Transfiguration: Saving Face

(Note: I preached this sermon at Luther Memorial Church in Chicago on Transfiguration Sunday, 2009)

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord an ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.  For it is the God who said “let light shine out of the darkness” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As many of you know, I am the father of an eight month old boy. He’s a member of this congregation by baptism, though he spends his Sundays at his mother’s church. And he’s sick.  Nothing serious, just an ear infection that’s finally getting better. He’s gone through fevers, sleepless nights, coughing fits, and the rest of it. And his face has become, for me, the measure of my well-being. If you’re a parent, you surely know what I’m talking about. When his face is serene and smiling, as it usually is in good health, there is nothing wrong in my world. When his eyes are closed in restful sleep, I’m at rest as well  When his face is red and puffy and worried, I’m in distress. When it scrunches up in pain from coughing, I seize up inside, too. He has not yet learned how to mask his condition, and I have not yet learned how to take a step back and not worry so much. So right now, his face is the sum of my hope and fear. 

I’m going to speak today about God’s face and human faces. I mention my son not to pull any heartstrings, but to give an example of how powerful a face is. It’s the seat of our personality, our intelligence, our emotions. We anoint the face with oil in baptism and in sickness. We will mark the face with ash in three days, to remind ourselves that even our beauty and majesty must pass away into dust. One of the privileges and challenges of a vocation to the ministry is that you see people in all kinds of trouble. It always amazes me that whether a person is scared, exhausted, worried, bored, or even facing inevitable death, her face always has this essential dignity. Consider how one friendly face lights up an old photograph or a busy airport terminal. Consider the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park, a giant showcase for human faces. We talk about putting the best face on something, meeting face to face, facing up to challenges, and, in a potentially embarrassing situation, saving face. 

Moses was God’s friend, and Moses yearned to see God’s face. But no one could see God’s face and live. Moses even pleaded with God. And God said something remarkable:

“See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

This is the glory that made light come out of the darkness. This is the glory that created all things. This is the glory that raised up a special people and brought them out of Egypt. This is the glory that fills heaven and earth and yet goes infinitely beyond. The universe declares this glory, but the universe cannot contain it. It is too great and too powerful. God loves Moses. But it’s like a burning candle that loves the moth. God’s face and Moses’s face may not meet. 

How terribly great and mighty God’s glory is, greater and mightier than we can imagine!  How frail and small humanity is! How absurdly brief our life! God cannot help but love God’s creation. And we cannot help but love God, in some form or fashion. But we may never meet face to face in this life.

Unless…

Unless the glory of God could embrace the human body. Unless the glory of God could take flesh and bone and be born, live, and die among us. Unless the glory of God could seek us out as teacher, master, brother, and savior. Unless God could stoop down to our smallness and become human and contain all that glory in a human face. 

This is how St. Paul speaks of the good news in our lesson today. This is what the disciples see on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah–the image of God. Paul says that the God who called light out of the darkness has shone in the darkness of our hearts. He says the face of Jesus reveals the knowledge of the glory of God, hidden from so many for so long. It’s the good news that God has become human. God has looked out of human eyes and shone forth in human form. The invisible God has become visible for our sake.  The face of God and the face of humanity have met in this life.

This means that human beings are not accidents or mistakes. We are not exiled to earth from a distant heavenly home. We are not serving our sentence in the prison of our bodies. When we get sick, or grow old, or wear out, or die, it is not a failure. When we love another person, we are free to love them body and soul. When we worry about our child’s health, it is not because we lack perspective. When we work for well-being and basic dignity for ourselves and our fellow humans, we are not just doing something idealistic. We are loving what God loves. We are honoring what God honors. We are being what God chose to become. We are seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 

This is a great mystery. We can only grasp it by faith. We do not get to stand on the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John, to see Jesus transfigured, and Moses and Elijah standing with him. But then again, neither did the Christians Paul wrote to in his letters.  Paul showed them Jesus, in his preaching and in his life. A new parent can only have faith that his child will bear the image of God in good health and honor for a long life. So too must we take on faith the idea that God became one of us. We have the Scriptures to witness to this. We have the Word becoming flesh and blood for us again at this table, week after week. When our faith flags, we have the images of Jesus and his Church to rely on. But yet we see the human bodies that God loves being abused in all kinds of ways. We see the earth that God made and dwelt in–the world filled with God the way a sponge fills with water–we see this world groaning with pain and need. Sometimes the light that God has shone forth in our hearts grows dim. Sometimes we are forced to do our best by ourselves and others without any great hopes. 

When that happens, brothers and sisters, take heart. Be patient. And most of all, keep your eyes open. Go down to Millennium Park and see the fountain. Look at your sleeping child or your spouse. Remember the faces of those whom time has taken away from you.  And some day soon, God will choose to meet you there. 

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