There's Fire on the Mountain

We get an illustration of how the glory of the Lord works and what effect it has on us in Exodus 24:12,15-18. On Mount Sinai, the glory of the Lord appeared, There's Fire on the Mountain, and that fire brings us deliverance! February 3, 2008.

            “The glory of the Lord!”  Have you ever stopped to think, “What does that really mean?”  It’s so familiar.  We hear it all the time.  When we use an order of worship called the Common Service, we sing, “Glory to God in the highest,” and in another version, “Glory be to God on high.”  Before the reading of the gospel, we sing, “Glory be to you, O Lord.”  In the Service of Word and Sacrament we sing, “O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is your name in all the earth.”  I don’t know about you, but no matter how many times I hear Handel’s Messiah, I can’t help feeling like I’m lifted right off my when the choir sings, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord.”

            But just what is the “glory of the Lord”?  To get a handle on that grand Bible phrase, think of it in terms of fire.  Imagine what would happen if you were jammed into Uihlein Hall at the Center for Performing Arts for a concert, and someone shouted, “Fire!”  Then you would have some idea of what the glory of God can be like and what it can do to people.  But there’s more to it.  Fire can be bad or good.  Fire is bad if it burns things you like or if it burns you, but it’s good if it cooks food so you can eat or provides much needed warmth.  We get an illustration of how the glory of the Lord works and what effect it has on us in the first Scripture lesson from the book of Exodus.  It is obvious that, There’s Fire on the Mountain.

The fire on Mount Sinai means danger

            When God led Moses and the people of Israel through the wilderness to the promised land, he took them way out of the way to a place called Mount Sinai so he could talk to them about what to expect if they were going to be connected to him.  He called to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction When Moses went up the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 12,15-16a).  The people were only too happy to let Moses climb up that mountain because they had no desire to get close to God.  Imagine that!  The nation created and shaped by God, the nation known as “the people of God,” didn’t want to get close to him and didn’t want God to come too close to them!  They were content when a cloud covered the top of the mountain and obscured God’s presence.  “Go ahead, Moses!  You go up there.  Good luck!”  You can almost hear an Israelite breathing a sigh of relief, “Good thing God didn’t call on me to go up!”  To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.

            They felt that way because they were human beings.  It is normal and natural for human beings to want to escape the glare and glory of the holy God because his glory can function like a forest fire.  People who live in an area threatened by a forest fire wonder how close it will get before they have to flee.  God’s glory can be like lightning, which is nothing to fool all around with.  Even the most avid outdoors lovers will run for cover if lightning is seen nearby.  No wonder the Israelites were afraid when they saw the glory of the Lord appear as a consuming fire.  There’s Fire on the Mountain!

            God called Moses up the mountain, closer to the lightning, into the fire itself, because God had some words to speak to him for all the Israelites.  His words were powerful and sharper than any double-edged sword judging the thoughts and intentions of a person’s heart (He 4:12).  From his holiness came commands, “Do this” and “Don’t do that.”  Each word came like a bolt of lightning or a flash of flame, setting the standards for what is required to be near God in his glory.  The Israelites were frightened by those demands because failure to match up meant God’s condemning fire.  There’s Fire on the Mountain!

            That fire of the Lord, that holy glory of God, wouldn’t be so bad if our sinfulness didn’t make us like kindling wood.  The danger of fire from God is extremely high because of the inborn bad guy or bad girl which likes to play with matches.  When God says, “Don’t!” our sinful nature turns our head away with an indifferent, “So!”  When God says, “Do!” our sinful side leans back on its elbows, asking, “What’s in it for me?”  Each time we fiddle with what is forbidden, we run the risk of kindling a flame that can consume us.  Perhaps it is our tongue.  It may be our hands, or our eyes, or our thoughts.  But whenever we do or say or think something wrong, we are imitating the people of Israel who kindled the fire of God’s anger when Moses was on Mount Sinai.  Just a moment’s carelessness lets the flame of sin jump to a wider area.

            When Moses came down the mountain to find the people burning with passion for others gods, he broke the tablets of stone in front of them.  That was symbolic of God’s anger against them, and that’s what happened.  Thousands died in a plague, and, when they later refused to enter the promised land, God said, “Everyone over age twenty will die during the next forty years of wilderness wandering.”  The wilderness looked like a fire-scarred landscape with bodies dropping along the way.  That’s what happens to people who blow off word and will of God.  It may not happen right away, but in the end God’s judgment burns up those who reject him.  And that’s what would to us if left to ourselves – a pile of ashes and rubble.

The fire on Mount Calvary means deliverance

            But God does not let destruction prevail.  On the barren scene of our sin-filled lives the wind of his Holy Spirit blows ashes away.  Where charred embers smolder with reminders of the fires of judgment, the gentle rainfall of his redeeming love comes floating down.  God has another word to speak.  It is a word of recovery and rescue.  It is a word of deliverance and delight.  He sends a message which digs into the ashes and residue of the fire damage and creates new life.  That message has everything to do with his Son, Jesus.

            The coming of Jesus is not what reporters today would call a hot news item.  No thunder and lightning, no forest fire called attention to his presence in our world.  But he came at God’s right time and in God’s right way.  Jesus burned with zeal in doing God’s will (John 2:17).  During his entire life on earth he observed the commands of God and took no chances toying with danger.

            Then, six months before the end of his ministry, Jesus climbed a mountain.  This day we observe the Transfiguration of our Lord.  It is a day in which we celebrate the glow that comes from the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the person of Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:4).  Jesus climbed that mountain, and as true God he knew full well what was going to happen.  Yet, since he was and is also fully human, those thoughts were not particularly pleasant.  “Was it going to be worth all the effort, all the pain, all the abuse, all the torture?”  God the Father answered on that mountain, “Yes!”  Could sins be paid for in any other way?”  God the Father answered on that mountain, “No!”  On that Mount of Transfiguration, God the Father reinforced his Son.  There all Jesus’ divine glory came shining through.  There God’s spokesmen of the past, Moses and Elijah, said, “Keep on track!  You are on target to fulfill everything God promised through us.”  There God’s spokesmen of the future, the apostles, received sure testimony so that they could write, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories but were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16).  That trip up the Mount of Transfiguration was a shot in the arm for Jesus, for his disciples, and for us because there are times when we, too, might wonder, “Is this all true?”

            Yes, it is, because six months later he climbed another mountain called Calvary, and there was fire on that mountain, too.  It was the fire of hell, the fire which should have been aimed at us.  But with his blood Jesus quenched the fire of condemning judgment that our sins had sparked.  God’s wrath burned against him instead of us, and by that Jesus became the line of safety that separates us from the fire of God’s punishment.

            According to mythology, a mysterious bird, called the Phoenix, reached the end of its life and burned up in fire.  But then it rose from the ashes to begin a new life.  By the water of our baptism we are covered with a water-soaked blanket and protected from the flames of hell.  Now we bask in the warm glow of his loving glory, and the glory of God is translated into a torch of freedom.  He lights our way.  He warms us at the fireplace of his word when we are weak and afraid, chilled from our exposure to life’s cold, hard realities.  Now we see his glory in a whole new light.  Instead of scaring us, it warms our hearts.  Our reaction to the glory of the Lord is like that of the disciples who were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and wanted to continue to experience of his glory.  Our reaction is like that of the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus on Easter said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32).  Jesus comes to us in Word and sacrament and kindles a flame that warms our hearts and can warm the hearts of others who are burned out by life, burned up by the lovelessness of others, or inflamed by their own sin.  We get to pass the torch of God’s glory on to them.

            The pyrotechnics of Mount Sinai cannot inspire that kind of love for God and that kind of willing service.  But today we are on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus.  What a view!  From there we look back and see Mount Sinai with the burning, holy glory which exposes our sin and can leave us in ashes.  Then, we turn one hundred eighty degrees and see Mount Calvary with Jesus’ blood flowing to give us new life.  And from this Mount of Transfiguration we look even farther into the future and see Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God, and we know that our glorious Lord Jesus is leading us there.  To God be the glory!  Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on February 3, 2008

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