I saw something new as I was reading scripture this morning.
In Exodus 19, you have perhaps the most dramatic scene in the whole Old Testament. Moses, after being used by God to lead Israel out of slavery, is instructed to climb to the top of Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai). It was on this occasion that God then revealed the Ten Commandments, the covenant stipulations between God and Israel, by which He would be their God and they would be His people. God told Moses he would meet with him in a thick cloud, and indeed the whole mountain, we are told, was covered in smoke and thick darkness. Apparently the presence of God was marked by a tremendous storm (some think Horeb was an active volcano) both to reveal His power and to conceal where His voice came from. And there, the invisible God met with the representative of His people. There in the dark mist and cloud, Moses could not see anything of God, but could only hear his voice. Such is the way the Holy God appears to unholy men. His presence is ever veiled. God spoke to Moses in a more intimate way than anyone before Christ, yet it was still in a thick cloud of darkness and storm.
Several centuries later another prophet of God was instructed to make the trek to Horeb. Elijah had been used by God greatly to call Israel back to repentance and faith (and away from idolatry). Again, God called his prophet onto the mountain, and again God spoke to him. I Kings records:
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Again, though the prophet is called to the mountain to meet with God, it is in the midst of a storm. And again, the prophet veils his face, and sees not from whence the voice came.
In the New Testament, we also find a prophet (though more than a prophet) who ascends a mountain. You will find the story in Matthew 17:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
Here Jesus (like Moses and Elijah) goes up to the mountain for holy conversation. But we note some differences in what happens.
First, Jesus apparently does not go to Mount Horeb, but (most likely) Mount Hermon, far to the north of Israel instead of far to the south. This is not to sanctify north as more spiritual than south of course, but to point out that it is not the mountain that makes the divine conversation possible, but Jesus Himself. He does not come to holy ground. He makes every ground holy.
Secondly, Jesus, unlike Moses and Elijah, does not come to the mountain alone for the divine conversation. He brings Peter, James and John, those who represented all his followers, to the mountain with him, and they hear and see what he hears and sees. This fits in well with the promise of Jesus that He is not only the one sent from the Father, but is the one by whom we also can be brought into close fellowship with the father (see John 14).
Thirdly, when Jesus ascends the mountain, there is no great and forbidding storm, no thick darkness and trembling mountain. Yes, a cloud of God’s presence does enter into the scene, but it is a “bright cloud”. Jesus (by his later work on the cross) takes the terror of God upon Himself, so that he can say to us as he does to his followers on the mountain, “Get up. Don’t be afraid”.
Let us love and sing and wonder,
Let us praise the Savior’s name!
He has hushed the Law’s loud thunder,
He has quenched mount Sinai’s flame
Finally, we see this great contrast. Though Jesus, like the Moses and Elijah, goes up to the mountain for a divine conversation, the motif is flipped on its head when we see what happens on the mountain: Moses and Elijah appear, conversing with Jesus. They come to the mountain again, not to see God veiled in thick darkness and surrounded by storm, but to speak with God in the person of Jesus. And Jesus himself is transfigured (or, perhaps better, revealed) as a person of light and majesty. He is not simply another prophet of God, nor even the greatest prophet of God. He is simultaneously the great prophet of God and the great God of the prophets.
Oh, Holy Father, thank you for revealing yourself to flesh and blood, sinful and stupid as we are. Thank you that you have always had your prophets by which you revealed your ways and laws, and you have called us to listen to those prophets. But thank you so much more for Jesus, the Son sent from your right hand, to be not only your last and great prophet, but You yourself in human form. Help us all the more to heed your call, and listen to him. Amen.