Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon for Transfiguration, "Beyond the Veil"

Sermon 2/14/10, Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36


Beyond the Veil

Can you think of times when someone’s face has seemed particularly radiant to you? Many people of course comment that pregnant women have a glow about them – something on their face that tells the precious thing they’re carrying with them. On this Valentine’s Day, maybe we can think of the look shared between two that are just about to be married at a wedding ceremony, while they are saying vows and exchanging rings and waiting for the pastor to announce them married. I think children’s faces can have a radiant glow, when they just throw back their heads and laugh at something that strikes them funny, with their eyes sparking with pure joy.

Have you ever encountered someone whose face was so radiant that it was hard to look at? Think of how we know that it can damage your vision to look directly into the sunlight. It’s simply too bright, too powerful for us to gaze at for any length of time, on a clear day. Yesterday I was driving west along Route 5 just at sunset, and the sun was so bright that people kept slowing down in traffic, because it was ironically so bright that it was hard to see.

If you keep these images in mind, you might have an easier time grasping today’s special day. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s one of those strange Sundays that’s a special day on the Liturgical Calendar, but that no one really knows about or understands or gets excited about. It’s the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, the last Sunday in-between season after Epiphany. And it marks the day when Jesus is ‘transfigured’ on the mountain, in the presence of Peter and John and James. Transfigured here means that Jesus’ appearance changes in a way that his glory, his divinity, becomes particularly transparent, easy for the disciples there to witness. Now why does this event get its own special Sunday in our calendar? I hope after we study our texts today we’ll see more clearly.

Our three scripture lessons weave together perfectly today. First, we read in Exodus a passage about how the people react to Moses after he comes down from the mountain, having encountered God. Moses has been spending time on Mount Sinai receiving commandments from God, which will be the law of the people. And mountains, throughout the scriptures, represent holy ground places where people can go to be close to God. We don’t find it so different today, perhaps – people often find mountain-tops to be awe-inspiring, if not holy places, and people often refer to encounters with the holy and spiritual highs as “mountain-top experiences.” So, when Moses comes down from the mountain, his face is shining, glowing, because of his encounter with God. But somehow, the people find Moses difficult to look at – his shining face makes them uncomfortable, fearful. And so Moses starts wearing a veil when he comes down the mountain, so that the people can listen to his message from God without having to be so frightened. The veil is a distancing device – Moses gets close to God, but the people seem too afraid to ever draw too close, even to Moses. The veil separates them from the reflection of God’s holiness in Moses’ face.

In our lesson from 2 Corinthians, Paul picks up on this very passage. Paul says through the Spirit, through Christ, we have hope, that allows us to act with boldness. He sees followers of Jesus in contrast with Moses and the Israelites. “When one turns to the Lord,” he says, “the veil is removed . . . and all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image.” In other words, when the veil is removed, God is allowed to shine through us, be reflected back at us, so that we are actually transformed by our encounter with God. Essentially, Paul sees that the Israelites seemed to remain at a distance from God. But in Christ, that distance is overcome, and not only to we experience closeness with God, but we, made in God’s image, can reflect God to others. He’s hitting on some themes that we might here about at Christmastime. Remember, Jesus is born as God-with-us, Emmanuel. Jesus’ birth is all about God eliminating any distance between us and God. God is with us, in us, when we move beyond the veil of separation.

Finally, in our gospel lesson, we read about the event known as the transfiguration of Jesus. The passage opens with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings,” and this lead in refers to Jesus teaching about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection, after Peter calls Jesus the Messiah in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” So eight days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. While there, his face changes and his clothes seem dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear with Jesus, speaking with him about what was soon to happen. We read that Peter and company had been sleepy, but “since they had stayed awake, they saw [Jesus’] glory.” As Moses and Elijah are leaving, Peter, not sure how to interpret the experience, offers to build dwellings on the mountain for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But instead, they are overshadowed by a cloud, a terrifying experience, and from inside the cloud they hear God’s voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And then they find that they are alone with Jesus. And at first, they tell no one about what had seen.

When we think about our passage from Exodus, we can see that looking at Moses’ face made the people afraid. Experiencing God, even second hand, seemed to be a frightening experience. I had a hard time understanding this, as I read the passage. Why would the people be frightened by seeing how Moses changed after being with God? Wouldn’t they want to experience this closeness to God for themselves? Why weren’t they clamoring to get up the mountain too? Why wasn’t everyone trying to race to the top to hear God’s voice for themselves.

But as I thought about the story of the Israelites, I remembered what a tumultuous relationship they had with God and with Moses, who tried to keep them in relationship with God. It’s a story of repeated disobedience, turning away from God, doing their own thing, and blaming God when there are negative consequences to what they do. I think, perhaps, the Israelites weren’t racing up the mountain because they didn’t actually want to get much closer to God than they always were. Although I think they appreciated being God’s people and all, sometimes I think they also resented God’s interference in their being able to live their lives any way they pleased. Are we any different? I’ve always disliked Bette Midler’s famous song, “From a Distance,” where the refrain says, “God is watching us from a distance.” My understanding of God isn’t a God who is far off in space looking down at us, but of a close God who wants to dwell with and in us. But I think maybe her song captures how we’d actually rather have God – looking on from a distance, not close enough to see when we’re doing what we know isn’t God’s will for us, when we’re treating one another so carelessly, when we’re going the opposite way from what we know is the right path. Maybe then we do wish God was watching only from a safe distance. Maybe we like a veil that separates us from God. Because if God gets too close to us – maybe we’re afraid being so close to God will make us change, really change, when we’re getting along fair enough just as we are.

Paul says though that getting along fair enough just as we are is a pretty week imitation of the kind of life God actually wants us to have. Paul argues that in Christ we find boldness to set aside the veil, and let God really see us, let us really see ourselves. With unveiled faces, Paul says, we see God’s glory – and instead of it being frightening, we find that it’s as easy as looking in the mirror, because with Christ in us, we actually reflect God to others. When we really see ourselves, Paul says, we can get rid of the things in our lives that we’ve been hiding, and we can be open in the sight of God and neighbor.

We see in the gospels that this is what Jesus’ ministry is about – pulling aside the veils that people had in place, separating them from God. Jesus did this first by example, and so we see him continually seeking out God, seeking closeness, and here today Jesus is going again up the mountain to pray. Peter and James and John – Jesus seeks to bring them right into God’s holy presence. They’re scared, just like the Israelites are scared. But even though they have no idea what to do, they stay. Even though they’re sleepy, they keep awake. They don’t want to miss out. Even though it will change them, they don’t want to pass up this experience.

In fact, the only problem becomes that they want to stay up on the mountain. Peter offers to build dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Now that he’s finally drawn so close to the holy, he doesn’t want to leave. We can relate to this, I think. When we finally feel close to God, who hasn't wanted to stay in whatever the place is where God seems so close and available? Who hasn't wanted to extend a school vacation that seems so restful? Who hasn't wanted to slow the passing of time when things are fun and joy filled? We have a hard enough time finding God, or letting God find us, finally removing the veil – we certainly don't want to hurry off the mountain when we finally make the connection.

The things is, in God's wisdom, we're not meant to stay on the mountain, as comforting as it may be for us to be there. As Peter said to Jesus, it is indeed good for us to be close to God. But imagine, imagine if Jesus had shared Peter's sentiments, and decided to stay with Moses and Elijah on the mountain? There would be no Good Friday crucifixion, and no Easter resurrection. Imagine if Moses had not come down to the Israelites after talking with God. There would be no commandments brought down to the people who certainly needed structure. Imagine if you and I stayed on the mountain where we found God - there would be no spreading of the gospel that Christ commanded us to share. No one new would ever hear about God's love. And self-indulging, we would soon grow less appreciative of the way we were experiencing God. We’re called up the mountain, and into the holy, but we’re called back down too, so that we can help draw others closer to God and share our experience.

But when we remove the veil between us and God, whether we’re on the mountain top or in the valleys, God goes with us. Sometimes we have to look harder, listen more carefully, risk more completely, but we can find God in the valley, on the plains, and in the people, as well as on the mountaintop.

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face, but with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God reflected as in a mirror, shining out from our souls. Amen.

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