February 7, 2016: "Faces"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 7, 2016: Transfiguration of Jesus
Exodus 34:29-35 & Luke 9:28-36
I’m a people-watcher. Not in a creepy or intrusive way. I like to watch as people go by and try and figure out what they might be thinking or where they are going. Yesterday I was sitting in the airport in Dallas and there is no better place than an airport to watch people. By far the most common thing I saw was people on their phones, tablets, computers, electronic devices, curled over in their seats with fingers going wild. Then there were airline employees—pilots and stewards and stewardesses—dressed very neatly, pulling small bags behind them, walking confidently from gate to gate. Most of them, seemed happy, smiling and laughing with each other. It gave me the impression that they were happy to be on the ground, or happy to get on another plane to fly off to who-knows-where.
Then there were the anxious travelers, the late-comers; I’ve been one of them many times. A couple pushed passed me in line for security and I watched them throw their things into the x-ray machine, rush through the scanner, collect their things, and dash like lightening to the gates. Later, while walking to my gate with plenty of time to spare, I saw them sitting together, alone, as just outside the window a plane pulled away. She looked worried, he looked mad. I guess they missed their flight. I wonder where they were going. Home? Work? School? Their honeymoon?
Then there were the professional travelers, the folks who do this all the time. They gently saunter from security to Starbucks, then from Starbucks to the Sharper Image store to pick up some new headphones, then from the Sharper Image to the gate, where they whip out their smartphone to scan their boarding pass. No paper for these folks; no running to the gate; no worry or anxiety or fear. To them, I observed, traveling by air is just part of the routine of life and it will take more than a late departure or a crying baby to disturb their calm.
I sat at the gate next to a guy my age who had obviously never been on a plane before, or at least had never traveled much. He sat fumbling with his boarding pass, checking every minute or so to make sure he was at the right gate. When they called for boarding, he jumped up and was first in line, even though Southwest has a boarding order. When he stepped to the podium, they told him he had to wait his turn. He was embarrassed. I felt bad for him because I’ve done that kind of thing before.
You may be wondering how I came up with all this. How did I know what they were thinking? How did I know how they were feeling? Its all in the face. You can learn a crazy amount about a person by looking at their face.
There have been quite a few deaths in our congregation and community lately. I’ve had the sacred honor of sitting with many of these families as they plan funeral arrangements and pick flowers and reminisce about their loved one. As soon as their eyebrows began to drop and their bottom lip started to shake, I knew instantly that they were realizing, maybe for the first time, that the person was gone. Sometimes the edges of their mouths would turn up, and their eyes would brighten, and I would hear about happy memories of summer vacations and watching football on cold Friday nights. Its all in the face. Pain, joy, confusion, peace. It is even in the faces that looked completely blank, lifeless. These faces are barriers between the heart and the outside wold, keeping emotions at bay either out of fear or shock or sheer exhaustion.
Its all in the face, and today the Scriptures talk about faces. When Moses comes down from the mountain with the tablets of the covenant in his hands, the skin of his face was shining. When Jesus ascended the mountain, his clothes became dazzling white and the appearance of his face changed. The people around Moses and Jesus notice their changed faces, and their reactions range from shock to joy. Moses puts a veil over his face in order to calm the fears of his people; Jesus simply says nothing when Peter is so amazed by his appearance that he wants to have a campout. Moses and Jesus both go up a mountain and come back with different faces. What happened on the mountain?
It was not botox. It was not micro-dermabrasion or anti-aging eye cream. Moses and Jesus came down with changed faces because they had a direct, eye-to-eye, encounter with God. The change that caused the people of Israel to be afraid of Moses, and stunned Peter into thinking he should build houses, was the direct effect of Moses and Jesus meeting God face-to-face. Such an encounter was said, in the Old Testament, to be deadly; in the New Testament, men and women hid their faces each time God appeared to them. But for Moses and Jesus, it was not death that came from seeing God, it was transfiguration. And like the folks I watched in the airport, and like the faces of each person we see every day, the faces of Moses and Jesus have a deep story to tell.
The shining face of Moses tells the story of a God who is not bent on death and destruction, but is fully committed to covenant relationships and mercy. Up until the time that Moses received the law from God, God was known to be a loose cannon of sorts, quick to throw judgment and destruction onto the earth. Each time the people of God transgressed their God, God took their life, sent them into exile, cut them off from everything they knew and loved. But giving the law to Moses was a turning point in God’s relationship with his people; it was the moment when the slate was wiped clean and God kept good on the promise made to Noah that divine destruction would never again afflict the earth. I’m not sure that we often think of laws as instruments of relationship and love, but this is what God’s law does. God’s law keeps us, God’s people, tightly held in relationship with God and with one another. God’s law demands love, and forgiveness and mercy and compassion, too.
Moses’ face was changed so dramatically when he received the law from God because his understanding of God was changed dramatically. Moses saw in the law a God who was good and kind and faithful, interested in corporate and individual flourishing and well-being. This God is not angry, not waiting for the right moment to strike, not looking for a reason to punish; this is a God who knows the frailty and wishy-washy-ness of human life, yet loves us the same and even more. The law of God showed Moses that God is not some disinterested deity, lounging on the clouds of heaven without a care in the world; God is actively and, almost annoyingly, pushing his people at every moment to be more holy, to live more compassionately, to love deeply in all things.
The face of Moses was shining when he came down from the mountain, I think, because his whole understanding of God had been changed.
The face of Jesus was shining when he came down from the mountain too, though I don’t think that it was because his understanding of God had been changed. I think his face was shining because his whole understanding of God had been confirmed.
Luke tells us that Jesus met with Moses and Elijah, and God, on top of the mountain and there they discussed how Jesus was about to go to Jerusalem to complete his mission. They talked about how he would enter the city to great fanfare and celebration, hailed by the people as the conquering king who had come to save them. They talked about how he would gather in the upper room with his disciples, and institute the sacrament of the communion. They talked about how he would be arrested, taken to the high court, and condemned to death. I’m sure they talked about how he would carry his cross on his shoulders, and die outside the city where all the trash is thrown. And because they talked about how he would complete his mission, they didn’t stop at crucifixion—they went on to talk about resurrection.
When they are done talking, a voice from a cloud says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” These are the same words God spoke when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, confirming that he was the One the world had been waiting for. This confirmation propelled him into the world with the good news of the gospel: security for the poor, comfort for the mourning, a equal place at the table for the children. Now, again, God confirms that Jesus is the One we have been waiting for, the One who will go into the city as a king and come out a few days later as a criminal. This is the One who will exercise the greatest amount of patience when his enemies spit on him and hit him. This is the One who endured the pain of his sentence, the one that should have been ours, and accepts it lovingly on our behalf. This is the One who will rise again, opening to us the way to eternal life, who gives us access to heaven in this world and in the next. The face of Jesus was shining when he came down from the mountain, because again God confirmed that God’s love, God’s favor, God’s unfailing grace was on Jesus at that moment and forever.
One’s face was shining because his whole understanding of God had changed, from judgment to mercy, from destruction to peace, from anger to love. The other’s face was shining because once again, deep in his bones from head to tow, he knew how deeply he was loved, honored, and valued by God.
I believe that a strong dose of the same change, of the same confirmation, can make our faces shine today. I believe that we can be changed by the truth that God wants us to be whole, restored, and situated in a place where we can flourish and be content—that is the purpose of the law. I believe that we can give up any notions that God is an enemy, a punisher, just waiting for us to make a mistake. I believe that if we claim this truth again we can put aside fear, we can let go of anger, we can take up the calling of peace, because that is how God acts towards us.
I believe that we can once again hear the beautiful words from heaven, “This is my son, my daughter, my Chosen; listen to them.” These are the words that God speaks over us in baptism, the words that God speaks into our ears every moment, confirming just how much we are loved. There is nothing we have done to earn it, and there is nothing we can do to make it go away; we just have to accept that, as we are, God loves us, God choses us, God demands that our voices be heard. Taking this confirmation in, there will be no room for hatred of self or other, there will be no room for anxiety, there will be no room for sin and certainly no room for the powers of death and hell. It’ll all be in the face, and our faces will shine!
All of this is about to come to life and get very real for us today, when we sit at this table and share the bread and the cup. This is the table of Jesus, the table where he sat with his disciples and invites you to do the same. In the bread and the cup we meet God face-to-face; there is no judgement, there is no wrath, there is no destruction, just sweet peace and enough food to go around. In the bread and the cup we take into ourselves the sacrifice of Jesus, who gave himself in love for the life of the world. At this meal there is room for the skeptics and sinners, self-righteous and not righteous at all, well-worn and those new to the faith; nothing stands in your way, no one will be turned away. Everyone will be fed. Allow this meal change your notions about God. Allow this meal to confirm the love of God that has been yours from the very beginning. And you'll shine. You certainly will.
Allow yourself to be transfigured today, to be changed and reshaped and confirmed and bathed by love, in this meal and by the good news of the Gospel. Your face will shine and shining faces are desperately needed these days, and so too are the stories those face will tell; of God’s deep love and compassion for you, for me, and for the whole world. Amen.