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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by guest preacher Mike Fargo

Copyright © 2013 by Mike Fargo

Isaiah 6: Luke 9:28-43; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2013

            This morning I want to continue with your winter theme of “Around the Word in Ninety Days.”  Our chapter for today is Isaiah 6, where the prophet has his famous vision of God and receives his commission.  It’s a very vivid and awe inspiring passage—the kind of experience I think most of us secretly wish we could have, and for good reason.  Have you ever noticed that when we are struggling in our faith, it is often exacerbated by the fact that God can seem so distant, aloof, abstract, or even completely absent from our lives.  This is actually a very common experience.  There are a number of psalms in the Old Testament where the speaker complains, “Where are you, God?”   The diary of Mother Theresa that was published several years ago makes it clear that she, too, struggled with this most of her life.

            So why is this problem so chronic?  Why does the reality of God seem both so inescapable and yet so hidden at the very same time?  Why is it when we try to ignore God, he keeps cropping up, and yet when we seek a direct encounter, he seems so absent?  Why does Paul in his epistles claim that we have no excuse for rejecting God, and yet Paul also describes God as “invisible,” “an unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see?”  

 Do you remember in the book of Exodus when Moses, a guy who had a wide array of amazing encounters with God, was feeling like he really didn’t know God.   So in chapter 33 he asks for a deeper vision of God’s glory.  And God agrees to do this, but there is a caveat.   God tells Moses that he will pass in front of him, but Moses would only be allowed to see God’s “back,” for the Lord tells him, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”  God’s face, by which is meant God in his essence, would both overwhelm us and even destroy us. 

And why is this so?  Well first of all, the answer we are given in scripture is that God is wholly transcendent and beyond any human frame of reference.  God is not an object that you can look at like a chair or even another person.  As the prophet Isaiah himself reminds us in chapter 40, there is ultimately nothing in all creation that can adequately communicate God.  But that is only half the problem.  God is also infinitely pure.  Our sinfulness makes approaching God in all his holiness lethal, which is why the people at Mt. Sinai were told to stay away from the mountain lest they die. 

And so when God passes before Moses in Exodus, Moses does receive a fuller vision of God’s glory.  It was a wonderful experience, I am sure, that went way beyond what Moses had experienced before.  But in the end, even this vision proved inadequate, because all that Moses was allowed to see was God’s back.  God’s face was still hidden.  Instead, during the vision God reminds Moses of his name, something Moses had already received at the burning bush.   And in the years ahead, even Moses himself would continue to struggle with who God was.

            All of this provides the needed background for Isaiah’s vision that was read this  morning.  Some six or seven centuries have passed since Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai.  Good King Uzziah has died, and the nation of Israel finds itself in uncertain political times.  And although Uzziah had been, on the whole, a righteous king, the faith of the nation at large had continued to decline.  Moral compromise, social injustice, and a general disregard for God’s law had created a general spiritual drift that was increasing at a rapid rate.

            The young Isaiah is praying in the temple in Jerusalem, when suddenly he has this amazing vision.  He describes it very simply in verse 1: 

I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Strangely, he doesn’t even try to describe who he sees sitting on the throne.  Instead the only detail given involves the “train of his robe.”  Much like the “train” of a wedding dress, he seems to be once again describing the “back” of God.  Either words could not convey what he saw, or what he saw was an overwhelming “something” that he could not even look at.  There may be a little of both involved, for in the very next verse he does not describe the central object of the vision—God—but instead the seraphs (or winged creatures) that surround the throne.  In verse 2 he writes:

Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Notice that the seraphs themselves do not presume to look at God, but have covered their faces.  They have also covered their feet, thereby symbolically covering anything about themselves that might defile God’s purity or holiness.  And by hovering or flying about the throne, you get this image of perpetual readiness to do God’s bidding.  Their relationship to God is dynamic and not static.  But most revealing of all is what we read next in verse 3:

And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Now this is crucial.  Isaiah does not describe what God “looks like,” because even in this vision God cannot be seen in that kind of way.  What is “seen” is God’s glory and holiness, by which we mean his transcendent greatness, as well as his moral purity and perfection.  As the Psalm 111 puts it, “Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever.”  In other words, we ordinarily “see” God through his deeds and the impact they have.  This is why Isaiah chooses to capture both the glory and holiness of God through the physical manifestations we read about next in verse 4:

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

This physical phenomenon is meant to evoke an overwhelming sense of God’s power, glory, and sacredness.  The same manifestations happened at Mt. Sinai, when the mountain shook and there was fire and smoke.  But what is most revealing about this whole vision is how it personally affects Isaiah in verse 5:

“Woe to me!” I cried.  “I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

            Yes, Isaiah was no doubt awed by the greatness and glory of God, but it was actually the purity of God that most dismays him.  He not only realizes that he is in trouble, but the entire nation, for they are all alike a sinful and broken people.  But just when things seem most hopeless for Isaiah, an amazing thing happens.  God himself takes the initiative to remove Isaiah’s great dread and fear, as we read next in verse 6:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

The key to this whole vision is that in himself God is unapproachable, unknowable, and holy.  And yet it was God who chooses to reveal himself to Isaiah in the first place.  God initiates the vision because he longs to reveal himself to us.  But to make this happen, God must also take the initiative in atoning for our sins.  Isaiah could not atone for his own sin, and neither can we.  And so God offers this symbolic act of placing a coal on his tongue.  This act prefigures what happens when God comes to us in Christ.  Everything in the Old Testament, the temple and the sacrifices, all the words of comfort, everything that speak of forgiveness, could only happen because at a specific point in history God made a real atoning sacrifice for our sins, and that happened on the cross of Christ.  The incarnation of God in Christ is at once a powerful act of humility, love, and salvation, all intended to bring the unknowable God near. 

            No one has put it more succinctly and powerfully than the apostle Paul in his Corinthian epistle, when we wrote: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself…  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  The apostle John also captures it well in the that famous opening to his gospel, when he writes: “No one has ever seen God, but God the only begotten, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”  And then a few verses later, we have John the Baptist introducing Jesus with these words, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

You know, in the end, Isaiah’s vision is very similar to Moses’ vision at Sinai---awesome and yet remote.  Vivid in its glory and holiness, and yet still unapproachable and blinding.  Cycle forward now another seven centuries and we come to our gospel reading from Luke, when the three disciples of Jesus have their own vision on the mountain of transfiguration, only now Jesus is the sole focus of the vision.  Notice again the blinding light, the various “servants” of God—Moses and Elijah—who surround Jesus just like the seraphs who surrounded God’s throne in Isaiah’s vision, the terrifying voice from heaven, and so forth.  But what is different about this event with Jesus?  The huge difference is that the disciples never lose their ability to actually see Jesus.  And just when God draws most near to them in that terrifying voice, something different happens.  Let me read to you from Matthew’s gospel, where some important details are added: 

“When the disciples heard this [voice], they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them.  ‘Get up,’ he said.  ‘Don’t be afraid.’  When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”

Just when things seemed most threatening, suddenly they feel Jesus’ touch, hear his voice, and find they are looking into his familiar and yet wonderful face.  The voice from heaven has now been taken over by the comforting words of their Lord.

            You know, for today at least, your winter sermon series fits in beautifully with the common lectionary that Christians around the world use.   Nobody planned this to happen, I realize, but for Isaiah 6 to be the text on Transfiguration Sunday is so very appropriate.  But what is equally helpful is that the lectionary epistle reading for today comes from II Corinthians,  chapter 4, where Paul spends a lot of time talking about how Moses vision of God on Mt. Sinai was so inadequate.  And in particular, Paul writes this:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

            What Paul is saying is that we can finally see the face of God.  We see it in the face of Christ.  Jesus is not just another avatar or guru.  He is not just another prophet or Moses.  He is not just an amazing teacher or highly spiritual model.  He is God made flesh, God come among us, the fullness of the Father made known in the only way God can ever be known.  And to truly see the glory of God in Christ is to be transformed by it—not superficially changed on the outside, but to be changed from the inside out.  This is what all the Old Testament epiphanies were ultimately pointing toward.  The law, the tabernacle, the smoke and the fire, they are all part of the story—important and essential parts.  But partial, and by themselves inadequate.

            And so in practical terms, what does this all mean for us when we feel God is absent from our lives or a mere abstraction?  I would like to leave you with these suggestions:

n      First, begin by reflecting on Christ in scripture.  After he rose from the dead, Luke’s gospel tells us that, “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself.”  Christ is everywhere in the Bible, and so the scriptures are where we need to begin if we long to know Christ.   As St. Paul put it, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” which means to let it enter into your very bones.  Carry his words around with you all day.  Let it become a kind of food that nourishes you, directs you, and sustains you.

n      Second, draw near to Christ in prayer.  Come to him not just to ask for anything nor just to complain about anything.  Come seeking to simply be with Christ—to reflect on who he is, what he has done for you in the past, what he is doing now, and where he might be taking you in the future.  Speak to him with candor and expectation (let him know your true mind and heart), but also learn to listen to his. 

n      Finally, seek to know him in your obedience.  On the night he was betrayed he said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will obey my commands, and the Father and I will come and make our abode with you.”  In other words, Christ promises to become most real to us as we daily struggle to follow and obey him.

My whole sermon today is captured well when God says to the prophet Jeremiah, “You will seek me and find me in the day you seek me with all your heart.”  In short, seeing God is reserved for those who truly care about seeing  God.  Jesus was even more emphatic when he states in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” 

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the climax of our season of Epiphany.  It is my hope that in Christ you have come to know the Father as only the Son can reveal him.  Would you join with me now in prayer:

O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.  You made all things and you rule over all things.  Your greatness and your holiness humble us, and even frighten us at times.  But in your great love and mercy you have drawn near to us in Christ—to take our away our sins, and to lead us out of our darkness and into your light.  Have mercy on us all today.  Make your light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of your glory in the face of your dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

Last updated February 17, 2013