I have struggled to read these texts without thinking about myself. I think of the draw that mountains have always had on humanity. I think of the number of times someone, in scripture, in fiction, in secular history has gone to a mountain to seek wisdom, clarity, God. I think of the fact that to get here, I literally climbed, ok, drove, up a mountain (and down into a valley, but we won’t follow this metaphor too far).
And I, like so many others before me, climbing so many other mountains and walking into this church, have come seeking God. I did not come expecting a voice from the clouds, I expect most who did seek that ended up disappointed. I know the few who did encounter God as a voice from a cloud, like Peter, James, and John, seemed quite surprised. Perhaps we will be similarly surprised today, but no. I came seeking the will of God in the space between each of us here in this sanctuary, in the relationships I hope to build with each of you, in the community you have invited me to join.
My prayers these past few months, as I have been facing the possible end of my time in the call process and the beginning of my time in ordained ministry, my prayers as I have prepared to step into this pulpit that has been filled by so many before me over the past 150 years, have been for discernment. Discernment for myself. Discernment for the Pastor Nominating Committee, for the Presbytery, and for all of you, the congregation. I have been praying that we may all have clarity on the path ahead.
And then I read Exodus 24:18. “Moses entered the cloud…” and I think, this was not part of the deal. Let’s back up to verse 12—God’s instructions are clear: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone.” There is nothing about a cloud, about navigating unknown, possibly treacherous mountain paths in the fog. It’s just “Come. Wait. Receive.” Easy-peasy. It sounds like the hardest part is going to be carrying the stone back down…which may be why Moses brought Joshua at least part of the way.
Honestly, by now, I should have known better. Moses, it seems, did know better, or at least his complaints were not kept in the official record, except perhaps as in influence for the old Jewish proverb: “We plan. God laughs.” For all my prayers for clarity, I’ve never gotten to see much more than the next step or two. There have been a few times where I’ve thought I’ve seen further ahead. I remember I once wrote, and I mean actually wrote, on paper, in a notebook a 10-year plan. God laughed, and less than 6 months later, that 10-year-plan was destroyed.
And, I’ll admit, it took a while to recognize, but the path God moved me too has been far more interesting, even if I can only see it when I turn to look back.
And now, looking back over the past few months, considering my prayers for discernment and clarity, I see that perhaps, instead of praying for clarity, I should have been praying for the courage to step into the cloud.
Or perhaps I should have been praying for the courage to wait. So far, I’ve been putting myself in the place of Moses…which, when I say it out loud, seems horribly arrogant. Let’s talk about the people Moses was leading. They’ve already been on the move for some time. It’s been 10 whole chapters since the Red Sea. They have come to this mountain. It is covered in cloud and smoke and fire. It keeps shaking and being struck by lightening. Moses tells them that if they get too close, they will die, as if they were looking at a mountain that is on fire, shaking, and electrified and thinking “Yeah, that looks nice, let’s go there.” By the time we get to today’s part of the story, Moses has already been up and down this mountain a few times, each time, coming back with more rules, and I am amazed they haven’t run away and left him for dead.
Moses walking into the cloud requires trust in God: each time he does it is a fresh expression of that trust. It is also a demonstration of the trust between Moses and the community, and God and the community. I mean, at least some of us know the story, we know Moses trust in the community was… let’s just say misplaced, but no spoilers, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The community is there, waiting, each time he goes. They keep watching Moses climb out of sight into this terrifying storm of fire and cloud and lightening and earthquake. They keep waiting, left in uncertainty, to see if he will come back. Then we get to this text, which ends by telling us that they were waiting for 40 days and 40 nights.
Waiting for the length of the rains that flooded the earth.
Waiting, it turns out, 1 day for every year they would ultimately spend in the desert.
I know we know how this story continues, but try, for a moment, to forget. Try to imagine the first time you encountered this story and imagine stopping here for six weeks.
Imagine being the Israelites, waiting 40 days, 2 lunar months, for their leader to come down off a mountain that it is on fire.
I have a confession. When my wife, Katherine, and I are watching TV, or a movie, if we’re watching an adaptation, or even something that’s not on its first run, I’m on my phone, looking at the plot summary on Wikipedia so I can know what’s coming. My wife, by the way, only barely tolerates this in me. More on that in a minute. The one weekly show we watch is, true confession, the Bachelor. Not even just the Bachelor. The whole franchise. Now, if you are any sort of reality TV fan, especially if that has any overlap with Bachelor Nation, you may have heard of Reality Steve. Reality Steve is a blogger who, somehow, has developed sources who, almost invariably leak to him, and through him to anyone else who cares, the outcome.
Katherine thinks he is a monster. He ruins the show, and she steadfastly avoids anything that might quote him. She’ll read recaps of past episodes, even listen to podcasts talking about the show, but if they so much as mention Reality Steve, she’s done. They have betrayed her sacred trust.
You see where this is going, right?
Every season, We start fresh. I try to stay away. Every season, I fail. I head to the site. I look ahead to see how it turns out…and so, every season, usually no later than the fourth week, I know who the final couple (or, for Bachelor in Paradise, couples) are. Reality Steve often has much more information but, frankly, I don’t care about that. I just want the ending, and I want it on my time.
So, imagine my frustration that, this season, for, to the best of my knowledge, the first time, he doesn’t know the end.
Or, perhaps, somehow ABC has convinced him to keep it quiet until the right time.
Now, for the record, I can keep it quiet. I can do that. I need to know, but my marriage survives because I don’t need to tell. Once I know, I’m fine. I can sit there secure in the knowledge and enjoy the ride. It is frustrating when Katherine will ask me questions that I know she doesn’t actually want me to answer, but I’ve learned which ones to ignore…mostly.
This is to say, I could handle being in Peter, James, or John’s shoes at the end of our Gospel text.
Matthew tells us another story of people going up a mountain to encounter God. Now, by this point, Peter has figured out who Jesus is. This, perhaps, is why Peter is able to speak after climbing a mountain as a party of four only to reach the top as a party of six, one of whom is suddenly in different clothes and is glowing, and oh, right, the two newcomers are nearly figures of myth: the time between Moses life and Peter’s is almost as long as the time between Peter’s life and today.
Peter, somehow, seems only a little surprised, which is perhaps why he offers to build homes for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, using a word that is itself a reference all the way back to Exodus. While Moses was in the cloud for those 40 days and 40 nights, Moses received instructions from on how to build the tabernacle used to store the ark. Peter sees these three and thinks it’s time to build a new tabernacle, a new dwelling for the manifestation of God-on-Earth.
Peter is like me. Peter wants to skip to the end. He sees Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and he thinks the work is over. The Kingdom of God is here, on precisely this mountain, in precisely this moment, right in front of him. God even then speaks from a cloud, just like before…and just as terrifying as before, causing the disciples to fall to the ground.
But then something changes.
While they are on the ground, Moses and Elijah disappear. Jesus, and Jesus’ clothing returns to their expected form and color. The radiance fades, and Jesus tells them to get up and not to be afraid.
They received a glimpse, but the work is not yet finished. Like the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, they must wait. Jesus tells them they must wait to talk about what they just saw until after the Resurrection.
They ask about Elijah, who is supposed to come back first.
They are asking about the path they thought they were on, the path that led to driving out the Romans and restoring Israel as a holy Kingdom with strong borders and with Jesus as it’s earthly and divine King, only for Jesus to tell them that they are on a different path entirely. One that doesn’t end with the restoration of any human kingdom or with driving anyone out, but with a new understanding of power that transcends human drawn maps. They were waiting for Elijah to come and kick off a revolution, but Elijah, in the person of John the Baptist has come and gone again. They were hoping that the glimpse of the transfiguration they were allowed to witness was a new, permanent state of being. They hoped that they could skip to the end, but Jesus tells them that they must wait.
Not only that, Jesus, in telling them that they must wait to speak is telling them that they will have to take an active role: Jesus is not just telling them to keep silent until the Resurrection, but is also telling them to speak, after the Resurrection. They don’t get to watch. They will have to lead. They don’t get to skip to the end.
This is what we have to prepare ourselves for: not knowing the end, not always following the same path and not judging ourselves by how far or how quickly we have moved by comparing ourselves to anyone else. Sometimes we have to wait at the foot of the mountain even as we are afraid, and trust that God will send Moses back down.
When Moses did eventually come back down the mountain, the people, well, we won’t say yet what they had gotten up to while he was away, we’ll just say that Moses coming down the mountain was not the end of anything. It would be more than 30 more years before the Israelites crossed the Jordan river. Jesus suffering at the hands of the Romans was not the end. As we prepare to enter Lent, we remember that we are not at the end, but remain in the middle. We can’t see everything ahead. We don’t get to skip the work in the middle, but we can trust that God will make the end worth the effort.