03-03-19 THE FACE OF GOD

EXODUS 34: 29-35; LUKE 9: 28-36
The wonderful mystic Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century in a Carmelite Order, wrote: “The best place to find God is within yourself.” She went on to say: “When we are seeking God within ourselves … it is a great help if God grants us this favour… This is a good habit and an excellent kind of meditation, for it is founded upon a truth—namely, that God is within us.” [Interior Castle, Dover, Mineola, 1946, p. 57.] On one mountain east of Egypt, Moses almost saw the face of God, but resisted, since “mortals cannot look upon the face of God and live.” [Exodus 33:20] And yet, Moses was allowed to grow close to God, and talk with God on that mountain called Sinai. Afterward, Moses came down the mountain but didn’t know the skin of his face shone because he’d been talking with God.” [Exodus 34:29] Moses, the leader who faced Pharaoh saying, “God says, ‘Let my people go!’” carried the renewed the covenant for the people of Israel. In the New Testament, another chosen leader—a Son—revealed his power and his relationship to trusted disciples, also on a mountain. Could it be that our Savior, on the day that he was on that mountain apart, was revealing the divinity that lived within him; that the light of God lived within him? Our opening song invited Jesus to “Shine, Jesus, shine.” If God’s Spirit lives in us at our own invitation, then imagine what it would be like if the divine presence were within us too rather that “up there.” Today we go to the mountain with Jesus.

Historian and author Thomas Cahill, in his book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, wrote: “[The] Christian life [is] an alternation of two activities, prayer and kindness, each feeding the other. The plight of those in need sends me to prayer; prayer strengthens me to help those in need.” (1999. P. 190) Today I want to suggest that in this transfiguration and daily life of Jesus, he modeled these things for us: both prayer to be in touch with God, and mission to carry out the work of God. Christians are called to be both prayerfully mystic, and then mission-minded. The dichotomy between mystic and mission may alternately be described as reaching the Holy One in prayer, and reaching the human ones in need. The dichotomy includes going to the mountaintop in order to be strong enough for the valley. How does Jesus model that we need to recover “mystic sweet communion” with God and others? Mysticism is defined as “a spiritual discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or contemplation.” When Jesus went up on the mount of transfiguration, Luke wrote: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” To Jews who knew Torah, some might have said to themselves “He is the new Moses!” But on that mount of Transfiguration, a voice from the cloud declared: “This is my Son; listen to him!” [Luke 9:35] Jesus was ready to share the power that was within him; he showed the balanced life of mystical prayer and missionary zeal.

Another mystic in the 16th century was a friend of Teresa of Avila named John of the Cross. He was tortured for more than eight months and went into hiding for two years after that. In addition to being a mystic, he was a Carmelite Monk whose involvement with the Carmelites led to his arrest and eventual banishment. In a monastery in Toledo, Spain, he was kept in a dark cell without any human contact and fed just bread and water for months. During his captivity, he had frequent visions of God and composed many mystical poems, committing them to memory. Two of his greatest were called, “The Dark Night of the Soul” and “The Living Flame of Love.” In “The Living Flame of Love,” St. John of the Cross describes the happiness and peace experienced by the soul devoted to God. In his commentary, he wrote these words. Picture Jesus on top of that mountain as you hear them:
If the soul shall have attained the highest degree of love, the love of God will then be wound into its inmost depth or center, and the soul will be transformed and enlightened in the highest degree in its substance, faculties, and strength, until it shall become most like unto God. The soul in this state may be compared to a crystal, lucid and pure; the greater the light thrown upon it, the more luminous it becomes by the concentration thereof, until at last it seems to be all light and indistinguishable from it; it being then so illumined, and to the utmost extent, that it seems to be one with the light itself.

Jesus does not bring Peter, James, John, or us to the mountain to be dazzling. Among other things, he brings us there to teach us. “This is your strength,” he seems to be saying. “Stay connected with the Father in prayer.” Peter, James, and John seem to miss the point. They just want to stay on the mountain. But Jesus had a journey ahead. As we begin the season of Lent on Wednesday, we are called back to the one who had union with God and reminded us how to be connected with God. We cannot expect to make it through the valley if we have not been to the mountaintop, asking for the light to brighten our darkness. If you are continually tired, or discouraged, or have a life that is out of focus, go to the mountain of prayer to get in touch with the Holy One. Jesus showed us how.

Jesus prepared for his 40 days by connecting with his Heavenly Father. He then went into the valley as we are about to do. It’s the forty days of Lent. Dr. Donald Macleod, in his book PRESBYTERIAN WORSHIP: ITS MEANING AND METHOD says: “Lent consists of doing something, not just doing without something.” Therefore today we are invited to look inward for our power and look outward for our purpose. We are the arms, legs, hands, voice… we are the body of Christ in the world. After the transfiguration, what did Jesus do? He went and reached others; healed others taught others; confronted some, and comforted others. Let this season be a time of new beginnings for you. Connect with God for strength, encouragement, and light. Then, decide ways you can bring light to darkness. Jesus cast his eyes on the valley as he left the mountaintop. Ready yourself, through prayer, study, and his Great Commission, to join Jesus in the wilderness ahead. Let us pray:

Oh God, as you prepared Jesus for the wilderness with powerful words of encouragement on that holy mountain, prepare us for the days ahead too, letting your light be shared with others. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 3, 2019