In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
This is the last Sunday after the Epiphany. Throughout this season, we have seen Jesus revealed as the Christ, the Messiah, in a variety of ways: through His teaching, through signs (or miracles), and now today through His own divine glory, seen in the actual changing of His appearance and fellowship with Moses and Elijah, and heard through the voice of the Heavenly Father.
Can you just imagine what that must’ve been like? If you were to witness a close friend of yours start to glow…literally. I’ll be the first to tell you, I told my wife many times during both of her pregnancies that she glowed. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about someone’s skin actually begin to shine – like it was emitting a bright, white light.
Do you remember the 80s movie “Cocoon”? There were some friendly aliens running around in human costumes. When they took off their costumes, all you could see was a human shape that was emitting so much light you couldn’t really see any details, just a vague shape. That’s probably the closest thing I can imagine to what Matthew is describing in this scene. What would our reaction be? I think we get a good idea from Peter and James and John. “They fell on their faces and were terrified.” (vs 6) Yeah, I don’t know if I’d even have the capacity to run at that point.
There are a lot of similarities between this scene and the scene in the Old Testament lesson for today from Exodus 24. Now, I want to read a little bit more with you than what the lectionary calls for. Listen to the few verses preceding today’s lesson: “4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
So here we have a very typical ancient Hebrew covenant. In the language of the time, the phrase used is actually to “cut a covenant”. When two parties entered into a covenant, they would sacrifice an animal, “the best of the flock or herd, and ‘cut’ it into two pieces. Then the two parties of the covenant would pass through the pieces symbolizing their dedication to the covenant and by this action are saying, ‘If I do not hold to the agreements of this covenant, you can do to me what we did to this animal.’” (Beaner, 2020)
In keeping with this tradition, Moses threw half of the blood of the animal on the altar – God’s altar – to symbolize God’s part of this covenant, and then he threw the other half of the blood on the people to symbolize their part in this covenant. It is a promise sealed in blood. Serious stuff. What were those “words of the Lord” that Moses read to the people? That was the 10 Commandments that had been given to him to tell the people before God gave him the stone tablets, which was about to happen. The Law had been given and the promise had been made by the people. Interestingly, the people had already been saved. They had already been brought out of Egypt, saved from slavery and oppression by Pharaoh. God had ALREADY delivered them. Now He was promising to protect His people by establishing Laws…Laws that would guide their lives together in community and help them to enjoy life the way God intended. A good and abundant life.
I heard one scholar talking about this passage, and he mentioned something I think we often forget or take for granted. The Creator of the Universe chose this people. HE decided to enter into relationship with this people and love them. He made them, and He chose to interact with them. That, in and of itself, should amaze all of us.
More than that, however, is that this Great and Powerful God who, besides being all-powerful is also completely good and completely just. And because He is completely good and completely just, sinners like these Hebrews…sinners like us, cannot be in His Presence without dying. “…it’s not possible for sinful people to stand in the presence of the Holy God without being obliterated.” (Fickenscher, 2020) And yet, we see in this passage that this Mighty God is also merciful. “11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” He spared them from certain death…death because of their sinful selves.
But God invited His faithful servant Moses up onto that mountaintop to be in fellowship with Him, to teach Him, so that he could teach others. And those others saw God’s glory “like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” (vs 17) Moses, not fearing God’s glory, entered right into that cloud and went to be with God. Pretty bold, I’d say.
There are indeed similarities between these two passages. Both scenes take place on a mountaintop; both scenes depict God’s presence in a cloud; Moses is in both scenes. In the Gospel reading, these similarities were yet another way that the Father revealed to those present who Jesus truly is. And both scenes were undoubtedly terrifying and awesome to behold.
But there are also distinct differences between them. In the Old Testament, humanity is invited to go to be with God. In the Gospel, God comes to be with humanity. In Exodus, God enters into a covenant with the people, and both God and the people are responsible for the fulfilling of the covenant. In the Gospel, God enters into a covenant with the people, but the blood is only spilled on God, not on humanity. Therefore, God is the sole party who is responsible for the fulfilling of this new covenant.
Having been in God’s Presence now since we entered this morning, we, too, will now very shortly eat and drink. He has not laid His hand on us. Instead, we will celebrate what He has done for us. When you hear those words “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin; do this for the remembrance of me.” This is exactly what Jesus was describing. He was about to “cut” a new covenant with humanity, ensuring that we mere sinners were no longer accountable for all of our sins, no longer expected to earn our way into God’s favor – a futile and hopeless task. Where before our sinful nature would have driven us to despair and had us obliterated if we but stood in the presence of the Most High and Holy God, now Jesus has come and touched us and said “Rise, and have no fear.” And when we look up, we, too, will see Jesus.
Like the Hebrew people, we have already been delivered. Like them, God has chosen to be in relationship with us. And like them, He has given us His Law as a promise of protection and abundant life. Jesus teaches that “37 …You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” In this scene on the mountaintop, three disciples witness Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Moses brought God’s Law to the people and Elijah was considered one of the greatest of God’s prophets, and the last of God’s prophets. For Jesus to fellowship with them in this way tells us exactly who Jesus is: he is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
Now that Jesus has been revealed for who he truly is, it is clear where he is going next: his journey is leading him to the cross. This is what he must do, because this is exactly what the new covenant is. And blood must be shed; and it must be HIS blood. This is his ultimate purpose, to pay the price for our sins, so that we will be judged not as we deserve, but as how God wants us to be judged: righteous.
The coming weeks will allow us to follow Christ’s journey to the cross, and the temptations and challenges he faced along that terrible path. The season of Lent, which will begin on Wednesday, invites us to consider everything that God has done for us and to remind ourselves of God’s great mercy and love. Should we fall on our faces in fear and trembling at the awesome power of God and His Divine Wrath that our sin has earned us? We certainly should; it would be totally appropriate. But Jesus has made it so that we have nothing to fear. Should we spend more time in God’s house and worship Him? Also not a bad idea. We are called to gather in His name. But Jesus also reminds us that serving God is not merely to be in His house; serving God is taking the Good News of God’s love and grace to those who don’t know Him. Jesus reminds us that the Great Commandment has two parts: love God AND love neighbor. It’s not one or the other; it’s both.
So, how do we respond to God, knowing all that He has done for us? Are there things that you have said “I really should…” Read your Bible more? Pray more? Are there things that you think you should *not* be doing that are interfering with your relationship with God? Lent is the time to refresh your relationship with God and grow in your life of faith. How do we respond to God’s grace? What can we do differently that would be an appropriate response? I invite all of us to pray and reflect on that in the days and weeks ahead.
This awesome and amazing God, who created all of us and all that is, has chosen to be in relationship with us, and He has chosen to bear the sole burden of paying the price for our sins. He has chosen to love us even though we make ourselves unlovable each and every day. What an amazing, loving, merciful Heavenly Father we have! Thanks be to God!
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Pastor Todd Cook
Beaner, J. A. (2020). Covenants from a Hebrew Perspective. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from Ancient Hebrew Research Center: https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/studies-interpretation/covenants-from-a-hebrew-perspective.htm
Fickenscher, C. (2020, February 17). 0482. Looking Forward to Sunday Morning (Three-Year Lectionary): Transfiguration. Retrieved from Issues, Etc.: https://issuesetc.org/2020/02/14/0482-looking-forward-to-sunday-morning-three-year-lectionary-transfiguration-dr-carl-fickenscher-2-17-20/