew here, but that’s why sometimes you’ll see Moses as being portrayed with horns on his head, Michelangelo.

Now in the passage from 2 Corinthians that is included in today’s readings that you can find in the bulletin insert, Paul says that this veil represents a veil of ignorance that is only removed by Christ, but that is a rather harsh, and obviously a much latter interpretation of this event.  Instead, I think the veil represents a continuation of the people putting a distance between them and God.  In the 20th chapter of Exodus, as they are receiving the 10 commandments for the first time, they tell Moses they don’t want to have God speak to them directly anymore, instead they only want God to talk to Moses, and then Moses can tell them what God says.  Dealing with God directly is too frightful for them, thus the reason they are also afraid of even seeing Moses’ face glow from being in the presence of God.  So they are saying to Moses, it’s okay for you to seek out God, and we want you and need you to do that, and we’ll do what you want us to, at least most of the time, but don’t have us have to come into contact with God, because God is wild and crazy and we don’t want any of the results that come from that.  Let’s keep God at a distance, we’ll appoint someone else to do that work for us.  Nothing to see here folks, going back to your normal lives.

I think something very similar is happening in the story of the transfiguration.  Jesus goes up a mountain, a place where God is often encountered in scripture, and the reason why we often call encounters with the divine mountaintop experiences, whether they actually happen on mountains or not.  But rather than going alone, Jesus brings three of the disciples up there with him.  Before this happens, we are told in Luke that Jesus has already set his face towards Jerusalem, and Peter has already declared that Jesus is the messiah, but this is the event where everything is confirmed, that Jesus is more than just some strange itinerant preacher, but that Peter’s proclamation is correct, that Jesus is the one they have been waiting for.  Here too Jesus’ face changed, and his clothes become dazzling white.  It’s not really clear what happens to Jesus’ face, but in comparing it to the Moses story it has been traditionally held that at the very least it is glowing with the glory of God, and suddenly Jesus is seen to be talking with Moses and Elijah, Israel’s great law giver and great prophet, and they are talking about what is to happen with Jesus.  The passage we heard says they are talking about Jesus’ departure, but the word could also be translated, and perhaps better would be translated, as his exodus.  The path to freedom, and for us the journey out of slavery to sin and death.

Then a cloud descends upon them, and thinking back to the exodus story for those who are doing their daily readings, what is the form that God takes in leading the people through the wilderness? A cloud.  And from the cloud comes a voice, reminiscent of the baptism of Jesus telling the disciples “this is my son, the chosen; listen to him,” then the disciples make their way down the mountain, although they remain silent about what has occurred, and the next day they encounter a man whose son probably has epilepsy, and the man asks Jesus to cure his son.  But it’s what he tells Jesus that I think is important, and that is that he first asked the disciples to heal him, but they were unable to, to which Jesus says “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  That sounds remarkably like something Moses also says not just to the Israelites, but also Moses’ complaints to God about the people.  Jesus then asks for the boy to be brought to him and he heals the boy.

The disciples have just seen a rather remarkable event, and rather than saying something about it, the first remain silent, and second they are unable to heal the boy even though that is who the father seeks out first.  Now we might say, “Well, healing was something Jesus did, they didn’t have that power.” Except that at the beginning of chapter 9 in Luke, which is the same chapter that contains the passage we heard today, we are told that Jesus gives them power and authority to cure diseases and sends them out “to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal.”  Jesus has given them both the power and the authority to heal, and it’s important to have both of those things if you are going to get anything done, and yet they can’t do it.  My supposition is that like the Israelites before them in Moses’ encounter with God, that the disciples are quite happy to keep a distance between God and them, to say to Jesus, you be the one who talks with God and then tell us what happens, but don’t necessarily expect us to do anything because you’re the intermediary, you are really the one who has the power and authority, we don’t want it, so keep it over there so we can keep safe and secure leading our lives just like we always have, just like we like it.

I too sometimes like to keep God at bay, which is why I started this with a confession, because I didn’t want to try and open myself up to God, or to the Spirit to give me new insights, new ideas, new approaches to the story of the transfiguration.  Instead, what I said to God, is I already have it figured out, I’ve already said everything I want to say, or can say, and so I’m going to move on.  I’m going to keep you at arm’s length so that I don’t have to hear or experience anything new.

In the letter of James we hear James say, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”  That sounds easy to do, and it’s what we say that we want to do, that we want to be close to God and deepen our relationship with God, and yet at the same time for many of us, if not all of us, we also want to keep God at a distance.  We are happy to see the glow in others, but we know that if we get too close that God might ask us to do something we would rather not do, we might even have to stand up at the front of the church and talk, heaven forbid.  And so we do what we can to stay close to God, but to also keep God at a safe distance, or to use intermediaries to convey God’s message to us. If we let them talk to God then we’ll be okay as long as they don’t ask us to do crazy things, like heal people, or God forbid have to pray in front of a group.  That’s what the Israelites and disciples are seeking to do, to make Jesus and Moses their spokesmen, their designated religious person, and it happens in churches too.  I have not experienced this as much in this congregation as in other churches, but for some people, the pastor becomes the professional Christian.  I am paid my salary to have a good relationship with God, to talk with God, to read scripture, to pray, and to do all those types of things so that others don’t have to do them themselves.  So that religion and our faith becomes a spectator sport; we can cheer from the sidelines and watch the professionals do it, like watching the Super Bowl today, but no one is going to ask us to come down and play quarterback.

But that is not who or what God is calling us to be.  We too are called to shine forth with the glory of God, we too are called to reach out and bring healing to a hurting world, and we have been given the power and the authority to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  I can’t do it for you, the leaders of the church can’t do it for you, even the televangelists cannot do it for you even if you send in the amount of money they request, because all of us have to do it.  One of the prescriptions from the healthy church initiative was for the Staff Parish Relations Committee to work with me to cut out many of the tasks that I do, for two reasons.  The first is so that I can be focusing on and dedicating my time to doing the things that truly are the responsibility of the pastor, and second is to give the space and place for others to step out from the sidelines to participate in the game and to give of themselves to the work of God that I am currently keeping people from being able to do.

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you, James says, and Moses says, and Jesus says.  This week we enter into the season of Lent, 40 days of intentional living to help prepare ourselves for the Easter celebration, a time to help us to draw near to God, to experience God in a different way, to say to God here I am, maybe even to step outside of our comfort zones and allow God to lead us into something new and then to allow the glory of God to shine through us.  That drawing near starts this morning because God first calls us to come forward and to take the bread and take the cup and to participate in God’s saving grace, to allow God to enter into our lives and to abide in us as we too abide in God.  This is the time that we say to God, we can no longer keep you at arm’s length, or allow others to act on our behalf.  Instead we are going to step forward to begin our own mountaintop experience, and then rather than leaving it behind at some point and return to our normal lives, we are instead going to be transformed, transfigured by the event, so that we will never be or live the same again.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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