The Face of God

“The Face of God”

A Sermon for Christ Reformed United Church of Christ

Shepherdstown, West Virginia

The Rev. Gayle Bach-Watson, Pastor

Transfiguration Sunday     February 26, 2017

My father, Kenneth Wayne Bach, seemed to all the world to be a shrewd and relentless businessman. He was virtually single-minded about not going back to the poverty of his youth and climbing the slippery mountain slopes of commerce so that he alone was in control of his life. At the time of his death he was the managing director and sole owner of an electrical engineering design and fabrication facility in upstate New York – a far cry from the boy whose family in rural, southern Ohio could not afford shoes for him to wear in the summer.

But my father, hidden from the world’s view, was a great romantic. What he yearned for was to make his mark in the world. Not only to be a success, but to have that success truly mean something enduring. His entire career was in pursuit of supporting the military and intelligence services of our country with inventions and innovative designs – all highly technical in nature.

My father began flying lessons when I was in elementary school and my gift from him on my twelfth birthday was my first flying lesson. He persevered in his lessons, soloing in record time. He shared with me this poem when I was in high school. It was written by John G John Gillespie Magee, Jr. an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Magee was based at Llandow Royal Air Base, in Wales and High Flight was written after Magee had flown his Spitfire to 33,000 feet during a training flight. The poem was written shortly before his death from a mid-air training collision.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

 

And touched the face of God. Indeed, to be transfigured by touching and being touched by God. And of being changed by the experience. Indeed, throughout history right until the present day many Christians have reported experiences that are outside the realm of rational experience.

It is said that a friend wandered into Handel’s room just as he was    finishing the last notes of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” He found the composer with tears streaming down his cheeks. The magnificent work lay completed on the desk in front of him. “I did think,” Handel exclaimed to his friend, “I saw all heaven before me, and the great God Himself.”

There is something we ought to acknowledge, something we need to confess and it is this. Mystical experience is very much a part of our faith.  Indeed, it lays at the root of all that we believe in. From stories like those we heard today where we see Moses going up on a mountain and hearing God speak and Jesus being transfigured by a bright light in the presence of three of his disciples to the indescribable peace and joy that groups of praying and praising Christian pilgrims experience; unexplainable and unprovable – in the scientific sense at least – spiritual

realities undergird and indeed, permeate, our faith.

My friends – today I do not want to do with you what so many generations of preachers have done with the story of Jesus and his transfiguration – I do not want to rush you down the mountain and tell you that what happened up there is not as important as what happens in the valley below. Because that would not be the truth and it would be a disservice to your faith journey.

What I want to do – is have you understand that there really are spiritual realities that exist and which defy our conventional wisdom and our scientific reason.

We don’t know how God may choose to work in individual lives.  It is the height of arrogance for any of us to declare that God can only work in one way or another – that God can only be found in one group or another. Most of us would be thrilled to have the kind of mountaintop experience that Peter, James, and John had where they beheld Christ transfigured before them. We would love to go up on a mountain as did Moses and hear God’s voice, but we may live a lifetime and never experience any more than a lump in our throat and a calm assurance in our hearts.

If that’s all we experience, that is enough.  God knows what we need.  If other people discover a wider range of experiences, if they shout and dance and speak in tongues, then who is to say but that God knows their needs as well. Remember this –and this is the crux of the matter: The test of faith is not our experience of, or our knowledge of, invisible spiritual realities, but in whether we bear fruit that is pleasing to God.

The fruit of the Spirit, says St. Paul, is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. (Gal 5:23) Does your special experience make you more loving, more peaceful, more trusting, more humble?  Does your knowledge of the spiritual realities which undergird the world make you more faithful, more prone to give God praise?  Does your conviction that God has sent an angel to you to bring you comfort it result in your being a better neighbor?  A better citizen? A better partner? A better person?

If it does, then no matter what that experience is, you are not far from the Kingdom of God. There are, my friends, spiritual realities that undergird not only our faith, but the very world around us.

The transfiguration of Jesus is one of these.   It happened to strengthen Jesus before his journey to Jerusalem – and it was witnessed so that we might be encouraged in our faith.  The spiritual reality – the spiritual power made evident that day – had a purpose.   A good purpose. And so it should be for all those things we call spiritual.

The Transfiguration reminds us that things look different when one stands in God’s very presence. When we find ourselves in the very presence of God, it can be very unsettling. Our way of living and of thinking is challenged. The challenge is to see beyond where we are. When God comes to us, when we stand there at the border of the sacred and the secular, when we are moved to a new understanding of faith, there is a firmness that comes when we have experienced it for ourselves.

The important thing is that we believe not simply in the world we see, but that we believe in the power of the world that is beyond our everyday sight – in the truth behind that power and in the God who makes it so –  and that in believing in God and in his power – we strive – without fear – to live out a worthy life – a life like that of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

 

With thanks and credit to John Gillespie Magee, Jr., Rev. Richard Fairchild, Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens

 

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