The Life Giving Screen.
Exodus 34: 29 – 35; 2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4: 2; Luke 9: 28-36
Our readings present Moses and Jesus in the presence of God. Both of them radiate with the light of God. When Moses came down from the mountain his face shone with the presence of God. The people couldn’t cope with Moses’ radiant face. Jesus’ disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration struggled with the change in Jesus’ appearance when his face and clothes became dazzling white [Lk 9:29]. A cloud came and covered Jesus, Peter, James and John. Let us also remember that the cloud is a metaphor for God’s presence. In the Exodus Moses and the people follow the cloud by day because this is the way God leads them through the wilderness to freedom [Exodus 13:21,22; 40: 36-38]. When they stopped the cloud hangs over the Tent of worship symbolising that God is present [Numbers 9: 15 -17; Lev 16:2]. The cloud symbolises the presence of God and simultaneously provides protection from the radiance of God. There is a sense that we cannot see God because the full presence of God is overwhelming. So the presence of Christ can be like a blinding light as it was for Paul on the road to Damascus. There is something unnerving about being in the presence of God. Glory and light are descriptors of God’s presence. It is said that one cannot endure the fullness of God for it overwhelms us. We might gain some understanding through our physical experience of gazing into a very bright light. The abundance of light rays strike the retina, which holds the rods and cons that are filled with light sensitive pigment. Normally when particles of light strike the retina the light sensitive pigment changes into a different form sending electrical impulses to the brain. When the retina is bombarded by a strong light or by looking directly into the sun, the retina becomes overly stimulated resulting in our eyes developing temporary black spots or blindness.
Today I want to focus on the use of a veil and the cloud as a screen. A screen hides and protects. E.g. we use sunscreen to protect us from the harmful rays of the sun and simultaneously it helps us enjoy the warmth of the sun. I’m suggesting that Moses’ veil and the cloud both act as protectant and means of participation in the Presence of God.
We read that when Moses came back with the Ten Commandments after communing with God on the mountain his face was radiant. The Hebrew suggests ‘horns of light’ came from his face. So bright was Moses’ appearance that the people were afraid to come near. They had to be encouraged to draw near to hear what Moses had to say. Moses chose to wear a veil to shield the people from this radiance.
The Cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration acts in a similar way to the veil. The disciples go up the mountain to pray. During their prayers Peter, James and John see Jesus Transfigured before them. A radiance emerges that can only be described as dazzling white. Peter says something that misses the point and the others are speechless. At this point a cloud overshadows them. The cloud screens them from the radiance of Jesus and allows them to hear the voice of God. The cloud in the Transfiguration of Jesus both conceals and reveals Jesus as God’s beloved.
We cannot escape the fact that this experience on the mountain is exceptional and confronting. Neither can we escape the conclusion that the disciples needed some screening from the dazzling revelation. God never exposes us to the full force of God’s presence, unless we are prepared for it. If we were simply to be exposed to the full measure of God we either would be overwhelmed or so mixed up that we might reject what we have experienced. The screens that God provide – the veil and cloud – speak of the graciousness of God who deals with us thoughtfully.
Now screens are there to help us, but they can be used in a way that is harmful. We can either end up with over or under exposure. Too much screening may prevent us from seeing or enjoying the benefits of the object. Too little may lead to over exposure. Both are unhelpful and unproductive.
Let us consider some of the over-screening or negative screening that happens in our lives. Our busy lives unintentionally prevent us from giving the necessary time to the important things in our lives – family, friends, self and of course God. Our church attendance can often slide into one business meeting after another. We arrive at worship only to end up talking about business matters rather than matters of faith and mission.
There is the psychological factor of losing control. We don’t want to lose control over our lives; otherwise we might become vulnerable to God. We think that if we come too close to God we will lose our independence. So we hold back. Ironically the further we stay away from God the more dependent we become on this world’s agenda; and vice versa the closer we come to God the more independence we have.
Intellectualism is a way of staying in control and avoiding the personal. By intellectualism I mean we keep the faith conversation to matters about God rather than matters of God. We avoid speaking of God in a personal way. That is one way we can keep God at bay. I listen to the conversations in the corridors of the Church’s buildings and most often they’re about God and the Church, not about our relationship with God. I sometimes think the emphasis of our ‘Joys-n-Concerns’ – our sharing time – is an example of that. We share things that are easy to share, not the matters of the heart and matters of the faith. Very seldom do we hear of how God has helped or blessed us in our daily lives. To wittingly or unwittingly create screens between God and us will deprive us of what God wants us to become.
Let us remember what the presence of God does for us.
Remember the presence of God gave Moses the Law that led to truth and a new future for the people of the Exodus. Remember the Mount of Transfiguration was a place where the fullness of God was present that gave those three disciples an experience that helped them understand and explain the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Remember Paul’s Damascus Road experience not only left him blind but also transformed him from being a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to being a leading Apostle to the Gentiles. Remember your own experiences of God that have encouraged your faith and your service for God. Treasure those experiences and reflect upon them. They are major milestones along our faith journey that have helped make us who we are.
Remember God’s presence is ultimately God’s empowering love for us. Remember God’s presence is always a moment of grace. Seek God’s presence. There is a wonderful picture of God’s gracious presence in Exodus 33. God tells Moses that he has found favour with God. Moses then asks what we all desire: he asks to see God. And God replies: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” [Ex 33: 19-23] That is a beautiful picture of how God deals with us. God give us God’s all but in a way that God’s glory does not blind or overwhelm us – just enough for us to grow near and serve God.
The early Christians understood that in Jesus God comes close to us. John’s account of the Gospel tells us that when Jesus died on the Cross the veil or curtain that separated the holy place in the Temple, which only the High Priest could enter once a year, was rent into two. This story symbolises that the distance between God and us is now greatly diminished in Jesus the Christ. That is why Paul says to the Corinthian church in what we call the second letter; when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit [2 Cor 3: 16-18].
This sermon was presented at Leighmoor on 07/02/2016
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 03/03/2019