Praying Up the Mountains (Last Epiphany A)
Praying Up the Mountains
Last Sunday After the Epiphany (Year A)
February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18 (NRSV)
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Savannah is the flattest place I have ever lived. I mean this literally. Long Island doesn’t have any mountains, but the house I grew up in sat on top of a hill and I always noticed this hill when walking or biking home. Then I lived in Durham, NC, and felt like I was always going up or down some hill. Whenever I traveled by bike, I thought hard about which roads I would take to avoid traffic and steep inclines. Here in Savannah, I never have to worry about this.
But there is something awe-inspiring about mountains. Places with high elevation have often been considered holy places. They are literally closer to the sky, which makes them “feel” closer to God and the heavens. And it’s hard to climb mountains. It takes physical and mental fortitude to push oneself to go up and reach the top of these landscapes.
Mountains play a big role in today’s scripture lessons. Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the final Sunday in the Epiphany Season. Lent begins on Wednesday and we get to go out with a bang between today and Shrove Tuesday. Okay, well Shrove Tuesday features pancakes, sausage, and churchwide party. So maybe that feels like more of a dramatic celebration of the season. But let’s not short-change just how interesting today’s readings are as a conclusion to Epiphany and preparation for Lent.
In the Old Testament, we hear about Moses, the liberator of Israel, who climbed up on Mount Sinai to receive the written Law from God. This comes shortly after the people arrive at the Holy mountain. When they first arrive, they need to purify themselves for an encounter with God, who appears on the mountain in a stormcloud, thunderbolts, and fire. But the people are afraid to meet with, speak with, and see God. So they back away and God begins to speak the commandments from the mountain in a thunderous voice for everyone to hear. This is when we first read the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, and then a series of other important community instructions in chapters 21-23.
Then, because of the people’s fear, God invites only Moses and the elders to come closer. They have a meal with God and see God (a major foreshadowing of the Last Supper and the Sacrament of Holy Communion!). Then we arrive at verse 12. God invites Moses to come up the mountain and he goes only with his assistant Joshua (who will lead Israel after Moses dies).
Remember that this is centuries before Jesus was born. We often think about God as being near to us and present with us through every part of our lives. But that isn’t the way people thought about God before the Incarnation. In the Old Testament, people imagined that God lived in certain places, like holy mountains and holy temples. And God was too powerful and awe-some to get too close to. That’s why they sent priests like Moses to interact with God and--in a real, tangible way--risk his life in the process.
What I find fascinating about this passage, though, is the process Moses takes for approaching God’s presence. I had to go back and re-read this and do some reasearch to understand what was going on here. I missed it, at first. Moses' journey was a two-step process:
He climbs partway up the mountain and waits there for 6 days
Then God invites him to the top of the mountain, into the cloud, for 40 days
It takes a full six days of preparation after Moses has left the rest of his people before he is ready to enter into the cloud of God’s presence. Only after a full week, on the following sabbath day, does God call Moses to continue the climb, meet with God, and finally receive the tablets of the Law.
So what is Moses doing for those 6 days? It seems like he and Joshua are praying and fasting. They are taking time to ready themselves for this spiritual journey they are about to take. Even Moses, the liberator of Israel, who spoke with God in the bush that did not burn, who challenged Pharaoh to let his people go, who led Israel across the Red Sea, who has just sat down and had a meal WITH GOD-- even Moses needed time to prepare for his time with God.
Then, Moses (and Joshua) climb up to the top of the mountain, into the cloud of God’s presence, and it takes them 40 days to hear and receive the written Law of God. That isn’t a quick or easy process either. They are learning all that it will take to hold the community of Israel together. They are preparing to be God’s messengers to the rest of the nation. They are learning how to be spiritual, religious, and civic leaders. And that personal transformation, that necessary holiness and purification take time.
In the Gospel lesson, we hear that Jesus also climbed a mountain and undergoing a dazzling transformation. But he doesn’t need 40 days to accomplish it because Jesus is no ordinary man. He is God in the flesh and his true nature is finally revealed to Peter, James, and John on this mountain of transfiguration.
But interestingly, this event happens six days after Peter famously confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Once the disciples began to understand Jesus’ true identity, they were ready to see more. So they climbed the mountain with Jesus, began to pray, and saw an astonishing vision. Jesus appeared the full glory of his divinity and met with Moses and Elijah, the symbols of the Law and the Prophets, the towering Old Testament figures who had met with God in their own day. And through prayer and faith, Peter, James, and John begin to finally understand their true purpose as Jesus-followers. They get a glimpse at all that is true and good and beautiful, and they know they need to share this with the world.
In both of these stories, the main characters have extraordinary spiritual experiences on mountains. First, Moses and Joshua, and then Peter, James, and John. They draw close to the presence of God, see the glory, and they are forever changed by it. And both sets of characters show us that in order to enter into the extraordinary presence of God, you need times of prayer and preparation. We need to prepare ourselves to experience the fullness of God.
For Moses and Joshua, it took 6 and 40 days. 6 days to get ready, then 40 days to be with God in study, prayer, and communion. And as you may know, 6 and 40 days is the length of Lent. (Lent is counted as 40 weekdays of fasting, plus six Sundays of respite and feasting.) It’s the length of time Moses prepared to commune with God and receive the Law. And in Lent, it’s our time to commune with God and prepare to walk with Jesus to the cross and glory together in his resurrection. Before we are ready for the joy and glory of the resurrection, we need to prepare ourselves spiritually with a time set aside for prayer.
So Lent is a time to turn away from distractions, the things that make it hard for us to draw close to God. We turn away from the things that make it hard to hear God’s voice, the noise and chatter of sin but also just the noise and chatter of life’s busyness. Lent is a time to seek more silence and solitude. It’s a time to fast from habits that might be good, but that can also get in the way of our true calling to love God and love our neighbor.
Like preparing for a climb, we might decide to shed some weight from our backpacks. Because if we don't need it for the journey, it's just an extra burden that holds us back. It's the same with Lenten disciplines; you're examining your life and deciding which things you can cut out to make more room for God.
Mt. Sinai and the Mountain of Transfiguration are two of the most important epiphanies in biblical history. They both occur on mountains and both are bookended by prayer. We can’t do much about going up to the mountains in Savannah, but we can pray. Pray for the glory of God to be revealed to you and in you and through you. Pray for God’s presence to engulf you like a cloud so that you are transformed. Pray for God's life to shine so bright that you can’t help but reflect it. So, enter into this Lent with a dedication to pray so that we can be prepared for the glory to come on Easter morning! Amen.
Alphonetta Wines, “Commentary on Exodus 24:12-18,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4392