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Sermon – “Shining” – February 10, 2013

Sermon for February 10, 2013

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Shining Psalm 99; Exodus 34: 29- 35; Luke 9: 28-36

This is the Sunday of the church year given to remembering Jesus’ transfiguration, which comes relatively late in the gospels compared to the Baptism and the presentation, both of which already have been texts, but which shares with them a heavenly testimony to the special identity of Christ and the necessity of listening to him. The idea evidently is, before going through the rest of the church year, to multiply scriptures which attest to Jesus being the Christ and being worthy of attention.

What I want to do with the two scriptures about luminous faces–Moses’ face shining after his final interview with God, and Jesus’ face shining in this visionary encounter witnessed by Peter, James, and John–is look at the weird glowing of their faces– the word “transfiguration” means “change of face”–as evidence of the special character of their experience. Rather than read the scripture simply on its own, I want to regard these events in the lives of these holy persons as instances of something which has happened in many times and places, in many cultures and religions, and from the universality of its occurrence find grounds for extra-Biblical affirmation of Jesus’ special nature.

See, I think that part of our life of faith is reacting to scripture with something like a willing suspension of disbelief. When the stories are wondrous, it’s the case that if they were told us of anyone else, or in any other context than our religion, we’d expect them to be fictions or at least to contain exaggerations and misapprehensions. We have a different response to them when they are found in our holy writings.

To an extent, we believe our scriptures because we already are believers. In that way we are like the writers of scripture, who know that the prophets are getting the word of God right and that Moses and Jesus are special instruments of God. One consequence of this consistency between the conviction of scripture itself and our own hearts is that what we trust in the Bible we accept on different terms than other stories and propositions we believe.

That’s one reason that the archaeology of the Holy Land is pursued as passionately as it is. Archaeology is a science in the modern sense, an evidence-based pursuit of understanding, with hard facts like carbon-dating supporting or overturning hypotheses. Its standards for belief are like the ones your pharmacist uses to concoct your medicine, or the engineers who designed your television rely upon. People who have, in any sense, a special confidence in this way of knowing, are reassured to have places unearthed which correspond to sites mentioned in scripture, and find their comprehension of the Biblical account enhanced by seeing, for example, the typical method of using large, cut discs of stone designed to roll into a trough to seal graves in Jerusalem in the first century.

There is no archaeology for shining faces. There is no science of shining faces. There is, however, a large body of reporting of events like what happens to Moses and to Jesus, and this anecdotal evidence, though not as strong as physical evidence, suggests that the change in appearance of the faces of the holy individuals in today’s scripture is part of a larger picture.

Before beginning to talk about the unusual stuff which happens in the world which reminds us of the transfiguration, let me say that doing research on the internet on this topic exposes you to lots of crazy things. The truth is that there is the solidity of evidence-based and experimentally-confirmed science, and when you depart from that, you are left with everything from plausible patterns and promising inferences to the most preposterous notions and incredible claims. I am aware that even the widely-attested perceptions of persons proves nothing more than lots of people think the same sorts of things happen to them in certain circumstances, and it is possible that all of them are suffering from common delusions.

Even if the nonBiblical accounts of people’s faces shining and the corresponding accounts in scripture all somehow have to do with vivid dreaming or some kind of trance, however, the subjective reality of them–the way they feel to the persons in their grip– is that they have to do with a world beyond this one. They very often are associated with God, even by people with almost no exposure to religion and across different religions. Too, though reported by people in cultures widely separated in time and space, so many of the elements of these experiences are alike that it lends support to the idea either that these things have some objective reality of their own or that there is something about our minds which make them respond in a similar way to apprehensions of spiritual experience.

There are a number of things which come to mind which seem to belong to the same family, if you will, as these episodes of the shining faces of Moses and Jesus. The first is the most familiar, and that is the broad category of near-death experiences. Two elements of Jesus’ transfiguration, the luminous appearance of Jesus, and the obscuring luminosity of the surroundings–the cloud-like quality of it– are also known from reports of persons who believe themselves to have been near entering another reality at death and have returned to recover and live on.

The place where God is often is associated with light, and religious insight with illumination. Bright light or the color white has spiritual meaning in many places and times, with white being not so much a color as a variation on light, as it is in the transfiguration story, where the comparison is with the degree of whiteness which a bleaching agent can bring a cloth to show. A less common but perhaps related perception to that of those who think they have nearly died is the experience of ghosts as white or emanating light. Now on principle I think it’s right to disbelieve in ghosts, but every culture in every place has experienced something it thinks are ghosts, and they tend to share in this light/white thing.

There are people who see auras radiating from other people. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it is another thing that happens all over, and includes very reasonable and otherwise reasonably skeptical people. What does it mean? Is its basis physiological or psychological or spiritual? The point is that it has to do, again, with light being associated with a separate reality from the ordinary.

Stories about saints and venerated Christian mystics will report them shining much as Jesus does in the story, and of course that may be due to the expectation or the image already existing and influencing the witnesses’ minds. What seems to occur more reliably across cultural divides is a similarity in what people regard as mystical experiences, both the impressions received by those who practice varieties of meditation, and the seemingly spontaneous incidents of visionary or out-of-the-body experiences which individuals have and often don’t know how to fit into the rest of the sense they make of their lives. Light is not always an element of what are categorized broadly as “religious experiences” but it often is.

Psalm 99 is paired with these stories for two reasons. One is its insistence on the holiness of God, and holiness is a quality of God which, at least in my mind, distinguishes God from anything ordinary. The holiness of God is portrayed as a potentially annihilating attribute, and the presence of holiness prompts special measures to protect mortals. When Moses meets the burning bush–it appears on fire but is not consumed, which again has to do with brightness–he is told to put off his shoes because he is on holy ground. Isaiah’s vision in the Temple includes an angel touching his lips with a coal from the altar, to enable him, though a sinner, to speak for God.

Holiness is not God’s only quality. Jesus makes himself accessible in ways which make his disciples indignant and scandalize his opponents, so Jesus seems in himself to reconcile the exalted character of God with the frailty of humanity. In today’s gospel lesson what the disciples apprehend is evidence of that cosmic deity dwelling in the Jesus who otherwise always looks just like everyone else.

The other reason Psalm 99 is read today is for its mention of God’s speaking to Moses out of the cloud. Part of mystical experience is a consciousness unmoored from everyday experience, and the confusion of that often is described in terms of a cloud veiling what is perceived.

To sum up: the changed faces of Moses and Jesus are not just miracles caused by their closeness to God, but representative of a long-identified part of religious experience. The fact that the Bible preserves what we now can understand as variations on a broader experience supports the idea that people’s interface with God worked the same way then as it has since. It also reminds us that however commonsensical and perhaps prosaic our relationship with God or Christ may be, that there always is behind the surface, with the potential to break through into our consciousness, a great and holy and unutterably powerful and loving God, whose accommodation to us in Christ has not robbed any of the mystery, holiness, and transforming touch which are God’s.


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