Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

For today, I decided to post my sermon that I preached on the 18th of February. My reasons for doing so are (a) I do want to share it with you all (b) I have a lot of reading left for the evening and (c) if I were to do a post it would be all about how much I hate living at Drew, and I'd rather be in a better frame of mind to reflect meaningfully on the situation rather than wanting to kneecap everyone in Facilities, Housing, and Residence Life for placing me in an apartment afflicted by carbon monoxide. So, in the interest of my own psychological well-being, we have: "With Our Faces Unveiled"

I can only imagine what it must have been like for Peter, James and John up on that mountain with Jesus. Everything seems normal, and then all of a sudden something incredible happens. Jesus changes, out of nowhere, Moses and Elijah appear! Now to the disciples, this would have been a big deal. Moses and Elijah weren’t just ordinary biblical characters, but foundational figures of the Jewish faith. It would be like a modern day baseball fan meeting Babe Ruth, or a classical music fanatic seeing Beethoven appear right in front of their eyes. Moses and Elijah to them were the stuff of legends. And on top of seeing Judaism’s spiritual dynamic duo, a cloud breaks forth, and God’s voice booms out over the mountain top. Now, what I wouldn’t give to hear God’s voice speaking to me!

We hear these kinds of stories all the time: stories about people who have had intense spiritual experiences. There are stories from the mystics, from our spiritual mothers and fathers, and from people who have had near death experiences, to name a few, and all of them in some way express their own personal encounter with Christ. One example comes from Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Christian mystic who recorded the visions that she received. I want to share with you one of her visions which comes from her first collection of visions:

“I saw a great mountain the color of iron, and enthroned on it One of such great glory that it blinded my sight. On each side of him there extended a soft shadow, like a wing of wondrous breadth and length. Before him, at the foot of the mountain, stood an image full of eyes on all sides, in which, because of those eyes, I could discern no human form. In front of this image stood another, a child wearing a tunic of subdued color but white shoes, upon whose head such glory descended from the One enthroned upon that mountain that I could not look at its face. But from the One who sat enthroned upon that mountain many living sparks sprang forth, which flew very sweetly around the images. Also, I perceived in this mountain many little windows, in which appeared human heads, some of subdued colors and some white.”

Now, we all probably haven’t had experiences exactly like this one or times where the clouds break forth, angels descend, and we hear the voice of God speaking directly to us, but in some way we’ve likely had our own “mountain top experiences” – times when we have felt so close to God and energized by that presence that we felt as if Jesus was standing right there beside us. As Celtic Christians understood it, these are times when the veil between this world and the next seems thin, and communication happens between heaven and earth. In these moments, we get glimpses of the glory of God. We may feel this way during or after a spiritual retreat. It may be at the birth of a child. It may be after a deep conversation with a friend or a parent. We may even feel this way sometimes out in nature, or during a particularly moving worship service. Regardless of where and how, these “mountain top experiences” are times when we feel God with us. We feel, in some sense, “on top of the world.” We feel exhilarated. Enlivened. Invigorated. At peace. Refreshed.

These moments can be powerful. I’ve mentioned before how the SEARCH retreat that I went on earlier this year was a mountain-top experience for me, and I believe that others who were there that weekend would describe their experience similarly. It’s difficult to put it into words, except to say that God was truly present with us as we met at the retreat center (which, incidentally, was on the top of a mountain). Christ met us as we were gathered there to worship, to learn, to fellowship and to grow in our Christian faith. It was amazing to watch how a room of complete strangers came together and became Christ to one another through times of difficult sharing, times of worship, and times of laughter. God worked in very tangible ways that weekend. There was power in our encounter with Christ, but the real power was in the transformation that occurred as a result of that experience, which was youth and adults alike recommitting themselves to their spiritual lives.

There are other characters in the Bible who have had encounters with God that could be termed “mountain top experiences.” One such story is that of Moses as he came down from Mount Sinai in the 34th chapter of Exodus that we read today. Moses had been up on this mountain speaking with God, and God had been giving him some of the laws for the Israelites to follow. Moses was up on that mountain with God for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating or drinking anything. When Moses finally came down the mountain, he was carrying two stone tablets with the 10 commandments inscribed on them. What’s more, however, was that Moses’ face was glowing as he came down the mountain. But Aaron and the Israelites, instead of being happy that their leader had just returned, were afraid of him, which makes me think that Moses’ makeover wasn’t just the result of a new skin care product, or just because he just had a really great time chatting with God. No…I imagine it looked more like Moses had a radioactive accident up on that mountain – that his skin was literally glowing. His face shone because he had been up on the mountain with God, and he radiated with the residue of the shining brilliance of God’s glory. This change in Moses’ complexion frightened his brother Aaron and all the Israelites, so much so that they were afraid to get close to him and that Moses had to walk around with a veil over his face. He would take this veil off whenever he went to talk to God, but when he was out in public, that veil went right back on.

As this story suggests to us, there is something tangibly different about those who have encountered the glory of God, and who have allowed that encounter to transform their lives. It doesn’t matter if the experience was brilliant, like Moses coming down off the mountain, or something more subtle, like a night star-gazing with friends or holding a child as they fall asleep in your arms. What truly matters is how those encounters get under our skin; how we, in those moments, let Christ enter in. This change shouldn’t merely happen inside of us, but be noticeable to those around us.

Contrast Moses’ visible, physical sign of transformation with Peter, James, and John, who went up the mountain with Jesus and witnessed him in all his glory. As if watching Jesus’ face change wasn’t dramatic enough, they too had God speak directly to them, saying “This is my Son, My Chosen, Listen to him!” Peter even wanted to stay up on that mountain indefinitely by asking to put up tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah; he wanted to bask in the glory of that moment. And yet, when they came down the mountain, nothing about them had changed. The disciples were no different than they were before. They couldn’t even cast out the spirit from the afflicted boy – Jesus had to do it for them. The people down on the ground were astounded by this miracle, and yet the three disciples had just witnessed something that was far greater…and it didn’t affect them. What could have been a transforming experience for the disciples became just another ordinary event. Their encounter with Christ didn’t change them at all.

Change, understandably, can be scary and unsettling. For instance, take the Israelites’ reaction to Moses. They were afraid of his physical transformation. But why? Were they afraid that it was more than just Moses’ face that had changed? Were they worried that somehow, Moses was a different person? And why did Moses accommodate that fear by wearing a veil around them?

I think we ask these same questions of ourselves when we come face to face with Christ. As Christians, we are called to live changed lives, but what does this change mean? Does this mean we are different people? That we are no longer ourselves? Who are we once we experience God’s glory? Do we, like Moses, wear a veil to shield others from the effects of the change within us?

Paul gives an answer to this question in 2 Corinthians. He says in 3:18: “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 from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Let me say them again: “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 from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Allowing ourselves to be changed by encountering God means that, far from becoming different people, we are being transformed into people God created us to be. We are being transformed into the image of Christ. We are still ourselves; we are still the same people. The difference comes as we grow into the people God indented us to be: people with unveiled faces. With our unveiled faces, we are able to experience the fullness of God’s glory and reflect that glory to others. But if we keep our veils on, other people around us cannot see that glory.

“Mountain top experiences” aren’t something that we have every day, and we aren’t supposed to have them every day. We are called to live life off of the mountain. As soon as Jesus and his disciples climbed down the mountain, life went back to normal. He continued healing people, casting out demons, and his disciples continued to ask their questions. In the midst of mundane everyday life, these intense encounters with God tend to fade in our memories. So how do we live as people with our faces unveiled in the midst of everyday life? If these experiences lose their strength over time, how can we sustain ourselves?

Although Moses walked around with his veil on, his example points us in the right direction. He would take off his veil when he went to speak with God. It’s important that in God’s presence, we have our veils off. Even though life at times may cause us to wear a veil over our faces, we are completely free to be ourselves when we are before God, because God already knows us and loves us anyway! But just having our veils off before God isn’t enough. We also need to keep that regular communication with God: through prayer, through reading the Scriptures, through worship, and through fellowship with other Christians. These actions are all necessary to living life with our veils off our faces, because these encounters with God will also transform us into the image of Jesus Christ. The more often we do this, the easier it is to keep our veils off and the easier it is to live as a reflection of God’s glory.

As Christians, we are called to live our lives with unveiled faces. We are called to take those “mountain top experiences” – those sacred moments of our lives – and allow them to transform us into the image of Christ. We are called to live into the people who God created us to be. We are called to mirror the glory of Christ to those around us. This week I challenge all of us to keep the veil off of our faces, so that everyone might see Christ’s glory reflected in us. AMEN

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