FACE TIME WITH GOD
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2016; Transfiguration, Year C
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

“Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone
because he had been talking with God.”
Exodus 34:29b

These are interesting times we’re in, when it comes to politics. There’s nothing like a presidential election campaign to get Americans — of every political persuasion — all fired up.

Recently, we’ve had the spectacle of televised political debates and town halls (which seem to be much like debates, only one candidate at a time, without confrontation).

In all these events, there’s an emphasis on the visual. That’s why they’re on TV in the first place: so we can look the candidates over.

But why is that important? Why not hold the debates on the radio? Or why not do it old-school, like the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates? Only those voters present in the hall could actually see the candidates, and everybody else had to read about it in the newspaper.

The reason is: we want to see their faces. We want to look them in the eye — as much as humanly possible, on a TV screen. We believe, somehow, that looking at those candidates’ faces will help us decide which of them would make a great President.

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No great surprise there: because we human beings depend on each other’s faces as a vitally important source of information. There’s an old saying: “The eyes are the window to the soul.”

This reliance on faces goes back to our earliest days. Child psychologists have long known that babies are attracted to human faces. This happens so early, they think this preference is imprinted in our DNA. It’s helped along by parents and other adults — who like nothing better than to get up close with a baby and make funny faces, trying to get a smile out of the kid.

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So, with faces being that important to human communication, is it any wonder that, when Moses comes back from talking to God, his very face is transformed: a beacon of radiant light?

The Hebrew scriptures speak often of the glory of God. Sometimes it’s the mysterious shekinah: the bright cloud of glory that sometimes appears before the people, as they worship in the Tent of Meeting. Other times, “glory” translates the Hebrew word kabod: a word which conveys blazing light, but also — curiously — great riches. It’s as though there’s nothing more precious than this radiant, glowing presence of the Almighty.

Well, Moses has gone up the mountain to speak with God, after the shameful scandal of the golden calf. Most of you remember that story, I’m sure: how Moses was off getting the tablets of the ten commandments, while the people — grown impatient — cast off the worship of Yahweh to bow down before a statue of a golden calf. Moses comes back down the mountain, sees the people performing this sacrilege, becomes enraged, and smashes the tablets of the law. Then God visits destruction on the faithless Israelites.

After a time, Moses makes his way up the mountain for a second attempt at bringing down God’s law. It’s when he comes down this second time that the skin of his face is glowing (although, lacking any sort of mirror — which hadn’t been invented yet — Moses is unaware of this wonder). He has spent 40 days in the presence of the divine glory, and some of it — it seems — has rubbed off on him!

You and I may look at political candidates on TV and try to judge, from their faces, whether or not they’re sincere. With Moses, the people have absolutely no question about that: his face is radiance itself, and that’s all they need to know.

So persistent is this unearthly glow that Moses has to start wearing a veil over his face, to spare the people he comes in contact with. The only time he takes the veil off is when he’s addressing the people, teaching them the law of God. It’s only appropriate, then, that they are a little dazzled: for such is the effect God’s law has on those who truly consider its teachings.

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In our Gospel lesson today we heard the tale of Jesus’s transfiguration: how he, too, climbed to the top of a mountain, there to be enveloped by glory.
There’s a difference, though, with the transfiguration. In that case, the glow originates from within Jesus himself. Moses’lit-up face is a reflection of God’s glory. Moses is but a mirror. Jesus is glory personified: at least for a little while. When it’s time for him to go back down the mountain, he once again assumes his former appearance.

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Both these incidents — the story of Moses, his face all aglow, and Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop — are a bit difficult for us, as Protestants, to deal with. So much of our spirituality is grounded, in one way or another, in words. Our school of Christianity was founded on that insight of Martin Luther’s: sola scriptura, by scripture alone. We express the content of our faith in creeds and confessions: written theological statements, every word of which has been carefully crafted and argued over in learned debate.

But what are we to say about incidents like these? Moses comes down from the mountain with words carved into stone — but no one dares argue with him about the words, because of the divine glory emanating from his face. As for the Transfiguration, there are precious few words involved there: the conversation among Moses, Elijah and Jesus (none of which is recorded for posterity); Peter’s boneheaded offer to build some shelters for these radiant beings; and the voice of God coming from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Yet, all these words are beside the point, because the Transfiguration isn’t about words. It’s a vision, a non-verbal experience, a pure encounter with the divine. Such experiences do not translate well into words.

Maybe it’s only the musicians and the poets who can do them justice. Mary Oliver, one of our most beloved living poets, had such a transformative spiritual experience one day, and tried to write about it later. She used the language of prose, not poetry, and this is what she said:

“Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given….

Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.”

Another great poet, belonging to an earlier time, was Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest. He lived and worked in England during the nineteenth century. He treated his poems as private meditations. None of them were published until after his death. Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur,” is among his most famous:

The World is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

There’s not a line of that poem you could analyze, holding it up against scripture or confession, to test its orthodoxy — because, while composed of words, it’s really more of a painting, an artistic impression of a human spiritual experience. Hearing such words, we know that here is a man whose face was glowing, if only for the brief moments it took him to write them down.

This next poem — or, fragment of a poem, I’ve shared with you before. It’s one of my favorites, by the great Irish poet of the early twentieth century, William Butler Yeats. It, too, tells the story of a brief encounter with God, a radiant moment:

“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”

No mountaintop was necessary for that spiritual experience, nor even a hike deep into the woods. (If it’s the Holy Spirit bestowing the spiritual blessing, then can the location really matter?) It happened to Yeats in a coffee shop, amidst the bustle and clamor of one of the world’s great cities. None of the pedestrians passing by on the sidewalk outside had the slightest idea that the unremarkable, bookish man sitting there, at a table, was having a transcendent experience of the glory of God.

Had they stopped to look at him, would they have said his face glowed?

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Such experiences are more common than you may imagine. I would not be at all surprised if some of you sitting here today have been so blessed on occasion. None of us can make such an experience happen, none of us can summon the Spirit. Always it’s a deep and inexpressible gift. But such experiences have a way of sustaining us, of getting us from one episode of our lives to another.

There are places in the world, though, where the heavenly dove seems to hover. The Celtic Christians called them “thin places.” George MacLeod, who founded Scotland’s Iona Community, defined them thusly: “It is a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual.”

If there’s such a place in this world that you’ve encountered, then you do well to go back there regularly, if that’s possible. You will not find the experience the same, each time, but at the very least, the location may call up the memory of it. I expect the poet, Yeats, may have walked by that London coffee shop on other occasions — and each time, a smile teased up the corners of his mouth and his heart was, as old John Wesley put it, “strangely warmed.”

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There is one place, however, where God’s people, as a whole, can reliably be said to encounter their Maker. It is this table, here before us. There’s nothing all that special about this particular table — though it is a work of art — nor about the piece of carpet in our sanctuary on which it sits. It is not located at the confluence of invisible magnetic fields, nor is the soil underneath this building charged — so far as I know — with any unusual spiritual energy.

Yet, as we gather around this table — as Christian believers have done here, with some regularity, for at least a century — perhaps we will be mindful of generations past who have shared the bread and cup here, as well as those of generations yet to come.

Scripture tells us that, in a village called Emmaus, a very long time ago, a couple travelers sat down to eat with a stranger they had encountered on the road. When he broke the bread and shared the cup with them, their eyes were opened and they recognized him to be the Risen Lord: and he vanished out of their sight.

Visions do not last: but the love, the love — it lingers.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.