August 2, 2020
Turn Toward the Face of God – August 2, 2020
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As I said in the newsletter, I’ll be taking some vacation later this week, which means I won’t be with you next Sunday. Ann and I are taking a little road trip through the southeast Missouri Ozarks as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. It’s not exactly the anniversary trip we’d imagined, but there are no airplanes or cruise ships involved in this one; and these days, that’s a good thing.
It’s kind of astonishing to think it’s been 30 years since Ann and I stood before the altar at the cathedral downtown and began this journey together. I don’t know what 30 years is supposed to feel like, but it feels like both forever and the blink of an eye.
An anniversary like this is a good time to reflect on your relationship’s significance, most of which will come over a bottle of wine and a lovely meal in a few days. But here’s where the theological part of that reflection goes for me. From the start, our marriage has been a way that I’ve experienced the love of God. That’s grown and changed as our relationship has grown and changed. But from the start, our marriage has shown me God’s love in ways that abstract theologizing just can’t give you. Finding love is finding God.
Ann and I didn’t mean to get married near the feast of the Transfiguration, but that’s how it turned out. That’s what we’re marking here this morning, transferred from its date later this week. Like Jesus’ parables, the Transfiguration story is one we may have heard many times but only begin to fathom, deceptively straightforward but layered with meaning.
To set the stage, we have to rewind a little, to the sections of the Gospel story just before this one. There, Jesus asks his friends, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20). I imagine there was some silence as the disciples waited for someone to pipe up and get it wrong. But Peter, the kid in the class who always put his hand up first, blurts out an answer more true than he knows: You’re “the messiah of God,” he says, the one God has ordained to rule as viceroy, God’s representative on earth (9:20). So, with the right answer out there but cloudy, Jesus takes the chance to flesh it out: Being messiah does indeed mean bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth, Jesus says, but not the way you’re thinking. It means, first, that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the [religious authorities], and be killed, and [then] on the third day be raised” (9:22). Well, that doesn’t exactly clear things up, and this mystery hangs there for a few days as the disciples try to wrap their minds around it … or maybe just try to forget it.
Then we come to today’s reading, as Jesus takes his leadership team – Peter, James, and John – up the mountain to pray. And there, something happens. In that thin place of connection between heaven and earth, Jesus’ full glory shines forth, the limitations of his humanity giving way to divine majesty. He’s talking with Moses and Elijah, the people in Israel’s history closest to being on a first-name basis with the Almighty, and they’re discussing what comes next – Jesus’ departure, his exodus, which will happen through his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. Peter thinks he understands what all this means – that Jesus is on a par with these other two spiritual heroes. And if that’s true, he thinks, they should mark the moment in prayer and worship.
But God breaks in to say, no, the message is bigger than that. The terrifying presence of the Almighty envelops the disciples; and they fear for their lives, because their tradition teaches that people who have a direct encounter with God don’t live to tell about it. But God’s news for them is that they’ve already had a direct encounter with God. They’ve been seeing God and living to tell the tale for the last three years. Jesus is not just a human friend of God, like Moses or Elijah. Jesus is divine, God’s own Son. And not only will Peter, James, and John survive seeing the face of God in Jesus, they’ll inherit his eternal victory over death. So, God says, “Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
So, in those three years with Jesus, what have the disciples experienced? Well, the Jesus they’ve known listens to them. He teaches. He heals. He feeds thousands. He cast out the demons that possess us. He holds us accountable when we fall short and then welcomes us again with open arms. And soon those open arms will be nailed to a cross, as Jesus will die to be the bridge between the limits of human life and life with God that never ends.
In other words, what Jesus gives us is relationship. He shows up, and gives himself away, and prioritizes the relationship, with God and with us, ahead of his own interests. To be divine, to be the Son of God, is to love. And in him, God has shown the disciples, and us, what love looks like – not thunder and lightning, or fire and smoke, but a normal human face. That’s how divinity is revealed. As the musical Les Mis puts it, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
OK. That’s great when you’re on the mountain with Jesus, or when you’re celebrating your 30th anniversary over a bottle of wine and the perfect filet. It’s all well and good when your relationship is working. Of course, for Ann and me, there have been times when things didn’t work so well. Just like every other marriage on the planet, we’ve had times when we managed to disfigure the divine image in ourselves and in our relationship. But we managed to put it back together again, the scars becoming part of the portrait. Ironically, even with damaged and re-stitched skin, the face of God can shine even more brightly.
The same thing can be true with that friend who turned on you inexplicably, or the uncle you can’t stand, or the person in the office who pushes your buttons … or even the person at church who sees everything differently than you do. It’s all about making the choice to turn – specifically, the choice to turn toward, rather than turning away.
We see it in today’s Old Testament reading. In the chapters leading up to what we heard today and in today’s reading, the story keeps hitting this theme of “turning” and “returning,” those words coming up at least six times in those chapters.1 Before today’s reading, Moses has put his own credibility on the line for the wayward people of Israel, people who honestly didn’t deserve to have Moses stand by them. When he went up Mt. Sinai to receive God’s Law, the people decided he wasn’t coming back and turned away from God, worshiping a golden calf instead and having quite a party. God wanted to wipe out the people right then and there, but Moses intervened: He talked God out of it, returned to the camp, destroyed the idol, and stopped the party. But he also asked God to forgive the people. Well, at first, God wasn’t having any of it and told Moses they were on their own as they headed off to the Promised Land. But Moses interceded again. Remarkably, God changed God’s mind, and Moses went back up the mountain. There, he witnessed God’s glory in person, watching the Almighty pass by and greet him; and Moses received God’s Law a second time.
Finally, we come to today’s reading. Moses comes back down from being with God, and he scares the living daylights out of the people, as his face glows with the glory of God’s presence. On top of that, of course, the relationship between Moses and the people is in a bit of a rough patch. When they’d turned away from Moses and from God, Moses had killed those who’d taken part in the uprising (Exodus 32:27-28). But they “return” to Moses (34:31) because he’d turned back to them – despite the golden calf, despite God wanting to wipe out these “stiff-necked people” who’d rejected Moses’ leadership. Wouldn’t you imagine turning back to them was the last thing Moses wanted to do? It would have been a lot easier for him to take God up on the offer to destroy the disobedient Israelites and start all over again (32:10). It would nearly always be easier just to write off the people who turn away from us. It’s always easier to think: Not only do I not need the headache of trying to deal with you, we don’t need you at all.
You and I may not have had a Transfiguration moment. We may not have encountered the living God in a mountaintop experience. But we encounter the living God in person after person, day after day. And every day, we have to decide what we’ll do when the encounter goes south. This is where the rubber meets the road for a theology of incarnation, Christianity’s crazy claim that God took flesh and takes flesh still. If that’s true, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions about our hardest relationships.
So: Who has turned away from you? From whom have you turned away? Look into that opponent’s face, and look for the face of God. Even when you want to turn away, choose instead to turn toward. Jesus himself gives the example. After all, even though Peter affirmed Jesus to be the messiah, God’s anointed king, Jesus knew Peter would later turn away from him and deny him three times to save his own skin. But still, Jesus invites Peter to join him on the mountaintop. Thank God, Jesus extends the same courtesy to us. Our relational challenges, even our relational failures – they don’t define us. Instead, what defines us is our call to keep turning toward the troublesome other, assured that in loving another broken person, we will see the face of God.
1. See Exodus 32:8, 32:12, 32:15, 32:31, 33:11, 34:31.