God Touches Humanity

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

The parallels between the stories of the Transfiguration—especially as it appears here in Matthew—and of Moses on Mount Sinai are too great to brush aside.  Think this through with me:

  • For starters, both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
  • Moses goes up on a mountain with three companions, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu; Jesus also goes up on a mountain with three companions, Peter, James, and John.
  • In Exodus, a cloud covers the mountain that Moses has climbed; in Matthew we read, “Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them.”
  • Sinai’s cloud covered the mountain for six days before Moses heard the Lord’s voice; Matthew uses the same number, six days, to indicate the time that has passed since Jesus taught his disciples about the coming of his kingdom.
  • When Moses comes down from the mountain, he has to cover his face due to its radiance; Jesus’s face is said to shine like the sun, and his clothes become dazzlingly white.
  • In the account in Exodus the cloud looks like fire to the Israelites on the plain below; the cloud in Matthew is described as bright.
  • In Exodus the people hear God’s voice and are afraid (cf. 20:18-19); so too in Matthew, where we read that the disciples, overcome with fear after hearing God’s voice, fall to the ground.
  • Even the backstories are similar: Moses is born at a time when Pharaoh has issued a sentence of death upon baby Hebrew boys; in Matthew, Jesus is born under a similar sentence from Herod.

Matthew clearly wants us to recall Moses.

So let’s go back in time for a bit to wrap our heads around the significance of these parallels.

In the ancient near east, mountains were understood to be a kind of pillar, to hold the sky in place.  The earth, especially the valleys and plains—the lowlands—made up the realm of humans; whereas the sky made up the realm of the gods.  Mountains, then, formed the bridge between earth and heaven, between humanity and the gods.

If you’re at all familiar with Greek mythology, for instance, then you know that oracles occurred high up on mountainsides.  In fact, if you travel to Greece today, you can hike up Mount Parnassus and visit a preserved temple high up on the mountain where Delphic Oracles are supposed to have been received.

So, that Moses was high up on a mountain is significant.  For there he was in a kind of buffer zone, a region to which he could ascend and to which God could descend—a place for a divine encounter.

Here Moses was seen by the people of Israel as a mediator between them and God.

Jesus, too, almost certainly would have been seen by Matthew’s original audience as a mediator between God and humanity.  The Transfiguration taking place on a mountainside brings this idea of Mediator into the spotlight.

Matthew was intentional here, to be sure.  He wanted his audience to think along these lines; for he was about to point out a key distinction.

Returning, then, to our comparison of mountains, this key difference is seen in the fear parallels.

When the Israelites heard the voice of God they cowered in fear; and they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

So too when the disciples with Jesus heard the voice of the heavenly Father say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”—when the disciples heard this they were overcome with fear.

But listen to the words that follow each passage:

  • Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
  • But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

In Exodus, God’s voice is something of a test of mettle, or courage, in order that the Israelites would stop sinning.  But in Matthew, there’s none of this.  In Matthew, God actually touches humanity physically.

Do you see?  With so many similarities between the two passages and just this one key difference, this has to be what Matthew is drawing our attention to: Jesus is not just a mediator, but God himself; and in Jesus, God actually touches humanity!

No more mountains to climb!  No more mediators to come between us and God!  But actual, physical, directly divine touch!

Yet . . . this incredible truth that we learn from the Transfiguration in no way truncates the truth we learn from Moses.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is indeed a comforting god who touches each of us personally, perhaps even carrying us at times, like that popular poem suggests.

But God is at the same time infinitely awesome, so far beyond us that what we can know about him effectively amounts to zero.

Is this a paradox?  Perhaps.  But don’t let a puzzle interfere with mystery!

I like to think of it this way.  God is indeed much too big to be contained within the walls of my physical body, his temple.  For that matter, God is too large to be contained within the walls of this church, or within the walls of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, or within the Episcopal Church, or within the global Anglican Communion, or within all of Christendom, or even within all earth, heaven, and the universe.  Certainly a small piece of bread and a sip of wine cannot contain God!

But, on quite the other hand, God is so great, grand, awesome, majestic, and glorious that he comes to us in something just so simple as a small piece of bread and a sip of wine—in something just so simple that it is held in the palms of our hands—in something just so simple as physical touch.

In the Transfiguration of Jesus, God touches humanity.  In the Eucharist, God touches us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: