Grace Presbyterian Church
February 27, 2022, Transfiguration C
In Light Inaccessible
For our last hymn today we will be singing a pretty familiar hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” The opening words of that hymn put before us an image that might seem counterintuitive, on the surface;
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessbile hid from our eyes…
Think about that for a moment. Particularly in scripture or in theology or preaching, “light” is almost always about illuminating, making things seen or more clearly visible, undoing darkness in some way. Think of the prologue of the gospel of John, in which “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Or consider the image invoked in Isaiah 42:6, in which the people are promised that “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…” (an image repeated in Isaiah 49:6). Or consider a simple image like that of Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world,” after which Jesus points out that one doesn’t cover a lamp with a bushel but rather puts it on a lampstand so that it “gives light to all the house.” That’s just for starters.
Even the more general usage of our language suggests such a lean towards light as illuminating – even that word carries such a shade, not to mention such a word as “enlightened.” We speak of a whole epoch of history as “the Enlightenment” because of the supposed benefit of greater learning and reason that was attributed to the age.
So what’s with that phrase in the hymn, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes“?
Think of what happens when a solar eclipse comes around. The one warning you get again and again is don’t look directly into the sun during an eclipse. Frankly, that’s not a thing you’re supposed to be doing any time, but the warnings about eye damage come out especially intensely around an eclipse.
There is such a thing, evidently, as too much light. It isn’t that common, but a thing can be so brightly illuminated that the thing itself is no longer visible, only the overwhelming light illuminating it. Such a phenomenon doesn’t have quite so much scriptural precedent behind it, but a telling example can be found in 1 Timothy 6:16, in which the Lord is described as the one who “alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” One gets a feeling that Walter Chalmers Smith might have had that passage in the back of his head in penning the words of that hymn.
Maybe this is something we should keep in mind in approaching the two readings we have heard today. The curious reading from Exodus, in which Moses’s face glows with light after his encounters with God on Mount Sinai, provides one small glimpse. Moses doesn’t realize what’s going on until he comes down from the mountain and to the people of Israel to find that they’re all shrinking back from him in fear and puzzlement. Moses ends up having to work out a system whereby he wraps his face in a veil when among the people, taking it off when going back to the mountain. The people cannot understand that shining, and to be fair, who could blame them?
The telling of the Transfiguration of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel might also point to something about that much light. We are told that while Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.” That probably wasn’t a sight people who routinely walked on long, dusty roads were accustomed to seeing. Then Moses and Elijah enter the scene, and we already know Moses knows something about one’s face changing appearance; the two of them appear “in glory” and are talking to Jesus about the events to come.
This is all strange enough; throw in that the disciples were barely awake for all of this, and one can almost be sympathetic to Peter’s well-intended but bungling suggestion about building festival-booth tabernacles for the three shining figures. At this, light is overcome by a cloud, a voice speaks from the cloud, and then – poof! – all of that scene is gone, with only Jesus standing there before the disciples.
Amidst all of that shining and all that dazzling and all that light, Peter, and presumably the other disciples with him, didn’t see things right. In all that light, his eyes betrayed him. To be fair, he would have been raised with Moses and Elijah as “heroes of the faith,” so to speak, but in that moment of illumination he saw things wrong.
It is particularly telling what the voice from the cloud (we may presume bringing instruction from God at the minimum) finally says to the disciples: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Not “behold” or “see” or any of those clearly visual words, but “listen to him!” The disciples have this amazing privilege that we modern Christians cannot possibly imagine, walking with Jesus in person, and their job is to listen to him, not to get blinded by the light.
A quote from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church based in England, offers some insight, just maybe, into what’s going on here:
It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.
We could also turn to the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, which we read just a few weeks ago: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part … for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully … ” (9, 12).
This is a challenge for we who are steeped in the post-Enlightenment ethos of learning by observation. We see the thing, we observe it, we learn from doing so. That generally works fine in a lab or perhaps in fieldwork. But our eye cannot see through all the light inaccessible, to borrow the phrase from the hymn.
Even our typical cultural concept of “mystery” betrays us here. If you were to see or hear the word “mystery” outside of a church setting, there’s a decent chance the word might be referring to a novel, by Agatha Christie or some other such, or to endless numbers of movies or TV shows sold as “mysteries,” with the implicit social contract that the “mystery” will be neatly solved and packaged within the hour or two hours of viewing time, and with the implicit reward that if you observe carefully and follow the clues you’ll be “right” about “whodunit.”
That’s not how the mystery of faith works. We can listen to Christ, as that voice in the cloud tells the disciples, but we’re not listening for clues; we are listening for the mystery itself, the very thing that our eyes cannot comprehend.
What the disciples saw on that mountain that day was, at least in part, a mystery. This teacher with whom they had been journeying around Judea or Galilee was far more than “just a teacher,” far more than “just a rabbi.” To contradict the old Doobie Brothers song, Jesus is way, way more than “just alright.” And this side of eternity, we’re not going to grasp it all. No preacher can preach enough sermons, no teacher can teach enough lessons to wrap the faith up neatly and package it up neatly and to tie it off in a neat bow. Any “Christianity” that promises you all the answers to life’s problems is lying to you, and there is plenty of “Christianity” being forced upon the public square right now that purports to do exactly that.
We suffer a plague of people who know. Our public discourse is glutted with supposed “faith leaders” who have got God pegged. They can tell you exactly which parts of scripture are sacred and inviolable, and which are, well, less so. They can tell you exactly whom you’re allowed to hate and whom you must follow without hesitation. These are the ones who back “patriots” and their assaults on the Capitol, and who back dictators who launch utterly unjust and despicable wars for petty spite.
Friends, no. That’s not how it is, and to the degree that the Transfiguration reminds us that we don’t have God all neatly packaged this is the best possible news. We know only in part; we may know more over time, but this side of eternity we know only in part; but then, only then, we will see face to face. In the meantime our only recourse really is to follow the instruction of the divine voice from the cloud, and “listen to him!”
The disciples got just a glimpse of that ‘face to face,’ and they weren’t ready for it. The mystery wasn’t theirs to solve, it was theirs to wonder. Likewise for us. We know only in part now. The time will come, but that time is not now. For now, we can know the One who is God’s only Son, God’s chosen, and listen to him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #156, Sing of God Made Manifest; #274, You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd; #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise