LIKE A DEVOURING FIRE
Sunday, February 19, 2023 – The Transfiguration of the Lord
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; 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 the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
In my very first church, there was a young father named Mike, who had a spiritual awakening. He had traveled that well-worn path from being a Sunday morning Christian to being someone who passionately wanted to follow Jesus seven days a week. Mike was as enthusiastic as a puppy and as earnest as a young seminarian. And he wanted everyone to know what he had found. So, to spread the Good News, he slapped a bumper sticker on the back of his pick-up truck that read: “God is my co-pilot.” And Mike would tell anyone who was interested exactly what that meant to him.
If you’ve ever seen the cockpit of an airplane, then you will understand something of what that expression meant to Mike. To say that God is your co-pilot is a declaration of intimacy because cockpits are very small places. In a cockpit, decisions of life and death are regularly made. Pilot and co-pilot work in harmony with one another; sharing tasks and conversations. To say that God is your co-pilot implies the kind of intimacy that is a hallmark of modern American Christianity. That’s how we roll. That’s how we like our God - casual and intimate and not too formal.
This intimacy with God is reflected in some of our best-loved hymns. We sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “I Come to the Garden Alone.” The garden hymn, in particular, is so intimate that it borders on the romantic, with its refrain: “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”
Now I do not mean to dismiss out-of-hand the notion of intimacy with God. Each relationship with God is personal. Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”. But the life of Jesus and the experiences of Jesus also shows us a God who is holy and wholly other. You will remember that at his baptism, the sky was ripped in two and a voice came from the clouds, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” At his Crucifixion, the veil of Temple was torn from top to bottom, while the sky grew ominously dark, and there was a tremendous earthquake. There were no eye-witnesses to the Resurrection, but it must have been infused with the very glory of God – raising Jesus from death to life. And in today’s observance – the Transfiguration – we are confronted with such a moment of glory that humans stagger backwards, filled with wonder and awe and holy fear.
As the author Annie Dillard says in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk:
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke (in church)? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? …It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Wonder. Awe. And holy fear.
“The Lord said to Moses, come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment.” So, Moses and some of his leaders set out to climb the mountain. The leaders waited somewhere down the slope, while Moses continued to climb. And he climbed and he climbed and he climbed until he reached the summit, where the air was thin and cold. Sometime after he got there, an odd cloud covered the top of the mountain and the glory of the Lord settled among the heights. The writer of Exodus described this glory of God as a devouring fire, a burning cloud swirling around the lofty peaks.
Moses entered the cloud, but, incredulously, he was not consumed. He entered the cloud and there he stayed for six days in all that divine glory. On the seventh day, the voice of God finally called out to Moses. And Moses stayed on that peak for another forty days, receiving the law and the commandments. Meanwhile, the people back in the valley must have wondered what on earth had happened to the man who disappeared in that ominous cloud of fire.
This is the story of a theophany. A theophany, simply put, is a human encounter with the divine. It is God made manifest to us. It is a moment when the veil between this world that the other is temporarily lifted; a thin place, as the Celts called it; a moment of transcendent glory.
In the ancient world, theophany stories are found across cultures and religions. And they are almost always set on mountaintops. For ancient people, mountains were holy places. They were closer to the heavens. They were the pillars of the earth, literally holding up sky. And so, as an ancient book, the Bible is full of mountaintop experiences – an expression we still use today. So when Moses wanted to encounter Yahweh, he climbed a mountain. And when Jesus was transfigured and shone like the sun, it was on top of a mountain.
There are many significant similarities between the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. But one of the most pronounced is how the humans reacted to the raw glory of God. And trust me, it wasn’t to call God their co-pilot! Exodus says that the ancient Hebrews were terrified of the consuming fire on the mountaintop. And the Gospel says that Peter, James, and John were “overcome by fear” and fell to the ground when they heard the voice of God in the cloud.
Now, if you’ve listened to me preach for any length of time, then you know that I was raised on a steady diet of the fear of the Lord – a diet I would never recommend to anyone, with its potential for spiritual and emotional abuse. --In my own case, and over a long period of time, I came to throw off those shackles and began to understand something of the amazing grace of God. And then I fell in love with God. But here’s what I’ve learned along the way: loving God is not the same thing as taming God. Loving God is not the same thing as understanding God or putting God in a box or making God your best bud. Because when we do that, eventually, we get bored with God. And boring is not what we need God to be.
Because we humans are naturally drawn to seek meaning beyond the everydayness of our lives. Some of us look at the stars and the great expanse of the universe and whisper: “Oh my God…” For others, it’s nature that takes your breath away. Maybe the birth of a baby filled you with joy and trembling. Perhaps you’ve witnessed a holy death in which the room was suffused with divine presence. Maybe it was in the embrace of a lover that you knew something of transcendence. Or maybe it was in church -- although though the chances of that are rather slim – because we want a God who is nice and predictable and easily controlled.
One of the great laments of the mainline church, and indeed, these days of all churches, is that we are shrinking. And somewhere along the way, we decided that the best way to reverse that trend was to make church look and feel like everything else. And so, we built churches that look like warehouses and we composed music with trite theology that sounds like jingles. And we flock to sermons that reduce 2000 years of Christianity to pop psychology. We decided that in order for the church to be relevant, it should be easy and familiar – a ready competition to every other entertainment. And we do all of this at the same time that study after study indicates that many young people who were not raised in church are actually drawn to church when it is unlike every other experience they have in their daily lives.
Worship is not meant to entertain us. Worship is meant to take us into the divine presence where sometimes the ground moves under our feet, and clouds of glory swirl, and love – deep and abiding and everlasting – holds this whole Universe together.
 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.