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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

You shall see my back.

A Sermon for Transfiguration Day

August 6, 2023 at Holy Communion

Exodus 33:18–34


“While my glory passes by you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.


On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse passed across the United States. At the time, I was in the first days of my Master’s degree at Notre Dame, in northern Indiana. Like thousands of Americans, a good of mine friend travelled all day to reach the south the the state to be ready in the “zone of totality” for the two minutes and forty seconds during which the sun would be entirely blocked by the moon. At that point, one can gaze on the penumbra of the star, the streams of fire which beam out from the sun’s surface, with the naked eye. He beheld the peripheral glory of a light so bright that to gaze upon it under other circumstances would destroy his vision entirely.


In our Collect, we pray for a vision of the divine glory of Jesus. Just as Jesus revealed his divine glory to “chosen witnesses,” being bathed in the light of eternity, so we pray to see the glory of the eternal Word. We pray that this vision would transform us, purifying and strengthening us, and drawing us “from glory to glory” into the mystery of God.


But can God be seen at all? It seems that, like the sun, he cannot, at least not without destroying us. Moses once prayed the same thing that we pray today. “He said, Please, show me your glory” (Exodus 33:19). God replies, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (v 20). God the Infinite, God the Absolute, God before whom the hills melt like wax and the oceans boil (Psalm 97:5), cannot be conceived by any created mind. To understand the infinite God, we would have to become infinite; we would have to die and be dissolved into the unending depth of divinity. The New Testament authors agree with the Old Testament on this. They call God “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), “whom no one has ever seen” (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12), whom “no one can see, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).


But God’s invisibility is only half of a story. In Exodus, God’s full answer to Moses request to see his glory is “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. … While my glory passes by you shall see my back, … but my face shall not be seen” (v 19, 22–23). As an act of grace and mercy (v 19), God can show Moses his goodness and his glory, which together are “his back.” This “back” of God, oddly, stands before Moses proclaims the name of the Lord (34:5). God in his inner chamber cannot be seen, but God also displays himself as visible glory, as goodness, as a figure standing in the middle of that glory who speaks with Moses, and as the prophetic word which he speaks. God in unseen in his nature, but seen in his manifestations of power.


And the New Testament authors don’t miss this, either. They know that the unseen God has shown himself, but they have a new word for the visible face of God: not his “back,” but his “Son” and “Word.” St Paul looks forward to the day when “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” will appear visibly to all as the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:14–16). St John says that “No one has ever seen God;“ but that ”the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). St Paul says it very succinctly: “Jesus is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).


Just as he said to Moses, God has indeed been gracious and merciful by showing us his glory in a way that does not destroy us: he has shown us the glory that pours forth from his fatherly heart, Jesus Christ, God born among us so that we could see, hear, and touch the invisible One.


Jesus is God’s “back” because he shows us the visible side of God even while his face is always turned towards the Father, just as we are turned towards the Father when we pray. Think for a second of how you experience those with you in the pew, while we pray here in church. What part of them do you mostly see? Their backs! And why? Because their faces are turned towards the sanctuary, just like yours is. This does not mean that they are rejecting you, or you are rejecting them. But you are allowing one another to have a mysterious face-to-face encounter with the Father. What you see of one another, you see through your actions (kneeling, standing, making the sign of the cross) and through your audible words, but your faces, which are turned toward the light of God, are not seen by one another.


This is a picture of Christian life. Although we have said many positive things recently about keeping the commandments as a Christian way of life, this is in fact only our “back.” This is the side of our faith which others see, and which shows the glory and holiness of the one who has “called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). In our collect, we pray that the vision of Christ may “purify” and “strengthen” us, and this is what it means: we pray that our deeds would reflect the light of the one we look to. But the true heart of our faith is the face which is turned toward God, the unspeakable encounter between our inmost spirit and the one who made us, and that only God and the spirit that is in us know (1 Corinthians 2:11).


So set your face toward Jerusalem. As our psalms says, you are a pilgrim. You go “from height to height” to where “the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion” (Psalm 84:6). Let God reveal himself to you by reading his Word, by learning about the example of his saints in whom the light of God shone, by praying continually in your heart. And let God reveal himself as he comes invisibly with his angels, uniting you to himself in this bread we break and the wine we drink.

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