On our vision and perception of God
Dan 7:9-10,13-14 2 Peter 1:16-19 Lk 9:28-36
Just how do you visualise God? Oh I know that He’s invisible, but everyone has ideas of what they think God’s like. Many, I know, think of God as being like a benign old Grandpa, who pats everyone lovingly on the head, whilst dishing out favours. Others envisage God as a ruthless and severe judge, condemning anyone who gets in his way to the tortures of Hell. Whilst yet others, seeing Jesus as the human face of God, prefer to think in terms of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, who’s so loving and merciful that he’ll forgive absolutely anything, welcoming everyone into his presence, just like your best friend, down the road. But how do we visualise God? As a good mate we can reason or argue with and have a laugh? Or as someone to fear and keep at arms length.
Well, in our first lesson we had Daniel’s perception of God, as one who was extremely old, whose clothes and hair were pure white, sitting on a furnace-like throne in judgement of all, and being served by millions of attendants. A wonderful picture; the age symbolizing the eternal being and absolute wisdom of God; the white hair and robes draw attention to His absolute perfect purity; whilst the furnace that flowed from his throne tells of His holiness, that not only is God pure, but no impurity can exist in His presence; the throne surrounded by other thrones and the myriads of those in service, speak of His absolute majesty, the sovereign Lord of all and judge of all, reminding us, as Margie commented last week, that it is He alone who judges all.
Time and again in the Old Testament this is how God is portrayed. A God holy and pure, burning any impurity with intense heat, before whom no mere mortal can stand with impunity. So we see Moses at the burning bush and Malachi’s question of “Who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire”. But here in Daniel’s vision there’s another picture too, of the person in human form (described in N.I.V. as “like a Son of Man”), coming with the clouds of heaven to be presented to the Almighty, to whom was given all the glory, the authority and dominion that God alone is able to possess. An entirely new prospect of one who is able to break through and be a part of the wonder of this pure and holy God. I wonder just how many of us are able to visualise God in this way.
But that vision is very much from the heavenly perspective, whilst our Gospel, in many ways portrays a similar scene, viewed this time from an entirely human perspective. The disciples, with all their Jewish preconceptions, were clearly struggling to comprehend exactly who Jesus was. Earlier in the chapter we’re told that they’d returned triumphant from their mission to spread the news of Christ’s coming kingdom throughout the region; a mission that had considerably disturbed Herod, the Roman Governor. This had been followed by the feeding of 5000 and Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But instead of building on this revelation to take the World by storm in claiming that Kingdom they’d been telling everyone about, Jesus spends time quietly warning the disciples of his impending suffering and death, no doubt leaving them incredibly confused.
And it’s in this context that Jesus takes the three members of his inner circle for a walk “up a mountain to pray.” We’re not told which mountain this was, though in their accounts, Matthew and Mark both describe it as being ‘a high Mountain’, which perhaps challenges the traditional view of its being Mount Tabor, which at just 575 ms above sea level, is considerably lower than Limaria, and not therefore exactly ‘high’. What however is clear is that, whilst praying on the mountain, the appearance of Jesus changed dramatically. Matthew particularly tells us that the face of Jesus shone like the Sun and his clothes glowed with light, whilst Luke merely states that his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. The disciples, whose knowledge of scripture was probably far better than ours, would almost certainly have been reminded of Moses, whose face shone so that he had to wear a veil after communing with God on Mount Sinai. And they would also have know of traditions, not specifically documented in scripture, that Elijah’s face similarly glowed as he was separated from Elisha by the chariot of fire as he was taken into heaven. So the shining of Jesus’ face and clothes would have held immense significance, as would the sudden appearance of those two, Moses and Elijah, “in glory” with him; the one signifying the law and the other, the prophets. To the three disciples, so dramatically roused from sleep, there could have been no doubt as to the awesome presence of Almighty God on that mountain, and that Jesus, through prayer had been in communion with Him.
But how would these three have felt as they listened in to the conversation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah, speaking, we’re told “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem”? Jesus had tried to tell them, and they’d resisted, believing death to indicate failure. But here his coming “departure” was being heralded as an “accomplishment”; a great achievement that would signify victory! They still couldn’t understand that his coming suffering, his death, his resurrection and ascension, were all a part of God’s eternal plan to enable His Kingdom to be established with the restoration of the relationship between God and mankind. Unimaginable, incomprehensible to the human mind apart from His Holy Spirit, but the three disciples recognised something amazing and holy at work and responded, as humanity so often does, with the suggestion to build three dwellings, or perhaps three shrines, one for each of Moses, Elijah and Jesus. For these disciples, equating Jesus with the greats of Moses and Elijah was quite a complement, but it only went to demonstrate their complete lack of understanding of who Jesus really was – in a different league to Moses or Elijah, here was the ‘person like a Son of Man’ from Daniel’s vision. In his awesome presence, their thoughts of equity, far from being a complement was a further demonstration of their ignorance.
So, we’re told, a cloud overshadowed them. No ordinary cloud, for these experienced fishermen would have been well used to clouds and mist on the sea, but this, clearly mysterious cloud, similar no doubt to that into which Jesus later ascended, and reminiscent again of the clouds accompanying the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision; this cloud terrified them as they now themselves became fully aware of God’s presence and heard His voice, correcting their presumptive suggestion. “This is my Son, the Chosen one – Listen to Him!” No distractions; no alternatives, however great they may be. This is God’s chosen one so listen to him. And, following the voice, as Matthew so beautifully phrased it, “They saw no one, but Jesus only.” Who else did they need? And to who else indeed should they listen?
What an impression this must have made on these disciples. How much they must have pondered on this occasion and the words they heard, over the coming weeks and months. How dramatic the impact as the Holy Spirit, after Pentecost brought the full meaning back to their hearts and minds. So Peter, in his letter emphasises this event as the evidence of all he now preaches. And how well we would do to take notice, engraving the lessons in our hearts and minds. For however close we may be to the Lord; however aware we may be of his love and forgiveness; however much we know he longs for us to pour out our hearts to him; we must always remember who he is and never become so familiar that we belittle, undervalue or presume on him, placing anyone or anything, however good or great, alongside, for he remains, despite his love, the very holy, almighty God so dramatically described by Daniel.
Duncan Burr, 6th July 2017