February 23, 2020
Is God There? And Does God Care? – February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
Something has brought you here this morning. Maybe it’s habit, in the sense of a holy and blessed practice. Maybe it’s habit in the sense that this is just what I do on Sunday mornings. Maybe it’s curiosity or a desire to find a spiritual community. Or maybe something has happened to you or to someone you love, and you’re looking for answers to questions you can’t even quite form.
We may have many different reasons for being here, but I’ll bet there’s at least one thing every one of us shares. At some point, and maybe it’s right now, I’ll bet you’ve asked two questions: Is God really there? And if so, does God really care that I’m here?
I don’t think there’s any shame in asking those questions, given the cost that comes with being alive. Now, don’t get me wrong; I think life is full of blessing, overflowing with blessing, actually. And at the same time…. I talked with a woman this week who’s the primary support for her mother. Her mom lives alone, in an apartment, but she’s having a harder and harder time managing her own needs. And those needs tend to land in the daughter’s lap, with the daughter finding herself on the receiving end of frightened phone calls about bills or medications. After a while, that load gets heavy – both for the older mom and for the daughter. It’s a story many of us might recognize, which is the point. Just dealing with what life throws at us can make us wonder sometimes whether God’s there and whether God cares that we’re here.
And then come those moments when the stakes get higher. A vibrant young woman, from a family that’s been part of St. Andrew’s for decades – she died two weeks ago with no warning. We celebrated her life here yesterday. I can imagine Allison Benson’s family and friends might well find themselves, in the weeks ahead, asking whether God is there and whether God cares we’re here.
Listening to the Scripture readings this morning, you may not have heard much that relates to situations like these. Instead, on this last Sunday before the beginning of the season of Lent, we always hear the story of the Transfiguration – this weird, out-of-body experience that comes to three of Jesus’ followers when out of the blue, the guy they’ve known as their rabbi and leader shines with God’s own light. But hang with me a minute, because I think there may be more in this story than meets the eye about whether God cares that we’re suffering, whether God’s even there at all.
So, about whether God’s there … we need to go back to the Old Testament reading about Moses. We pick up Moses’ story in the middle of the action, so we’ve got to know a little bit about what’s brought him to this moment of going up the mountain – and I do mean the mountain – to meet with God. You probably remember Moses as the leader who brought God’s people out of their oppression and slavery in Egypt. In today’s reading, those liberated people are now traveling through the Sinai peninsula, between Egypt and what’s now Israel, because God has brought them there, leading them in a pillar of dark, swirling cloud in which raged the fire of God’s presence – certainly scary enough to keep the Egyptians at bay. But before that, before leading the people out of slavery, Moses was an outlaw, hiding out and tending sheep in the Sinai wilderness, when God brought him to this very same mountain we heard about in today’s reading – Mt. Sinai. There, God also showed up in fire, burning in a bush but not consuming it; and God spoke directly to Moses, commissioning him to lead deeply suffering people out of their bondage and into freedom.
Now, as we pick up today’s story, God is in the process of giving these liberated people a set of instructions for how to live in harmony with God and each other, and God invites Moses to come back up the mountain to bring more of that law back to the people. And again, the divine presence storms and rages and flames on the mountain, scaring the living daylights out of the people waiting down below as Moses enters into the cloud and the fire, experiencing God up close and personal for 40 days.
So, with this story in our minds, go back to the question: Is God there? You bet – a stunning, majestic presence leading the people into the blessing of a new, promised land. In fact, that divine presence doesn’t just show up from time to time; the Hebrew word says God’s glory “settled” there on the mountain, in the sense of dwelling there for a time, taking up residence with these people God had freed. So yes, God’s absolutely there – and everyone cringing at the sight of the swirling cloud and the raging fire would attest to it. And yes, God cares deeply that these people have been suffering – caring enough to liberate them, defeat Pharaoh’s army, and show them the path of shalom, God’s own peace. It may be a little terrifying, but after all – this is the sovereign of the universe who’s shown up to take care of them, so a little awe may be in order.
Well, we need that story about God and Moses on the mountain for today’s Gospel reading to make any sense at all. Just as God invited Moses to come up the mountain and experience the divine presence, so Jesus invites his leadership team – Peter, James, and John – to come up “a high mountain with him” (Matthew 17:1).
We also need to know what’s come just before this point in the Gospel story to help today’s reading make sense. What’s come before is Peter blurting out the deep mystery that their friend and teacher is actually the messiah, God’s anointed king, whom the people of Israel have been waiting for through one foreign oppressor after another. The oppressor du jour is Rome, and God’s people are waiting for someone to be the new Moses and bring them freedom and self-rule once again. So, Peter names Jesus as this anointed king – and he’s right. Then Jesus quickly says, “Yes, but….” Being messiah doesn’t mean glory in the way you’re thinking of it. It doesn’t mean freedom in the way you’re thinking of it. It means suffering and death for God’s anointed king, but a death that leads to life – resurrected life, eternal life, the freedom of God’s reign and rule on earth as it is in heaven.
So, that’s what comes just before the story we heard today, as Jesus invites his deputies up the mountain. I don’t know what Peter, James, and John were expecting, but whatever it was, they found something else. On the mountain, Jesus is “transfigured before them,” the story says (17:2). It’s the glory of God shining forth from him, the same divine glory that took up residence on Mt. Sinai but dwelling very differently this time. Now, it’s embodied in Jesus himself, not blazing in fire but shining as heavenly light.
And there with Jesus is Moses himself, dropping in for a visit from God’s time outside time. He’s there with Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet who also encountered God’s terrifying glory on Mt. Sinai. Peter sees the trio together and thinks he gets it – the messiah he recognized the other day is on the same level as these two all-stars, Moses and Elijah! Well, no, not exactly, as it turns out. God intervenes to clarify the situation, swirling up the clouds and thick darkness to remind the disciples of their spiritual history. This Jesus is not just up there with the big boys. He’s God’s own Son, divine glory itself but manifested very differently than anyone’s ever seen before.
Here’s the thing: In this story of the Transfiguration, God is saying to these beloved people, God’s chosen people still aching under bondage, that God is choosing a new way of showing up to liberate them. No more blazing fire but embodied glory instead. God has taken flesh. And here he is, Peter, James, and John – he’s right in front of you. So, you might want to listen to him, even when he tells you the last thing you’d want to hear: that this time, God’s going to suffer and die in order to save you.
And once the voice of God goes quiet and the scary cloud lifts off the mountain, the disciples get back up off the ground to find only Jesus there with them, because he’s all the God they need. And he touches them – their friend and God in the flesh – he touches them and quietly reassures them, “Get up, and do not be afraid” (17:7).
Yes, Jesus told them a few days earlier, there will be times along this journey when things won’t go well. There will be times along this journey when you’ll look at life and wonder how you’ll be able to get out of bed the next morning. There will even be times along this journey when things will go worse than you could ever have imagined. Still – “Get up,” Jesus says, “and do not be afraid.”
God loves us enough to come to us in our bondage and our suffering. God loves us enough to come and inhabit that pain right alongside us. God loves us enough to sit with us and cry when lamenting is all we can do. God loves us enough to endure the same death that comes to all of us, whether our ending is brief or long. And, God loves us enough to use this journey through the valley of the shadow of death to defeat death and free us from it, forever. That’s how much each life matters. That’s how much you matter. And that’s how much God’s willing to be there with you, through it all.