Of all our faculties, sight is one that most us value very highly. Our eyes inform us of the world around; they give us the ability to drive cars, watch television, read books and papers and use our phones and computers. It is with our eyes that we appreciate the beauty around us and the smile on a loved one’s face. Those of us who have been blessed with reasonable sight from birth find it hard to imagine a world without light and colour. We take our sight for granted and quickly become frustrated when our vision is impaired for one reason or another.
There are many things which make it difficult for us to see. Darkness is the most obvious, although the ever-increasing access to artificial light, especially with the rapid development of LED technology in recent years, mean that we rarely experience the total darkness of a moonless night. Fog still causes a problem, catching us out on the roads and grounding aircraft. Cataracts and macular degeneration are of course far more debilitating impediments to sight. But besides lack of light, our sight can be just as adversely affected by too much light. We can be dazzled by car headlights not dipped at night or by the sun, sometimes momentarily reflected off a shiny surface. It is the danger of being dazzled, of being unable to stand the brilliance of light which provides the theme for today’s bible readings.
As Jesus begins to head towards Jerusalem and his crucifixion, he takes Peter, John and James with him onto a mountain to pray. (Luke 9.28-36) We are told that: ‘the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightening.’ Jesus is joined by the recognisable figures of Moses and Elijah, the two greats of the old testament representing the law and prophecy. There is a palpable sense of God’s glory. The brightness is not just physical, but profoundly spiritual. Peter tries to respond by suggesting the moment is preserved; that in some way Jesus and his heavenly companions can remain on the maintain top. Peter may have seen something of heaven, a glimpse of God’s glory with his eyes, but he has not truly seen it with his mind, with his heart. He still does not understand the suffering that must happen before the Son of Man can enter his glory. So, while he was speaking, a cloud appeared, the glory of God is now hidden from Peter and the other two disciples.
The whole event recalls another mountain top experience some 1,500 years before when Moses himself had encountered God on Sinai. In the old testament reading (Exodus 34.29-35) we are told how he veiled his face as he went down the mountain bringing with him the law he had received from God. His face was shining. It was shining so much that Aaron and all the Israelites were afraid to come near him. The light is of the same quality as that which the disciples experienced with Jesus on the mountain. It is the light of utter holiness and purity which radiates from the very presence of God himself. It is the glory of God. The people are able to see the glory on Moses’ face, for a time, but then he veils his face and keeps the veil in place until he is summoned to God’s presence again.
Both the giving of the law on Sinai and the revelation of Jesus as God at what we call the ‘Transfiguration’ are just two out of a number of occasions in the scriptures where God’s glory shines out to dazzle those who encounter him. Paul is another one who is blinded by the intense light of the glory of God as the risen Jesus challenges him on the road to Damascus. It is he who unpacks what is happening in part of his second Corinthian letter. (2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2)
Firstly, he tells us the real reason why Moses put a veil over his face. We would naturally think that he did it to shield his fellow Israelites from the dazzling brilliance of God. In fact, Paul says something rather different: ‘We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.’ (2 Corinthians 3.13) The reason Moses shielded his face from the Israelites was so that they would not see the glory of God fade from his countenance. It would fade as would the old covenant, the old dispensation based on the ten commandments God gave to Moses on Sinai. It was not for ever but a pattern of what was to be. God’s final word, the final unveiling of his glory was yet to be.
Secondly, Paul goes on to suggest that there remains a dullness of mind for those who stick only with the old covenant. Just reading and applying and reapplying the laws of the old testament is not the way to see the glory of God. The veil remains in place says Paul… ‘because only in Christ is it taken away. (2 Corinthians 3.14) Paul emphasises what he believes to be the truth for his fellow Jews: ‘Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.’ (2 Corinthians 3.15) It is not that the ten commandments, God’s rule of life, is no longer relevant for living, it is rather that it is not the place we encounter the brilliant presence of the almighty. That place is Christ, in the Lord and in his Spirit.
Having spoken of the veil on Moses’ face to mask the fact of God’s glory fading from it and related it to a veil remaining in the hearts and minds of those who still thought they could see God’s glory in the law, Paul makes a third reference to veils. This time it is he and his team who lift the veil. He writes: ‘…we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4.2) Paul makes the bold claim for his apostolic ministry that it is open and above board. He does not attempt to cloak any of the truths his presents to make them more palatable or saleable. He reveals the unvarnished message of God in Christ Jesus as he has received it and makes it known in the power of the Spirit that the glory of God may be revealed. In today’s world and culture, in our attempts to be relevant, do we run the risk of veiling some aspects of the Christian Gospel to make it more acceptable?
We remarked at the beginning how important sight is to us. But seeing is a lot more than the interaction of eyes and our brains via the optical nerve. It is about ‘getting it’, perceiving and understanding. At the transfiguration, Peter, James and John were able to see the glory of God for a brief moment until it was clear that they weren’t quite ready, and it is hidden by a cloud. Do you want to see and experience the brilliance and wonder, the total love and holiness of God in his splendour? Many in the world search for just that. If we do want to know more of our creator, then we need to take seriously the lessons Paul has for us. Ok, we may not be Jews looking at the old covenant; the Levitical rules, but are we tempted still to think that our path to God is through law, through the rules, many of them good that we find in the bible and elsewhere? To believe that we might just make ourselves good enough for a corner of heaven. If that is our philosophy, then Paul warns that the veil remains. He affirms confidently that only in Christ is it removed. It is in Christ alone, the way of the cross and resurrection that the horrific cloud of sin shielding us from the bright light of God is removed so that: ‘we who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3.18)
I once had an optician as a churchwarden. The advertisement for his business quoted Paul in 1 Corinthians. ‘Now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face’ …in the mean time come to G Marshall Opticians. We cannot fully appreciate the full light of God’s glory on earth, but we need to be certain of where we might find it; in Jesus, the light of the world.
Sunday Before Lent (Transfiguration) 03.03.2019