How we hear stories about Jesus depends very much on our image of God. I was thinking about this because, in our conversation last week about the prayers of confession, several people said that they felt, or had been taught, that God was just waiting to judge them. The image of God as a harsh and violent judge is pervasive, and it shapes us. Like the disciples who go with Jesus up the mountain, many of us hold onto this idea, even although it may not be quite right. For this image of God comes, in part, from an older story, a story which predates Jesus. A story that also involves a mountain. Let me tell it to you:
Once upon a time there was a man named Moses. One day, at God’s invitation, he walked alone to the very top of a mountain: Mount Sinai. A great cloud rolled in and covered the mountain, a cloud that lasted six days. On the seventh day, God called to Moses out of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire—a wildfire—on the mountaintop. And God dictated pages and pages and pages of instructions to Moses; and then, Moses was given two tablets, or two blocks of stone, engraved by the finger of God. On these tablets were ten words: the ten commandments, or the ten ways to live. And then Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets engraved with the ten words, and by those words his people were to live.
Do you hear how the story is a bit similar to the story we just heard about Jesus? They are similar—but they are not the same. If we pay attention, we will notice important differences which help us see God in a different way: Jesus’ way. So let’s take a look.
First, both stories are introduced by the idea of six days. In the story about Moses, for six days there is a physical cloud covering the mountaintop. In the story about Jesus, for six days a metaphorical cloud must have been gathering over the disciples, as they heard their teacher and master tell them that he must go to Jerusalem, and undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples—Peter, James, John and us now—that the power of God is not what we expect. It’s not the power of great storm clouds rumbling with thunder and crackling with lightning; it’s not the power of destruction and violence. Instead, it’s the power found in weakness, vulnerability, suffering, and death: a topsy-turvy power, indeed. So that’s the first difference.
Second, after six days of cloud, Moses and Jesus both end up on a mountaintop. But again, there is a difference: Moses goes the last leg alone; but Jesus brings companions. So Moses hears the voice of God in solitude, but Jesus shows us that the voice of God is heard in community. In other words, we learn that the God made known in Jesus Christ is not remote, but relational. God is encountered in the presence of other people. (Of course, those of you who are reading your way through the Lent books will be grappling with this often-neglected aspect of God.)
Third, in the older story, God gives Moses pages and pages of precise instructions, followed by two tablets—two stones—carved with the ten words, or ten commandments. Ten rules to live by. Jesus doesn’t receive pages of instructions, or more rules carved in stone. Instead, the voice from the cloud tells his disciples to “listen to him.” It suggests that we are not to live by rules alone; perhaps because, when we do, we can lose our compassion.
Throughout his public ministry, Jesus pointed to well-behaved rule keepers who failed to love; people whose passion for the rules, or the law, overruled their compassion for others. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. It wasn’t the rule-bound religiously correct person who served the man left bleeding on the side of the road. It was the religious outcast, the Samaritan, who recognised the abandoned man’s full humanity, and served him at his point of need. Another time, Jesus reminded his disciples that we do not serve the law; instead, the law serves us—and then he broke the law by healing someone on the day of rest. In other words, loving and serving other people is more important than the law if the law hardens our hearts. So this is another difference: if we want to be right by God, we are not to blindly follow the rules; instead, we are to listen to Jesus.
Finally, at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses’ mountain, God’s glory is seen in a consuming fire: a fire that burns up everything in its path. The disciples who climb the mountain with Jesus were faithful Jews: they knew this story about Moses. And so when they get a glimpse of a bright cloud and hear a voice from heaven, they know what to expect. They are terrified, and fall flat on their faces. But Jesus doesn’t leave them there quaking in fear. Instead, he comes over to where they are lying on the ground, touches them gently, and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid: this is the heart of the fourth difference.
So what differences have we seen between the two stories? One, that God is encountered not in isolation, but in community. Two, that divine power is not seen in great theatrical displays of violence and might, but is found in God’s willingness to suffer, to be vulnerable, and to die. Three, that the way to live is not by blindly following rules, but in listening to and following Jesus, the Human One. Four, that God’s glory is not something to be terrified of. It does not destroy—“They shall neither hurt nor destroy on my holy mountain” says the Lord through Isaiah—and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to fear.
Too many of us still think of God as an angry, aloof and impatient judge waiting to trap people. But this is not who God is. Instead, Jesus shows that God humbly seeks relationship with us. God loves us so much that God has come to our level, the human level; and God is encountered when we are gathered together in the presence of the Human One, Jesus Christ: our brother and our friend.
For God is love. Not hate, not accusations, not judgement, not punishment—but love. God is known in relationship; God is known in the One whose face lights up when he sees us; the One who comes to us in our vulnerability and terror, touches us gently, and takes our fear away.
Even now, Jesus is reaching out his hand to you; Jesus is reaching into all your fear and anxiety. And as he touches you, and looks upon you, his face glowing with love, he says only: “Get up, and do not be afraid.” For you too are God’s beloved. You are not being judged. Instead, you are asked only to listen to Jesus, and to allow yourself to be loved. There is nothing to fear, but there is everything to gain. So listen to him. And do not be afraid. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Matthew 16:21, 17:1-9, given to Sanctuary on 12 March 2017. I am heavily indebted to Tom Truby for the Jesus/Moses parallels shared in his sermon, The White Light, given on 6 March 2011.