Opening The Old Testament
Desiring Transfiguration Sunday: Reflections on Exodus 24:12-18
The text ends with "YHWH's glory settling on Mount Sinai, with the cloud covering it for six days." After this time, YHWH calls Moses to enter the cloud, a cloud characterized as fearful and dreadful, nothing less than a "devouring fire" (Ex. 24:17). Moses strides into the terrible cloud and is enveloped for forty days and forty nights, the classic biblical divine timetable. Before being swallowed up in the cloud, Moses deputizes Aaron and Hur to settle any disputes that may arise in his absence (Ex. 24:14). For those of us who have read Exodus 32, we know how poorly Aaron deals with the great dispute of the molten calf. But for now Moses is communing with YHWH, and Aaron and Hur are the titular leaders of Israel.
Of course, in the Synoptic Gospels, the scene where Jesus is transfigured before a small group of his disciples, one finds some sort of interpretation of this scene from Exodus, for there Jesus appears first both with Moses and Elijah, and then finally appears to them alone in dazzling white clothes. And God thunders, "this is my son, the beloved; listen to him!" Yet, as the gospels unfold that is exactly what the disciples of Jesus are incapable of doing—listening to Jesus. Their ultimate betrayal of him leads to a lonely and repulsive torture and death.
Still, I am struck again by the spookiness of the whole thing. They actually see God in Exodus and eat and drink with the divine one, though eventually YHWH appears enshrouded in cloud and fire. The select disciples actually see Jesus dazzling before them, somehow greater than the two great figures of Judaism. And they actually hear the voice of God speaking directly to them, however little able they are to follow the instruction. They all see and hear God.
I am struck by how primitive and ancient this all feels. How long has it been since I have seen and heard my God? How long since I have been struck dumb by the power of revelation, standing in the presence of the Holy One? How pathetic are my puny efforts in word and song and silence to find a way to that creator! When have I last been in awe of God? I really have no easy or satisfactory answers to these questions. I only know that my worship has too long been void of awe, real fear in the Hebrew sense of the word. I am afraid to admit that the very last thing I sense as I enter most places of worship today is awe. Have I become so controlled, so programmed in the possible responses I can give in worship, that I have driven awe away? Am I too fearful of awe? What might be the modern equivalent of blood-drenched altars and the fear that God might finally lay a hand on me? Though I cannot answer these queries, I sense deep within a need for something spooky in worship, something weird, something genuinely divine. Praise songs will not do it for me, nor larger organs, nor more precise choirs, nor even livelier preaching. What I need I cannot express readily, but maybe that is the point of what I lack; it is finally inexpressible. Perhaps. But I surely wish I knew.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.