By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, February 19, 2023
Reading: Exodus 33:12-23
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
I bet if we surveyed one another we’d have some answers in common. The face of your beloved on your wedding day. The face of your newborn child when you first met and said, “hey little one, welcome to the world.” Lots of answers would involve faces.
God has a face it seems. But it’s awfully hard to see it.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday of Epiphany before Lent next week. The church remembers today when Jesus invited Peter, James, and John up a mountain and he changed form, became unbearably dazzling. Moses and Elijah appeared to speak with him. Then the voice of God boomed, this is my Son. The beloved. Listen to him.
There are Christians for whom this is the most important story in the faith. For us it might be the crucifixion or the resurrection, for Eastern Orthodox Christians the Transfiguration is a glimpse of the world God is bringing. Shot through with glory. Radiant. Faces transfigured. All things new.
We have the Transfiguration depicted in our sanctuary in two places. One is a stained glass window. What is stained glass but regular glass transfigured? I knew a firefighter who had to break through stained glass to fight a blaze at a church, he reared back with a brick, threw it as hard as he could, and it bounced back in his face. Stained glass looks fragile, it’s actually quite strong. Bricks look strong, they’re actually quite weak, in God’s transfigured world. The other is more obscure. There’s an image of a peacock in the west chapel. It’s a beautiful bird ordinarily, bright blue, and gangly. Ancient peoples wrongly thought it didn’t decay after death, so it was a sign of eternity. I understand why they’d think that. Because that beautiful bird occasionally shimmers and, wow, something happens. It goes nuclear. Glory. That’s an image for Christ’s transfiguration. For what God intends to do with all creation.
As with everything in our faith there is an Old Testament basis for this story. Moses goes up a high mountain. And he asks to see God’s glory. And God says . . . no. You’ll die. But here’s what we’ll do. We’ll stuff you in the cleft of a rock. And I’ll pass by. I’ll cover your eyes with my hand. And when I’ve passed by, I’ll take away my hand, and you’ll see my backside. But you can’t see my face. No one can see my face and live. Wouldn’t want to kill you, Moses. My face? No. My posterior? Sure. Notice the story is all written in future tense. It’s what will happen. All we get is a hint, a whiff, of where God used to be.
Have you ever seen God? Would you like to? How would you feel if you got to ask God to see his face, and God said . . . no?
We are in a series on the book of Exodus this year here at TEMC. We’re learning the basic grammar of the biblical stories with Moses, Aaron, the Israelites, and their trek from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. One reason we’re doing this is to help correct a very old and very bad Christian habit. That is to neglect Israel’s scripture. Or ignore it. Or even denigrate it. The Old Testament, we sometimes say, depicts God as harsh. Cruel. Warlike. Bloody. Mean. No wonder if we think that, we ignore, neglect, denigrate it. There are a few problems with this. One, it’s not true. God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. That’s not from the gospel of John, that’s from Exodus. Two, without the Old Testament you can’t understand the New. The early church said it’s a heresy to try to lop off the Old Testament. If you do that, you can’t come on Sundays. Three, the Old Testament is the book we share with our Jewish older siblings in faith. They call it something different, the Torah or Tanakh, they read it differently, with the rabbis rather than the New Testament, but we both honour the same book, and that’s a treasure. Four, and this one is me being more controversial, so bear with me. Lots of Christian sermons I hear are on the gospels, especially Matthew, Mark, or Luke. They’re not very theological. They say ‘Jesus in this story is almost as inclusive as we are. Not quite! He still has a ‘ways to go to be as open-minded as we would like. But he’s on his way.’ Uh, no. Jesus is God in our flesh dying to save us all. To see how radical and world-changing Jesus is, we need the Bible he learned bouncing on Mary’s knee, singing Israel’s songs, loving Israel’s God.
In our story Israel has just sinned terribly. Just as Moses is receiving the ten commandments from God on the mountaintop, Israel is breaking every single one of them with the golden calf. She got tired of waiting for Moses to come down the mountain, so she asked Aaron to “make gods for us,” the very definition of idolatry. As for Moses, we don’t even know where he went or whether he’s coming back. Aaron does. We leaders are as fallible as anyone, more so to read these stories. Aaron gathers their gold, puts it in a smelter, makes a golden calf, and they say, “here are your gods oh Israel who led you out of Egypt.” And God is hoppin’ mad. ‘Lemme at em! I’m gonna kill em!’ That’s my translation of the Hebrew. And Moses talks God down. Chills God out. Gets God breathing through divine eyelids, returning to a state of Zen. No, no, no God, uh, you don’t wanna kill ‘em. You’re vain, God, and you don’t want Egypt saying you led Israel in the desert to kill them, do you? I mean, you care about your reputation, remember? And God says, uh, yeah, you’re right, I do care about my reputation. Alright, Moses, I won’t kill em. Then Moses comes down the mountain with the two stone tablets of the law, sees the people dancing naked around the golden calf, and breaks the tablets. Melts the calves and makes the people drink em. Many of them die. It’s ugly.
So wait, isn’t this the bad God of the Old Testament? Not exactly.
Bono of U2 fame says the Old Testament is the Hollywood movie of the Bible: it’s R-rated, there are car crashes and fight scenes. I prefer to think of it as the stormy love affair between God and Israel. They love each other, but they also get mad, storm off, come back and make up, sort of a yo-yo relationship. In the Old Testament God and humanity are dating, and that’s messy. In the New we’re engaged. Still messy. One day we’re getting married.
So now Moses is back up the mountain with God. And God is going to make new tablets with the law for the people. But Moses is not sure that God hasn’t quit Israel forever. Moved on. In one place God even says he’s going to start over with Moses and make a new people. A better people this time. God’s done it before. With Noah God chose a favourite and started over with him and his family. Wiped everyone else out. This time, I’m gonna get it right, God says.
I know a man who was married four or five times. Each time the marriage ran into difficulty, he left. And said, okay, this time, I’ll find the right person. The problem is, he couldn’t see that he was the wrong person. And that conflict is normal. You’re not really in a relationship with any depth till there’s conflict. Lack of conflict doesn’t mean peace, it often just means someone surrendered. You kinda wanna say to such a person, uh, you know you’re taking yourself with you into the next marriage, right? Good luck with that. As Taylor Swift sings, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” Now, no judgment here, just love. My pastor mentor’s mom was married seven times, twice to the same guy, his father. I don’t recommend it, the only one happy about it is the divorce lawyer on retainer. I’m just saying why not stay with the same person and learn to fight fair? Moses plays marriage counselor here and tries to talk God back into love with Israel.
A Jewish theologian named Peter Ochs says every marriage needs three people: two spouses and a marriage counselor. “You Christians should understand that,” he says, “you already think God is three and one.”
“Show me your glory,” Moses asks. A bold request. God says no. God offers all these other things instead. God says you can see my goodness. My presence will go with you. I’ll tell you my name: Yahweh, the Lord. I’ll let you know my character. I’m merciful and gracious as the day is long. But my glory, no. It’d be like landing on the sun and trying to walk around. Can’t do it. You couldn’t stand it.
Now, in one way, this refusal is strange. Because in other stories, Moses does see God face to face. In fact, in the verse right before our reading, we see: “God used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In other stories Moses’ face glows from being in God’s presence. It’s so bright the people have to cover it with a veil because they can’t bear to look at him. So in some cases it seems Moses does see God face to face. Why not here? We don’t know. Here’s what we do know: Moses is worried God is giving up on Israel. Moses knows God isn’t giving up on Moses. Moses did nothing wrong. He didn’t worship the golden calf, he was up the mountain with God. And Moses is going to do everything he can do to keep God from doing that. He gets right up in God’s face, puts his finger right in God’s chest and says, hey, you made promises here that you wouldn’t give up on this people. You chose this people. Your beloved. Remember your vows, God. Now, remember too, I’m part of Israel. Giving up on them is giving up on me. So, God, renew your vows. Promise you won’t leave. This is a bold dangerous way of praying. So many of our prayers are so polite. Oh God, we haven’t quite been as nice as we ought…no. This is getting up in God’s grill and demanding things of God. And it’s right there in the Bible. So, I guess we can do it too, right?
In the early church one desert monk came to another and told him he wanted help getting back at a monk who had hurt him. So, the monk said, “let us pray. Oh God, we have no further need of you, for we can take revenge all by ourselves.” The first monk said, ugh, you’re right, I’ll drop my grudge. That’s a bold prayer, right? A friend of mine once prayed over another that God would heal her, now. She was sick of waiting and only God could do it. God didn’t. I don’t know why. But the prayer was bold, biblical. Our ancestor Abraham prayed for the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, God, I know you want to punish, but you won’t destroy the cities if there are 50 righteous people in them, will you? No, okay, find me 50. And Abraham says, how about 45? And he argues God all the way down to 10 righteous people whom they cannot find, so the cities are destroyed. Abraham bargains with God like they’re in a middle eastern bazaar, haggling over a deal. That’s some gumption. Chutzpah. I’d love to hear some bold prayers from us, up in God’s face, hey, heal this city, with its violence in the streets and subways and schools, its gap between rich and poor, its immense glories and terrible miseries. I don’t mean later, God, I mean now. What are you waiting for?
What Moses is doing here is standing in the gap between God and the people. Playing matchmaker. Marriage counselor. Elsewhere Moses is even bolder. He says, God, if you’re going to be killing anybody, kill me. Wipe me out, not the people. That’s a bold prayer, willing to suffer instead of others. St. Paul prays the same. Wishes God would blot him out and save his fellow people of Israel. Substitute me in for punishment God, let your people go free. When asked about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, a 19th century Russian monk prayed this way: “Lord, if any are to be lost, let it only be me.” Do you hear that? Most of us know who we think God’s enemies are. They turn out to be the exact same enemies we have. We’re good, they’re bad, the end. No, the monk prays, take my life, let the others live. Of course, this is what happens in Jesus. God’s own Son demands, “God, take my life, let humanity live.” We call it vicarious atonement. Substitution. The one who doesn’t deserve it gets punishment. We, who don’t deserve it, get life. If vicarious is too much a ten-cent word for you try this one on: salvation. God suffers. We go free. Not a bad deal.
There are several ways Christians have interpreted this. One, Moses is set on a rock to see God. For us, the rock is Christ, he’s described that way often in the Bible and in church history. So if you want to see God, stand on this rock, that’s our only chance. That’s a good reading. Two, Moses is put in a cleft in the rock. That is, a jagged place. A crevasse. A broken place. It’s almost like God stuffs Moses into a hole and then Moses can see. We sang the great old hymn: “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.” It’s the brokenness that allows Moses to see. The brokenness of Jesus on his cross. Moses’ own brokenness. I don’t know why it is y’all, but most of us come to God out of some brokenness, sorrow, loss. I wish ease and being carefree were the way to God, but it seems not to be. We come to God out of our pain and sorrow. I wish I had better news this morning, but that’s the news there is. Three, what happens when Jesus is crucified? There’s an earthquake. The rocks are split. The earth itself breaks open. Hell is unlocked and souls rise from the dead and walk around. Weirder than any Hollywood movie y’all. So a split in the rock signifies Christ crucified and victorious. Anytime you see a break in any rock, ever, think of his cross and give thanks. St. Francis of Assisi in the middle ages put his order’s monasteries near splits in great rocks. That’s where the church sits. Not on a high rock looking down. Not in a happy sun-drenched valley. No. On the split in the rock. Made by the cross of Christ. In the place where creation itself is broken. Like we are broken. Waiting to be healed, redeemed.
Here’s a reading I want to discourage. In Israel’s scripture we don’t see God face to face. In Jesus we do. For one, as we’ve seen, Moses does see God face to face at times. In another way Moses doesn’t. That’s true for us too. Jesus’ is the very face of God. And yet we don’t see God in his full glory yet. The Old Testament story shows a bold Moses. The New Testament shows timid disciples. So, in some ways I recommend the Old Testament one more. A rabbi friend of mine says we Christians often present a problem and then say Jesus fixes it. No. He presents us with problems we didn’t even know we had. We still long to see the glory of God. For now we do see Jesus. He’s God made visible. We long to see more, just like Moses and the disciples both.
Those are three good readings and one I want to discourage. But here is my favourite. In response to Moses’ bold prayer, God offers to let Moses see God’s backside. To put it more crassly, God’s rear end. God’s behind. I’m not making this up, it’s right there in the story. The Bible’s always weirder than we think. What is the visible part of God? The part of God we can see? God’s back.
Jesus’ first words to his disciples are these: follow me. Where I go, you come with. The church is a following outfit. Jesus goes ahead, we stumble along behind, not very well or very fast, but the best we can. If you want to see God, all you get to see is where God’s been. That is, by following behind Jesus, trying our best to keep up with him. Limping, not going the best direct route, zig zagging or worse, but we do follow. If you want to see God face to face you can’t. If you want to see God follow Jesus and look at him from behind. That’s the best view we get.
What’s the first thing the angel says that resurrection morning? The first morning of the new creation? The disciples come to the tomb. But the angel says, Ah! You just missed him. He’s not here. He is raised. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. Galilee? Two hundred kilometers from here? Yeah, you can catch him, get going! The second we think we’ve got God locked away, behind a stone, he’s out of our grasp, on ahead, just here but now, poof, out of our sight. Well, if you want to see him get going! We can’t stay in the same place. We have to move. This may be why we build massive stone piles like this. Bolt heavy wooden furniture to the floor. Keep at practices like these that are ancient: robes and songs and rituals. To reassure ourselves we’ve got God here and now. But it’s not so. God is here, sure. But God has also always just left. He’s out there. Tending to his poor, broken, hurting world and asking us to follow. If we want to see him that is. All we get to see is his behind. If that. As we stumble along trying to keep up. Let us pray.
Gracious God, show us your face. Failing that, show us your back. And give us feet that are quick to follow you. Oh, and transfigure your whole world. All creation, that you love so much. Amen.