St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 34.29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3.12 – 4.2; Luke 9.28-36, 37-43a
Today is the last Sunday in Epiphany; Shrove Tuesday and the beginning of Lent lie before us. In today’s collect we prayed, “O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. . .” Thus, we prayed an activity (“beholding by faith the light of his countenance”) may lead to two results: (1) the increased ability to bear our cross and (2) transformation into the likeness of Christ from glory to glory. What does this mean? What is the light of God’s countenance? How do these changes happen? I believe our readings provide some key insights.
Let’s begin with “beholding by faith the light of his countenance.” I suspect you have heard the benediction which comes from Numbers 6.24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace (NRSV). The “light of his countenance” means favor, kindness, or smiles – all of which are expressions of God’s grace.
In today’s readings we encounter two theophanies – Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration – both of which are manifestations of God’s favor and kindness. In the first theophany, Moses experienced the light of God’s countenance in the gift of God’s Law, a gift of favor and grace. After spending considerable time in the presence of God, Moses’ “face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34.29; NRSV). When he came down the mountain, people were afraid to come near him, but Moses assembled the people, “gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai,” then covered his face with a veil (Exodus 34.32-33; NRSV).
Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to accompany him as he prayed on the mountain. They were favored to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus face was changed and his clothing became dazzling white. Although “weighed down with sleep,” Peter James, and John managed to stay awake; consequently, they witnessed Jesus’ glory and Moses’ and Elijah’s presence. Luke tells us they were speaking of Jesus’ upcoming departure, i.e., his impending death in Jerusalem. As Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter, not knowing what he said, suggested, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings (or tents), one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9.33; NRSV). Apparently, the Festival of Booths was in progress. As Peter said this, a cloud enveloped them, and they heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen (or Beloved); listen to him” (Luke 9.35; NRSV).
How do we experience the light of God’s countenance? As we read scripture and pray, as we praise God, we may sense the Holy Spirit’s presence. At other times, we may possess a deep certainty of God’s love for us, or the assurance that all things shall be well. Amidst our trials and struggles, we may sense a calming presence. At other times, a friend in Christ may say the words we so desperately long to hear and give us a loving embrace. By faith, we recognize these signs of God’s favor and kindness; we can sense that God is smiling upon us.
Such experiences of the light of God’s countenance serve to strengthen us to bear our cross, they serve to move us deeper into faith.
Our reading from Luke 9 includes the story of Jesus’ healing of a man’s son who is suffering from seizures and convulsions. Luke sets the timing of this event as follows: “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met Jesus” (Luke 9.37; NRSV). The man whose son Jesus healed, said to Jesus, “I begged your disciples to cast the spirit out, but they could not” (Luke 9.40; NRSV). Apparently, this was the group of disciples who were not invited to accompany Jesus up the mountain. Now bear in mind Jesus had just conversed with Moses and Elijah about his departure. What did Jesus say? “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here” (Luke 9.41; NRSV). Jesus was no longer on the mountaintop; he was in the valley. Jesus rebuked the spirit, healed the boy, and returned him to his father. The disciples were not yet prepared to bear their cross. In a few days, they would all desert Jesus. They later experienced the resurrected Christ, and soon thereafter, were empowered by the Spirit at Pentecost. Now they were fully equipped to bear the cross. The book of Acts recounts the miracles they were able to perform.
Let’s now consider how we are changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory. Here we turn to our reading from Second Corinthians. Our reading began with these words: “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face . . .” (II Corinthians 3.12-13; NRSV). What is this hope of which Paul speaks? Let’s back up a few verses. Paul says, “Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory” (II Corinthians 3.7-8; NRSV). Paul’s point is this: If the law was given in glory – a glory which caused the people to fear Moses’ appearance, a glory which has now been set aside—think of the glory which must come through God’s Spirit which is permanent! If the law of condemnation had glory, think of the glory of justification which comes through the Spirit! This is the hope of which Paul speaks, a hope which permits us to act with great boldness.
Here is how Paul speaks of this new glory: “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 (II Corinthians 3.18; NRSV). God’s glory is found in us – in those who believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. When we look in a mirror, it is as though we see the image of Christ – we are being more fully transformed into this image from one degree of glory to another. This transformation comes to us through God’s mercy and grace. Then Paul reminds us, “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart” (II Corinthians 4.1; NRSV). Again, we are strengthened and equipped to bear our cross!
One who truly lives in Christ seeks, longs, to be conformed to Christ’s image. This happens as we move from one degree of glory to another – glory which expresses an internal manifestation of God’s presence. In Paul’s letters, “a person conveys the image and the glory of God; for Paul, glory is something that properly belongs to God.” In that Christians have God living within, they share more fully in this glory. The fullness of Christ’s glory will be given at the end of this world. Thus, for Paul, our glory is participation in an eschatological experience – it is a “partly fulfilled reality, although it is also a future expectation into which we enter by degrees” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol 2, pp. 401-402).
Although this transformation occurs through the grace of God, we are not merely passive recipients. In Romans 13, Paul, with a note of urgency, writes:
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Vs. 11-14; NRSV).
We are active agents in this process; the desire comes as we behold by faith the light of God’s countenance. God longs to show us God’s favor, to treat us with kindness, and to smile upon us. May we find it within ourselves to open the door; may we be strengthened to bear our cross; and may we be changed into God’s likeness from glory to glory. For only then will we be at home. Amen