edited Friday 11.30a CST (or is it daylight time now?)
Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
Exodus 34.29-35, Luke 9.28-36
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
This is exactly the kind of thing many people claim they want. It’s exactly the kind of thing that many Evangelicals say is absolutely necessary. It’s exactly the kind of thing that many people say doesn’t happen anymore:
Talking with God. I mean, direct, two-way conversation with God, the kind where God does some of the talking.
Nowadays, if you go around saying that God has been talking to you, one of two things is likely to happen. Either people are going to write you off as “one of those Christians” or they are going to make a call to the nearest mental health professional. And if you’re glowing on top of that, they may very well step away and call 911, just in case you’ve been exposed to some kind of radiation or something.
Even when Moses came down the mountain the first time, the Israelites had started a big party because they weren’t sure he was coming back or that he was even talking to God anyway. And this time when he comes down from Mount Sinai, tablets in hand, face shining with the Glory of the Lord, they know he’s for real and they also know that is a very scary thing—so they run away. Only when he shouts for them do they come slowly crawling back to the foot of the mountain. Voices carry a long way in the desert. Light goes quite a ways too, especially when it’s dark, and especially when it’s this kind of light—not a mini mag light, but God’s light, the light that comes from within, the shine that accompanies someone who has been talking with God.
The Israelites aren’t alone in their fear. On the mount of the Transfiguration, probably Mount Hermon, in the Golan Heights, Jesus and his disciples are praying. Well, Jesus is anyway. The disciples are sleepy, but they’re holding their eyelids open. While Jesus is praying—talking to God, as it were—he too takes on this light, he begins to reflect God’s glory. And the disciples are afraid! They don’t know what to do, what to say, or what’s going on. It’s all they can do not to make fools of themselves in front of Elijah and Moses…except Peter, of course, who does manage nicely to say just the wrong thing. And then, of course, they get included in the conversation that Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and God have been having: God booms from the cloud “this is my Son…pay attention!”
Now, since Moses’ face shone because he had been talking with God, and since Jesus was transfigured into shininess while he was praying, I have to wonder whether the disciples, too, were shining just a bit after God had been talking to them. After all, they’ve just seen the true divinity of Jesus, they’ve been basking in the glow of glory, AND God’s voice spoke to THEM! There must be some residual glow. But even if they were shining, I wonder if they noticed? Or if they thought they could just head back to normal life, saying nothing, and have everything go on as usual?
These incidents both happened on mountaintops, away from normal life, away from the busyness and the needs of the world. People have been climbing mountains to talk to God for ages—pretty much since there were people. High Places, places of sacrifice and worship, dot the Middle East. Some even have remains of the altars, statues, or poles used for worship. Throughout Scripture people go to the mountain to encounter God—Abraham, Moses, Elijah, prophets, Jesus, the John who wrote Revelation. The holy places tend to be high places—the Temple was on a hill, the Mount of Olives is nearby. Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The sign for Moses and the Israelites after the Exodus was that they would worship God “on this holy mountain”, thought by many to be Mount Sinai. Jesus delivered the sermon on the mount on a hill overlooking the sea of Galilee. There is an abundance of holy places on high ground. It seems that people have been meeting God, and God has been meeting people, on mountains pretty frequently!
I know a lot of people who say they find it easier to meet God, easier to talk to God, out in nature. There’s no better place to pray than hiking on a mountain, they say, because it brings you closer to the sky—God’s own cathedral. It puts you in touch with the creation. It’s quiet and many think you can hear God better “out there.” And it’s true that going away to a quiet place, to a mountaintop, to worship and to pray is a biblical thing to do. It’s also true that going to a worshipping community and its sanctuary is a biblical thing to do. It’s also true that going to feed the hungry is a biblical thing to do. God talks in all these places—the question is where we expect to find God, and where we can best listen.
In the Celtic tradition, as many of you have been learning, some places are “thin”—the boundaries between earth and heaven, between sacred and secular, are thinner, fuzzier, more porous in some places. Many of these thin places are on high places. And at many of them, especially in Scotland, pilgrims have been building cairns for centuries. A cairn is basically a pile of rocks. The rocks carry the prayers and identities of the people who place them. Nearly every thin place has one—something to mark the spot, to bring it even closer to heaven, to preserve the moment. But unlike Peter’s suggestion of dwellings, the stones stay and the people go.
The thing about encountering God, of course, is that God doesn’t live on a mountaintop. We can have mountaintop experiences in church, on a bus, in school, with friends, while praying at home, or even out on the plain—a good thing since we live in the prairie, not the mountains! What matters is that we encounter the living God, and once that has happened, we can never be the same.
What goes up must come down, even on the mountain, even in the church, even at home. In the thin place, on the mountain, we encounter God. Then we go down the mountain again to everyday life, but we are different. We carry with us the glow that comes from talking to God. Like Moses, we’re shiny. And we have a choice to make: to hide our light, as Moses did, so we don’t scare people (or so we don’t inconvenience ourselves), to stay silent as the disciples did, or to share our light with the world.
Some people will say they aren’t good enough, that their light isn’t strong enough. Some will say that it’s too difficult or too risky to share the light. Others will say they don’t want to brag. But Jesus told us that even though it would be difficult, we’re to let our lights shine—a lamp belongs on the lampstand, not under a basket. Light is for sharing, not for hoarding. And the light that comes from an encounter with the living God is long-lasting and genuine, not boastful or fearful.
One of my favorite quotes is often attributed to Nelson Mandela but is actually from Marianne Williamson. She says, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same." (1)
When we encounter God, our inner lights are renewed, and we go out as mirrors of God’s grace and glory, bearers of God’s presence—to let our lights shine on the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Thanks be to God.
(1) by Marianne Williamson from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles.