A Reading from the Book of Exodus (24:12-18)
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.
1 The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
2 The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
3 Let them confess his Name,
which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
4 “O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”
5 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
6 Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
7 He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
8 “O Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.”
9 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.
A Reading from the Second Letter of Peter (1:16-21)
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (17:1-9)
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, 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.”
by the Rev. Deacon George Snyder
MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH AND THE MEDITATION IN ALL OF OUR HEARTS BE ALWAYS ACCEPTABLE IN YOUR SIGHT, O LORD! YOU ARE OUR STRENGTH; YOU ARE OUR REDEMPTION!
Since I am a former English teacher, you won’t be surprised when I say that I love words—the beauty of words. Sometimes that beauty is in the pronunciation. Sometimes it is in the meaning of the word. Other times that beauty is in the feelings that the word evokes when we hear it. But then, sometimes, that beauty is in the fact that the word is so precise that it makes a concept that is so hard to understand suddenly crystal clear.
The word “ineffable” is like that for me. I-N-E-F-F-A-B-L-E. I love the sound of the word; but I think I like the word so much because it makes a difficult concept concerning God very clear to me.
“Ineffable” is an adjective that is used to mean something that is beyond our understanding—something that is beyond our ability to comprehend because we lack the knowledge, we lack the words, and we lack the experience needed to truly understand. It means that we have some understanding that takes us so far; but our intellectual or human limitations prevent us from totally understanding.
In terms of spirituality, God and his ways—God and the ways He created his world—God and his love for mankind—are all ineffable. We do not understand their extent—we lack the ability to do so—we lack the words. The human mind just cannot possibly conceive the extent. We can explain the love that God has for his children in the biggest, grandest words we have; and yet, that explanation is merely a beginning; we cannot take it to its end because we lack the words and the thoughts to do so. We are totally unable to understand the mind, the thinking of the Holy One.
Today’s Bible lessons refer to meeting God on the mountain. Both Exodus and Matthew have detailed accounts of such meetings. In Exodus, Moses goes alone to the top of Mount Sinai at God’s invitation. When Moses gets there, he is enveloped by the clouds, and God gives Moses the Ten Commandments to give to his people Israel. In the Matthew, Jesus ascends the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James and John. The three disciples witness the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. Then the voice of God comes out of the cloud and declares that Jesus is the son of God.
It is no wonder that many ancient peoples saw mountains as holy places because they felt that God, or the gods, lived up there; the mountains, naturally, were closer to God than the valleys where the people lived their daily lives. They looked to the mountains for divine guidance since that is where so many of the ancients felt the Divine lived. Judaism and Christianity used that same symbolism over and over. We see it three times today. It is also present in many of the other Psalms—just think about the 121st Psalm:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
The Maker of heaven and earth.
In Exodus and Matthew, man received clarity as he experienced God on the mountain.
I have not had many experiences on mountains—very few. Several years ago I spent a week on the top of a mountain in West Virginia. Or, was it just a hill? Mount Sinai, that Moses ascended to meet God, has an elevation of about 7500 feet. The mountain I was on was about 1500 feet.
The second morning that I was there on that West Virginia mountain, I got up very early in order to see the sunrise. I stood spellbound as the first rays of the morning sun came up above the distant mountains—it was absolutely gorgeous—awe-inspiring. After the sun rose high enough that I could get an initial picture, I could see just the tops of those lower mountain. Those mountaintops seemed to be floating—it was beautiful, but rather strangely odd because I could only see the tops of the hills. As more sun light appeared, I suddenly understood why the tops of those mountains seemed to be floating: I saw only the tops because the lower parts of those mountains were hidden by white clouds. I was seeing a sea of white with green hilltops poking their peaks through the clouds that were at a lower elevation than I was. I had forgotten about what I had seen that early summer morning from several years ago, until I read about the cloud floating above Jesus and his disciples in today’s gospel—the holy voice of God talking about his holy son on his holy mountains.
The feelings that Moses had on Sinai and the feelings that James, Peter, and John must have felt on their mountain had to have been so much more sacred—more intense—more life changing than my experience. I cannot imagine their thoughts as they stood on this holy ground in the presence of the Almighty. The feelings must have been absolutely ineffable.
We can receive clarity on the mountaintop—when we are able to separate ourselves from the hubbub of the world—when we are alone with our Creator. Both Moses and the disciples did. We have to realize that the clarity God gave to these four men can be ours, too. On Mt. Sinai Moses and all of mankind received absolute clarity from God himself as to what mankind needed to do in order to follow the will of God. The Ten Commandments told all of humanity what they needed to do in order to be righteous before Him—what they needed to do in order to spend eternity on the mountaintop. The fact that God chose to come down to Mt. Sinai and personally give the Hebrew nation his law told them how much God wanted them to conduct their earthly lives in such a way that would guarantee them that they could spend eternity with Him. He made it crystal clear on Mt. Sinai, there could be absolutely no doubt.
The disciples—and all of us, though them—received God’s clarity once again at Jesus’s transfiguration. The clarity to the disciples and to us Christians come from God’s words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples—even though they believed in Christ—learn beyond a shadow of a doubt from God himself who Jesus was and what Jesus wanted to give them—the key to the Kingdom. They are reinforced with the knowledge that this itinerant preacher from Galilee that they have been following is the Messiah. They can rest assured that everything that He has been telling them is been true. Any doubt that they might have had is suddenly erased. They received absolute clarity on the mountaintop!
At this point, the text tells us, “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.’” What did the disciples have to fear after what they heard God say? The answer is that they had a great deal to fear. Following Jesus was not easy for his disciples; each of us knows that. Jesus had told them that in order to follow him they might even lose their lives. Jesus had enemies; those enemies now were theirs. This religion would cause them to become criminals against the Roman Empire; they could be imprisoned; they could be put to death for their allegiance to Jesus. They could become outcasts of society because they would believe differently than most people they met. They had a great deal to fear. They knew that their master would be put to death. It is no wonder that they sunk to the ground in fear.
What they did not understand at that moment—something we understand now—was that even though Christ would not be with them physically, He would be with them spiritually in the form of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit would be there to guide them through all of those valleys—even the valley of their own death; and we know that the Holy Spirit will lead them to the mountaintop to once again stand in the presence of the source of all light—that is, God’s Light Eternal.
Did you notice that after the disciples dropped to the ground in fear, Jesus walked over to them to support them on their journey? His support came in two forms: “Get up and do not be afraid” and his touch. His touch buoyed them up; it strengthened them. When we Christians see suffering in the world, when we see people who desperately need help, we see an opportunity to show the love that Jesus showed his disciples. When we see others in this world who are suffering, we need to touch them like Christ touched the disciples. It doesn’t have to be a physical touch; but we need to touch them in some way to show the same concern that Jesus showed the three men on the mountain. When we share our concern to those who are suffering, we have brought God’s love to them. We have helped to make God manifest in our fellow humans. When we do that, maybe our actions will help clarify Jesus’s message—when we do that, we create holy ground for the suffering. And, where better for a person who suffers to be than on holy ground, surrounded by God’s love—whether that love is brought directly by God, or whether God uses us to deliver it.
What we 21st century Christians also realize is that the Holy Spirit who accompanied and guided those early Christians on their journey is here to guide us on our journey to the same destination. That power that guided them through the valleys will also guide us through the valleys of our lives. That same spirit will lead us to God’s mountaintop where we, too, will receive the ultimate clarity—we will all see perfectly for all of eternity. All clouds, all veils will be removed, and we will see the perfection that is in the Light of Christ!
Today we come to the end of the season of light, the season of Epiphany. We begin next week the season of Lent. Lent can be a difficult season for Christians because it is a time of self-reflection when we can look into our deepest fears. It is often easy during Lent to lose sight of the light of Christ as we go through the darkness. One thing that the mountaintop experience in today’s gospel tells us is that the holy light of Christ is always there for us; we may fail to see it some days; but it is there for our guidance. His light will not only get us through this upcoming Lent, it will get us through the darkness to the very source of that light eternal.