Exodus 24: 12 – 18; Matthew 17: 1 – 9
During a pastoral visit a person said to me that God had come to her in a dream on three nights in a row. She said it had been life changing. This outstanding event in her life was a once off event. Such things are not uncommon. Neither is the contra experience of feeling that God is far away. The Christian life is like that. There are spiritual milestones that stand out, but much of it is routine.
Part of the mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in Rome, has a scene that beautifully and poignantly depicts both the nearness of God and our distance from God. Michelangelo in depicting the Creation has God’s hand stretching out towards a-dam – humankind – and humankind reaching back. Both are reaching towards each other but not touching. So close are the hands of God and humanity, yet so far apart. It’s a small gap potentially reveals a huge chasm. There are times when we talk to God and we sense God’s presence and there are times when we talk to God and God seems so far from us. So we can speak of God being immediate – there with us. And we can speak of times when God is mediated to us – a third person helps us experience God’s presence. The notion of immediacy and mediacy are theological terms that describe the direct connection with God and the indirect connection with God.
Connectivity is a big thing in our culture. Our technology provides for immediate connectivity. I’m old fashioned, I mainly use my email system, but social media is rich and immediate. If you have an iPhone or Smart Phone you have SMS, Twitter, Facebook and your emails right there with you. We live in this immediate culture. Ironically as much as there is so much immediate connectivity we also have distance. So many ‘friends’ may result in quantity of friends rather than quality of friendship. Ironically we can be so connected that we are disconnected.
This story of Moses is about connectivity. Moses’ going up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments in stone is a verbal picture of the direct and indirect connectivity. That is, it is a story of God directly communicating with Moses and God indirectly communicating with the people through Moses. The people need a mediator. Moses goes up the mountain and the people remain behind. They are fearful. The cloud on the mountain and sound of thunder frightens them. It looks and sounds ominous. In fact to sense God’s presence can be an awesome and fearful experience. Moses is God’s chosen mediator. Moses has the courage to take off his shoes and approach the burning bush and stand before God. Moses has the faith and courage to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh with God’s help. So Moses goes up the mountain and is enveloped in the cloud. Moses is hidden from the sight of those on the valley floor. That might have sent a shiver up the collective spine of the people. Their leader … where is he? Moses waits for six days, before he enters the centre of the cloud on the seventh. A very significant encounter with God takes time. We can presume Moses was prepared to meet with God after six days. All we are told is that the glory of God appeared. To the people the glory appeared as an awesome fiery cloud. Moses enters the cloud and spends 40 days and nights with God. All in all he spends 47 days away. That’s a fair absence. The people would have wondered what had happened.
When Moses returns with the Ten Commandments written in stone he finds the people have not waited. Their small distance from the cloud became a huge gap. That gap was too much for them. Their fear wasted their patience. They took matters into their own hands. They built a golden calf and worshipped it. They weren’t prepared to wait patiently on the Lord. When Moses returns he is angry with the people. He throws down the tablets and they break. He castigates the people. He finally returns to the mountain and to God and pleads for mercy. The Ten Commandments are re-written on two new stone tablets. During this time with God Moses receives the plans for a worship place, the ritual of worship and the administrative format for worship.
This is a pivotal story for the faith of God’s people. What has happened is that God has directly connected with Moses. God has provided the people with the Ten Commandments, the format for a place of worship and the form of worship [Ex 25 – 31]. These two elements – the Commandments for living and the place and form of worship – are the two pillars of connectivity. The people will be connected to God and each other by practising the Law of God and worshipping. These two things are mutually inter-dependent.
These two pillars comprehensively maintain connectivity with God. The Ten Commandments have these essential elements. There are three sets of rules: one for worship, one for family life and one for communal living. God’s instructions for worship are equally life-giving. The place is a tent suggesting that a permanent place is not essential for worship. The Tent of Meeting became the Temple, but I find it interesting that in time the Temple was destroyed, the Synagogue effectively replaced the place of worship and in time they understood the true Temple to be the gathering of the faithful in worship. This is why when we gather here in this place God is present and God’s temple is constituted. Our collective worship is sustained by our personal devotion. Our practice of the faith and our worship is sustained by our knowledge of these things. This provides the basis for the people of God to be a holy people like God is holy. Worship and the Law become the living and visible presence of God in the world and therefore the witness to God’s goodness towards us. (Incidentally John describes Jesus as coming to ‘dwell’ with us on earth and the Greek explicitly means ‘living in a tent’.)
I sense God has shown me something as I read these texts and especially Moses’ reception of the Commandments and the instructions regarding worship. These three things we learn from this story.
Firstly, none of us experience God’s intrusive connection with us on a daily basis. For most of us such an outstanding experience comes once or twice or thrice in a lifetime. It can be a very confronting experience. There is Moses at the burning bush being told to return to Egypt and lead the slaves to freedom. That’s a mad idea! Much of Moses’ life is a routine of faithful obedience. So the first thing we learn is that God does come and directly touch us. That is a troubling moment. It’s an awesome experience. But it is not an everyday experience. Try and recall that moment or few moments you have had. It is very encouraging to do so. In my pastoral ministry I have many people tell me they haven’t had such an experience. In talking to them they discover they have had such experience. They just didn’t / couldn’t recognise the moment.
Secondly, we learn that the presence of God is with us through our practice of the faith and our communal and personal worship. There are many little blessings in our lives where God enters. I had a moment like that the other day. I came to lead our prayers. I said, “Let us pray”. In that moment I realized I had not given a thought to praying. I opened my mouth and I was surprised at the prayer that came from my lips. I privately just thanked God. You see I usually think about how I will lead our prayers and sometimes read a prayer I’ve written or someone else has. That morning I was surprised. Possibly more surprised as I have in recent months felt emotionally fragile.
Thirdly, we come to see God addresses us and blesses us for the sake of others. Moses’ wonderful, awesome and privileged encounters with God were not about him, but about God’s people. That is true for others. God addresses Abraham and Sarah directly and calls them to leave home! They were to leave home and begin a new people that would bless the world [Gen 12: 1 – 3]. There is Elijah who is called to challenge the king and the politics of surrounding nations.
All three, Abraham, Moses and Elijah have their lives intruded upon by God. In each case God calls people into a task to conserve and continue God’s people. In each case the experience is frightening and challenging. In each case these encounters have led to the continuing life and witness of Israel. It is interesting that when those three disciples witness Jesus’ transfiguration Moses and Elijah are present with Jesus. Moses is the great Law giver and Elijah the great prophet who brings the people back to the faithful following of God. All three of these self-revelations to Abraham, Moses and Elijah play a pivotal role in the life of Israel. All revelations of God to us are pivotal in the conservation and continuance of faith in Christ Jesus.
And we find similar experiences of God’s intrusive revelation occurring again and again right through to today. Remember Paul’s blinding light experience on the Damascus Road, Peter’s rooftop vision and the countless revelations down through the ages until today?
May God continue to address us directly and in the power of the Holy Spirit let us continue to be faithful in our daily practice and worship so that God’s beauty may be seen through us.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 26/02/2017