There was another man who desperately needed to see God.
His name was Elijah.
Elijah was a highly unusual fellow. He had a wild appearance, much like a later prophet, John the Baptist. He was confrontational, no-nonsense, not one to back away from a showdown (well, most of the time). Though not the first prophet, he was the initiator of the prophetic era, from the 8th century down to Malachi, the end of special revelation in the Old Testament era.
Elijah’s prophetic calling, like that of many other prophets, brought him into direct confrontation with the perverted and unjust leadership of his nation, most especially Ahab and his pagan Tyrian wife Jezebel. At Elijah’s command, Israel receives no rain for three long years (1K 17.1), a drought that certainly devastated the land economically. As the drought is about to end, Elijah faces down the priests of the Canaanite god Baal on Mt Carmel, calling down fire from heaven and massacring the priests (1K 18.21-40).
Seeking vengeance for her god Baal, Queen Jezebel pronounces a fatwa on the prophet (1K 19.2), who, in a highly uncharacteristic response, runs for his life. (We all have our moments, don’t we?) Elijah heads for the safety and anonymity of the Wilderness, the Negeb, to the south. There, beyond Beersheba, he slumps in the shade of a brush tree and asks God to kill him.
He’s pretty low.
But God will have none of that. He sends a messenger to give him two hearty meals with a good sleep in between (1K 19.5-7). And then he directs him further south, deeper into the desert, to a place that’s familiar to us: Mt Horeb.
We may not recognize the name, but we’ll recognize the place. This is Mt Sinai, the mount of God, where Israel had been constituted as a nation, where Moses had communed with God face to face, where God had given Moses his spoken and written Law, where God had placed him in a crevice of the rock face and covered him with his hand while he passed by in his glory.
This is the place where God has revealed himself in the past, and where he is about to reveal himself again.
But this one is very different.
God speaks calmly to Elijah, asking him simple questions. And then there’s activity reminiscent of the thunderings and lightnings that enveloped the mountain in Moses’ day—there’s a hurricane-force wind that actually breaks off the rocks on the mountain’s face, and then there’s an earthquake, and then a raging fire. Sound and fury.
But God, the text says, is not in these things (1K 19.11-12). Not this time.
God is in the still small voice that follows.
It’s the voice of a call. God calls him, authorizes him, to prepare the next generation of leadership—the next king of Syria, the next king of Israel, and then, last, the next prophet, the one who will take his own place.
God reveals himself not in a visible form, not this time. He reveals himself in a calling.
Both of these men, Moses and Elijah, experienced remarkable things. But we get a sense—the narrator seems to want us to think this way—that the men have been left a little short. Moses has begged to see God’s face, but he hasn’t. Elijah has despaired of God’s presence and protection to the point of death, and he gets a quiet voice.
Is God the kind of person who will leave things there for those men?
Eight centuries later another man takes three close friends to another mountaintop. And in an astonishing moment, this ordinary-looking man, another itinerant prophet, begins to shine with the glory that Moses has begged to see (Mt 17.1-2). He is revealed as not merely a prophet, but God himself in human form, God the Son, the Beloved One—the perfect and complete revelation of the Father.
And suddenly two other men are there.
Moses. And Elijah.
They finally got their vision.
And we receive that vision as well, when we see Jesus, God’s perfect self-revelation, the Living Word revealed perfectly in the Written Word, the Scripture.
You’d think we’d spend more time reading it.