God’s Own Face

A sermon based on Exodus 33:12-23 and Mark 9:2-10 preached on February 15th, 2015

 Sermon audio

These cold, cold winter days in February make me long for the summer months. At the beginning of this month we all paid a tiny amount of attention to one of the oldest meteorologists there is, Punxsutawney Phil, hoping he would have good news for us. We hope that the sharp edges of this cold weather will melt away into Spring sooner than we anticipate.

One of my favorite memories of spring and summer are evenings out on the front lawn of my parents’ house with my brother, Mike. Both of us barefoot in the grass with bug nets in our hands chasing fireflies across the yard.

Fireflies are the tiny beacons of summer vacation. Small fireworks coming up from the ground and then fading away again. What is it about them that children want to catch them, contain them?

I think it’s that their lights catch us by surprise. When they glow, they’re so easy to find. The challenge is keeping up with them when the glow fades away.

I remember my parents teaching me the kind way to catch a firefly: with cupped hands, slowly, so as not to scare them away.

They might even land on your hand and stay there for a while,

my dad explained,

as long as you’re careful with them.

Some nights my brother and I were fine catching them in our hands, studying them, and letting them go. Other nights, we grew more curious—maybe more selfish—and we went out with Ball Jars.

We wondered if we could catch a few fireflies in our jars, punch a few air holes in the lid, and seal them up, would they make good night lights? The thought was they could glow all night long in our containers—that we could hold on to their light, keep their light captive, all for ourselves.

Every child needs to learn that lesson, don’t they? You can’t bottle what lights up and expect it to remain radiant. It’s just not possible.

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Jesus’ clothes were amazingly bright. Brighter than if they had been bleached white. The disciples see how Jesus lights up. He glows in front of Peter, James, and John on that high mountain. They’ve never seen a thing like it.

Then speaking for all 3 of them, Peter volunteers with his mouth (one of Peter’s greatest talents) and he says in effect,

This is an awesome moment, Lord! Let’s make it last!

And in the absence of smartphones or cameras of any sort, the only way to make it last was to build shrines.

They’ll stay here forever,

Peter seems to suggest,

and we can come back to this mountaintop anytime we want and relive this spectacular moment.

Peter wants to hold onto this light. Peter wants to contain the radiance in any way he can. He wants to bottle what’s alive and keep it for himself. But every kid who’s tried to contain light in a jar on a summer evening knows that’s not possible.

Light travels on, always moving outward at speeds we can’t handle. And whenever we try to catch it, it fades away.

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Moses’ face was radiant with divine light after every mountaintop encounter with God in the book of Exodus. No one can see God’s face and live, but Moses was invited into the glow of God’s being. He could survive on the edges of God’s splendor and live to climb down the mountain and tell all the others.

Each time, the Hebrew people waited eagerly for Moses to come down with a word from God. Moses is looking for a light to lead the Hebrew people forward—outward—to guide them toward whatever’s next.

God promises to go with them—to be their light and reveal the way. As the story of God and His people moves onward, God reveals more and more of Himself to them. And as we read into the Gospels and Mark’s story of the Transfiguration this morning, God has revealed His full self to all the people—Jesus shines on the same mountain God shined down on Moses.

This is my son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!

These are God’s words, and Peter, James, and John heard them. God’s voice has been heard by the people; the radiance of God’s Word has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ for us to see with our own eyes and know in our own lives.

God promises Moses,

I’ll travel with you.

And in Jesus, God has given us a companion, a travel partner. One who promises to always be with us.

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Mark’s story of Jesus’ transformation into light is the halfway point of his Gospel—and that’s no mistake. Mark is a gifted and mindful writer, and there’s no doubt he placed this story right here in the center of his story to make a statement. The Transfiguration of Jesus reveals to all who were up on that mountain—for Peter and James and John—as well as for all those like us who hear about it later, that Jesus is the Center of the Story—the Center of God’s Story. It’s apex. Everything revolves on that axis. Jesus is the turning point, not only of Mark’s Gospel, but of all of history—the One who came to change time itself—to divide history in two.

And from this point onward Mark’s Gospel is one big chase scene. Forward is Good Friday. This passage from Mark is the hinge that turns Jesus, Peter, James, John, and all the rest of us toward the cross. The light of the transfigured Jesus will fade away.

The disciples will follow their Master as he descends this mountain and makes his way into the darkened valley toward Jerusalem. This light that shines atop this mountain can’t be held onto for too long at all. It will fade, and despite Peter’s suggestion to build three shrines, there’s no way to bottle up light. The lid is off the jar. God’s plans are madly uncontainable.

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This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It’s the beginning of Lent, a seven-week journey with Jesus toward the cross that stands tall in the center of Jerusalem. We are invited to walk with Jesus along the way. Lent is a time to confront darkness—the darkness out there as well as the darkness inside ourselves. It requires confident courage to confront the world to change its sinful ways and to light its darkest corners, but that’s what we will do this Lent. That’s what Jesus did as he traveled the distance between the Mountain of Light and the Mountain of the Cross.

On this journey we seek God’s own face. And there’s no way to look into God’s own face without facing the cross. Apart from the cross of Good Friday, the full radiance of God cannot be seen.

If there is to be any transformation of ourselves into disciples and followers of Jesus, that transformation into that kind of life is possible only after we connect ourselves to the cross—to the suffering Jesus will undergo. It’s only possible as we too begin to realize the uncontainable love of God given to us through Jesus, the One who is God’s own face—the One who was willing to give it all away for our sake.

That’s the journey we’re about to embark upon.

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Christian writer C.S. Lewis once wrote,

Don’t shine so that others can see you. Shine so that, through you, others can see Jesus.

From here, as we turn our faces away from the dazzling light atop the Mountain of Transfiguration—this resplendent, but brief radiance—we make our way down into the dark valley. That is where our Lenten journey begins. That is when the real work begins.

Lent is the journey after the glow. The challenge is keeping up with Jesus when the glow fades away.

As we travel forward into these next seven weeks, may we seek God’s own face. May we search the depths of God’s uncontainable love. And at the end of Lent, we will see such love in the resurrected Christ, who is God’s own face.

There’s a light up ahead. And alongside Peter, James, and John, we will find our way.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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