Wait Here: A Conversation with Exodus 24:12-18 & Matthew 17:1-9
Sermon Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD
Today, we are waiting here. Waiting together. Waiting on a word. Waiting on some truth. Waiting on God to show up and help us be different people than we came into this room, right?
Its kind of the point of why we come to church any Sunday, isn’t it?
But this Sunday is different. We call it out by name. We call it as it is listed at the top of your bulletin for this morning, Transfiguration Sunday.
Just as I was talking to the children about this big word a few moments ago, transfiguration is not one of those common vocabularies words that we often if at all put in our sentences. When is the last time you saw something transfigured? For me, I think the last time I even uttered this word, even as a preacher type, happened when this passage came up in the lectionary this time last year. We always mark Transfiguration Sunday as the last Sunday of Epiphany and the first Sunday before we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday. It’s one of those texts lectionary preachers have a hard time avoiding.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret. This Sunday is Pastor Abby’s least favorite lectionary passage. So while she told you that she is at a training session for the Mennonite publishing company that she writes curriculum for in Indiana, the truth be told, I am really here this morning because Pastor Abby wanted to get out of preaching on the transfiguration. In fact such has been a running joke between us for years, how much she thinks this Sunday is overrated, so I guess such is how you treat your dearest friends. You send them in on weeks like this instead. . . .
But this morning, not only do we find our gospel reading drawing our attention to Jesus’ going up onto the high mountain with the three disciples in the inner circle with his appearance changing before their eyes, his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling like white—but we also find our Old Testament lesson taken from the book of Exodus also about a transfiguration of sorts. Exodus 24 tells us about the time that Moses and his assistant Joshua were to receive the law of God and go up onto Mount Sinai being filled with the presence of the Lord.
Both are stories that help us understand what the word “transfiguration” is all about—the word Webster’s says is “to change into something more beautiful or more elevated.” Or another way to say this is: the divine coming to earth to dwelling alongside and in humanity.
When Jesus was transfigured, he’d been teaching, preaching and healing for quite some time. Jesus and his disciples were well acquainted with one another. They thought things were going well. But then, recently, Jesus had predicted his death for the first time. Peter couldn’t believe it and said, “Never Lord!” and Jesus replied, “Get behind me Satan! . . . If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Following Jesus was not for the faint of heart. And six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on an unnamed mountain where not only was his physical appearance change but two guests appear—Moses and Elijah. What? Jesus was not only showing these disciples who he really was, but he was calling on the dream team to help him too—two great prophets. And suddenly a bright cloud enveloped them and the same words that were said over Jesus’ baptism were said again, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” No one was going to leave the mountain unclear about whom Jesus truly was and the validity of his divine nature moving forward.
And then, in the Exodus reading things get quite personal for Moses’ relationship with the Lord, much like the disciples experienced. It wasn’t that Moses did not have a “in your face” kind of relationship with God going on leading up to the events of Chapter 24. Remember the burning bush. The 10 plagues. The parting of the Red Sea. The cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to lead them. The thunder and the lightening when Moses had been asked to go up the mountain the first time. But here, we read that Moses is asked to go up the mountain AGAIN and wait on the Lord. Something even more amazing was about to happen.
In verse 14 of our text for this morning we read that, “To the elders [Moses] had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again” and then, “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.”
Moses, you see gets asked to come up and wait. To wait in a particular place at a particular time, to do nothing else but to be with the Lord, to be enveloped in God’s glory. And scripture tells us that this occurs for 6 days before the Lord even said a word.
Let me repeat that again. Scripture tells us that Moses sat for 6 days before the Lord uttered a word.
There is a term from the Celts that has grown into a popular theological concept called “thin places.” Mary DeMuth in her memoir by such a title defines a thin place “as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds.” She goes on to say that: “Thin places are snatches of holy ground, tucked into corners of our world, where if we pay close attention, we might just catch a glimpse of eternity.”
As Moses was ushered into the presence of God on the mountain, I believe he was entering a thin place. And I believe such was also true for the disciples as they stood beside Jesus on the mountain that day too. They saw beyond this broken world into the world where things are made right. They saw into God’s great mystery. They saw the glory of God that we so often miss or can’t see when our minds are so caught up in the here and now.
Do you have a thin place in your life? Have you ever experienced such a place?
I was talking with a friend this week about the concept and she told me the story of the morning right before her daughter died. Her child, only 8, suffered from medical complications from cerebral palsy among other things. And while my friend’s focus that morning was on doing everything she could to try to save her daughter’s life—to make her better. Her husband, she said was sensing something deeper. Their daughter was slipping from this world to the beyond. The glory of God was resting on her. And he knew it. Through prodding, he helped his wife slow down and be in the moment too.
I have several Presbyterian colleagues who are obsessed with this retreat center in the mountains of Western North Carolina called Montreat. I am not a Presbyterian so I’ve never been there, but the way my colleagues describe the experience of being there in the wonder of God’s creation among the trees, lodging nestled between rolling hills and chapel experiences that are full of the best kind of spiritual formation out there, I would love to go sometime. In fact when they come home from Montreat it seems that such friends are glowing for weeks. They’ve encountered the presence of God in profound way. They have bright and shinny new plans for their lives.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel in an interfaith delegation of peace to Israel alongside a Rabbi, an Inman and an evangelical pastor. We visited the sites of the region important to one another’s faiths with respect and honor. We walked the holy steps in Jerusalem that had been traveled by countless pilgrims before. We talked nightly over delicious dinners and bottles of wine about our faith and how the Divine was made manifest in each of our journeys.
Thin places are moments that begin when we recognize the leading of the Spirit to be wait here.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Moses during those six days of doing nothing but sitting and beholding the glory of the Lord. Six whole night and days. 144 hours. 8,640 minutes. 518,400 seconds.
Waiting here. Waiting with God. Waiting in God’s glory.
I don’t know the last time you said yes to some complete stillness in your life. I am embarrassed to say when last I had some in mine. We aren’t really a culture, nor do we live in the part of this country for that matter that has much taste for slowing down. If you are anything like me, there isn’t a lot of room in your life for 144 hours of being in the presence of God and God alone. And how much of our mental and emotional and even spiritual energy do you and I use trying to avoid stillness? And then when we actually get to such a point, we try to control it.
Though I do take a Sabbath now and then—the kind where I (gasp) turn my phone off—I wouldn’t say that those hours are spent sitting in stillness. I get so restless to do something or watch sometime or to solve some problem with all those thoughts rolling around in my head.
I make lists in our head of what I will do when it over. I count the minutes that have passed. I wonder when I can move on to something next. Out of boredom I shorten the time and then shorten it some more. Isn’t that soon?
But will we ever experience a glimpse of the mystery and glory of God this way?
Henri Nouwen in the book Inner Voice of Love writes this about how most of us live: “We like to occupy-fill up-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied; that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, “But what if …” It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen.”
Entering a thin place, you see is embracing the unexpected actually happening to us!
But Nowuen goes on to write about what happens when we give up, when we sit in our emptiness and offer it back to God. He says, we realize this: “God wants to dwell in our emptiness.”
And this morning, I want to offer you the good news that this is what transfiguration is all about.
It’s about letting go of fear—the fear of all of the what ifs?
It’s about letting go of shame—oh what will so and so think of they saw how I was spending my time!
It’s about letting go of what we’ve constructed around us to make us feel safe: comfort foods, familiar surroundings and plans for our life that make lots of sense to everyone we know.
We wait in such a place with our emptiness because we believe in a God who can make all things new.
We believe in a God that can shine light into the darkest places.
We believe in a God who will take our deepest restlessness and channel it into what is heaven come to earth.
We believe in a God who is lover and giver of grace—we become receivers of what we don’t deserve.
We enter into the Divine life when we wait like this and God’s glory stops being a churchy word good for a choir song, but something that we’ve seen, experienced and felt with our own flesh.
If there is anything I am sure of when it comes to God it is that God is a mystery. There is so much about our Lord that I do not and will never understand. I doubt in our lifetime we’ll see another transfiguration of Jesus or even we’ll be asked to go with God up on Mount Sinai. But I do believe that “thin places” on this earth are real. They find us when we might least expect. And they begin in waiting. They begin in setting our life on a different path than the norm so that we have space to receive. They begin in allowing silence to fill our space, even when we think we are going to go crazy and can’t take any silence anymore.
So, as we look ahead to a week that will ask us to gather and repent and remember that we are dust and will return to dust one day—how good it is to start with the invitation—if only we have room for it in this worship hour—to wait here.
To sit in stillness. To bring our brokenness. To open our hearts to whatever awaits us. It’s scary stuff but there’s a reason we’re asked to wrestle with these same stories year after year—because we all need more of God in our lives. But the only way we’re going to find more of God that all of us are looking for, no matter if we know it or not is to wait. To wait here and to trust God to do what is beyond all our imagination.