2 Peter 1:16-21
I expect some of you are wondering why you’re here! The Westminster Shorter Catechism is one of the historical statements of our faith. I’m sure you all know it well, but just to remind you, it begins by saying that, “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever”. A thousand years earlier, St. Augustine had put it a little differently, when he said of God “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”. But the point is much the same; the Westminster Catechism starts with humanity, Augustine with God, yet they share a similar sense of purpose. Human beings are designed to spend eternity with God.
What the Westminster Catechism is doing by stating that we’re here to glorify God and to enjoy him forever is daring to shrink some of the distance between us and God, suggesting that God’s purpose is only complete when humanity enjoys his presence.
Our reading from Exodus speaks powerfully about the distance between God and humanity. God has chosen his people Israel for a close relationship, which we call the Covenant, as the people of Israel are brought out of slavery and drawn towards Sinai. In the preceding chapters, the scene is set with the elaborate preparations needed for divine encounter. To drive the point home, the author draws on all the ancient symbols of God’s presence: the mountain as the place of revelation, the fearsome power of the thunder and lightning, the cloud of divine mystery. It’s all too much for the ordinary folk, meaning only Moses and Aaron move closer. Getting too near to God can be dangerous, as Moses himself will discover after the disastrous episode of the Golden Calf a little later in Exodus. Only after careful preparation can Israel receive God’s word, summarised in the 10 Commandments, given not as universal moral truths but as specific instructions to the covenant people. These are the rules of the game, the terms and conditions for intimacy: God first, neighbour next. Coming close to God depends on ordinary human relationships as well as faithfulness to the God of Israel.
The whole of tis part of the book of Exodus is all about being ready to encounter God, how we meet God. First all the people are ready to meet God, then where our reading today begins, this is thinned out to just Moses going forward with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders of Israel. Then the elders are told to wait as Moses is called apart yet again, and this time only Joshua goes forward with him. The powerful symbols of divine mystery return, and Moses is caught up once more in the presence of the Lord, first for the symbolic Sabbath rest which follows the six days of creation, then for the equally symbolic forty days and forty nights which speak to the ancient mind of a complete cycle of time. As Augustine might have put it, Moses finds his rest in God.
But it doesn’t last. Not only does Israel quickly lose the plot, even Moses dies before entering the Promised Land. Intimacy with God, it seems, has a sting in its tail: not only is there a rigorous process of selection before a chosen few can go up the mountain, but all of them will fail to reach their destination. All except Joshua, of course, but that’s another story. This complex, fascinating, and elusive story sets the scene for the gospel reading. Certainly, many of the same ancient symbols reappear: the mountain as the place of divine encounter, the cloud which overshadows them, the dazzling light which speaks of transcendence. Even Moses makes a guest appearance alongside Elijah, symbolising the promise of Israel completed in Christ. Just to make sure we get the point, Matthew even underlines the time sequence – six days after Peter’s confession of faith and Jesus’ first prediction of the passion. This is the Sabbath rest of Sinai all over again.
But there is a difference. The story of the Transfiguration is strategically placed at a hinge point in the gospel: it comes immediately after the success of Jesus’s preaching and healing ministry in Galilee, as the disciples begin to perceive the real significance of Jesus, just as the story turns towards the shadows of Golgotha.
Jesus takes our broken humanity up the mountain where it is touched by God. The glory of the Lord breaks through in divine splendour. But the power of God embodied in Christ must come down once again, like Moses, though this time to finish the job. Jesus must go to Jerusalem. Yet the disciples – the select few chosen to go up the mountain with the one greater than Moses – are simply overwhelmed. In classical pictures of the Transfiguration, they are shown sprawled on the ground, knocked over by the majesty of God, dazed and confused. No wonder Peter once more makes a fool of himself. Like Israel in the wilderness, he wants to build a temple, and fails to understand that God’s purpose is not to be captured or set in stone. The new Promised Land lies ahead, on the other side of Golgotha. There is still work to be done.
But like those disciples, many of us might be puzzled by what seem to be opposites: at both Sinai and the mountain of the transfiguration, this vision of God’s transforming purpose is made known only to a select few. The people of Israel are left behind, like most of the other disciples. At best, they see only a remote God far away in the distance. Does this mean that intimacy with God is just another privilege given to a chosen few by an elitist God? Where does this leave the logic of a gospel which says ‘God so loved the world’? Surely, there’s something missing? Perhaps it is Lent, the time of preparation. Moses had to prepare to meet God.
Jesus, fully God and fully human, had to spend forty days and forty nights preparing to complete his vocation; yet it is precisely his being human and divine, shown in the Transfiguration, that enables the Westminster Catechism to claim that we can fulfil our own calling to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. The people of Israel, the elders at Sinai, and the disciples at the Transfiguration appear to be ill prepared. Is that why, perhaps, both Augustine and the Westminster Catechism put our intimacy with God in the context of eternity? ls that how long it will take for the rest of us to get ready?
As the story of the transfiguration is at a hinge point in the gospel, today is a hinge point in the Church’s year: Lent is about to begin. We are given a boost, a brief glimpse of glory, but only to prepare for the work yet to be done. Driven by the promise of glory, it is time to come back down and prepare for intimacy with God on the road to Jerusalem – the ordinary world of conflict, suffering and everyday reality. May this Lent be a time for us to prepare to meet God, so that at Easter we can experience once more the joy of his new life.