“With the bright cloud, Jesus said, I am here for you”

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29. January 2023


Matthew 17:1-9

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them….” Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. And on the seventh day, He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

The deliverance from the bondage of Egypt was done. That lay behind them. Now the wilderness lay before them. The exodus-ing Israel asks: Where is God now? Back in Egypt, there were some things you could be sure of. Meat pots and bread, along with hard work and infanticide. But here, there is an uncertain future and only the promise of a return to Canaan. Here there was only God to rely on, but where is He now? As it is with God: Everywhere and nowhere. But that’s no good. 

So, God located Himself for them. With the bright cloud, He said I am here for you. With His words, He locates Himself and with His name. The bright cloud is called His shekinah and His glory. “The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days, and on the seventh day, he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” Or, if you prefer, “After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves;  and He was transfigured before them” (Mt 17:1).

Words and cloud. There is God. But His presence is earth-shattering. Lightning flashes and thunders crash. Even the mountains melt like wax before Him. Who can survive? “The glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire.” Or, more precisely, the preacher of Hebrews proclaimed: “Serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). 

“And Moses entered the cloud.” No doubt, the people thought they’d never see Him again. Not so. The Lord gave Moses the words he was to speak to the people of Israel. They were to have a tabernacle and, in that tent, the ark of the covenant with its mercy seat. “There I will meet with you” (Ex. 25:22). Hence “tent of meeting.” Not that the people meet, but the Lord meets them with His words. “I will speak with you.” That tent would be the location of the Divine Service for God’s gift-giving for His people. 

While Moses was being given the words of the Lord in the cloud on the mountain, the people grew impatient. The people thought: “Moses is gone, so we had better make our own arrangements, our own gods, gods who will perform for us what we want.” Idols are our attempts to locate gods and fix them, so they work the way we want them to. Gods we make are not stronger than we who make them. They cannot stand the strain of being God, and when they break, those who trust in them break with them. When people rebel against God to destroy Him, it is not God who is destroyed. “The Lord sent a plague upon the people” (Ex. 32:35). To be dealt with by God means either life or death. The attempt to replace or specify Him (Gen. 3:5) treats Him as an enemy, so He is. His wrath upon sin spells death.

The good news is that to those wandering in the wilderness, wondering whether God still cares about them, He locates Himself for them in mercy. Already the bright cloud (Ex. 13:21), “In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you” (Ex. 20:24; 20:2). “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12 berith formula). Where the cloud, His name, His words, His tabernacle, there is He among them for them. Calling and speaking to them, He makes them His people. His commitment, His covenant, is sealed with blood, and they eat and drink with the Lord on the mountain.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, the brightness is located in Jesus. “[Jesus] was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matt. 17:2). Moses is there again, plus Elijah (the Law and the Prophets, that is, the Old Testament/Covenant). Words pass between them. “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39). Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus shows those two how He is about to fulfill the Word they were given. They speak of Jesus’ death (Luke 9:31). “‘All things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44). 

“This is great,” Peter blurts out and wants to stay. Last time Moses had forty days and forty nights. The next thing, the only thing that needs to be added from last time, is a tent. So, Peter proposes three. But his idea is swallowed up in the cloud. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And from the cloud, that is from God, comes words which identify the tent already there. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 

This time God’s words are not by way of Moses but by His own Son, identified with words from Isaiah as the Suffering Servant. Finally, this is all too much. The truth is overwhelming. The disciples’ faces are on the ground; they have nothing more to say. On that ground, Jesus comes to them and lifts them. Now is only Jesus. Jesus draws them with Him down from this mountain and onto the next one. There the words from the cloud are fulfilled, words at His baptism. “Truly, this was the Son of God.”

With the Gesima Sundays and Lent, we begin moving on with Him from the Mount of Transfiguration to Mount Golgotha. There is the final glory. “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (John 13:31). There, the final deliverance is done. “It is finished!” (John 19:30). 

But where is He now? He continues to tent among His delivered and redeemed people (tent of meeting): in His words and the water with His name. In the bread and wine of His body and blood, “The blood of the covenant” (Ex. 24:8), There are the twelve again. The Lord has His Israel. “Poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” “My blood.” We eat and drink with God and are not destroyed (Ex. 24:11). So we proclaim His death and our death for sin. Once and for all! No more sacrifices for sin at the old tent (Matt. 24:51) now that the sacrifice has been made in the temple of His body, destroyed and risen again (John 2:19; 1:14). More glorious than Mount Sinai or the Mount of Transfiguration is this place, the Mount Zion of His dwelling. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin

Based on a sermon by Rev. Dr. Noman Nagel of blessed memory.