SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MARCH 6, 2011, THE LAST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY

From St. Paul writing to the Church in the city of Corinth:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I understand in part, but then shall I understand fully even as I have also been fully understood. (I Cor.13: 12)

There are two controlling metaphors in Holy Scripture which describe how you and I may know God. The first in hearing; the second is sight. This, I am sure comes to you as no surprise, for hearing and sight are the two primary senses, so to speak. It is chiefly through these that we come to know the world around us, and so it makes sense that the Bible should use them as analogues for God’s communication to man and man’s knowledge of God. And most of us, I think, know the Bible and its patterns of thought well enough to find these metaphors familiar. Indeed, we are so used to them that we may take them for granted. On the one hand, men and women in the world of Scripture hear the word of God. On the other hand, God grants to certain people visions, and they see things that He wishes them to see. Hearing and sight. Two basic metaphors in the Bible for knowledge of God. Two metaphors which, indeed, determine much of the theology and spirituality which are rooted in the Bible as their source.

But there is a further pattern and this is very interesting. Hearing in Scripture refers mainly to the present. When the word of the Lord comes to one of the prophets, it usually refers to something which is taking place right now in the hearer’s present. However, when a vision is bestowed upon someone, what is seen usually refers to what is yet to be, to the future.

This distinction is not as neat as one might want it to be. The prophet Amos, for example, is shown things by God - a plumb line, a basket of summer fruit - and they refer to God’s message in the present about the present. And the prophet Isaiah is given a vision of God Himself which is his call to proclaim God’s word in the present about the present. At the same time, the author of the book of Revelation - which is a series of visions of what is to come, the future - nevertheless hears the voice of God telling him what to do and what to write and what to see, right then and there. But even though the distinction is a little blurred, it is even so a handy one, and you may find it useful when you read the Bible yourself. Hearing- oriented mainly to the present. Sight - an eye to the future. Again two basic metaphors for God’s revelation to man and how man comes to know godly things.

In the Gospel this morning we heard the story of a vision. The Transfiguration. Jesus takes three of His disciples Peter, James, and John with Him and goes to the top of a mountain to pray. And as He is praying He is changed. He is transfigured in their sight. He becomes dazzling and is surrounded by God’s glory. Moses and Elijah stand beside him. And this vision conforms to the pattern we just mentioned, for it is a vision of the future, His future. Jesus has just spoken to His disciples about His betrayal and death. The vision is granted by God to show them what He will become when, in obedience, He endures that betrayal and suffers that death. He - God’s Son - will be made God’s Christ. In his obedience He will fulfill the Law, and therefore Moses stands beside Him. He in Himself is that future of righteousness yearned for by the prophets, and so Elijah joins Him. By His death and His rising He will become God’s Christ, God’s agent of salvation and the bearer of His glory. In His obedience and through His suffering He will reveal the unimaginable depth of God’s love; in His rising He will make known God’s victory and the ultimate defeat of all that opposes Him.

This is what is to be, and as St. Matthew understands it, and Peter and John and James are granted the vision to steel and to strengthen them, for there is horror before the glory, and there will be a time when it will seem all is lost and evil has won.

That is what the Gospel tells us- the story of the event itself- today from Matthew. But there is a further interpretation. First of all, from Peter who was there and who tells us that he saw it and who in his second letter recounted the event. He writes:

We actually saw his majesty with our own eyes. He received honor and glory from God the Father Himself when that voice said to him, out of the sublime glory of Heaven, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ We actually heard that voice speaking from Heaven while we were with Him on the sacred mountain. The word of prophecy was fulfilled in our hearing. ( II Peter 1:16 – 19)

Paul says something similar but takes things further. He may have learned about the Transfiguration from Peter - they knew each other – or he may not. This is not clear from what he writes, and when Paul talks about vision his point is to tell us that there is a spiritual and mystical meaning to the revelation of Christ’s glory, and that this is at the heart and center of all Christian life. Paul writes to the members of the Church at Corinth and he tells them:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another. (II Cor. 3:18)

And here Paul confirms our earlier observation. The metaphor of sight is oriented to the future not only because it reveals those things which are to come, but also because seeing through faith causes us to become what we see. The vision of God transforms us. His glory, His beauty makes us become glorious and beautiful just as He – God - is. Paul writes. Listen once again.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.

St. John makes this even clearer:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (I John 3:2 )

God’s glory. God’s beauty has a power of its own and it transforms us. It makes us to be ourselves glorious and beautiful. When in faith we behold the crucified and risen Savior, that vision saves us and it changes us. We become by grace what we see.

And we have seen Him and we can see Him. We see Him in our prayers and in His word - the Holy Scripture. We see Him as He makes Himself known in bread and wine - in the Mass. We see Him in the Church – where in spite of themselves men and women are made to be His Body - and come together in fellowship and love. We see Him in the world around us where to the eyes of faith:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork. (Ps. 19:1 )

Here is the mystical truth of Jesus’ transfiguration: that, like all things in His life, it is a pattern of salvation. It tells us that we, ourselves, may be transfigured and become like Him - which is what God intended us to be. Glory by the sight of faith begets glory. Beauty causes those who see it, if they will, to become beautiful.

It they will. If they will? There is a moral dimension to glory, and beauty makes demands. It can be a revelation, and it can stop us in our tracks - God’s glory. But it also demands something of our will: we must change, we must repent. I know no better illustration of this truth than the concluding line of a sonnet by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who loved art and in his own way spoke to the world about God and the beautiful. In the poem Rilke, describes the sublime and transcendent beauty of an ancient Greek statue of Apollo – only the torso remaining - which lives for those who see it with a life even greater than physical life. He describes the elegance, the sensuality and the power of the statue, and then, abruptly, he stops and addresses the reader: Du mußt dein leben ändern. You must change your life. *

The vision of glory demands that we turn around and reject whatever is not glorious. Beauty’s exigence is that you and I become beautiful. Jesus proclaims the inbreaking of the glory of the Kingdom of God, and His first word is repent. Only through repentance, only through allowing ourselves to be changed can we enter that Kingdom.

My brothers and sisters, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is a time when the church instructs us to focus our minds and our souls upon the depth of God’s love made real in Jesus’ and upon the Savior’s injunction to repent, to change, and to be changed. We must turn away from all that is not of His Kingdom. We must let go of that which is tawdry and self-seeking. We must put aside all that is morally ugly and not worthy of Christ. And in Lent we must open the eyes of faith and allow the vision of His gracious beauty to change us.

Again from Paul and John:

And we all...beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.

We know that we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

Amen.


* Archaic Torso of Apollo, Archaïscher Torso Apollos