We gaze into the face of God by having the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus Christ. I realized this during a visit several years ago to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. St. Catherine’s is one the world’s oldest monasteries—we’re talking sixth-century here.
It’s located in the Sinai desert, close to where Moses stood barefoot in front of the burning bush. Look up, and you will see Mt. Sinai on the top of which Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Law. Just over there, if you squint, you can see where God’s people worshipped the golden calf.
My group and I arrived at the monastery at sunrise. As I looked up at the mountains surrounding the monastery, I noticed little lights flickering in the distance. I asked our guide about the lights, and he explained that monks still live in the caves carved into the mountainside. The lights are fires to keep them warm at night.
They spend their days praying, studying the Bible and praying some more. That’s what type of place this is—it’s official name is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mt. Sinai. This is the site where God walked by Moses in the first reading that we heard today, where God still walks today.
We knocked on the ancient monastery door and we waited . . . and we waited some more . . . and we began to wonder if it would be rude to knock a second time.
Finally, we heard shuffling feet. The door creaked open and a monk right out of central casting stepped outside wearing long black robes. He had a black hat on and a long grey beard. He looked at us. We looked at him. There was an awkward pause, and then he said: “Welcome to St. Catherine’s. I’m from Detroit. Where are you from in the States?”
God has a great sense of humor. We had traveled thousands of miles, through Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the Sinai desert . . . we had come all that way to meet a monk from Detroit.
We learned that our friend from Detroit had an important responsibility. Get this: his job in the monastery was to scan the ancient Biblical manuscripts in their library—some of the rarest copies of the New Testament in existence—into digital files that would be posted on the internet for all to study and enjoy. The work was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
We also had the gift of seeing the icons in the monasteries’ collection, which is the most important collection of such paintings in the world. One of them is known as the Sinai Christ.
What you notice most about this arresting portrait are Jesus’s eyes, and here I follow the interpretation of Tilden Edwards, an Episcopal priest.
One of the eyes (on the left-hand side) looks at you with gentle compassion, as if to say: “Come to me all you who are and weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” When you gaze into that eye, you see a kindly shepherd who forgives you when you go astray from the flock, who picks you up when you fall and dusts you off.
The other eye is different. It burns with a passionate intensity. It’s a gaze that seeks to impart the transforming power of God to change us into someone who burns with wholeness and abundant life.
There’s nothing lukewarm about the other eye, nothing half-way. This is a vision of Jesus who wants all of us, body, mind and spirit, to be transformed by the fierce love of God.
Or as St. Paul writes so memorably in his letter to the Romans: “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
We need to hear this message today with open ears and hearts. If there was ever a time not be conformed to this world, this is the time. Today, God is calling us to have the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus Christ.
We first witness our hunger to see God face-to-face in our reading today from Exodus.
Moses wants to see God face-to-face so that all mystery is dispelled, all faith is rendered unnecessary. Isn’t that what this story is about? Moses is tired of having faith in God. He wants evidence, incontrovertible proof that God is real and has called the people of Israel to be God’s special people.
“Are you with us or not, God?” he wonders. How many times have you asked a question like that lately? With Moses, we cry out, “God, show us your Glory,” the fullness of your presence. We’re tired of having faith, of this assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, of taking your word for it. We want to know for sure that you are real and involved in our lives.
There’s just one problem: no one can see God and live. Or maybe another way to say it is that no one can see God and remain the same. Any encounter with God, even if it’s just a partial glimpse of God’s back, radically transforms our lives.
And so God shields Moses in the cleft of a rock—just like those monks in their caves by St. Catherine’s monastery—to protect him from seeing God face-to-face.
The take-away for us is that there is always, even on the most God-trodden places on earth like Mt. Sinai, something about God that is mysterious . . . unknown . . . left to faith rather than complete certainty.
This holds true even when we gaze into the eyes of Jesus Christ. Think of the Pharisees and Herodians in our Gospel story. They’re not in the cleft of a rock. They’re out in the open in the Jerusalem temple looking Jesus in the eye, and he is looking at them with passionate intensity, a gaze that seeks to transform rather than comfort them.
The Pharisees are religious authorities. The Herodians are our equivalent of a political party. Both groups, which under normal circumstances would be opposed to each other, find common ground in opposing Jesus, who teaches and lives with an authority that isn’t of this world.
They seek to entrap him, first with false flattery. The irony is that their flattery is entirely true. Jesus is sincere. He teaches the truth. He shows deference to one and he’s impartial. Every human being is worthy of his gaze.
But there’s something about the radiant light of Christ that causes us to hide in the cleft of the rock and to wear masks of hypocrisy. Jesus inquires: “Why do you put me to the test, you hypocrites?”
The test is this: if Jesus says it’s lawful religiously-speaking to pay taxes, then he will be considered an oppressor of his own people. The taxes on Jews living under the yoke of the Roman Empire were heavy and kept many people poor.
If he says that taxes aren’t legal, then he could be charged with sedition and punished by the Roman authorities. Jesus refuses to take their bait.
He knows that this isn’t a debate about taxes. Ultimately, it’s about how conformed we are to the world. The Pharisees and Herodians are utterly conformed to the world. Jesus is challenging them and us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by having the courage to face his transforming gaze.
Every aspect of our lives can be changed when we look at Jesus face-to-face: our use of time and money, our care of God’s creation, our vocation and how we offer up our gifts for the common good. God wants all of you and me: body, mind and spirit.
I’d like to close today with a real-life example of someone who has had the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus. His name is Dr. Thomas Andrew, and he’s a 60-year-old medical examiner in New Hampshire.
In recent years, Dr. Andrew’s office has been completely overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic. He can barely keep up with the work of examining the bodies of those who have lost their lives to addiction.
“It’s almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble,” explains Dr. Andrew. “I’m not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us.” Read the full story here
This is exactly where you and I can witness the difference that faith makes in life, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Rather than giving into despair or resignation, or further conforming to the ways of this world, Dr. Andrew is going back to school, divinity school to be exact.
He hears God calling him to serve as a deacon in the Methodist Church and a counselor to families whose loved ones have fallen victim to addiction. He wants to do everything he can to offer up his time and talents so that far fewer people end up on the medical examiner’s table.
To make a change like that, to step out in faith, takes real courage. There’s nothing lukewarm, nothing half-way about such a move. That’s the gift that God wants to give us today: courage to act boldly.
May we have the courage to explore new vocations and creative use of our gifts. May we not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
As we pray before the Sinai Christ, the Christ in Detroit or the Christ in our own backyard, may we all have the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus Christ and render all we are—body, mind and spirit—to God who loves us fiercely.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on October 22, 2017.