“The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on top of the mountain in sight of the people of Israel.”
Exodus 24:16-17, NRSV
“And he (Jesus) was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
Matthew 17:1-9, NRSV
When I was a child I believed that the presence of God was at the altar and the pastor was the only person who could get near that altar. “Regular people” especially a child like myself was never permitted to even think of standing near the altar. In my mind that was risky business. There was a certain fear of getting too close to God at the altar.
That fear grew when I reached the eighth grade at Emmaus Lutheran School. As an eighth grade boy I was one of the ushers for our school’s Wednesday services in Emmaus Lutheran Church. The eighth grade boys who were ushers could ring the church bells and take up the offering. And when the offering was taken up from the 90 or so students in that school, the ushers took the baskets of coins to present to Pastor Wilson at the altar.
So there I was one Wednesday morning with an offering basket in hand walking down the center aisle with another eighth grade usher. We walked up the three steps in the chancel in unison and then walked another ten feet near the altar and gave Pastor Wilson the baskets of offerings.
The closer I walked to the altar the more frightened I became. I could feel fear come over me when I stood right in front of the altar. I was a bit shaky. I felt that stomach and chest pain from the fear that I had gotten too near the presence of God at the altar. Nonetheless, I gave my basket of offerings to the pastor, bowed, turned quickly around with the other usher and walked hurriedly back to our seats near the entrance to the nave.
But I had done it. I was within a few steps of the altar where the Almighty God dwelled and I survived. As I child I firmly believed that God’s presence was somehow embedded in the altar. That is where God dwelled for me and God’s presence alone at the altar brought fear to my heart.
I can just imagine Moses being frightened as he climbed up to the top of Mount Sinai where God dwelled. The glory of God’s presence surrounded the mountain as a cloud. Then God’s glory was like a “devouring fire” reminding Moses of God’s presence in the wilderness through the fire of the burning bush. God’s presence was revealed through the cloud and fire (Some believe the fire was a volcano on top of the mountain.). Moses stayed there forty days and nights and God gave Moses the stone tablets revealing God’s will through the Ten Commandments.
Where do people sense the presence of God today?
He was a big, husky man wearing a dark brown robe. He must have stood well over six feet. He taught centering prayer, an ancient way to pray now making a comeback among Christians around the world. I sat in the back of the lecture hall some 25 years ago at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama (Jesuit institution) as I took his class. Monk Basil Pennington said that centering prayer was a way that drew you closer to God and to enjoy God’s presence.
His method of centering prayer began with divine reading (lectio divina) where you read your favorite part of Scripture. From that reading you selected your God word such as love, joy or peace. Then you sat comfortably, cleared your mind and then enjoyed God’s presence for twenty minutes. And if anything distracted you during this time of enjoyment of God’s presence, then just recalled your God word and centered again.
That is one way people come into the presence of God without fear.
When I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School, one of the New Testament professors, Father John Donahue read Scripture very carefully, very delicately, like he was caressing a new-born baby. For Father Donahue, Scripture was like a Sacrament drawing you ever so close to the comforting presence of God.
Have you ever read Scripture and sensed this was really God speaking to “me?” Remember in our liturgy just before the Gospel is read with Christ’s words, we sing “Alleluia, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia. Alleluia.” And we listen to the very words of Christ which touch our hearts and minds. Those very words draw us so close to the presence of Christ for a new life in Him.
There is no fear in listening to the Gospel where God’s presence is made known through the words of Christ.
“This is my body. This is my blood.” In Holy Communion Christ gives us His own self for forgiveness, life and salvation. As we kneel or stand (or sit if we are physically unable to stand), we receive Christ’s body and blood. It is a mystery of faith. It is a moment where we have a foretaste of the feast to come.
There is only joy and thanksgiving as we partake of His real presence.
I know that some Christians take tours of the Holy Land. They enter the Church of the Nativity and see the place where Christ was born or go to the hill where Christ was crucified. Some Christians take a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France for the healing waters of life – a place where the Virgin Mary appeared. All of these moments draw pilgrims closer to God’s presence as the Bible stories of Christ and Mary, His mother, come to life.
There is no fear in those pilgrimages where memories of Bible stories about the presence of Christ and Mary stir the emotions.
Surrounded by a cloud and feeling the heat of divine fire on Mount Sinai, Moses was in the presence of God. God revealed Himself to His servant and spoke to Moses out of that cloud and fire to give him God’s word for His people so that they could love God and love their neighbors, too.
In today’s story of the Transfiguration, there was also a mountain, a bright cloud and God’s word as God spoke words of praise for Jesus, God’s only Beloved Son. Peter, James, and John heard those words. So did Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. In that moment Jesus was transfigured before them. Jesus’ face shone like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white. This Transfigured Jesus revealed His end-time glory and the three disciples got a glimpse of the glorious future to come.
In the moment of God’s presence on the mountain top, in the moment of the brilliance of Jesus’ face, the disciples were in awe. They were overwhelmed at the presence of Jesus and the words of His Heavenly Father.
Living without those “God moments” leads to a hopeless and meaningless life. Living without faith in the presence of God is a life of fear with no hope of ever being comforted again. Who wants to live like this?
But thanks be to God that on the mountain tops God’s word and God’s presence were revealed. Yes, the Ten Commandments show us our sin and point us to Transfigured Jesus for forgiveness of sins. Yes, on that mountain top the divinity of God’s Son reveals to us Jesus whom God sent into this world to bring God’s merciful and gracious presence for all who believe.
Where in the world is God? An omnipresent God is always there to guide and protect us. The God in Christ always hears our prayers wherever we are and in every circumstance of life. The promised Holy Spirit is always present to forgive our sins and raise us up to newness of life. On the mountain tops with Moses and Jesus and in our joys and sorrows God’s presence will be with us.
In our God moments, the presence of God lifts our souls, comforts our hearts, and drives away the fears of life. Isn’t this most certainly true?
Thanks be to God!