A few days ago in Morning Prayer, Charlie commented on something from one of the Bible readings. It was something he hadn’t noticed before. This happens fairly regularly; not every day, not even every week, but often enough. We read a passage from the Bible with which we are familiar and something within it seems to jump out at us. It’s as though it was never in there before. Of course, the Bible text is not actually changing, but one or more of us finds our attention captured by a sentence or a phrase that we have read in the past but not given special attention to.
I had a similar experience today when reading Luke’s version of the Transfiguration. The story of the Transfiguration is one that I’m familiar with, and no doubt many of you are also. Eight days after Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus had warned the disciples of his impending execution, Jesus took the three disciples Peter, James and John up a mountain. There they saw Jesus with clothing that was dazzling white (or ‘bright as a flash of lightning’ if translated literally) and talking to Moses and Elijah about his ‘departure’. God’s voice was heard affirming that Jesus was his Son and telling the disciples to listen to him.
All this was as I expected but within the account was the following: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” That really caught my attention. Within that I particularly noticed: “since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory”.
It seems that this was one of Jesus’ night time prayer sessions as the next part of the account mentions the four men coming down the mountain the next day. It’s understandable that the disciples would feel drowsy after a time of praying at night. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that heaviness when our eyes close of their own volition, our head begins to fall forward and it’s a huge fight to stay awake. If it’s important that we stay awake, we move around, rub our eyes, anything to keep awake. Somehow the disciples seem to have managed to keep from going off to sleep. As a result, they were rewarded by seeing Jesus in all his glory. Had the disciples slept, they would have missed this most wonderful of experiences.
Very much in contrast to this was the response of the people of Israel when Moses met with God. As Paul says in his letter, Moses veiled his face to cover up the glory which shone from his face as a result of his spending time with God. Moses did this because the people, and even Aaron their priest, were fearful of this sight of God’s glory. They didn’t want the experience of seeing how glorious God is. It was fear, not sleep that was the problem for the people of Israel. Instead of fighting their fear in order to draw close to God, they pushed God away and needed his glory to be hidden from their sight. Paul considered that the same hard-hearted attitude continued among the Jews to that day, creating a veil over their minds when they heard the words of Moses. This prevented them from appreciating who Jesus was, the fulfilment of all that the law of Moses pointed to.
Paul recognises that all is not lost. For those who turn to Jesus, the barrier which prevents them seeing his glory clearly is removed. The Holy Spirit brings them freedom from fear. Like Moses, by looking at the glory of God, believers begin to shine as God shines. They begin to be changed into God’s image, the image that was in humans from the beginning but became corrupted by human sin. Over time, they are transformed ‘from one degree of glory to another’.
We have a choice. We can hide from God, knowing that he is a great and glorious God and therefore can create fear in us. (Why else would angels always say ‘Do not be afraid’ when they met humans, if it were not for the fearfulness of God being so near?) We can do as our prayers of penitence say today and ‘sleepwalk through life’. We can let all the pressures and commitments of our lives overwhelm us so that our spirits sleep. If that happens, we will not be aware of God’s glory, even if it comes very near to us.
Alternatively, we can fight our fear and our tendency to sleep. We can actively look for God’s glory, expecting it to be available for us to see in some way. We can embrace the opportunity to be transformed by the Spirit until we shine like Moses did, like Jesus on the mountain, with the glory of God. That way we can light up our surroundings to give hope to those whom we meet.
Only once have I seen what I took to be God’s glory shining from someone’s face. I went to a talk by a well-known Christian speaker. At the end, anyone who wanted to could go forward for prayer. I went forward and a woman perhaps in her sixties with grey hair, pulled back in a bun, and an unremarkable face came to pray for me. At first glance there was nothing special about her, but when I really looked at her face I was sure I looked into the face of God. I can’t remember more than her first few words of prayer for me, but I remember her face.
I pray that each of us will have the courage to allow ourselves to be transformed more and more into the image of God.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor