Here in vss.15-18 Moses alone goes up to be with his God. The mountain is covered by a cloud. In the obscurity of the cloud "the glory of YHWH" settles on the mountain, and for six days there is silence. On day seven God calls to Moses out of the cloud. Here it is made clear that Moses does not see YHWH. Rather he sees "the glory of YHWH" which is "like a devouring fire on top of the mountain." Apparently, according to vs.17, the people below see only the fire on the mountain, while Moses alone enters the fiery cloud and remains there for 40 days and forty nights (vs.18).
What are we to make of all these pyrotechnics? Clouds and fire and voices and scrambling up and down the sacred mountain? We 21st century types have become blasé about such doings. We have seen giant rockets thundering off to the moon, vast military arsenals lay waste to cities, mushroom clouds haunting our landscapes and our dreams. Not to mention volcanoes tossing flames and clouds and stones miles into the sky. Can such ancient scenes affect us any more? Can we any longer tremble at the sight of God's awesome mystery? Are we affected any more by Jesus' chat with Moses and Elijah on a later mountain, and do we pale when we look again and see Jesus alone? I doubt it. It all seems so quaint, so unbelievable, so trivial in the face of the power we moderns can conjure.
So why all the fuss? For the ancient Hebrews, these scenes on Sinai gave them a thrill of wonder, a strange conviction that God was still the awesome, majestic one who could hide in fire, speak from clouds, and call servants to follow the torah still. But now we, who have reduced God to a tweet ("OMG"), are beyond all that, aren't we? No trembling for us, no frisson in the blood, no shock of holy awe. What have we lost? When "awesome" means a new dress or a new car, what chance has a fiery God against that? On transfiguration Sunday, can we feel once again the mystery and wonder of God when our songs are trivial, our investment small, and our expectations so low? I cannot answer that for you. But for me, I know that I want some of that, some of that wonder, some of that surprise, some of that mysterious voice who still calls from whatever cloud there may be, and urges me to hear and follow the torah still. Or to "listen to my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased," which in fact may amount to the same thing. May this transfiguration Sunday move you something like that. I will pray for that for you and for me.