Archive for February 14th, 2010

Exodus 34: Reflecting God

“Reflecting God”

Exodus 34: 29-35

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 14th, 2010 – Transfiguration Sunday

You can tell a lot by a person’s face.  They say the eyes are the windows to the soul.  But a person’s facial expressions are also very revealing.  As much as we try to hide, it’s pretty easy to look at a person’s face and see if he is interested or only feigning interest.  We can tell if she is angry, or upset, or ashamed.  We can tell if he is filled with love and joy.  People used to give me a hard time at my first church when Dan would sing during worship.  Sitting up front on the chancel in full view of the congregation everyone said my face would just light up every time he sang.  I will admit it is hard for me not to swoon when that man sings.  You can tell a lot by a person’s face.

When Moses came down from the mountain after his encounter with God his face spoke volumes.  Moses was beaming, or as our text from Exodus puts it, the skin of his face shone. Moses had climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai in search of God and in search of guidance for his people.  And when he came down from the mountain, it was clear by the new appearance of his face, it was clear by the way he was radiating God’s glory, that the experience had transformed him.

Moses’ encounter with God reaffirms our belief that we can experience God, that we can know God as human beings.  On this Transfiguration Sunday both of our scripture texts describe events where God was experienced in the midst of a bright, dazzling light.  These stories are not unique, though, as we recall when the risen Christ spoke to Saul out of a bright, intense light and converted him in the midst of it.  And we remember when the shepherds received the good news of Christ’s birth by way of the glory of the Lord that shone around them.[1] And we have probably all heard more modern stories where God was experienced in a vision where the person was surrounded by light.

In the Medieval period, a group of monks called the Hesychast Monks dedicated their lives to experiencing this Divine Light of which our scriptures speak.  They considered such experiences the highest experience of God for which all Christians should strive.  Through some special prayer techniques and controlled breathing these monks claimed to have a special gift for experiencing the light of God.  One of these monks, named Symeon, wrote about his experience.  He wrote,

“one day he was saying the [Jesus] prayer…when suddenly a divine light shone on him from above, filling the place entirely.  [He] lost all awareness, he forgot that he was in a house or under a roof, for he saw, all around him, nothing but light…and he himself, so it seemed to him, had become light.”[2]

Perhaps you have never had such an extravagant experience of God, but I pray that you have experienced God.  I pray that God’s light has broken into your darkness in some way because such experiences remind us that our God is knowable.  The light of God does break into the darkness of our world.  It illumines us.  It illumines all that surrounds us.  It is bright and dazzling and powerful. The light shines in the darkness, reports the gospel of John, and the darkness did not overcome it.

So Moses’ story reminds us that we can experience God, but his story also reminds us that we must seek God.  We must climb the mountain as Moses did.  We must go to God in prayer.  We must worship, and watch, and practice attentiveness.

For years I made an annual pilgrimage to the mountains of Montreat as a youth pastor with my youth group.  Every summer thousands of Presbyterian youth gather on the campus of Montreat College in search of an experience with God.  During these week-long youth conferences we worshipped twice a day, singing music that touched our hearts, listening to sermons that were profound, and participating in liturgy that was truly transformative.  After worship our youth would split off into a variety of small groups where they would continue to study and discuss the relevance of the message they received during worship.

During these retreats I witnessed many youth have profound experiences with God.  They allowed God to break into their darkness on the mountaintop in a way that they had apparently not been able to do back home. Montreat was such a ‘spiritual’ place I would hear them say.  Montreat wasn’t like home, they would say.  They could really know God in Montreat.

All this was great, in a sense.  It was wonderful that these young people had this experience of God.  It was wonderful that they could go to the mountaintop and know God in such a powerful way.  But it did concern me when I witnessed that many of them couldn’t translate their experience on the mountain back into their regular, not-so-extraordinary, not so mountaintop-like lives back home.  When they returned home all I kept hearing was how the worship in their home church wasn’t like it was in Montreat.  And the bible studies weren’t like it was in Montreat.  And about how they couldn’t wait for next year’s conference when they could go and know God once again.  After their mountaintop experience, it seemed as if they could only experience God through the extraordinary, leaving everything else feeling incredibly plain, boring, and ordinary.

But God does not just speak to us through the extraordinary.  It may take more effort to know God, to experience God at the bottom of the mountain.  It may take more seeking, more attentiveness, to know God in the ordinary, in the every day, or in the every Sunday worship experience.  But we can know God here too.  We can know God at the bottom of the mountain as well as the top.

“Brother David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk wrote a book called gratefulness, the heart of prayer, which he said could be summarized in two words:  Wake up!  Borrowing the words of the poet Kabir, he explained what he meant:

Do you have a body?  Don’t sit on the porch!

Go out and walk in the rain!

If you are in love,

Then why are you asleep?

Wake up, wake up!

You have slept millions and millions of years.

Why not wake up this morning?”[3]

The heart of prayer, the essence of seeking God, is about waking up.  Waking up to all the ways in which God’s light is breaking into our darkness.  Waking up to our God in the midst of the rain.  Waking up to our God in the midst of loving relationships. Waking up to our God in the midst of a faithful community gathered every Sunday for worship.  Waking up to our God in the midst of the words of a hymn, or a prayer, or a sermon.  Waking up to all the ways we can experience God in the midst of our everyday, ordinary lives.

So Moses’ story reminds us that we can experience God, but that we must seek God both at the top of the mountain and at the bottom.  We must seek God’s light, allow it to fill us, and then, like Moses, let it shine.  This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Have you ever felt yourself reflecting God’s light?  Have you ever felt yourself beaming like Moses after an encounter with God?  I’ve left worship feeling that way. I’ve left worship having experienced the risen Christ through Word and sacrament and I know my experience was written all over my face.  I’ve witnessed people who radiated God’s glory after experiencing God while working among the poor.  I’ve known people whose faces were physically transformed and brightened by the joy of recognizing God in the birth of a child.  I’ve witnessed people who radiated God’s light and love on their death beds, people who glowed as the veil between their world and God’s world got thinner and thinner.  We reflect our experiences with God.  God makes us shine. The light that we receive from God becomes the light that we share with others as God calls upon each of us to be that bright star, to be that ray of sunlight, to be that flickering candle flame that brings hope to a dark, dark world.

Mary Oliver, a poet and a person of faith, most often experiences God in nature.  I will close by reading her poem called, When I Am Among the Trees.

When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,

“and you too have come

into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”[4]

May we all leave this house of worship today ready to go easy, to be filled with God’s divine light, and to shine.

Now to our great God of light, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.

[1] Luke 2:9

[2] Placher, William, A History of Christian Theology, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1983, pg. 98.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, Harper Collins Publisher, New York, NY, 2009, pgs. 176-177.

[4] Mary Oliver, Thirst, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2006, pg. 4.

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