Sunday, February 19, 2012
Transformed by Degrees: Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
*This sermon was preached on Transfiguration Sunday, February 19, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Chuch, Hubbard, Oregon.
One in a million is awake to the divine life. So said Henry David Thoreau in his famous writing Walden. Thoreau goes on to say: To be awake is to be alive. I have yet met a (person) who was quite awake. How could I have looked (them) in the face? The words of Thoreau remind me of the story of Moses, when he came down from Mt. Sinai following a rendezvous with God. The people couldn't look upon his face because of its radiance. His own face had been transformed by gazing upon the face of God. Where, today, are the faces of those who are awake to the divine life? Who has been transformed by the splendor of God?
We may have difficulty beholding the radiant splendor of God's presence. Unlike Moses, most of us don't commune with God face-to-face. Our encounter with God comes through splinters of the reflected glory of God that shine through occasionally when we read the scriptures, break the bread and drink the cup, listen to our favorite music, sit alone in silence, watch a child playing, or bask in the setting sun. Shafts of God's glory sometimes beam through the cracks in the curtain of this world and we catch our breath.
Imagine what might happen if God's glory broke through the veil of this world unhindered and unmediated. We would all need crash helmets and fire suits to protect us. We're like the Israelites who, according to one interpretation, were afraid of even the reflected glory of God in the face of Moses, so he had to wear a veil in their presence. The Hebrew people believed that a direct encounter with the splendor and awe-full glory of God could mean death. That's why a rope was tied to the leg of the High Priest before he entered into the Holy of Holies, just in case he kicked the bucket they could pull him out without having to go in after him. Pulitzer prize winning writer Annie Dillard once remarked that she often thinks of the various parts of the church's worship as words people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.
Rudolph Otto, in his classic study The Idea of the Holy, describes the human experience of this mysterious, awe of God. His term for it is Mysterium Tremendum. Mysterium points to the awe-inspiring, incomprehensible, unutterable experience of a Wholly Other God. Tremendum indicates the aweful, fearful aspect of encountering God. The terrible glory of God is both fascinating and fearful. This experience of God's radiant presence is dramatized in Steven Spielberg's movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. A sinister archaeologist poses as a Hebrew high priest and dares to invoke the Shekinah or Glorious Presence from the ark of the covenant that had been recovered in an Egyptian tomb by the Nazis. At first the priest is fascinated and overwhelmed by the light of God that begins to arise from the open ark. Then, after a moment a deep rumble and moan begins to rise up from the ark of God's presence. The horrible light of God consumes the priest and all the Nazi soldiers who stand near the ark with their unholy feet trampling on sacred ground. The unveiled glory of God is too aweful for any human to behold directly.
But, in Christ we see clearly the radiant reflection of God's glorious presence. The story of the transfiguration dramatizes this truth. Like Moses on the mountain, Jesus radiates the glory of God. The disciples get a peek at God's splendor shining through Jesus. The veil of his humanity is pulled back for a moment and we catch a glimpse of the glory that was and is and is to come. Edwin Muir, in his poem Transfiguration, has the disciples looking back on their experience of the transfiguration and asking,
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that's everywhere
"In Christ the veil has been removed from our faces," says the apostle Paul. We all, with open face behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord. Christ is the glass that reflects into our eyes the awesome glory of God, like looking at the brilliant sun through the windshield of our car near the end of the day. Christ is the bright reflection of God, which we can bear to gaze upon with unveiled faces. To see in the face of Christ the glory of God is to be, in the words of Thoreau, awake and alive to the divine life.
For Christ is the untarnished icon of God. Paul uses the term eikon or "image" to describe the reflected glory of God in Christ. Christ is the icon or image of God. In Orthodox Christian churches icons or painted images of Christ, surrounded in shining gold leaf and with a hallooed head, are used in worship. The Orthodox worshipper may bow down before the icon, light a candle in front of it, and pray to God while meditating upon the icon. The icon is believed to re-present Christ in such a way that Christ is present through the icon. As the icon of God, Christ re-presents the presence and glory of God. Christ is the meeting place, the blood and bone sanctuary where we meet God. Christ reflects the unbearable splendor of God not only in his transfiguration and resurrection, but also in his life and death. In the transfiguration we see clearly the brilliance of God in the veil of Jesus' human flesh. So that with unveiled faces we may behold in Christ, the icon of God, the reflection of God's awesome and terrible brilliance.
What's amazing is that we are being transformed into that very image little by little. Paul says that as we behold the glory of God in Christ, we're being changed into that image or icon from glory to glory. Origen, an early church leader, put it like this: The human who has been made in the image of God by contemplating the divine image...(will) receive...that form... By degrees we are changed into that which we contemplate. This is true negatively as well as positively. For example, children who grow up with their minds filled with TV violence, see violence in their schools and on their streets, and hear violence justified by their political leaders, become, little by little, what they have fed into their minds and hearts. We are changed, bit by bit, into what we contemplate. As we read, study, imagine, meditate upon, hear, and apply the word of Christ to our daily lives, little by little we become what we contemplate. In spoonfuls, we become more Christ-like. We become icons of Christ.
We are becoming more and more icons of Christ, through whom the glory of God in Christ shines. We become icons as our lives reflect the light of Christ through meditation, visualizing ourselves in God’s image, reflecting on the story of Christ’s life, shaping our lives by imitating the image of the living Christ. That's an awesome thought and responsibility; one which we shouldn't take lightly.
As icons of God in Christ we are to be ready to let our lights shine before others so that they may see the splendor of God's glory reflected within and around us. We re-present to those around us the image of Christ, at times the only image of God that others will see, no matter how dusty and tarnished we may be. As we continue to fix our eyes on the image of Christ, we are bit by bit, glory to glory, being transformed into the radiant image of Christ. The amazing truth is that it is in our faces that others will see the image of the divine face.
In a pleasant, sunny valley surrounded by lofty mountains, lived a girl named Christa. On the side of one of the mountains, in bold relief, nature had carved the image of a gigantic face. From the steps of her cottage Christa would gaze intently upon the stone face. Her mother had told her that someday a stranger would come to the valley who looked just like the image of the Face on the Mountain. The coming of this wayfaring stranger would bring the light of joy to the entire community. "Mother," said the girl, "I wish the face could speak, for it looks so kind that its voice must be pleasant. If I were to see a person with such a face, I believe I would be a different person." So, Christa continued to gaze at the Face on the Mountain for hours on end.
Several times the rumor spread that the long-awaited stranger whose face reflected the image of the mountain's face was coming, but each time the person arrived the rumor proved to be false. Years past and Christa had grown into adulthood, doing good to all people. The people of the village loved Christa. As she aged, Christa still waited for the arrival of the long-expected stranger, whose face reflected the image of the Face on the mountain.
One day a poet came to the valley. He heard about the prophecy concerning the Face on the Mountain. One evening, when the sun was setting, he saw Christa going about her business of helping others. As the last rays of light flooded the massive outlines of the distant mountainside, they fell on Christa's face. The poet cried aloud to all the people in the valley, "Behold! Behold! Christa herself is the image of the Face on the Mountain!" Then, all the people looked and, sure enough, they saw what the poet said was true. By looking day by day upon the Face on the Mountain, little by little Christa had been transformed into the very image of that majestic face.
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.
So let us, who gaze into the transfigured face of Christ, contemplate these words of contemplative Thomas Merton:
Make ready for Christ
Sets free the song of everlasting glory,
that now sleeps
in your paper flesh