What Happened to Your Face?

Transfiguration of Our Lord C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
Luke 9:28-43

When I was little, in grade school, I was a huge fan of the country group Alabama. My very first CD ever was Alabama’s Super Hits II. My next CD was the two-disc For the Record compilation set, which contains all 41 of Alabama’s No. 1 hits. Alabama is the most awarded band in the history of country music and has the most number one hits of any country music band. “Mountain Music”, “Song of the South”, “Tennessee River”, “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)”, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)”, “Born Country”, “Hometown Honeymoon”, I knew them all by heart. I was even briefly a part of the official Alabama Fan Club, and I have the T-shirt to prove it.

As it so happens one of the ladies at our church, Donna, who was in the choir, a good friend of my mother’s, and a professional hair stylist, was also a huge Alabama fan (and member of the fan club). One of my all time favorite memories as a child is when Donna took me to my first and only Alabama concert. I was beside myself with glee—I was getting to see my favorite band live in concert. I brought my camera and took a bunch of pictures, but my greatest surprise came after the concert. I don’t know if it’s because we were fan club members or because Donna was strong-willed and wouldn’t take no for an answer, but we got to stay after the concert with a group of other people and meet the band. I got to shake Randy Owens’s hand, and he signed the cover of the latest Alabama CD at the time, Twentieth Century, which admitted that “the twentieth century wasn’t all that bad”.

I bet I talked about that concert for weeks after. I couldn’t believe that I’d gotten to meet some of my idols. To this day, that concert and that day ranks as one of my all-time favorite meetings. I’ve met former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, current Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the late Marcus Borg, former Lutheran World Federation General Secretary the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko; I was in attendance in 2009 for the installation of the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit as the current General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. But my fondest meeting in my mind, because I was a little wide-eyed kid getting to meet his favorite band, would be that meeting and concert with Alabama.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had a meeting like that, a meeting that changed your life with people you idolized and adored, maybe even loved; a meeting that left you light-headed and glowing—I think you know where I’m going with this by now, given that today is the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

This morning we have not one, but two stories of encounters so powerful that they leave those involved literally glowing. The first concerns the great prophet and lawgiver Moses, the man who led the ancient Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land. The story requires a bit of understanding what’s happened before.

Moses has led them to Mount Sinai and gone up the mountain to speak with God and in the process receive the Ten Commandments. While he’s gone, the people get impatient for his return and for some strange reason, decide that they are going to worship another god. They have Aaron, Moses’s brother, make them a new god out of all of their gold—the golden calf. Moses comes down from the mountain, sees what has happened, throws down the tablets, gets the tribe of Levi to go on a killing rampage among the Israelites, and then goes back up the mountain. This time, the people wait, and he comes down with two new tablets of laws that define the covenant relationship between God and the Israelites—number one, of course, being “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (I wonder why that was number one…).

When Moses comes down the mountain, because he’s spent so much time in the presence of God, his face literally shines with God’s glory. And every time he goes into the tabernacle and encounters God, he comes back out and his face glows.

In the second story, from the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. And while they are there, they have an encounter with God like none they’ve experienced before. Right before their eyes, Jesus’s face starts to glow and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, both prophets who were assumed to have been taken up to heaven alive and would one day return, appear and speak with Jesus. Then a great cloud envelops the mountaintop and the voice of God tells the disciples, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

What an experience! Certainly better than a Alabama concert by far. They got to see the glory of God standing right in front of them! I can imagine that after these experiences both the Israelites and the disciples were forever changed, and they lived their lives differently.

Except… that’s not what happened at all, is it?

After Moses comes down from the mountain, shining with the glory of God after having been in God’s presence for so long, the Israelites react with… fear. They are afraid of God’s presence among them. Moses has to wear a veil every time he returns from experiencing God so that the people won’t be afraid of him. The presence of God was right in front of them, so close to them that they could touch it, and they run away frightened of it.

In the second story, Jesus’s disciples have this amazing experience of Jesus and God where they not only get to see God in the person of Jesus Christ, but they get as close to a true, legendary experience of heaven as any human being has ever had. They hear God’s voice boom around them for the second time (the first being at Jesus’s baptism). The cloud lifts, they go down the mountain, and… they fail to exorcise demons from a boy. Just like they couldn’t before. Jesus laments that even with all they’ve been through they still don’t have any faith. Their experience of God transfigured before them doesn’t seem to change them at all.

What about our experiences of God? Our gathering song this morning was “Here in This Place”, and we sang, “Here in this place new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away;” and “Not in the dark of buildings of confining, not in some heaven light years away—here in this place the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, and now is the day.”

This place. Here in this place, we come to encounter God, to touch our Lord, to be as Christ to one another. We literally hold the body of Jesus Christ in our hands and drink his blood. We hear the words of God spoken aloud and can feel the rush of the Holy Spirit through this community. Like the Israelites and Jesus’s disciples, we inhabit a time and a place in which the glory of God can shine brightly, vanishing darkness.

But then what? How do we react? Do we react with joy and wonder? Do we let that experience transform our lives into something new and greater?

I wonder if we aren’t more like the Israelites, who shrink away in fear of the awesome glory of God in their midst; or the disciples, who are flustered and struck dumb by their experience and don’t seem to have moved everywhere. I wonder if the words of God we hear don’t sometimes scare us, because they mean we have to change; or render us speechless, because what they’re asking and describing can be so foreign to our way of doing things.

I wonder if we need the Transfiguration of Our Lord every Sunday to remind us that where we are, who we are, is not fully who we are called to be. That something remarkable did in fact happen.

Because something remarkable did happen in both of our stories. The separation between God and humanity, between heaven and earth was bridged, and God and humankind were brought closer together than they ever had been before. Moses and the people were so close to God that Moses’s face literally glowed with the power of God. God was dwelling in the tabernacle, in their midst, moving with them wherever they went.

Jesus and the disciples were up on that mountain, and the disciples were close enough at all times to touch his skin. They had their faces illuminated by Jesus’s own. They were surrounded by the cloud, and heard the voice of God booming in their ears. And when it was all over and done with, Jesus still walked with them, in their presence, in their same physical space.

That in itself is truly remarkable, but what’s most remarkable is that in each story, this isn’t the first time. Remember that in the Moses story this is after the Golden Calf debacle, after God has been with them, and after God is so upset by what the people have done that God threatens to leave them right then and there in the desert to fend for themselves. But that doesn’t happen. There are consequences for their actions, but God returns, comes back, and stays close to the people again.

And though the disciples fail to exorcise demons from a boy immediately following their Transfiguration experience, Jesus is still with them, still teaching them, still showing them the way the world should be, and still demonstrating God’s abiding presence.

This perhaps is the most important of these transfiguration stories: that God comes back. It was one of the traits I admire most about God. God gets angry (and rightfully so) and feels that the only recourse left is to simply walk away from the people and creation that seem determined, in all that they do, to spit in God’s face. I’ve watched friends walk out on each other for a lot less, so I can’t imagine the pain God goes through. And yet, through it all, God comes back.

When I look back, I don’t think attending that Alabama concert really changed my life no matter how awesome it was. Life returned to “normal”, the way it always had been. The Israelites never lived out the ideals of the covenant. The disciples didn’t “get” what Jesus was trying to teach them until the day of Pentecost, over a month after his resurrection. We as human beings have a remarkably strong will when we don’t want to be moved or changed.

But God comes back. God keeps trying. We are continually bathed in God’s presence until our faces glow with it. God surrounds us with a cloud and smothers us in as much mercy, understanding, and forgiveness as possible.

And maybe, just maybe, when we come down from that mountain we aren’t quite the same anymore.

Featured Image: Ceiling of the chapel of Moses in the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.


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