Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.”
13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

I think I described the film as “heart-warming.”

Maybe I used “feel-good,” or “magical,” or whatever reviewer keyword that will get your name and publication on the movie poster. I was selling “Hail, Caesar!” (2016), a film by the Coen brothers and starring George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson.

It was early fall, if I remember correctly, that I described the film to my cinephile parents. “It’s set in the golden age of Hollywood,” I said, “and recreates the classic studio backlot, with westerns, musicals, swimming and Bible-epics! It’s heart-warming!”

Fast-forward to Christmas morning, and my parents return the favour with my own copy of Hail, Caesar! “Thank you,” I said, “what a heart-warming film,” I said. “Really?” they said, “did you watch the film?” they said, “because it was dreadful.” Suddenly taste is subjective, and I can’t be trusted with “feel-good” or “magical.”

Well, tonight I get that last laugh. Hail, Caesar! is nominated for an Academy Award, in the category of Best Production Design! Oscar knows! But don’t take my word for it, see it yourself. Just don’t run out and buy a copy—maybe you should borrow mine before you commit.

Speaking of Bible-epics, the New York Times (before it became fake news) said that "in its remarkable settings and décor, including an overwhelming facade of the Egyptian city from which the Exodus begins, and in the glowing Technicolor in which the picture is filmed—Mr. DeMille has worked photographic wonders." And of the star, “Variety called Charlton Heston an ‘adaptable performer’ who, as Moses, reveals ‘inner glow as he is called by God to remove the chains of slavery that hold his people.’” (Wikipedia)

Kind words, all of which deserve a place on the double VHS boxset. And the inner glow, when not enhanced by some very talented make-up artists, was perhaps owing to the immersive experience Heston had, with many of the key scenes—including his encounter with God—filmed on location.

There, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, very near St. Catherine’s Monastery, Heston and director DeMille, along with a small crew, recreated the moment that Shauna shared a moment ago. They took the biblical story, and the now famous ‘look’ created by painter Arnold Friberg, and brought to life a key moment in the story of Moses. Friberg’s work was so well-regarded that Oscar went searching for a category to honour him, finally settling on Costume Design.

And in an effort to save you four-hours of screen time (including intermission) I give you the story of Moses, prince of Egypt: Worried that his Hebrew slaves will soon outnumber his Egyptian subjects, the evil Pharaoh orders that the first-born among the slaves be killed. Moses’ mother, in an effort to save the lad, puts him in a basket that he might float down the Nile to safety.

As luck would have it, a princess of the royal court finds the baby, and he is raised within that court. He grows up. One fateful day the princely Moses intervenes when an Egyptian taskmaster is being particularly cruel to a Hebrew slave. The taskmaster is killed, and Moses flees.

Now a fugitive, Moses chooses the quiet life with his new family, living near Mt. Horeb. A simple shepherd, he encounters God in the burning bush and accepts God’s challenge to free the enslaved Hebrews. He returns to Egypt, and with the help of a variety of plagues, torments Pharaoh until the slaves are released.

Despite Pharaoh's change-of-heart and a large watery obstacle, Moses and the people make it to the safety of the desert where they wander—until Moses receives the law, the topic of our passage today. In all, Moses and his people will spend forty years in the desert, where Moses will die in old age as they are set to enter the promised land.

The act of receiving the law is far from simple. It happens in stages, with the law given verbally, from the cloud, then shared with the people. But God wishes to go a step further, and provide tablets, so summons Moses once more. Moses sets out, and the cloud reappears:

For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Eventually the tablets appear, but for now I want to focus on time: all the markers that give the narrative a sense of God’s time. Six days of cloud and a summons on the seventh, forty days and nights of waiting within forty years of desert wandering, after four hundred years of captivity in Egypt. Time markers abound.

Even the New Testament retelling, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, begins with a time marker:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

The strange thing is that reading the previous chapter of Matthew provides no clue about the six days. One moment he’s teaching and trying to get the disciples to stop squabbling and then “after six days” a journey to a high mountain. It’s almost like a reflex, adding a time marker to lend some importance the event.

What draws these passages together is time set aside for experiencing the glory of the Lord. Both Moses and Jesus have important and time-consuming tasks to complete, both must liberate a people. Moses must liberate his people from bondage and Jesus must liberate us from sin and sorrow, and through it all we have this call to time away.

From the time of his own forty days in the desert, until this all too brief time on the mountain, Jesus has struggled to find time with God. He gets in boat and a crowd forms on the shore. He tries to rest, and the disciples cry out. He will find some time alone at Gethsemane, but between temptation time and his last night, the transfiguration is a rare time away.

This might be the perfect time to remind you of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the result of another time away, when in the midst of the English Civil War a group of “divines” met to try to unify the churches of Scotland and England. The result was 107 questions for instruction and edification, with the most famous being the first (I have transcribed the 1647 language for today):

Q: What is the primary purpose of humanity?
A: Humanity’s primary purpose is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

And what’s required to glorify God and enjoy God? Time and time away. Six days of waiting and a seventh day set aside to worship God. Forty days and nights on the mountainside. And in each story the glory of the Lord shone about them, on the face of Moses and in the face of Jesus. Yet each encounter with the Living God requires time.

Sometimes it seems we have nothing but time. 195 years of Sundays here at King and Weston Road is a long time, but more time is required. And all the other things that seek to crowd out the time must be set aside, as we seek to fulfil our primary purpose, to glorify God and enjoy God in this place. Amen.


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