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Sermon: Unveiled

February 12, 2010

Exodus 34:27-35; Luke 9:28-36

I have several images in my head about people hiding out in the dark.

In the first, a small group of people are hunched over and creeping quietly through the passageways carved out beneath the city.  There is one small torch carried by the leader, and the smoke hangs in the air up against the low ceilings.  The dim light casts shadows into niches carved in the walls.  The crumbling bones of the dead are tucked away on these shelves.  The people winding their way through the dark are Christians in the catacombs.  It is the only place they can go to gather and worship without fear of arrest or persecution.

The next scene is at the edge of a copse of woods in the middle of the night.  Only a sliver of moon and the glow from the Milky Way provide light for the two travelers, a man and a woman.  They look carefully for any sign of human life, any lantern bobbing across the horizon.  The two people listen for the sound of hoof beats before they dare leave the safety of the trees.  They must cross an open field, recently plowed, to reach a barn on the other side.  When they arrive at the door, they pray silently that it is the right barn, the next stop on the Underground Railroad, as they push their way North.

The final scene takes place in a cold, damp, pitch black basement.  A family—father, mother and two young children—are huddled together behind a false wall.  Their hearts are pounding in their chests, and the mother has cupped her hand over her three-year-old daughter’s mouth.  They hope the footsteps of the soldiers upstairs will go away.  They hope that their hosts will convince the men with guns that a loyal family lives in this house and there are no Jews hiding here.

Throughout human history, people have crowded together in the dark for safety, to protect themselves against persecution and evil.  It seems that as long as there are human beings on this earth, some groups people will try to destroy other groups of people, to dehumanize them, to brutalize them, to eliminate them.  That is why there will always be people afraid and living in the dark.

*     *     *     *     *

Today’s scripture lessons on this Transfiguration Sunday offer striking contrast with that oppressed humanity living life in the dark.  Consider the glory and radiant light of Jesus on the mountain top and Moses with his veil pulled back from his face.  Jesus himself was filled with light from the inside out, literally transfigured, and Moses reflected the glory of the God he saw face-to-face.

We read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration every year, so we can simply recount the basic details: he went up on a mountain with a few handpicked disciples.  While up there, his face changed in its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white.  The great Old Testament figures of Elijah and Moses appeared with Jesus.  They spoke about Jesus’ coming death in Jerusalem.  While the disciples were marveling at this sight, a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice said, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

The story about Moses is less familiar to us, but just as significant.  The text from Exodus takes place in the wilderness.  Moses had led the people from slavery in Egypt.  They had been there for generations, but now they were free.  The problem was that they were in the wilderness, a place too harsh and dry to make a living.  They still had a long way to go to reach the Promised Land.

At this point, the people were also still learning to trust Moses and the God who had brought them out of Egypt.  They knew that God was powerful and dangerous and a little scary.  They couldn’t control this God, and they were afraid to get too close.  So the people were very happy that Moses could be their intercessor, their go-between.  Moses would go up on the mountain to talk with God, and the people would stay behind.  They felt safer with this arrangement, and then when Moses returned from the mountain, he could explain everything that God had said.

Our story picks up today as Moses was returning from one of these visits with God.  The people saw that the skin of Moses’ face was shining, glowing.  They were afraid to come near Moses because they didn’t know why his face was glowing.  And Moses probably wondered why everyone seemed to be keeping their distance.  “Do I need a shower?  Should I brush my teeth?  Why is everybody avoiding me?”

Eventually, Moses called the leaders to come over, and they talked about Moses’ visit with God and the whole shining face thing, and Moses’ told all the people about God’s commandments.  Somebody probably told Moses that he wouldn’t freak people out so much if he’d just cover his face.  So Moses put a veil over his face, and he only took it off when he went up to talk to the Lord, and his face would light up.  Then he’d put the veil back on and head down the mountain to talk to the people.  The people would know that Moses had been with God, because they could see his face shining, even through the veil.

*     *     *     *     *

I can imagine Christians in the catacombs telling the story of Jesus on the mountaintop, when his clothes dazzled with light.  And even there in the dark, their hearts lit up.  They looked forward to a time when that Jesus would return to save them from their suffering.

I can imagine a Jewish family reading scripture by candlelight in a German basement, or escaped slaves reading the story of Moses in the loft in a barn somewhere along the Underground Railroad.  Even though the world around them was dark and dangerous, they experienced the light of hope that God would act in power again to bring them to freedom.

I believe the stories in the Bible of the light and power and glory of God are there to give us something to cling to in the times of our darkness and weakness and despair.  The story of the transfiguration and the story of Moses’ shining face remind us that even with so much hatred and pain and innocent suffering in this world, there is still a God whose character is to overcome that evil, to bring light to the dark places, comfort to the afflicted and peace to the terrified.  The promise of Jesus is not broken—not even by death, death on a cross—and the light of God will always overcome the ignorance of the world.

These stories about the glory of God—the radiant clothing of Jesus and the reflected light shining in Moses’ face—remind us that God is bigger than persecution, bigger than slavery, bigger than holocaust.  They contain in them the hope that God has not abdicated the throne, but still works to fix what is still desperately wrong with our world.

But human desperation is not limited to the big problems—slavery, holocaust, earthquake in Haiti and tsunami in Indonesia.  I have one more image in my head about someone living in the dark, hiding out, wondering if the light will ever return.  In this final image there is a man sitting in a chair alone in a room with only the glow of a television set for company.  He isn’t really watching the late movie because he is thinking about his dead end job.  He isn’t accomplishing anything.  He simply slogs through each day for a paycheck, and soon, the way this economy is going, he might not even have that.  And he can’t talk to anybody about his frustration.  He lives alone, has never found someone with whom he can share a life, wonders if maybe this is the way his life is meant to be lived—alone.  It seems to him as if his life has no meaning, that there is no one who would really care whether he lives or dies.  There is nothing in his life but emptiness and disappointment.

He considers going to the freezer for ice cream, but there’s no pleasure in that.  He thinks about the beer in the fridge, but that has never offered any true consolation.  He even has a fleeting thought about jumping out his window, but he could never do that.  Instead, he reaches over and pulls a book out of a drawer.  He opens the book and reads a story about a man who went up a mountain, talked with God, and when he returned, his face was glowing with the reflected glory of the divine.  His face was shining.

The man closed the book.  He felt a little better.  He had not discovered any grand solutions to his loneliness, but he had encountered a reminder that perhaps there was some force in the universe that could save him from his living death.  Hope.

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