Sunday next before Lent – 19th February 2023
I am struck by reading through our two readings for today, of the need to be patient. Often we read in our Bibles of things that happened – or didn’t happen because the time was or was not right. We are these days an impatient generation, and I am not sure that it makes us better people. I am sure I am not the only person who remembers shopping by mail order, by posting a form to the company we wanted to order from, and then waiting, remembering that the form always told us to allow up to 28 days for delivery. In these days of fast fashion, people would be very unhappy to receive a garment just as it was about to become last month’s trend! We have got used to having things at the moment that we want them, and I am not sure that it is always good for us.
I had not noticed before this week that Moses was on the mountain for six days before God called to him to come into the cloud, and in total he was on the mountain with God for forty days and nights. And this is where the need for patience comes in again since although the people of Israel could see that the cloud which God had covered the mountain with was still there, and they had seen Moses and Joshua go into the cloud, and although the presence of God on the mountain gave the whole thing the appearance of an erupting volcano, still they thought that God and Moses had deserted them, and we read later on of how they persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf for them to worship as they had in Egypt. Seven weeks is a long time to wait – as we learn every year in Lent if we have decided to give something up, particularly if it is something that we really enjoy. It must have seemed very long indeed to a nation who were stuck in the desert, and whose leader had disappeared into the cloud at the mountain top.
The other detail from our reading of this story today that I had missed in the past, is that the tablets of stone that Moses was given on this occasion had been written on by God – not by any human. As you will also know, Moses was so angered by the people seeking another god while he was on the mountain that he smashed those tablets, and in a later chapter of Exodus we read of how he goes back up the mountain to receive the commandments again, but this time he has to prepare the stone tablets, and carve the words into the stone himself. The impatience of the people had brought punishment on themselves, and caused work for their leader!
I wonder how we would react if those original stones – engraved by the hand of God still existed – if we could see them for ourselves. I can’t help feeling that we have read these stories so many times that we have lost the awe and wonder that they convey. What did that mountain look like for those forty days? What did Moses really see? Coming to our gospel reading, what did the disciples really see when Jesus face was changed to shine like the sun, and his clothing became dazzling white? What did they see in the cloud that obscured everything, and yet made them fall face down in worship? Once again, we come up against the problem of impatience, and our very human desire of wanting to keep things. Peter’s suggestion of building shelters is a way of trying to capture the moment, to keep it forever. Had cameras been invented then, he would almost certainly have wanted to take a picture.
We have reached a point in our bible readings and in our church’s year when we finally turn away from one season to prepare for the next. We began to make this turn at Candlemas, but it is a wrench to turn away from Christmas and towards Lent. We have perhaps made the Christmas story rather more pretty and comfortable than it actually was, and we enjoy the fairy lights, stars and angels that we use to decorate our homes, and the images of new babies, warm stables, cosy sheep and gentle candlelight. At the transfiguration, Jesus turns his face away from his ministry in Galilee where he has a large following and towards Jerusalem, knowing what his fate there would be. It is worth remembering that he had not long before heard of the death of John the Baptist, and on hearing this news had tried to get away for some solitude with his Father, but the crowds followed him. Perhaps, in the same way that his ministry received divine approval at the time when he went to John for baptism at its beginning, so this experience, for him affirmed his decision to head for Jerusalem and his fate at the hands of the world’s authorities – this could be the beginning of the end.
We too are moving out of the dark days of winter, and each day that passes at this time of year has a few minutes more daylight than the one before. But before we can come to the great celebration of Easter, we have the season of Lent before us. Once again, we need to be patient, even though the hot cross buns are already in the shops. I have to confess that I am glad that the rules regarding fasting in the protestant churches are nothing like as strict as they are in some parts of the Orthodox churches, when on a fast day, almost no food apart from vegetables was allowed. I have no desire to become vegan! We are however taught that this is a time to seek out the presence of God, in prayer, meditation and bible study, and if we accompany this with giving up something that gives us pleasure, it all begins to sound rather dour – a bit like February weather.
But the passages that we have just read tell us of the wonder and glory of coming into God’s presence. We know that later in the Exodus story the people have to ask Moses to wear a veil to cover his face after he has been in God’s presence as he is shining too brightly for them to be able to look at him. In the same way, at the transfiguration, Jesus shines as brightly as the sun – and we have all been warned lots of times of the danger of looking directly into the brightness of the sun. We no longer decorate our churches as we did before the reformation, and the bright pictures that were once on the walls, and the colours of the clothing of statues are all long gone. Did we lose with them the sense of awe and wonder that we should surely feel when we consider the glory of God? Do our church buildings speak now of a God who lives within grey stone walls, rather than one who makes our faces shine so brightly that people are afraid to look at them? Shall we make it our task this lent to find the wonder and the glory again? Shall we turn our faces towards God, and spend time in his loving presence, in the hope that when we go out amongst our friends and neighbours, we too will shine with the glory of his love? We are often afraid to speak of our faith with people who do not share it. And yet, if we carried with us some of the glory of God, there would be no need to speak as it would be shining out of us. Could we make this Lent into forty days and nights of shining with the glory of God? Could we? Do we dare?