March 3, 2019

Brave New Light

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And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  —Luke 9:29

O God of mountaintop experiences and our companion through the valley, shine your light upon us as we seek to know your will through the words of scripture. Silence in us any voice but yours that we may experience your truth. Amen.

Exodus 34:29–35
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.

When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.

 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.

When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with God.

In the last few weeks, we heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.  He offers blessings and woes followed by challenging teachings to love enemies.

Jesus then asks the disciples, “who do people say that I am?” followed with a lengthy discourse of his impending death and resurrection and the caution, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will save it.” This is shocking news and a reality check. As if he were asking, “Are you really sure you know what you are getting into?”

Listen to what transpires next as I read from the ninth chapter of Luke.

 Luke 9:28–43
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men who stood with him.

Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

W hen my parents tended an orchard in central California years ago, they had a small animal menagerie with cows, chickens, sheep, barn cats, owls, various field critters claimed it as home, and of course a dog. Unbeknownst to me their neighbor pastured longhorn cattle on the other side of their common fence.

One afternoon while I was on my hands and knees cleaning irrigation filters I felt the ground shake. Since this was California I imagined it must have been an earthquake only to look up and see the cattle charge our fence with such speed I was certain they would thunder right through it.

My dad got such a tickle saying, “Oh, honey, they’re just curious to meet you” as they chewed the grass while I was gasping for breath after running nearly the length of the field.

A longhorn can weigh up to 2,500 pounds with horns measuring upwards to nine feet. Those steers were not that big, but honestly, they seemed even bigger.

Their fierce appearance and bodily strength overwhelmed me as it has people throughout the ages.

After the farm experience if I were to cast an image of power to worship it would not be one of my dad’s chickens or even the ram with graceful, curved horns; it would be a bull with iron-like horns.

Religions in the Ancient Near East commonly cast bulls as idols to worship. And more pertinent for the story we read today during the time of the Exodus the Egyptians worshipped bulls.

The Egyptians tried to appease them with sacrifices to ward off danger and sought the power source that animated the bull.

Raging bulls. Horns of breadth. They are symbols that adorn our human history of recognizing power far beyond our human capacity.

Before Cecil B. DeMill’s 1956 movie, The Ten Commandments, etched into our minds an image of Charlton Heston as Moses, ancient and medieval artists portrayed Moses based upon our reading for today with unique characteristics.

The story we heard from Exodus occurs after some of the Israelites’ most glaring failures. Recall, Moses had led the people out of Egyptian bondage toward the land promised them by God—truly a journey towards salvation.

While they were in the desert Moses met God on Mt. Sinai for further instructions. Moses was with God away from the people for forty days.

Foundering without a leader and feeling fragile against the terrors of the unknown they were compelled to reclaim something familiar. Why not depict something to worship that symbolized power and might? They created a golden calf. It was what the Egyptians had done.

When Moses descended the mountain he became enraged at their idol worship, threw the tablets containing God’s commands at them, breaking the stone into pieces.

Arguments. Accusations. Even God’s temper exploded, calling the Israelites “a bunch of stiff-necked people.”

But since they had come so far, they tried again. Moses ascends Mt. Sinai for a second time to receive God’s covenant and hears God say; “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This is the promise that precedes everything.

New tablets are chiseled from this ethos of God’s grace. Despite flagrant disobedience by the Israelites, God loves them.

When Moses comes down off the mountain, you might expect the focus would be on the tablets, what they say and mean, but it is not.  Their focus is on the light beaming from Moses’ face.

If we remember, in Genesis “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” Light is the very first thing God creates.

God’s sturdy, enduring light on the mountain took root in Moses’ very being. Of course Moses descends with his face shining from this power.

The Hebrew word the storywriter used to describe the light emitted from his face is not of a fragile light, as one could turn on or off with a light switch, or snuff from a candle. Moses’ shining face is described with the root word for “horn.” The light protrudes from his being appears as fierce horns.

It is as if Moses or God were saying to the people, you want horns of strength, you’ve got them in a light that lives in you and no one can extinguish.

Moses’ shining face makes it clear that God’s light is speaking through him. The people not only hear the word spoken they can see it standing before them. God’s light among the people, by virtue of the covenant will order their personal transfiguration both in soul and body.[1]

They receive and preserve this word of law and love. The laws always matter—love God, honor the Sabbath, respect the lives of others. And the light indicates the laws are founded on God’s love that creates and recreates life.

Charlton Heston may be the image we conjure of Moses. But medieval artists drew Moses with spikes protruding from head, imagine the Statue of Liberty, to signify this light that shines against the terrors of the world.

Michelangelo sculpted horns protruding from his head to signify the light Moses embodied by bringing God’s light to the people. Mark Chagall continued this conception of Moses by painting him as a witness to the covenant with spikey light beams of God’s graciousness anchored in his head.

Today we mark Transfiguration Sunday with another mountaintop experience of God’s light. Transfiguration is the pinnacle of Epiphany, when a light begins to shine at Christmas. The Transfiguration of Jesus also a hinge that opens the door to Lent and his journey to the cross which we mark with Ash Wednesday this week. It is as if we are reminded when you are in the dark valley of Lent remember God’s light will prevail.

Jesus’ ministry had been of teaching and healing drawing people to receive a word of hope against the powers of the world. As Jesus prepared to make his final trek toward Jerusalem he spoke increasingly about suffering, betrayal, death, and resurrection. But his disciples were lost in a fog of cluelessness.

Since Jesus’ words seem to fail he takes a few of the disciples to see with their own eyes. The story of Peter, James, and John witnessing Jesus ascend a mountain to pray, confer with Moses and Elijah, turn dazzling white, and then hear God say “this is my son, my chosen one, listen to him” opens their eyes to Jesus’ glory. But this story can only be described as a mystery.

All mystery is alluring—it draws us in at the same time that it eludes our full comprehension. We cannot explain it but we are called to understand what it says about Jesus and ourselves.

In the moment of the transfiguration Jesus doesn’t change his form or shape or hue but his luminescence does change the disciples’ perception of his being. Jesus gives the disciples the gift of seeing him as God sees him. Jesus reflects God and shows himself to be the incarnation of light and love.

Those disciples were still speechless but in a very different sense, understanding not intellectually, but viscerally. They now know Jesus as God’s son who will bring about a new way for salvation. They are compelled to follow this man as he descends the mountain into the hands of those who will destroy him and follow him to death. It is then they will witness God’s new morning light that has existed since the beginning.

We all hunger for that kind of transformation don't we? Theologian Rudolf Otto says that we are both drawn to God and yet terrified of holy encounters. Deep inside even among the skeptical is a yearning for sacred significance. We want something or someone to draw us to goodness. And then we want to become a part of this goodness so that our face literally radiates. We want something or someone who will leave us shining, shimmering, and beaming transcendent.[2]

This is possible. This is what our transfiguration is all about. In Lent we are invited to honestly face our failings, name the small gods that consume our devotion but leave us empty, and uncover the hurts we have felt or imposed. We will become vulnerable as we strip away all of these burdens and masks.

In such humility God’s light will fill us. Grace is fierce and it is strong and it penetrates right to the heart of each one of us.

This is the task before us. Allow God’s light to take hold within our lives, to guide us bravely to live and love in faith. Carry the light to those who are hurting. Be so bold as to let God’s light shine from your face with the strength of a bull’s horn. May it be so, Amen.


[1] Thomas Joseph White, Exodus (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016).

[2] Rudolf Ott, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, (HardPress Publishing, 2012).