Here’s the message I preached on Sunday, September 14, 2014, titled “The God In-Between.” The lectionary reading for that Sunday was Exodus 14:19-31, and continues the story of God with the nation of Israel from Abraham through the Exodus experience. Click the arrow to play the podcast —
I try not to react to everything I read on the internet, but sometimes something so egregious comes along that I have to respond. Recently Mark Driscoll, megachurch pastor, posted on his blog an article titled, Is God a Pacifist?
Driscoll is preaching through the 10 Commandments, and he has arrived at “Thou shall not kill.” I’m okay with his saying that this passage addresses murder–intentional and malicious killing. I’m okay with Driscoll pointing out various Old Testament texts that prescribe the death penalty for certain offenses within Old Testament Israel. And, I’m even okay with whatever his apocalyptic theology is, even though I don’t think the Book of Revelation is to be read literally. That, after all, is the nature of apocalyptic literature, but respected scholars and pastors hold different interpretions of Revelation.
None of that bothers me. He’s entitled to his opinion. However, Driscoll isn’t content with his interpretation of these passages. He has to go one step too far. He states that among the enemies Christ will destroy are those who believe that Jesus was a pacifist. Here’s the end of his article:
“Today is a season of patience as Jesus Christ waits for people to come to repentance. Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning.
Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.
Then there will be peace forever as the Prince of Peace takes his rightful throne. Some of those whose blood will flow as high as the bit in a horse’s mouth for 184 miles will be those who did not repent of their sin but did wrongly teach that Jesus was a pacifist.
Jesus is no one to mess with.”
So, the early Church Fathers, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (oh yes, and forget the Hitler thing), Thomas Merton, and so on, are all enemies of Christ who will be slaughtered on the day of judgment? Just because they believed and lived a life of Christian pacifism?
Boggles the mind. Mark, come on, let’s talk.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on Transfiguration Sunday. I trust that your experience of worship will be rich and wonderful as you see the light of the glory of God together.
Seeing The Light of Glory
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate (reflect) the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
4 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Cor 3:12-4:6 NIV
When We Couldn’t See It
Debbie and I have lost some weight these past few months. Several of you have commented on our progress, and we’re pretty happy with the results ourselves. We have been following a diet developed by Dr. John McDougall, a physician in California, who began practicing in Hawaii. Dr. McDougall noticed that the older Hawaiians were slim, did not have cardiovascular disease, or all of the symptoms that go with it, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and so forth.
To make a long story much shorter, McDougall has devoted his life and medical practice to teaching people that a low-fat, plant-based diet leads to improved health and longer life. Now, Debbie and I started reading Dr. McDougall’s books back in the early 1990s. And, off-and-on we would try to eat as he recommended. McDougall recommends no meat (which means beef, chicken, pork, and fish), no dairy (which means no milk or cheese), and no animal-based foods such as eggs. In other words, a plant-based diet.
That sounds pretty simple, and we tried it over and over. But, its really hard to eat just vegetables and fruit, so we would add things like eggs to our diet. And of course, real butter–because it’s real and not artificial–has to be better for you than fake butter, so we ate real butter. And, we also ate peanut butter, which is vegetarian, but not low-fat. And, we didn’t lose weight, and things like my blood pressure and cholesterol only kept getting worse.
Last year, Dr. McDougall came out with a new book titled, The Starch-based Diet. In this book, McDougall said all the same things he had said in his other books about not eating meat, dairy, or added fat. But in this new book, Dr. McDougall had a new wrinkle — or at least I thought so. He made it very clear that the foundation of healthy eating is starches. I know that flies in the face of the low carb diets that are popular, but McDougall demonstrated that all of the world’s primitive cultures ate a starch based diet. In Asia rice was the starch of choice. In the America’s some form of corn or maize sustained entire civilizations. In Africa, root vegetables, rice, and other starches were the basis for their diets. In the Pacific Islands, poi is a starch-based staple. And, I come from Scots-Irish ancestry, and we all know the Irish ate potatoes, which is why the potato famine in Ireland created such a devastating result.
McDougall also said that you feel more satisfied eating starches, because starches generally are the foods that fill you up and give you as sense of satisfaction. Of course, you need vegetables and fruit, but starches should form the basis for your diet.
For some reason, when we read Dr. McDougall’s new book, The Starch-based Diet, something clicked. We understood what we had been doing wrong. You can’t successfully lose weight and improve your health on this diet without following it exactly as Dr. McDougall and others suggest.
So, this time around, we eliminated all the things that we thought we could have a little of, such as eggs, butter, oils, fats, fried food, along with meat, and dairy (all of it including cheese). We started this diet in May of 2012, and by November of 2012 — 6 months — I had lost 40 pounds and Debbie had lost 30 pounds.
Okay, I do have a point here, and today I don’t have time to answer all your questions about where do you get your protein, and shouldn’t you be eating more fat, and isn’t it boring, and what does tofu really taste like. That’s for another time and another discussion.
But my point is that for the first time in over 20 years of reading Dr. McDougall, we finally got it. The light went on in our heads, the plan made sense, and we followed it, and lost weight, and improved our health.
What happened? Why did it take us 20 years to get it? Why didn’t we see it before? I think it was a combination of the culture we grew up in where you were encouraged to clean your plate, and where fried was the preferred method of food preparation. We just couldn’t see past our own life experiences into a world of thinking about food differently.
Two Experiences of The Glory of God
In the same way, and for some of the same reasons, we miss seeing the glory of God. Okay, let me back up here, because today is Transfiguration Sunday. We’ve read that story before. Jesus invites Peter, James and John — the three disciples to whom he is closest — to come with him for a time of prayer. Luke tells us that while they were praying Jesus’ “face changed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:28-36 NIV).
And, while Jesus is radiant as the sun, two figures appear with him. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets in Jewish life, appear and converse with Jesus. Luke says they spoke to Jesus about his “departure” which we understand to mean his death, burial, and resurrection.
The disciples were sleeping, but when they awoke, they awoke to this dazzling display of the glory of God. Peter, of course, has to say something, so he suggests that they build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Of course, you know that Jesus does not allow that, and further that the disciples don’t even tell anyone else about this experience, until much later.
But there is a backstory to the Transfiguration experience. Apparently, this is not Moses’ first experience with glowing like the sun. In Exodus 34:29-35, we have a very interesting account that we read earlier in the service this morning. When Moses came down off of Mount Sinai, he called Aaron and all the Israelites together to hear the word of God.
But, Aaron and everyone else saw that Moses face was radiant, shining like the sun. Apparently, Moses couldn’t tell this himself, so after he tells them what God has said, Moses puts a veil on his face to keep from scaring everyone half-to-death. Which is why whenever anyone encounters an angel in the Bible, usually the first words spoken to that person are “Don’t be afraid!” There must be something about people and angels glowing like the sun that is rather disturbing, to say the least.
So, that’s the backstory behind our reading from 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 today. Paul is referring to this incident where Moses wears a veil to hide the glory of God. But then Paul turns the image around to use the metaphor of a veil as that which can in itself keep us from seeing God’s glory.
How Do We See The Light of God’s Glory?
Our question today is then, How do we see the light of God’s glory? Well, between these three passages, we can find some answers.
First, we see the glory of God by being in the presence of God. It was only when Moses was in God’s presence that his face shone like the sun. Moses left the people to spend time with God, and when he returned, his countenance glowed and radiated brilliantly. It is only as we spend time with God that we can see, or hope to see, God’s glory.
But, what is God’s glory? Well, in the Bible, the glory of God is usually represented as the dazzling bright light. So, we have Moses’ face shining, and Jesus face and clothes being transformed into a radiant presence. But the word “glory” itself, actually has the idea of “weight” or significance or an imposing presence. So, glory, especially God’s glory, isn’t just light. The light is the expression of the glory, the announcement that God is present, the translation of God’s magnificent presence into something we humans can understand.
But, back to the glory of God. So, first if you want to see the light of God’s glory, you have to be in God’s presence. You’re not going to see the glory of God if you never are in the presence of God. I know that God does sometimes intervene, as he did to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, but in the sense that Jesus and Paul both talk about the glory of God, and in the sense in which Moses experiences that glory, you have to be in God’s presence.
But, the point of being in God’s presence isn’t for us to get all shiny. Moses apparently didn’t even know he was shining. The point is to be with God; the shining is for the benefit of others. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Secondly, to see the light of God’s glory, we have to understand that we’re only a reflection of God, we don’t glow on our own. As soon as Aaron pointed out to Moses that he was glowing, Moses knew immediately where the glow came from. Moses simply reflected the presence of God to the people. Which is why, I think, that as Moses speaks to the people, he doesn’t put on the veil. He wants them to know that these are the words of God, that he has been with God, and that God is speaking to them. It’s only for the daily routine of living life that Moses wears the veil so everyone will not be completely distracted.
Like the moon reflects the sun, we don’t generate our own razzle-dazzle. We only reflect the glory of God, and we may not even be aware that we’re reflecting God’s glory, but others will be.
Third, we see the glory of God as God goes about his work of calling people into his plan for all creation. In the desert with the Israelites, God speaks through Moses and allows the nation to see his reflected glory so they will know Moses has indeed been speaking with their God, the God who has made covenant with Israel. If you want to see the glory of God, you’ve got to be part of God’s new people, of the community God is creating to reconcile all things to himself.
Peter, James, and John get to see God’s glory, not because they are Jews, but because they are the first of this new community of the Spirit which God is creating. Many biblical scholars believe that the 12 disciples symbolized the 12 tribes of Israel made new, and that Jesus was symbolically reconstituting the nation of Israel into a spiritual community, not a biological one.
As Paul writes to the church in Corinth in our passage for today, he addresses another community of believers. The Corinthians are one of the first churches to be almost exclusively non-Jewish and formerly pagan. So, you can expect that they would have a lot of problems, and they do. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to correct errors in their worship and their conduct. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to re-establish his relationship with them, a relationship that has been called into question by some “super apostles” who are challenging Paul’s standing as an apostle. So, Paul writes to persuade the Corinthians that as a community they must remain faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
So, those are three keys to seeing the glory of God —
1. Be in the presence of God
2. Recognize that we reflect God’s glory, not our own
3. Be part of a community in which God has established a relationship
The Problems of Seeing The Light of Glory
But, there are problems we can encounter, because obviously seeing the light of God’s glory isn’t just an everyday experience. There are things we need to understand.
First, Paul uses the story of Moses’ veil to make a point. At first, Moses used the veil to conceal the glory of God. But then, the glory fades, but because of the veil, no one notices.
We can get so attached to the veils that make us comfortable in the presence of God, that we focus on the veil, and not the glory. And that’s true of both the leaders and those who follow. The veil that once gave us some relief, now keeps us from seeing that God isn’t with us anymore, that we’ve lost that intimate relationship with Him, and we no longer stand in his reflected glory.
Let me give you an example. Coming to church is a kind of veil. Of course, its a good thing to come to church because this is where the gathered people of God meet God together. But, if we’re not careful, coming to church becomes just coming to church. We can forget that the purpose is to meet God here, and so we can show up, greet each other, comment on how great or not-so-great the service was, and all of that can keep us from seeing the glory of God, because we can’t see past the veil itself.
But the answer isn’t that we quit coming to church. Of course, you expected me to say that. And, that is a popular approach today. Many are saying that what’s wrong with Christianity is the church, and if we can get rid of the church then Christianity will flourish again.
Of course, people have been saying that for about 2,000 years, and it is simply the wrong approach. They’re looking at the veil and not seeing past it.
What needs to happen is for God’s people to spend time in his presence, reflect his glory, and gather as his community. But how will we know if we are reflecting the glory of God?
Others will see it, just like others saw the glory in Moses face, just like Peter, James and John saw the radiance in Jesus’ face. Others will see it and be moved by it.
Iris Dement is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Iris asked her mother to sing on one of her albums the gospel song, Higher Ground. Her mother sounded about like anybody’s almost-80-year-old mother would sound singing “Higher Ground,” but I’ve got the feeling that Iris put her mother on that album because she knew her mother lived what she sang.
As a result, Iris Dement’s songs are filled with references to the Christian life she was exposed to growing up in Oklahoma with a mother who sang gospel hymns while she went about her daily chores.
In one of her new songs, titled, There’s A Whole Lotta of Heaven, the lyrics to the refrain capture what I’ve been trying to say today —
“There’s a whole lotta heaven shining in this river of tears…”
When the glory of God is reflected in our lives, so that others see it even before we’re aware of it, then there is a lot of heaven shining in this river of tears. When others see God’s glory in your life, even if you’re unaware of it shining, then they are transformed just like Aaron, the Israelites, and Peter, James and John were.
When our community sees the glory of God shining in our church in the ways we help those who need help, in the concern we have for young families and senior adults, in the programs and activities we plan for children and youth, in the leadership we give to this community, and in all the other ways that change lives, then that is when we can say with the apostle Paul —
“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
–2 Cor 3:18 NIV
Here’s the second sermon in my 13-part series on the Apostles’ Creed. This week we think about the God we believe in, and have committed ourselves to. I hope your Sunday is filled with the glory of God!
Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:
I Believe In God The Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth
Exodus 3:1-12 NIV
1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
It All Begins With God
The first chapter in Rick Warren’s mega bestselling book, The Purpose-driven Life, is titled “It All Starts With God.” And, the first sentence of the first chapter says, “It’s not about you.” Obviously, Rick Warren was trying to make a point, and so were the authors of the first line in the Apostles’ Creed —
That’s it — 12 brief words that sum up what we as Christians, following in the steps of the original apostles of Jesus Christ, believe about God. The legend of the Apostles’ Creed says that Peter penned this line, but as we mentioned last week, that legend is more story than fact. But the words used here are real and were really used by early believers to describe their relationship with God.
Everything we say about Jesus, everything we say about the Holy Spirit, everything we profess about the church, salvation, judgment and eternity all depend upon the God we say we believe in. We cannot relegate God to the backroom of our theology like the grumpy old uncle who we only allow in the living room from time to time. No, it all does begin with God and that beginning will determine where we end up eventually. So, let’s take a look at this God in whom we say we believe.
Moses Meets God
The text from the book of Exodus that we just read is a wonderful way for us to talk about God. When we talk about our friends or family, very often we do it by telling a series of stories that we usually preface by saying, “Remember when….”
When we were in Douglas with my Dad for my brother’s funeral, my father began talking about his father, which led us to bring up one funny story after another about my grandfather. My grandfather, Charles Herman Warnock, Sr. was a small man. He probably stood about 5′ 6″ tall, was bald from the day I knew him, and was a slim, small fellow. My grandmother, Marguerite Warnock, was an ample woman, and so they made an interesting pair. The nursery rhyme “Jack Sprat could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean” always comes to mind when I think of them together.
My grandfather probably had an 8th grade education, and had made a living as a truck driver, a feed-and-seed salesman, and a part-time cattle farmer. My dad told me a few weeks ago that Daddy Warnock, which is what the grandchildren called him, went several years without filing an income tax return or paying income taxes. He told my grandmother, “They don’t know I exist.”
Well, one day two IRS agents showed up on their doorstep, and my grandfather spent the next few years paying his back taxes. But one of the funniest things I ever heard him say was when I was a teenager. We had gathered in their large kitchen, which had a huge fireplace and a table that would seat at least 12. It was probably Thanksgiving or Christmas because Daddy Warnock was in his rocking chair, which sits in our living room today. He was seated beside the fireplace, smoking a cigarette while the ladies were talking about what to have for supper. Somehow the talk turned to spaghetti. My grandfather turned to my grandmother and said, “What kind of tree does spaghetti grow on anyway?” My grandmother, not a person to brook any foolishness, turned to him and said, “Herman, that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.” Or something like that.
We all fell in the floor laughing, but it wasn’t until I was with my dad a couple of weeks ago that he supplied the reason for Daddy Warnock’s question. He said that they had been watching television the night before, and some documentary showed Italian women hanging their pasta on trees for it to dry. Daddy Warnock obviously was not paying close attention, probably because he was trying to tell a story himself, and just caught the image of these trees with pasta hanging from their branches.
All of that to say, we usually talk about our relatives by telling stories about them.
Now, if you read theology books about God, you don’t get stories, you get concepts. Well-meaning authors give lengthy descriptions of concepts about God, which go something like this:
— God is omnipotent. He can do anything He wants to do, except He doesn’t do silly or pointless stuff like try to make a rock so big that God himself can’t pick it up.
— God is omniscient. Which simply means, God knows everything. He knows it without thinking about it, He just knows it. He knows the deep thoughts of our hearts, and everything else.
— God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere at once. Which is how we can be worshipping here, and God is present with us, and other folks can be worshipping half-way around the world, and He’s there too. Nice trick, if you can do it, and God can.
So, those are the big three things about God, but that doesn’t really tell us much about him does it. It would be like my only saying, “My grandfather was 5′ 6″ and weighed about 125 pounds, and was bald.” You’d get some kind of mental picture, but you wouldn’t really know much about my grandfather.
That’s why I chose this story today. It tells us a lot about God. It’s the story of God meeting Moses for the first time, at least as far as Moses knows. It’s the story we call “Moses and the burning bush” and I’m sure when Moses spoke of God to his relatives, he said, “Remember that time God appeared to me in the burning bush? Have I told you that story?” And like my grandfather, Moses would tell the same story again to the same people who had heard it so many times before. So, let’s see what the story of the burning bush tells us about God.
God is a God Who Calls Us
The Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father…” We don’t have time to unpack all the fatherhood of God means, but one thing I know it means is that God as Father calls us, just like my father called me in from playing to eat supper each evening.
God calls us. Those three words themselves have great implications for our relationship with God. First, for God to call us, he has to know our names. And with Moses, God does.
“Moses, Moses” God calls from scene of the bush that is burning but not consumed. Of course, God had to get Moses within earshot, had to get Moses in a place where Moses could hear God. So, God had an angel appear as flames of fire in a bush to get Moses’ attention. And it worked. God got his attention, and then called out to him by name, “Moses.”
We get this again several times in Scripture. My favorite story of God calling someone is the story of young Samuel. Samuel, a young boy growing up in the Temple with Eli the kind, elderly priest. One night Samuel hears a voice calling him, “Samuel, Samuel.” Thinking it’s Eli, young Samuel gets out of bed, and goes to Eli. Eli says he hasn’t called Samuel and sends Samuel back to bed. Two more times Samuel hears a voice calling his name, “Samuel, Samuel” and two more times Eli says it isn’t him. But on the third time, Eli realizes that God is calling Samuel, and so he tells young Samuel, “The next time you hear the voice, say, ‘Speak Lord, for thy servant hears You.'” Samuel did, and God was calling Samuel to serve God, too.
God calls us. He calls us by name, he calls us to serve Him, he calls us to be in fellowship with Him. William Willimon in his book, Who Will Be Saved, says in his chapter titled, The God Who Refuses To Be Alone, “God is determined — through Creation, the sagas of the Patriarchs, the words of the prophets, the teaching of the law, and the birth and death of the Christ — to get close, very close, too close for comfort in fact.”
God calls us because God wants to be near us, to love us, to save us — which we’ll get to in a minute.
God is a God Who Comes Down To Us
But, if we just say God calls us, we might miss the fact that for God to do that, He has to be present with us. God, says the writer of Exodus, comes down to us. Of course, when God comes down to us in the person of Jesus, we call that the Incarnation — God with us, Immanuel. That’s the Christmas story. And, so every Christmas we gather here at church, or at home, and we say, “Remember the time when God came down to us?” And we tell that story.
But here God comes down to his people, the nation of Israel. God comes down to Israel because God has heard their cries, sees their predicament, and is acting to save his people.
God comes down to us because he loves us. God comes down to us because he hears us. God comes down to us to save us. That’s the story of God that we need to tell over and over. For God is not just a God who calls us to serve him, he is a God who comes down to us to speak to us face to face, to call us personally, and in-person.
In Western thought, our concepts of God tend to be of the removed God — the transcendent Being — who rules and reigns forever, world without end, amen. We ascribe lofty attributes to God, attribute great power and majesty to God, and well we should. But we must never forget that those are concepts, too. That all we really know about God we know from the times that God has revealed Himself to us — in the burning bush, the voice in the night, and in the birth of a baby named Jesus.
In the Old Testament, and in this book of Exodus especially, we see God not as just the God of Mount Sinai, surrounded by smoke, fire, and thunder. But we also see God who comes down to us in a rather small burning bush. Who speaks to Moses in an understandable voice, who calls Moses by name, who knows his weaknesses and strengths, and who has come down to save his people.
When I was about 8, I got a bicycle for my birthday. Lots of kids get bicycles, and mine was a red Schwinn bike. My dad worked with me in the front yard, holding the rear fender of the bike while I tried to pedal and steer all at the same time. After several wobbly attempts, I began to get the hang of it, and my dad went inside. Thinking like only an 8-year old can, I thought it would be really funny to play a trick on my dad.
So, I laid my bike on its side, and then positioned myself under it, with my legs all tangled up like I had crashed in spectacular fashion. I then started yelling for my dad, “Help, help, help me!” Or something like that.
It must have worked because the front door opened, and my dad bounded down the steps with a look of horror on his face. He bent down to comfort me, and about that time, I said, “Gotcha! I was just kidding.”
Well, he wasn’t amused, but he wasn’t really mad either. He told me something about the boy who cried wolf, and then went back in the house. But I never forgot the look on his face. He was concerned, worried, he had heard my cries, and he was coming down to help me. I felt kind of bad that I had tricked him, but I also felt kind of good that I saw he really was concerned.
God is a God Who Saves Us
In the New Testament, Jesus poses the question in the gospel of Luke, that is interesting. I like this in the New Revised Standard Version because it shows the difference between us and God dramatically:
Which one of us? None of us would do that. We would say “at least I’ve got 99 sheep here, not bad. You know you’re going to lose a few here and there.”
But not God, the good shepherd. He goes after the one that is lost until he finds it. Not until it’s dark, or until it’s cold, or until he’s tired. No, God searches for the lost sheep until he finds it. And, he leaves the other 99 while he’s looking. That’s not the way we would do it at all.
But Jesus goes on in that same chapter to tell about a woman who lost a one coin out of the ten she had. She opens the curtains, lights the lamps, moves the furniture, sweeps the floor, and searches carefully until she finds it.
But, Jesus still isn’t finished. Then he tells the story about a lost son. The prodigal son. A young man so selfish and self-centered that he took his inheritance, left home, and lived it up until all his money ran out. He makes his way home, contrite and ashamed. And Jesus says, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him.”
How is that possible? The father is looking for him. Everyday, watching the horizon, looking down the dusty road where the last time he had seen the back of his son leaving home.
But this time, he sees the younger son headed home. The father runs to greet him, hugs and kisses him, throws a party, calls the neighbors, and celebrates the return of the son who was dead, but who now is alive again.
And we would have not done any of those things, except maybe look for the lost coin, because after all that’s real money.
God saves us. He saves us from ourselves, from sin, from the devil, from our mistakes, from missing the mark. God saves us, because that’s what God does. God told Moses, “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”
God heard not only the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, he heard the cries of the nation 1500 years after Moses. Occupied by a foreign army, victimized by their own corrupt clergy, God heard his people and came down and saved them through Jesus.
And God still saves us today. He saves us from sin, and for glory. He saves us because he loves us. He saves from a bitter place, to bring us to a better place. God saves us. Who of us would do that? None, but God would. Who could save us? None, but God could. Who did save us? No one but God did.
And so we say with the apostles’ today,
1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”5 The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah [a] and Meribah [b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Our Too-Small Imagination
Have you ever noticed how we human beings seem to imagine things that we’ve never seen on a scale much smaller than they really are? I remember the first time I flew to California in the 1980s. As we were somewhere over the southwestern United States, the pilot announced, “The Grand Canyon will be coming up on your left shortly.” Fortunately, I was seated by the window on the left-side of the plane, so I had a commanding view. Now, I had been to New Mexico, and we had lived in Texas when I was a child, so I was not totally unfamiliar with the landscape of the southwest. Lots of wild, craggy mountain ranges, separated by lots of vast, arid desert. So, from our height of probably 30,000 feet, I expected to see the Grand Canyon looking sort of like a big ditch in the ground below.
Sure enough, as the plane flew on, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was the Grand Canyon. Okay, it looked like I thought it would — a big ditch with a southwestern attitude. But, as we flew on, the real Grand Canyon came into view, and kept coming, and coming, and getting bigger and bigger. This was no ditch. This was a wonder of nature and time. A carved natural masterpiece more immense than I had ever imagined, even from 30,000 feet up.
We had a similar experience when our girls were small. I was teaching at Glorieta Baptist Conference Center in New Mexico one summer for three weeks. My schedule allowed us to take afternoon trips to places of interest close by. We saw Bandelier National Monument, home to cliff dwelling native Americans hundreds of years ago. We travelled in to Santa Fe and saw the native American craftsmen and artisans selling handmade silver-and-turquoise jewelry. All of those experiences were pretty much what we expected, and very interesting at that.
I had heard of an extinct volcano caldera — the center of the volcano — and thought it would be great to take our girls there to see it. None of us had ever seen a volcano before, even an extinct one, so one day we packed into the car and headed toward the site. Debbie was navigating with map in hand, the kids were peering over the back seat in anticipation of catching the first glimpse of the cone-shape of the volcano itself. But, we drove and drove and drove. According to the map, we should have seen the volcano by that time. But, no volcano. After driving about 20-miles in the vicinity of the volcanic caldera, we stopped and asked a National Park Ranger for directions. I got out of the car and walked over to him, and said, “We’re looking for the caldera. Can you tell me how to get to it?” He just looked at me and replied, “You’ve been driving in it for the last 20-miles.” Then, he pointed to a far distant landmark further down and said, “It goes on for several more miles in that direction.”
We were both stunned and disappointed. Stunned at the immense size — we were actually driving inside an old extinct volacano base. But, disappointed that there was not cone-shaped mountain with lava running down the side to see. We had imagined it much too small.
Our Too-Small Biblical Imagination
We have a similar problem when we come to this story today. It’s the story of God providing water for the nation of Israel as they were on the first leg of their Exodus from Egypt. Here’s the story:
The nation of Israel, with Moses as its leader, has left Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea on dry land, and slipped through the clutches of Pharaoh and his army. They are now on their way to the land of promise, the land God is taking them to. We aren’t sure how many were in the long procession from Egypt, but the Bible says that “600,000 men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.”
Assuming that each male had at least 2 or 3 corresponding women and children — who could have been mothers, sisters, wives, and brothers — the numbers of Israelites could easily have been 1.2-to-1.8 million people. Then, there are the “many other people” who also went with them, who might have been other foreigners, Egyptians who had married into their families, traders, and others wanting to escape Pharaoh’s brutality. So, we could have a small country of people, maybe 2 million, traveling together.
The writer of Genesis says they were accompanied by “large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” This is natural for an agrarian economy, which is what Israel had. They lived off the land, and an important part of their economy were their flocks of sheep, and herds of goats and cattle. These domesticated animals provided the ancient equivalent of “horse-power” to plow fields, grind grain, haul mud and straw for the making of bricks; plus, they were a source of milk, cheese, meat, and clothing. And, it obviously took more than one animal per household, probably even more than one per person, to sustain their way of life. Let’s estimate the flocks and herds at 3-4 million sheep, goats, and cattle. We will not even bother with chickens, ducks, geese, dogs, cats and any other farm animals that might have been among their furry or feathered friends.
This massive population of people had already encountered one water crisis at Marah, where the water was bitter. Bitter might have meant “unfit” for human or animal consumption, not just bad tasting. So bad, that no one could drink it. The people immediately began to grumble — “What are we to drink?” Except I think it was a lot more heated than that, and a lot more intense, because Moses “cries out to the Lord.” Moses doesn’t just pray, or ask, or seek — he cries out! “Help!”
God shows Moses a piece of wood. The wood is not important here, but Moses’ obedience is. Moses throws the piece of wood into the water. Miraculously, the water becomes “sweet” — drinkable. For all 2-million people, and 3-4 million cows, sheep, goats, chickens, dogs, cats, geese, ducks, and gerbils. Or whatever else wanted a drink. Plus, they need to find more. So, God takes them to Elim where there are “12 springs and seventy palm trees.” Twelve springs, twelve tribes — one for each tribe. Enough for everybody, in other words. Crisis averted.
Next we come to the story of the manna and the quail. God sends quail to cover the camp and the next morning the manna is there where the quail have been. You know this story — and all they have to do is pick it up off the ground everyday, and a double portion before the Sabbath because it doesn’t appear on the Sabbath. Chapter 16 ends with the writer of Exodus telling us that “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled.” The amazing thing is that later, they want to eat the quail. And, apparently, the quail are providing the manna. That is the ultimate case of wanting eat the goose that laid the golden egg. But, that’s not our story today.
Back to the water crisis. So, now they’ve come to Rephidim in the Desert of Sin. Not “sin” like we’ve done something wrong, but a place name — there was actually a city in Egypt named Sin, but this is not near it. Maybe the name is taken from the same root as Sinai, but we don’t know. But, even though the name doesn’t mean “we’ve done something wrong,” they do something wrong. They complain and quarrel with Moses because there is no water, again.
You might think that the people who have seen God provide water for them by changing bitter water to sweet, and then leading them to 12 streams among 70 palms would believe God could do it again. But, they don’t. You might think that the same people who have been fed by God everyday that they have been on this journey from Egypt to the land of promise, might believe that God would provide for them again. But they don’t. Instead they say to Moses —
Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thrist?”
Again, Moses cries out to the Lord. This time God says,
Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”
Of course, Moses does as God directs, and water springs from the rock.
How Much Water Is That?
Now, this is where our imagination needs expanding. How much water? Usually, when we picture this scene, Moses stands on the rock and strikes it with his staff, and a stream of water gushes forth. But, we’re providing water for 2-million people and 3-4 million animals. That’s a lot of water. Let’s say everybody gets a gallon of water. That’s the recommended 8-glasses per day for each person. Plus, animals get a gallon. That’s 5-6 million gallons just for one day! And, they are there for 3-months according to Exodus 19:1. That’s 90-days x 6-million gallons — that’s 540-million gallons of water before they move on. But, the actual numbers are even higher than that.
Let’s take Georgia’s Lake Lanier, which serves Atlanta and north Georgia. Listen to these statistics from the website,Atlanta Water Shortage:
The watershed for Lake Lanier is around 1,040 square miles (the “watershed” is the land area that drains back into the lake).
First we need to figure out how much water we’re talking about if 1″ of rain fell. There are 27,878,400 square feet in a mile. Dividing that by 12 would tell us how many cubic feet of rain fall per square mile: 2,323,200. Converting that into gallons (2,323,200 * 7.48 gal/cubic ft) gives us 17,377,536 gallons of water per square miles. So, if we have 1,040 square miles of area, each receiving 17.38 million gallons, that’s a total of about 18 billion gallons that could potentially find its way into Lake Lanier.
From here it gets much trickier. How much of that rain will make it to Lanier? There’s no way to tell. All of it will make it other than what evaporates or is used by a human or animal. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 25% of the water makes it to the lake — that’s about 4.5 billion gallons.
Ok, so 4.5 billion gallons goes into the lake. What does that do for us? Well, we know that the lake loses just over a billion gallons a day, so we can say that 4.5 billion gallons would give us about 5 days worth of water.
My point in all of this is — this is torrent of water, not just a little stream. God provides enough water for millions of people, plus animals by having Moses strike the rock.
A Bigger Imagination for God’s Love
Do you see why our imagination is too small? God provides a torrent of flowing water that is drinkable and remains so as long as the people need it. Now, let’s turn our attention to Jesus and his conversation with the woman at the well, our Gospel reading from John 4 today. We don’t have time to examine every detail of this story, but here’s the important part.
On a trip through Samaria, Jesus stops to rest in the heat of the noonday sun at Jacob’s well in Sychar. A Samaritan woman is there, trying to draw water, and Jesus engages her in conversation by asking her for a drink of water. She replies –
Samaritan woman: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
Jesus replies — “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Living water is running water, not well-water. Water that is ever-renewed, a stream of water, not a still or stagnant pond or lake. Living water is dynamic, oxygenated, invigorating, life-giving. Living water never stops flowing, which Jesus explains to the woman as he says –
Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
An endless supply, with no end either of volume or of duration. A limitless supply, greater than we can imagine.
A Promise Never To Destroy The World By Water, Again
After God destroys the earth by the flood, and saves only Noah and his family and the creatures on the ark, God makes a covenant with Noah by placing a rainbow in the sky –
Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. — Genesis 9:14-15
God promises never again to destroy all life with water. But, what God does instead, is give life to all through living water. God gave life to the nation of Israel through water from the rock. Jesus said to woman at the well, “the water I give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up into eternal life.”
How big is our imagination about God’s love? Do we believe that God loves us enough to provide enough water for all those who are spiritually-thirsty? Do we believe that God’s provision of living water is unending? Do we understand that there is enough and more for all of God’s creation?
During this Lenten season, is our imagination that of the nation of Israel? Doubtful about the ability of God to care for His people? Moses recorded in Exodus 17:7, that the people asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Is the Lord among us or not? If he is, what do we have to worry about? If he is not, what do we have to live for?
Believing the Story, Living in the Stream
Recently, I heard about a new book that had just been published, titled, Irreligion, by John Allen Paulos. Dr. Paulos is a mathematician at Temple University in Philadelphia, and an atheist by his own admission. In the book, Dr. Paulos takes on the 12-classic logical arguments for the existence of God, and to his own satisfaction, disproves each one. His conclusion is that there are no logical reasons to believe in God.
I made a passing reference to the book on my blog one day. To my amazement, I got a personal email from Dr. Paulos suggesting that I might actually want to read at least one chapter of his book, which I could do for free online. So, I took him up on his offer. I read the chapter and thought it was well-written.
I then offered to read and review the book on my blog, since I had referred to it previously. Dr. Paulos had the publisher send me a copy, which I read and wrote a review for. In the review I said that I thought Dr. Paulos made some good points, and that the book was well-written and he had done Christians a favor by telling us what atheists thought about our arguments for God. Dr. Paulos was so surprised by the review, that he emailed me and offered to buy me dinner should I ever come to Philadelphia. I fully intend to take him up on his offer, and here’s why: While I think he did a marvelous job of poking holes in the logical arguments for God, I don’t agree with him that there is no good reason to believe in the existence of God.
I believe God exists, not because science or math can prove or disprove God, but because I believe the story of God. I believe God created this world, and that it is good. I believe that God is active in this world, calling his creation and creatures back to him. I believe that God guides, provides, cares, loves, and saves us. I believe that the God who can provide water to a rag-tag group of grumblers on the way from Egypt to the promised land, is the same God who provides a well of living water to those on spiritual journeys today. A well that springs up, not just to quinch an immediate thirst, but a well that springs up into eternal life. A well that never runs dry, a stream that never fails, a source that always satisfies.
I believe in this God despite all those who have “proven” that he does not exist, does not care, is not powerful, is not good, is not here. I believe in this God who had Moses strike the rock once, and sent Jesus to the cross once. I believe in this God who calls people out of bondage into freedom, out of slavery into life, out of darkness into light, out of despair into hope. I have believed in this God since before I can remember, and gave my life to him when I was six years old. I believe in this God because in my life, springs of living water have sprung up. They have sprung up when I was faithful, and when I complained. They have sprung up when I was thirsty, and when I was self-satisfied. They have sprung up, and continue to spring up in my life. I am convinced that they will spring up without pause or end, until they spring up in eternity.
John says, “The Spirit and the bride say Come! And let him who hears say, Come! Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Amen and amen.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Februay 3, 2008, on Transfiguration Sunday. I hope yours is a wonderful day with God’s people!
Exodus 24:12-18 NIV
12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction.”
13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Immortality in the Movies
In 1985, a charming movie directed by Ron Howard — remember Opie on The Andy Griffith Show? — premiered. The movie was Cocoon, and the cast included veterans of stage and screen such as Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Wilford Brimley, and Maureen Stapleton. The story line was simple: Aliens led by Brian Denehy, returned to earth to retrieve some of their friends who were encased in “cocoons” beneath the ocean. The aliens made the mistake of temporarily stashing their cocooned friends in a swimming pool located near a retirement home. Several of the male retirees made it a regular habit to break into the pool for a swim. Only one day they encounter a pool full of barnacle-encrusted giant easter-egg-like cocoons. Undaunted the group swims anyway, only to discover the next day that they are youthful and vigorous again. I said the storyline was simple, not believable.
Anyway, the movie is really about the quest for immortality, because the aliens offer all the senior citizens who want to go, a trip to their planet where everyone lives forever. Of course, if they choose to live forever, they have to leave friends and family. And, there’s the rub. Some go, some don’t, some think they will go, then change their minds. The movie was a very clever device for addressing the desire humans have for immortality.
But, that’s not my point. I’m telling you the storyline, so I can tell you this one tiny part. Steve Gutenberg is the young captain of a small fishing boat, rented by the aliens to go out to sea to retrieve the cocoons. Brian Denehy is the head alien, only he looks just like, well, Brian Denehy. No big oval head with almond-shaped eyes on skinny legs. No sir, Brian Denehy is an all-American alien, or at least that’s what we think for a while. Also on board, and helping Brian-the-alien with the retrieval of the cocoons was a beautiful young woman, who also appeared very normal. One day she goes below to change out of her diving gear, and young Mr. Steve Gutenberg peeks in the window. Much to his surprise, not only does she unzip her wet suit, she unzips her entire outer layer of skin, and takes it off like an overcoat on a hot day! Under that human-body-mask, is a creature of light, with an almost human form, but glowing like a star in the sky. Of course, Gutenberg almost faints, and there the story takes off.
When We Think of God’s Glory We Think of Light
Now, I realize I took the long way around to make a very small point, so let me make it. Today, despite what the media says about this Sunday, today is Transfiguration Sunday. We read the passage from Matthew’s gospel about the transfiguration of Jesus, and we have just read the Old Testament precursor to Matthew, the story of Moses going up to the glory of God on Mt. Sinai. Just about every time in the Bible when we encounter the glory of God, we get a picture of blazing light, of luminous presence, of consuming fire. We don’t have time this morning to look at all those places, but you know the stories –
- The story of creation, where God says, Let there be light, on the very first day.
- The story of God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. God says it’s holy ground.
- The story of God appearing to guide the nation of Israel as a cloud by day, and fire by night.
- The story of God validating the tabernacle, and ultimately the temple, by resting his shekinah glory — the luminous, awesome, visible glory that is God’s — over those structures.
- The story of God responding to Elijah’s call for consuming fire on the altar, prophets of Baal, and barrel-loads of water, and God does it.
- The story of Elijah being taken in the chariot of fire into heaven, bypassing death on the way.
- The story of angels who appear in blazing light to shepherds who are “sore afraid” in King James language.
- The story John tells of the Light which came into the world who lights all who are in the world.
- The story of Paul being blinded by the light of God, until his eyes are opened to the truth of God.
- The story of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, and of God as the light of the city, where there is no need of the sun by day, or the moon by night, for God is its Light.
The glory of God as light comes at us from all directions in both Old and New Testaments. Vladimir Lossky expresses the theology of the Orthodox Church when he says –
In the mystical theology of the Eastern Church, these expressions (of God as light) are not used as metaphors or as figure of speech, but as expressions for a real aspect of the Godhead. If God is called Light, it is because He cannot remain foreign to our experience.
Orthodox folks take this business of God is Light very seriously, and so should we. But, Orthodox Christians are not the only ones to take God is Light to heart. Fifteen-hundred years ago, as Patrick took Christianity to Ireland, the emerging Celtic Christian church believed that the Light of God was evident not only in the Bible, but also in creation. Listen to this ancient poem about the birth of Jesus and the response of all creation –
This is the long night…
It will snow and it will drift…
White snow there will be till day…
White moon there will be till morn…
This night is the eve of the Great Nativity…
This night is born Mary Virgin’s Son,…
This night is born Jesus, Son of the King of glory…
This night is born to us the root of our joy…
This night gleamed the sun of the mountains high…
This night gleamed sea and shore together…
This night was born Christ the King of greatness…
Ere it was heard that the Glory was come…
Heard was the wave upon the strand…
Ere ’twas heard that His foot had reached the earth…
Heard was the song of the angels glorious…
This night is the long night…
Glowed to Him wood and tree…
Glowed to Him mount and sea,
Glowed to Him land and plain,
When that His foot was come to earth.
– The Book of Creation, J. Philip Newell, pg 12-13
So, not only does Jesus bring the glory of God to earth, but all creation responds by “glowing” God’s light back to God. The Celtic Christians believed that the Light of God infused all of creation, and that light would respond to God’s presence by glowing back to God in return.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration
Which brings us back to our story. Peter, James, and John have accompanied Jesus up the mountain where something wonderfully miraculous happens. As they watch, Jesus is transfigured — changed into something they have never before seen — into a glowing, radiant Light. If that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus and talk with Him about the future. Moses is glowing, Elijah is glowing, Jesus is glowing — radiantly white, pouring light from their clothes, their faces, their hands, their arms, light floods from all around them.
And God speaks. Again. The same words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism — “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased: listen to Him!” With that, the disciples who are looking at this display of light, fall on their faces overcome by fear. Not surprising, because we would probably do the same.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. All who have seen the glory of God, face-to-face, in person. Moses and Elijah both were called friends of God. Moses the lawgiver, who ascends Mt. Sinai to receive from God the Law of God. That Law will distinguish God’s people from all other people on the earth. Moses has stood in the presence of God, closer than any person ever stood; so close that his own faced glowed with radiant light. That glow of God so disturbed the nation of Israel that Moses had to put a veil on his face to keep from scaring the people of God.
Elijah, the prophet of God, representing all the prophets of God. Elijah who has seen God’s provision for a widow and her son, and God’s judgment on a king and kingdom that worshipped false gods. Elijah, so profoundly in tune with God that God sends a chariot of fire, pulled by horses of flame to carry Elijah in their whirlwind to heaven.
Jesus, who himself has stepped out of the throne room of heaven down to earth, and who has cloaked himself in the form of a man, masking His own glory to all the world.
Except on this day, this day we call the day of transfiguration that glory is no longer masked. Now some folks think that the miracle was that Jesus glowed radiantly like the sun that day. And that Moses and Elijah were also luminous with the glory of God all over them. But I’m not so sure.
As a kid, did you ever catch lightning bugs? Some people call them fireflies, but in Columbus, Georgia, all the 10-year old boys I knew called them lightning bugs. You could catch them in a jar and watch them for hours. But without fail, if you were a 10-year old boy, you had to hold one for yourself. And, sometimes if you held one too tightly, or grabbed one out of the air too quickly, your lighting bug met his untimely end. All you were left with was a glowing streak of lightning bug juice on your hand. Well, imagine that all over your body, then multiply by about 1,000, and you have the idea that most folks have of what happened on the mountain that day to Jesus and Moses and Elijah.
But, I think the miracle is what happened to Peter, James, and John. I believe that it wasn’t Jesus who was transfigured before them so much as it was the change that came to those three disciples. And for the first time since they had followed him, they saw his glory. “Glory,” John would later say, “as of the only begotten Son of God.” I think what happened that day wasn’t that Jesus was changed, but that Peter, James, and John were. Listen to Vladimir Lossky again –
The Transfiguration was not a phenomenon circumscribed in time and space; Christ underwent no change at that moment, even in His human nature, but a change occurred in the awareness of the apostles, who for a time received the power to see their Master as He was, resplendent in the eternal light of His Godhead. — The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky, pg 223.
The Light of God’s Glory Changes Us
From that time, Peter, James, and John were not the same. They had seen the glory of God and they were changed because of it. Not perfect, but changed. No longer was following Jesus just about wondering how he did miracles, or how the healed the sick, or even how he reimagined the Law of Moses for the people of God. From that day forward, these disciples knew that Jesus was on a mission, a mission to bring the kingdom of God to the people of God. A mission to make all things new.
A mission in which the shekinah glory of God no longer rested over the Temple, but on their Teacher. A mission that encompassed the Law and the Prophets, not just a populist revolt. So, they were changed by the glory of God, just as Moses had been changed, and just as Elijah had been changed.
A very sweet, yet powerful story is found in The Revelations of St. Seraphim of Sarov, written in the early 1800s, only a couple of hundred years ago. This Russian story was recorded by Seraphim’s student, who was with Seraphim one morning.
The student said to the monk Seraphim, “I don’t understand how one can be certain of being in the Spirit of God. How should I recognize this should it happen to me?”
Seraphim patiently reiterated the lessons he had already taught this disciple, only to have the student reply, “I must understand better everything you have said to me.”
To which Seraphim replied, “My friend, we are both in the Spirit now…Why won’t you look at me?”
“I can’t look at you, Father,” he replied, “your eyes shine like lightning; your face has become more dazzling that the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you.”
Seraphim said, “Don’t be afraid, at this very moment you’ve become as bright as I have. You are also in the fullness of the Spirit.”
Listen to what this disciple, this student monk, wrote then, in his own words,
Encouraged by his words, I looked and was seized by holy fear. Imagine in the middle of the sun, dazzling in the brilliance of its noontide rays, the face of the man who is speaking to you. You can see the movements of his lips, the changing expression of his eyes, you can hear his voice, you can feel his hands holding you by the shoulders, but you can see neither his hands nor his body — nothing except the blaze of light which shines around, lighting up with its brilliance the snow-covered meadow, and the snowflakes continue to fall unceasingly. — The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pg 227-8
C. S. Lewis in his book, The Weight of Glory, said, –
For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophesy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door…We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is on the first sketch.
– The Weight of Glory, pg 43.
God’s glory changes us. It changed Moses on Mt. Sinai. It changed Elijah on Mt. Carmel. It changed Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor. No, we do not need to build tabernacles to the glory of God. God has already built his own. We see God’s glory in creation, if our eyes are open. We see God’s glory in His Word, if our spirits are open. We see God’s glory in others, if our hearts are open. And the glory we see changes us, so that one day that same glory may rest on us, revealing the Light of God that has long lived in our hearts, eager to be released to a world of darkness.
The little children’s song had it right,
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine,
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine,
Let it shine,
Let it shine.