Last Sunday after Epiphany: “Glory in the Face of Rejection”

This sermon serves as a transition from Epiphany to Lent. 

Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:18-24; 28-36

         We are in the last week of the Epiphany season. We’ve been attending to the appearance of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the bringer of the kingdom of God, and more than that, the Son of God, who became for those of faith the very presence of God in their midst. His appearance to us is always new, always a second coming. We begin afresh each Christmas to find in Jesus the fulfillment of all our hopes, and source of all blessings and peace, and the bringer of a new agenda for our lives. We marveled at his sheer presence, at his baptism on behalf of all humanity, at his first miracle, turning water into wine, laden with forward-looking symbolism, and finally heard ourselves implicated in Jesus’ call of the disciples. Today the ephiphany of Jesus, the showing of his fulfillment as the meeting of God and human, concludes with what is called his transfiguration, where he appears to his choice disciples in glory.

“Glory hallelujah.” “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” What does this word mean, this word we sing every week? God’s glory is simply the appearance of his being and presence, whether on earth or in heaven. This appearance of God can be weighty, which is a connotation in the Hebrew kabod, or shining and brilliant like Moses’ radiant face, which comes across in Hebrew, the Greek doxa, and the Latin gloria. But in all cases, it is an appearance that commands honor and a great reputation.

We are also familiar with the word “glory” in secular contexts; we associate it with celebrities and great heroes, especially of warfare, which is supposedly so “glorious”—although most veterans don’t experience it that way. Indeed, “glory” as we know it in our world is not to be trusted; the devil tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world, saying, “To you I will give their glory.” And so we should be circumspect about the association of Jesus’ glorification with glowing whiteness, although the exact description differs a little in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those who are concerned about racial bias in our language have misgivings about the symbolic value of brilliant whiteness. It’s not a racist symbol, of course. But it can play into our general association of whiteness with goodness and purity, and blackness with evil and danger. I can’t help feeling a little embarrassed by hymns like, “Whiter than snow.”

But God’s glory is more mysterious than that of a shiny hero. It is associated with dark clouds, as in Exodus 24: “The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days.” The cloud reappears in the transfiguration, covering the mountain and the disciples and instilling terror in them. So, thankfully, God’s glory is not all about whiteness.

Let’s set aside for now the association of glory with either glowing whiteness or cloudy darkness. The story of transfiguration need not focus on Jesus’ body and its white clothes. It is in the face first: Luke says “The appearance of his face changed,” Jesus’ face is above all the site of his glorification; similarly, it is Moses’ face that reflects his encounter with God. Whatever our skin tone, the human face is in many ways the center of ourselves. Why have we so often invested our soul, invisible within our body, with being our center, the real me? That creates an unfortunate division between our soul and our body—and I mentioned before how that division impedes our appreciation of the physical sacraments. It is helpful to see our face as our center, for our face is where soul meets body. Our face is the site of our soul coming to be, and to be expressed. That means that the face is also a site where we sin; how often do we commit lies with our face without ever saying a word—by hiding our feelings, or looking away? [1]

In Luke’s story, Jesus’ face shows forth divine glory. And in this story, God’s glory is associated with the accomplishment of God’s purposes. God just is glorious from all eternity, without doing anything, but God’s glory appears when the world is shaped by the purposes and intentions of God—when this place of rock and flesh receives the stamp of the mysterious love, the self-giving, that is God’s own being. And God’s face is often associated with the communication of God’s purposes to humanity. Moses speaks with God face to face for 40 days, not just about Moses or God, but this is when God gives Moses the Torah, the instruction, and the commandments that will shape Israel into God’s people. I suppose we can read that odd story of Moses’ glowing face, and the even stranger commentary on it by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, to mean that the people were not yet ready to consider being individually the recipients of God’s purpose and glory; they were as yet only ready to be a people shaped by the mediation of the law.

I’ve seen transcendent faces before. Faces that take the very shape of compassion, of purpose; faces at once formidable and soothing. Can you imagine what it must have been like to look upon Jesus’ face; how wonderful and terrible to have that face looking upon you, seeing right through you to what is most loveable about you, seeing right through all of the dross and falsehood that we cling on to with our very lives. Jesus’ face, for those who could really bear to look at it (and I don’t think Peter was ready), must have been glorious in that way—full of the splendor of divine purposes, so that we cannot remain unchanged when we gaze upon it. It must have been a face that makes people come to themselves, which is an uncanny thing to experience. We often think that only by turning inward will we come to ourselves, but more often it is the face of another that allows us to come to ourselves. That is the divine glory of the face. The face is the only thing we see that also sees us, and our God has a face, a countenance.

What does it mean that at this moment in Luke’s story, Jesus’ face takes on this arresting glory of divine purpose? Surely it is significant that the transfiguration follows on the heels of Jesus’ announcement that he is to suffer and die, and that willingness to do so is the true mark of discipleship. Having realized this and announced it, Jesus is now fully aware of precisely how it is that he bears God’s purposes. Luke makes evident the connection between suffering and rejection and the glory of bearing God’s purposes by describing how Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah about his “departure,” his “exodon,” which clearly alludes to the exodus led by Moses. Jesus’ exodus or departure is the event in his life that will create a liberation like Moses’. But this “exodus” is also a veiled reference to Jesus’ death. Not a death in the wilderness with no known grave, like Moses’ death. And not a deathless being swept up into heaven, like Elijah’s grand departure in the heavenly chariot, if you remember that story from 2nd Kings 2. Jesus alone will have a death that is itself an exodus, a liberation. And he has now realized it, and is fully aware of his life being an unprecedented fulfillment of the divine purposes. Moses and Elijah factored into God’s great plan, but not with this same self-conscious awareness of fulfilling it. Recall that Moses’ face shone with God’s purposes, but Moses didn’t even know it until others showed fear at his appearance. Jesus is aware; his face sees itself even as it sees others. And so his face shines with glory, and his whole person shines with glory.

And so we come to an unmovable stumbling block of God’s glory appearing in Jesus. We cannot understand this shining glory without the murkiness of the cross. It has always been a stumbling block, as Paul called it, and the cross remains today especially for Christians a stumbling block. We can’t say enough about the cross, and yet we always say too much. In an recent online devotional, my wonderful colleague Vicky Kemper concludes with a prayer that says, “I don’t always understand this cross business, but I believe that following Jesus will lead me to new life.” She received a lengthy, ranting comment telling her to get out of the pulpit if she can’t explain the cross, which the Book of Hebrews tells us was a sacrifice for sins. Supposedly, “that settled it,” but for me and many others the cross as a sacrifice raises as many questions as it answers.

Actually, the cross which we are to bear is much easier to understand than Jesus’. Jesus tells all his disciples to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Bearing our cross means that we no longer live for ourselves, we live for Jesus, and through him, for God. You can try to save your little life, but of course you will lose it. Or you can forfeit your little life, and have a much bigger life in Jesus. It’s a simple message found in many religions: to be self-centered means you perish at death; to center yourself in the divine brings a fuller life, even if it is a shorter life.

But with regard to Jesus’ specific cross, this [pointing below me], Christians have become more unsure, for good reason. There’s so much more to Jesus than his death, and we err badly when we reduce everything about Jesus to some impenetrable formula: his death atoned for our sins; his blood washed away our sins, etc. (If any of you really know what these phrases mean, please tell me right after church.) However, the cross is absolutely at the center of the whole NT. And no one has yet to bring real clarity into the meaning of the cross, although there have been some good attempts. We are unlikely to be the first to clear it all up. And yet how can we not try? Without the cross, without Jesus’ suffering and death, the whole NT falls flat. Jesus was a good man, even God in person. And because he called for change, the powers that be happened to have killed him. That’s as far as many Christians today can go. And it’s fine; the NT acknowledges all of that. But even the first disciples did not hesitate to enter the darkness of the empty tomb that is Jesus’ death on a cross, so as to espy there some deep and mysterious meaning. They ventured to ponder what it means that God’s chosen, in some sense God’s own personal presence, had to suffer and die. It’s something so very dangerous to think about. Either you say that God orchestrated Jesus’ death, making God a divine child abuser. Or you say that God himself died on the cross, meaning God is no longer an everlasting God. And yet the disciples entered into that deep, obscure tomb where our eyes can see nothing, and they came out with the greatest power that human thought ever has borne.

We must also enter that tomb. But nothing good comes just by standing outside and speculating. You cannot stand back, reflect, and theorize your way to the final explanation of the cross that makes sense of it all. To bear the fruits of the cross, we must also take up the cross, enter the tomb, deny ourselves—that is what Lent is for. Great truths demand participation, not just observation, gawking. Obviously, right? You don’t understand love by reading about it and coming up with theories. You don’t understand suffering without participating in it, either. And since the cross very likely embraces above all love and suffering, you don’t get their by “theological reflection” alone.

But if you use these next 40 days as a time to renounce what cuts you off from God, those attachments and commitments and distractions that we use to turn away from God—and let’s be very honest: deliberately. At some level in the inner recesses of our mind and will we want to be free from God. We don’t want to take up the cross and follow him. We want to save that life that is all mine to lose. But if we can even begin to deny ourselves of all that we allow to take us away from God, including our limited ways of thinking, we can, in the course of those explosive three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, when the whole mystery and majesty and power of the year-long path to God called Christianity is concentrated into a three-day period—short enough that you could stay awake for the whole thing, if you could do better than the disciples did—by the time we arrive at those three days, Good Friday to Easter, having been diligent and faithful, we can discover the glory of the cross.

 

[1] Cf “face of Jesus Christ” in 2 Corinthians 4.6

 

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