Facials by God
Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
February 18, 2007
Exodus 34:29-35 Luke 9:28-36
A generation ago, the average American wouldn’t have had a clue what a facial was. I can’t imagine my Grandma from
But in the two Bible texts we’ve heard today, the changes in the appearance of the faces didn’t come from anyone’s concern about his skin. And the messages they sent came from God.
Let’s look first at the Exodus story about Moses. Moses comes down from
And this face scared his brother Aaron and all the rest of the Israelites. And why were they scared? Not because it looked weird, not because they’d never seen someone with a face like that. No, they were scared because this shining face meant that Moses had been talking—face-to-face—with God. And that’s a frightening thing.
And then there’s our New Testament story—Jesus’ transfiguration. A few days before this was when Jesus asked some of his disciples who the crowds said he was, and Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” And when he followed that up by telling them that he would “undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” So this is what was in the minds of Peter and John and James when Jesus took them up on a mountain to pray.
And “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (or in other translations, “his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning”). And of course Peter, good old impulsive Peter, jumps up to say that they ought to create three dwellings. Why? To commemorate the spot, I think, to build dwelling places to “hold” these three holy men.
But “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my
God’s glory. That’s what Moses’ face reflected, too. And glory is scary.
Glory is utterly beyond the ordinary. Glory is holiness. Glory is sacred; it is the opposite of our everyday world, the opposite of what some scholars call the “profane” world. The profane world is the “real” world, the world that is full of rising gas prices and exploding racial tensions, of migraine headaches and the bondage of migrant workers, of parking spaces filled with ice and t.v. shows filled with sexual exploitation. The profane world is us without God. It’s a world with no glory, no holiness. It’s a world with no hope of something more.
For that’s what glory is—it’s what allows us to believe that there’s something beyond this world, that there’s a God who transcends life as we know it. Glory is more than the milk of human kindness. It’s more than patience and love and generosity and all those wonderful things that humans can be and do. Glory is what we’re looking for at a funeral when we want reassurance that our loved one continues, in God. Glory is what we get an inkling of on Christmas Eve when the lights go out and—oh!—God is just almost right there. Glory is what we see reflected in wild thunderstorms driving the clouds through the sky and crashing the earth with sharp lightning and booming thunder.
But we can’t hang on to glory. We can’t get a handle on it any more than we can a spear of lightning or a sense of the advent of God or a glimpse of heaven.
We can get a handle on the commandments and the things that Jesus taught. They may be difficult, but they’re concrete. Feed my sheep. Care for the poor. Honor your mother and father. Love your neighbor. Take the beam out of your own eye before you go criticizing someone else for the mote in theirs. Keep the Sabbath. And following these teachings is terribly important.
But glory—holiness blazing with majesty—that’s also terribly important. It’s not something we can do. Rather it takes us beyond ourselves to a place where we have no control but where God rules. Glory is completely other—it’s not about us, it’s about God.
And of course, that’s why it’s scary. That’s why the Israelites were afraid to come close to Moses when his face was shining. We don’t always want to look at glory either. We like our lives and our worship to proceed “decently and in good order.” We’re sober and sensible people, and I’m not sure we want to be face to face with God any more than the Israelites did.
We do have ways, though, of dealing with God’s glory, ways that make it easier to handle. We do what Peter thought of: we build dwellings for it; we build sanctuaries for it. We say to ourselves, “Here, let’s honor God by building a church.” And it’s a bit more comfortable to think that we will encounter the deity when we’re dressed up and sitting in church than to go through our days wondering if a cloud is suddenly going to envelop our kitchens as we stand at the sink in our pajamas, with a voice breaking through and saying, “I am the Lord your God.”
And when we build those sanctuaries, we institutionalize glory. We come to church and sing about glory, but I wonder if we even hear the words, some days. “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Amen.”
But there’s a third response to God’s glory in these two scriptures. Moses ended up with a veil over his face so the people wouldn’t have to deal with it, and Peter wanted to build monuments, but in the end, after the voice had spoken and the cloud went away, and Jesus was there alone, the disciples “kept silent.” They didn’t know what this meant. A week earlier they’d heard that Jesus was going to suffer and die and (right) be resurrected, and that they would suffer along with him … and now here he was with his face changed and his clothing radiating light, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, and with God’s voice booming out, “This is my Son, my Chosen” … They had to be confused. And overwhelmed. And scared and elated and struck with the knowledge that this was BIG, this was way beyond them.
And they kept silent. I imagine that, as Luke said of Mary, they “pondered these things in their hearts.” They let this unbelievable experience into their hearts and ultimately were changed by it, by the glory of God. Peter still ended up denying Jesus, and the disciples still ended up huddling together in a locked room … but the glory was there, the glory was growing on them and in them.
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In what ways does God’s glory manifest itself in your life? Have you had moments when suddenly your life was transfigured by God? Or has God’s glory shown up in your life, like it has in mine, in an accumulation of Christmas Eve services and Easter services and just-any-old-Sunday services? Has God’s glory here and there brought you to tears while you sang a hymn? Have you stood in a mountain valley and suddenly had your breath taken away at God’s magnificent creation? Has a child’s voice cracked open your heart so that you heard the word of God?
We can’t make God’s glory appear for us. We can’t, on our own, make an experience holy. But we can arrange our lives so that when God’s glory is there, we won’t miss it, or turn away, or try to fit it into some preconceived, rational, orderly concept.
I read the story this week called “Stopping by a Red Light on a weekday Evening” by an associate editor at Sojourners. It tells of a man whose life practices make it possible for God’s glory to shine through, and I’d like to share it with you.
At the corner of 14th and Euclid Streets NW in
About 50 years old, he wears dark pants, white high-top sneakers, and the pizza company’s bright red shirt. In the dusty space between the cracked sidewalk and the asphalt, between the traffic light pole and a chipped green fire hydrant, he lays down a faded prayer rug and faces the rose-washed bricks of the apartment building toward the east.
As the sun slants behind him in the west, the Domino’s deliveryman lays out his blue and tan prayer rug and removes his shoes. Perhaps he thinks that this place is not as clean as it should be, or mourns that he is not with a community of believers. Perhaps he feels guilty that, with his work schedule, he cannot complete all the sunset prayers.
Still, he touches his forehead to the ground.
At that moment of prayer, he is not simply one more object in the urban landscape. Rather he has become a hierophany—a disruption of profane space by the manifestation of the divine—an occasion for glory to shine through. His act of praying transforms the cityscape into sacred space, holy ground.
For a time, strangers become neighbors, a red light becomes a Sabbath moment, and the frenetic urban energy slows perceptibly around him.
And I’d like to image that when he finishes his prayer and stands and puts his shoes back on, the motorists passing by—whether they are Muslim or Jewish or Christian or some other faith or lack of faith—that the motorists passing by get a glimpse of the glory of God shining in his face. They may not know what they have seen, but like Mary and the three disciples, they ponder these things in their hearts. And the glory of the Lord is round about them.
Friends, the glory of God is round about us as well. May we have faith that it is there and grace to see it shining through. Thanks be to God, who reigns in awesome power. Thanks be to God, who gives us grace to see. Amen.