Sunday, February 07, 2016

Glory, Seen Through Faith

preached 7 February 2016, the last Sunday in Epiphany

Epiphany begins with a voice from heaven, at Jesus' baptism; then the first miracle, at Cana, is a small, subtle thing. And today we are at the midpoint of Jesus' ministry, and we have a miracle that is not small, and not subtle; in fact, it is all about show: Jesus, shining in glory, accompanied by Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the foremost prophet. Nobody is healed, nothing is physically changed; the three witnesses simply see the spectacle of Jesus, the Son of God, the Christ testified to by Law and the Prophets, in his glory.

And yet the vision confounds them. Peter's response is all but nonsensical: what do the three figures need of dwellings? And to further this, the cloud descends on the mount, as on Sinai, and the voice speaks again, as at the baptism, proclaiming the Sonship of Jesus. And the three, what do they do at the passing of the vision? They do nothing, and say nothing.

And yet, they have seen the glory of the LORD God, not veiled, not reflected, but face to face. Before then, only Adam and Eve, in Eden, and Moses have so spoken to God. And as to the latter, we have a curious story. Our first reading comes as Moses has descended from the mountain with the second tablets; and while he is upon the mountain, he makes a request of the Lord:

Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And God said, "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."

And at the end of the book, it says that the glory of God came down on the tabernacle, so that Moses could not enter it; and in Chronicles, when Solomon has finished his prayer before the newly consecrated temple, it says that the priests could not enter, because of the glory which filled it. The children of Abraham saw the Lord's mighty acts as they were delivered out of Egypt, but the divine presence: this they could not withstand, much less enjoy. Indeed, their reaction to the spectacle on the mountain as Moses receives the first tablets was to abandon the Lord for a molten calf, an idol whose glory was naught but the sheen of gold and whose power was but in their imagination. The real reflection of God's glory they could not abide, and thus Moses veiled it.

But here in Luke, “veiled in flesh” as the Christmas hymn says, the three disciples see that glory, ordinarily hidden but now shining forth; and in their testimony we also see that glory, now hidden in heaven but yet present among us. Paul is referring to Moses's veil when he says “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” And he says, “For it is the God who said, 'let light shine out of the darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”: it is this light which is among us, through the Spirit, in the words of scripture we hear and the sacraments in which we take part. Each time we come to this place and hear the Word of the Lord, that glory is revealed, not in a blaze of confounding light, but in the knowledge of Christ which is taught through the Church. And each time we draw near the altar and partake of the sacred body and blood, are we not incorporating that glory into our very selves, even as we recall the sacrifice and resurrection which is the foundation of our faith?

Yes, it is through faith that we now see the vision on the mountain top. To the world this is nothing more than myth, the fairy tale of yet another religion. And even we, who through faith see the real glory, are tempted into a vision of a more manageable god. The LORD God who passes by, holding his hand over Moses in a rocky cleft: it smacks of pagan stories. It offends our sophistication, so that we hew to an image of a god who is so perfected, so encased in superlatives, that we fall into deism, worshipping, well, honoring at any rate a perfect immobility whose glory we never risk seeing directly and whose hand we need not fear, for it will never intrude into the ordinary. We therefore cleave the two great laws and obey only the second. We proclaim the second with all our might, the law the pharisees set aside, loving our neighbors as ourselves, or at least to the extent that our lives leave room for that. It is our worship that is flabby, because we do not fear God. Our very modern skepticism veils his glory, so that we do not draw near his presence trembling as they did at Sinai.

And yet we are so drawn, each week, through spiritual hunger or obedience, and we swallow some small bit of that glory, veiled in bread and wine. And though some of us may rarely be made by the spirit to feel that presence within us, for most it is only faith that gives vision. And yet, the glory is there. Therefore fan the flame of that faith, and worship the God who is really present, not just on the mountain top, but within his church, to whom he has given salvation to ages of ages.