Two powerful stories are before us today. There is this first story about Moses, who according to Jewish thought, is the greatest of all of God's prophets. Moses, the liberator. Moses, the sojourner. Moses, the one who could speak to God face to face, call him by name, and leave the mountain glowing because of the meeting. Like Jesus, in our gospel reading, Moses entered deeply into God's own life, God's own mystery and left the whole encounter shining.
We all hunger for that kind of transformation with God, don't we? Theologian Rudolf Otto says that we are both drawn to God and yet terrified of holy encounters. Deep inside, even among the most profane, is a yearning for sacred significance. We want something, someone to stir us deep down so that our face literally radiates holy goodness; something, someone who will leave us shining, shimmering and beaming transcendent.
This gospel text of Jesus' transfiguration fits into this,too. Jesus climbs a mountain with Peter, John and James and like Moses of old, radiates from the holy encounter of the glory of God. To be transfigured, you see, is to be swept up into something beyond category.
All week long we are categorized and labeled. All week long we answer to names and titles and positions. All week long we are distracted by the many voices calling us and claiming us and at times containing us. It does not take long before we start believing in these categories. When people retire, for example, they are often terrified that they can no longer say, "I am an engineer; I am a teacher; I am a doctor," because the categories are now incomplete. I remember so well when my wife and I were approaching the prospect of an empty nest, we held in tension unbridled joy and identity crisis. Who am I, after all, apart from my children? Or for that matter my job or my marital status? All week long we live under other titles, names and claims.
And so, we hunger throughout our lives to enter into something deeper, something of significance, something eternal: a vision for life.
These are stories of scripture that, first, challenge us to see the world as God sees.
People who have been transformed and encounter God see the world differently, see the neighbor differently, see the enemy differently. Faces glow and radiate something deeper inside; something, well, beyond category.
Seeing the world as God sees is not about being a pessimist or optimist or realist or idealist. It is about a transformation of vision. The very thought of that leaves me swooning a bit.
So, how do you see the world? Is the glass half full, half empty, drained to the dregs or flowing over the rim? How do you see the world and those around you?
What if we saw the world through God's eyes? How would it look? How would we look? More to the point, what does God see?
- I think that God sees brokenness and sin. Some scholars argue that the first eleven chapters of Genesis is an accounting of the limping, brokenness of humankind. I suspect we see that, too. We see how badly people have failed. Jesus challenged, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone," and we discover that there are no stones available. At least that is what I think God sees. Do you see what God sees?
- I think God sees struggles and weakness. Life is hard. Our bodies fail us; our minds deceive us, people disappoint us. God sees all this and also sees the pain and suffering around the world. Do you see what God sees?
- Beauty. When God created the world, God called it good. Now just because we are outside of Eden does not take away the "original blessing" as Matthew Fox calls it. Do you see what God sees?
- I think God sees possibility and potential. Creation was not a static event but an unfolding journey. Paul writes in his letter to the church of Corinth, "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation..." Do you see what God sees?
God sees the brokenness and sin; God sees the struggles and weaknesses; God sees the beauty and potential. God sees all of this and more. Maybe that is why God chose to look upon Moses and set his face aglow. Moses, after all, was coming down the mountain to share with Israel what we call The Ten Commandments, but rather than law and doctrine, you first need to have an encounter, a relationship. Believing is fine, it is essential, but without transformation it just becomes another law or statement. Maybe that is why God drew Peter, James and John up with Jesus on a mountain to change their own countenance. To see the world as God sees is an invitation to change your vision.
Are you willing to do that? When you spend time with God and enter into holy places, you risk having your vision changed to see as God sees.
But there's something else. When you see as God sees, it not only transfigures your vision, it transfigures your response.
You respond as God responds. That is what happens with vision, after all. The eye takes in data which is delivered to the brain, and the brain interprets that data and we respond accordingly. When you change your vision, you change how you respond.
When Moses descended the mountain, he glowed with presence to lead Israel into promise. When Jesus and the disciples descended the mountain, they were met with a father pleading on behalf of his broken son. Spending time with God is not just about more Bible study, more sermons, more prayer, more lessons on piety. It's about seeing as God sees and therefore responding in the world you live in today.
When you see as God sees, you begin to see how God is present even in the most inglorious of situations. To have an encounter with God will change how you live, how you respond, how you will join in God's mission to the world.
Without a transfigured vision we are left with a life devoid of God's Glory. We are left with white supremacy, anti-Semitism, the carnage in Yemen, and school shootings. With God's glory we have a vision that changes things. The worst of humanity is not the final word or act or decisive narrative of creation. God has something far better to show us.
For all of this to unfold in your life, you have to climb the mountain and spend time with God - wrestling, praying, arguing, hoping, longing, searching - but you need to come down that mountain prepared to do something.
Finally, when we see as God sees and respond as God responds, others begin to see God in us.
They see a reflection of that glory, that hope, that salvation. No, they don't see everything of God just as no other person can see everything of you. To be transfigured is to change how you see and therefore to be changed in how you are seen by others.
This takes us back to my remarks earlier: deep down we all want something that is beyond category; beyond the old and dull and dusky. We want holy vitality, a vigor in life, a vision for the horizon, something authentic and real.
Sometimes this happens in surprising ways, in a gallery or museum where a painting overwhelms you. I remember so well standing with my wife in a small corner of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome, Italy. To our left was a painting by Caravaggio of calling of St. Paul and to the right another Caravaggio painting, but this one was the crucifixion of St. Peter. I can't describe it, but something about the juxtaposition of the paintings of these two men dying to something that left me a bit light headed. Sometimes this happens after a concert or solo where the music stirs your heart and you did not expect it but you start crying.
Perhaps it is too much to ask this of worship every Sunday. Transfiguration may come only once in a lifetime for some of us. Yet we need to climb this mountain every Sunday to seek the face of God in our music, in our prayers, in our silence and in our proclamation.
Every Sunday I close worship with the words from Numbers chapter 6: "May the Lord make his face shine upon you." (Numbers 6:25) That's the blessing I want. That's the blessing I need. That's how I want to leave church - glowing, radiant, with a new vision, and a new life. Not because I heard a great anthem, or that the sermon really spoke to me. I want, I need to have an encounter not with a static word or command, something written on stone, but the Living Lord who wants to change how I see and change how I live and transform how I am seen, for God's own good glory.
Indeed, is this not the very purpose of the church? To reflect the Glory of God; to let our light shine, as Jesus said, "...so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
Moses saw the Glory of God and left the mountain shining. Jesus entered the Glory of God and changed the world. May we too dare to enter God's Glory and see the world as God sees, respond as God responds, that others may see God's glory, too. To God be the Glory!
Let us pray.
O God of glory and mountain-top experiences, we pray that you shine in us as we seek to reach that which will transform our lives and, we believe, transform your world. Indeed to you, O God, be the glory forevermore. Amen.