The Last Sunday after Epiphany
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Exodus 34:29-35

Unlike Noah, Moses was never considered blameless in his generation. Unlike Noah, who never interceded on behalf of his people caught up in corruption and violence, and who battened down the hatch of the ark as the raindrops fell, eventually killing his fellow earthlings, Moses is the great intercessor of his people.

Even more so than Abraham, who masterfully bargained with God to save Sodom over as many as fifty or as few as ten righteous inhabitants, Moses appealed to God on behalf of his stiff-necked brothers and sisters and wouldn’t budge until the Lord pardoned his apostate people.

He is called “the servant of the Lord” in the Scriptures because he himself was ready to be blotted out of “the book [God had] written,” if God decided that annihilation would be the fate of his people who had made “gods of gold.”

Moses, therefore, is the great defender, the steadfast shepherd of the Hebrew people. He is, according to some Jewish thinkers, Isaiah’s suffering servant, in the sense that, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

As Frederick Buechner has said of Moses, “Whenever Hollywood cranks out a movie about him, they always give the part to somebody like Charlton Heston with some fake whiskers glued on. The truth of the matter is he probably looked a lot more like Tevye the Milkman after ten rounds with Mohammed Ali.” Buechner is probably right. And much of Moses’ experience that equaled going ten rounds with Mohammed Ali came through his perseverance in helping his people—not by standing above them, but by being with them.

For forty years Moses roughed it in the wilderness, listening to the people bellyache about the lack of bread and water, hearing them romanticize about the fleshpots back in Egypt and tell about how they should have had the good sense never to leave the certainty of Egyptian bondage in the first place.

When Moses went up to the mountain on their behalf to receive the law, and was delayed for a few days, it took them no time to melt their jewelry and make it into a god of their own likeness and image—thereby offending a jealous God whose refusal to be controlled comes through in his name: “I will be who I will be.”

No wonder, when Moses came down from the mountain, his anger at the people burned as hot as the burning bush. Nevertheless, there he was the next day, interceding on behalf of the apostate, those who had turned away from the true faith. Moses stood with his people despite their sin; he stood with them as he prayed. He was a model of steadfast love.

Among the Hasidic tales, there is a story about a rabbi who learned the meaning of this love when he went to an inn and overheard a conversation between two drunken peasants:
“Do you love me?”asks one of the patrons. “Certainly I love you,” replied the other. “I love you like a brother.” But the first shook his head and insisted, “You don’t love me. You don’t know what I lack. You don’t know what I need.” The second peasant fell into sullen silence, but the rabbi understood: To know the need of another human being and to bear the burden of their sorrow: that is the true love of one person for another.

And this love only exists in mutual relationship, in that dialogue in which one experiences the other’s side of the relationship, and knows the person from within. Each person needs to be loved, not from her general or universal humanity, but in her uniqueness, in who that person is and isn’t, in what she has and in what she lacks.

It’s like the old proverb: “If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, you first have to go all the way down into the mud and the filth yourself. Then take hold of him, with strong hands, and pull him and yourself into the light.”

From the top of the mountain as he peered over into the promised land, Moses heard what must have been shattering news. God told Moses that because he, like the rest of the Hebrews, “broke faith with [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin,” he would not be able to enter the land that God was giving to the Israelites.

We can only begin to know old Moses’ heartache when he received the news that the goal of his life would be accomplished without his being around to see it. But Maybe, Moses understood. There’s a quote, one of my favorite quotes, and I don’t even know who said it originally, but it goes, “A man begins to understand the meaning of life when he plants trees under whose shade he knows he will never sit.” I think maybe Moses understood what it was to be a planter of shade trees.

And maybe, what Moses had to fall back on, in the dark hour of his disappointment, was what the Church has claimed Jesus fell back on as he went to the cross. That holy moment when on the mountain both Jesus and Moses were encompassed by that brilliantly shining Light. The moment when the mysterium tremendum – the tremendous mystery – grasped them and reassured them that God was with them and was giving them the strength to carry through with the suffering that lay before them.

Maybe, in the end, that’s all any of us have to fall back on. Those special moments of grace when the glory of the Lord breaks in upon us, letting us know we are not alone, that we
are indeed beloved children of the Most High, and that, despite appearances to the contrary, our light will not be overcome by the darkness. For it is in this experience of God’s in-breaking power, that we are empowered to hold fast to the ministry God has given us, particularly when that ministry involves great suffering. Grace is indeed made perfect in weakness.

In 1982, Mother Teresa was awarded an honorary degree by Georgetown University. The mighty little saint, clothed in her trademark blue-trimmed sari and blue sweater, and through
whom the light of Christ shined so brightly, ended her acceptance speech with the simple, yet profound message of the Transfiguration:
“Don’t be afraid. God loves you.You are precious to him. He says, ‘I have called you by name. You are mine. Water cannot drown you. Fire will not burn you. I will give up nations for you. You are precious to me. I love you.”

Remember that as you enter into this holy Lent, in fasting, and prayer, and as you search for a deeper meaning and understanding of God’s presence in your life.

Remember that God loves you. And may all of us experience a transfiguration and transformation in our lives that, like Moses and like Jesus, will bring us to true Easter joy.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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