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With Unveiled Faces

With Unveiled Faces

Reading: Luke 9:28-36

Introduction: Through an odd confluence of circumstances we are together on a day that has deep Christian roots for multiple reasons. Since the fifth century this has been St. Valentines Day – originally in honor of a priest who was martyred, but quickly linked to cultural celebrations of the month of February as the month for love. This particular Valentines Day, 2010 falls on the Sunday before the ancient Christian practice of Lent begins on Wednesday of this next week. This Sunday is thus also known as Transfiguration Sunday. It is the day that, for centuries, Christians have reflected on that moment in the life of Jesus that for the disciples was like an episode of the television series “Lost.” Three of them got separated from the rest of the pack, had an experience that left them speechless, and only months or years later did they realize they were having a multiverse (as opposed to universe) experience. That is what happens here, isn’t it? Oh, I know the writer Luke doesn’t have the special effects or some theory of quantum physics up his sleeve, but he does have three people standing together (Moses, Elijah, Jesus) whose lives were actually lived hundreds of years apart.

As Luke tells this story, it is overloaded with reminders of other moments in human history when Creator God interacted with his creation. First and foremost of course is the imagery of Exodus, for Israel the greatest event in their history. The Exodus named and defined them as a people – the chosen ones of God liberated from bondage, brought to the Mountain of God to worship, to called “My People” by Creator God in Exodus 19, to receive the Law given to Moses on the mountain. The Passover feast became the annual remembrance of liberation and identity, promise and hope for Israel. Luke wants us not to miss any of the allusions to Moses and the Mountain of God in his account of this moment. Remember this scene in Exodus 33 as Moses prepares to ascend the mountain of God a second time to have the Commandments written on tablets of stone. The first time, God interrupted the process and sent Moses back to the people because they had turned from the Lord and built a golden calf and were worshipping the idol. Moses had thrown down the first set of tablets and destroyed them. Now, following the punishment of the people, Moses is about to return to the mountain with fresh tablets. But notice first this exchange in vv. 18ff.

“Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’ Then the LORD said, ‘There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.’”
Moses is given explicit instructions to cut new tablets of stone and ascend to the top of the Mountain alone the next morning. He does so, and we hear these words: “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped.”

Later in chapter 34, as Moses comes down from the Mountain (vv. 29ff.), he is not aware of the fact that the skin of his face is shining. The people are afraid of him. He ends up veiling his face when he is with the people because his face is shining from being in God's presence. Beholding the glory of the Lord, even partially as Moses had witnessed, changed the countenance of Moses. If you remember the rest of the Moses story, you know that he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because he later disobeyed God and even presumed his own equality with God for a moment. He was allowed to view the land from afar and then he disappeared. He died and was buried in the land of Moab, but according to the final words of Deuteronomy, no one knows where he was buried.

The other character that appears with Jesus in this episode is Elijah, the great miracle-working prophet that Malachi had predicted would return to usher in the days of Messiah. The closing words of the last prophetic voice in the Old Testament are these: “Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:5-6). Elijah was the prophet who did not experience death but was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot. He also was the prophet who experienced great fear and even depression, and hid himself in a cave on Mount Horeb – the alternative name of Mount Sinai. While there he also experienced the presence of God in a powerful way. That scene is recorded in I Kings 19. Just as Moses was on the Mountain of God for 40 days, here Elijah has gone without food for 40 days and he is depressed and feeling forsaken when the voice of God speaks in v. 9:

“Elijah went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’ The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’" (I Kings 19:9-13).

Elijah is rejuvenated by this experience and he goes on to do mighty deeds for the Lord. He picks his successor Elisha and then is carried away into heaven without tasting death. In the first century his status as the great miracle-working prophet of old and the prediction that he would usher in the age of Messiah made him a well known figure among those looking for the Day of the Lord's appearing.

With that as background information, let us return to Luke's story and remember the immediate context of Jesus' trip up this mountain. On the one hand the time between historical episodes is eight days. On the other hand, for Luke's audience and for us as we read this gospel, the distance is one sentence to the next. Peter has confessed Jesus as Messiah, but it is obvious Peter and Jesus have almost opposite definitions of Messiah. The problem is that Peter shares with the Jewish people radically different expectations of Messiah from the true nature of Jesus' anointing. So Jesus immediately commands the disciples to silence and proclaims the impending rejection and suffering death that would precede his resurrection. The call to discipleship demands that those wanting to be a learner, a student of Jesus, must deny themselves and take up crosses daily and follow him.

Verse 27 is a transition verse that may refer either to this next episode or it may refer to the coming reign of God after the resurrection. It is clear that among the 12, Judas did taste death without seeing the reign of God come in power. It is also clear in the following story that Peter, James, and John are given a vision of that reign of God that the others do not see. They experience the glory of God in their midst and see the future for a fleeting moment.

Jesus sets apart these three of the twelve and goes up on a high mountain to pray. These guys always have trouble with their focus on God at such times! Like Moses coming down from the mountain, the appearance of his face is altered; the clothing becomes dazzling white. Elijah and Moses appear and they spoke about his Exodus, which he was about to bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem.” Remember, in Luke, the ministry of Jesus is always about the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 – good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation of the oppressed. The New Exodus! Meanwhile, Peter, James, and John can hardly keep their eyes open – how could anyone go to sleep at a time like this – or is this another way of describing a scene that humans cannot face head-on?

We don't know from Luke's account how long this experience lasted. The three disciples finally awaken enough to see his glory, and the two men who are standing there with him. As the two heavenly guests are leaving, Peter wants to build booths for each of them. He wants to capture the moment and enshrine it with patriotic overtones. The Feast of Booths (or the Feast of Tabernacles) originally celebrated the experience of Israel living in tents in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. But from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the feast had taken on very strong nationalistic overtones, celebrating the return of Israel from Babylon. It is possible that in Peter's pursuit of a military Messiah, he was filled with nationalistic ideas of Israel's earthly restoration in this moment as he witnessed the giver of the Law and the forerunner of Messiah talking to Jesus. Luke says that he really didn't know what he was talking about, and ultimately all three of them were afraid.

As readers, if we did not yet recognize this as a glimpse of the heavenly realm, a cloud overshadows them just as the cloud overshadowed the Mountain of God where Moses stood. They hear a heavenly voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And as quickly as the scene began, it is over. Jesus is alone and the three disciples not only are left speechless, they have an experience they either cannot or will not share with the other nine. It's an experience that can't be told, one of those "you had to be there" events.

As I reflected on this text and this sermon this week, I had this gnawing feeling that a lot of you were going to think this was a pretty boring sermon--all that reading of background stuff from the Old Testament; York never quite getting to the point of whatever it was he was trying to say. The problem is that I don't have any special effects! I can't compete with Hollywood. It is easier to create a multiverse story for a television show than it is to fully experience this story in print! "Dazzling white” isn’t one of the new hot colors in the Crayon collection.

But there is an even bigger problem than my presentation and the special effects of the media. When there is no threat of suffering there is little need for a vision of glory. On a day-in-day-out basis, the hope of glory is not what motivates and sustains daily living for many of us. Dollars sustain; good jobs sustain; nice homes and possessions sustain; good retirement income sustains; healthy human relationships sustain. The hope of glory too often seems most like an insurance policy--a “piece of the rock” that we pull out of the safe deposit box when somebody dies.

Paul wanted the Corinthian church to understand that the experience of glory is to be experienced moment by moment now. Listen to these words from II Corinthians 3:

“Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (II Corinthians 3:4-18)

The movement into his presence, and the transformation into glory is not something you get when you die. It is not to be remembered only when somebody else dies. It is a process at work now for those in Christ Jesus. He does not say we will be changed but we are being changed, transfigured. Each day we become more like him, if the Spirit of the Lord is present; if it is the glory of God that we are truly seeking to behold and become. Jesus gave Peter and James and John a glimpse of glory – glory that could not be understood until after the resurrection; glory that is to be transforming you and me right now.

In a world in which the jobs are not so secure and the money is not bringing comfort, when family relationships continue to be shattered by failed marriages and broken promises as much among those claiming to be Christian as those who have no faith, we desperately need this new exodus identity! One that dazzles the eyes, that brings liberation to the captives, that announces daily transformation. In Christ we live not between two worlds but within two worlds – two different dimensions of the Space-Time continuum. One is on Greenwich Village time, the other is Eternal. We live with unveiled faces because all who are in Christ Jesus participate in the Spirit – Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Freedom!

Is your life being transfigured by the Glory of God this morning?

Delivered at Aspen Grove Christian Church, February 14, 2010.




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