“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography; Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-18; February 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography
Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
February 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Children’s Message

For the children’s message I printed Exodus 34:29b (“The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God”) on glow-in-the-dark paper. I used a flashlight to show how the paper shone much more brightly when it was near to the light. We talked about how Moses shone from being in God’s presence and prayed that God might use us to share God’s light with other people.

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography

Slide04Today we are starting our Lenten sermon series on Spiritual Practices, which I previewed a bit last week in our sermon on Spiritual Practices as a way to experience God and a way to practice our faith. Lent actually begins this upcoming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, but since the idea of learning these spiritual practices is to give us new ways to encounter God during Lent, I wanted to make sure you were equipped with some spiritual tools before Lent actually begins.

Today we’ll be discussing “iconography.” What do you think of when you hear the word “iconography?

Slide02Historic Christian icons are images of the divine, largely coming from Greek Orthodox Christian tradition. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikon meaning “likeness, image, or portrait,” and graphia “write, express by written characters or description of.” So iconography is the process of exploring or describing an image. Christian icons ask the iconographer to explore the divine aspects of the image, looking at the artwork in order to experience God.

I know when I first heard it I thought it sounded like idolatry. To me, it seemed like it was asking someone to worship an image of God, which seems like worshiping something other than God, which is against the commandment God gave saying, “have no other Gods before me.” At the very least it seemed like a rather stale Christian practice. Staring at a picture doesn’t seem to be very interactive as prayer goes.

Slide03But iconography is not a practice of idolatry. Even in the Greek roots the essence of the meaning of iconography is to explore something that is pointing to something else, in the case of iconography, that something else is the divine. Icons are not meant to be divine in and of themselves, but rather they are “windows” to the divine, ways through which we may experience God’s presence.

Slide04Our Old Testament passage today speaks of Moses and the Israelite’s experience with God’s presence. Moses interacted with God directly and as it says in verse 29, “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”[1] The passage goes on to say how Moses would veil his face when he was not interacting directly with God or transmitting God’s message. Moses’ face radiated God’s presence. For the Israelites, Moses transmitted God’s commands and reflected God’s will for them. Moses was a window through which they could experience God’s power. This proved to be too intense for them, which is why Moses wore the veil when he was not actively transmitting God’s message. They couldn’t handle always being confronted with the brightness of such truth.

Slide05Our New Testament reading is written as a direct response to this story and a reflection as to why this would be. In verse 13 it says that we are called to live a life of boldness, “not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” Paul continues saying that the this veil is only removed when one turns to Christ, that through Christ we are able to fully experience God’s presence.

Since our intangibly great God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, by taking on a human form Jesus made it possible for us to look directly at divinity incarnate. Icons of Christ attempt to make God’s presence known to us through showing the only living breathing true incarnation of God.Slide06

Author Simon Jenkins wrote:

“The point about icons is that they affirm he teaching, to quote the language of the Creed, that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God’ who ‘was made man.’ Simply to paint an image of Christ is to confess that Jesus, the Son of God, truly appeared on earth as a human being – ‘sprung from Mary as well as from God,’ in the words of St. Ignatius. It is to confess that ‘the Word made flesh’ could be seen with the eyes. An conversely, to oppose the making of icons is to deny that confession…[I]cons stand on the front line of the faith: they stand or fall on the truth of Christianity itself.”

Slide09Legend says that Jesus himself made the first icon, asking Ananias, who we see pictured here, (to the left) to paint a picture of Jesus to go to heal a man with leprosy when Jesus couldn’t go in person. Seeing Ananias struggling to paint a picture in the crowd Jesus pitied him. Jesus washed his face, drying it with a square of linen and leaving an imprint of his image on the cloth. Ananias took this image and it brought to the man with leprosy who was immediately healed.[2]

Slide10Throughout early Christianity, much importance was given to the particular history of each icon, each trying to trace the accuracy of these depictions back to someone’s firsthand interaction with Jesus Christ. The idea being, like a big game of historical telephone, the best and most accurate images of Christ would be the ones closest to firsthand experience with Jesus. Since that original icon was able to create healing as an extension of Christ’s power, images that were created the closest to an experience of Christ would be the most powerful.

Slide11Contemporary iconography approaches this practice with a much broader view of what can be deemed an “icon.” Since icons are images that provide a window to the divine, give us a glimpse of God’s presence, icons can be anything that makes us think of God. In a few minutes we will watch a video I put together of different images that in my experience, point to God. Some of these images will look quite familiar, some of them will be unfamiliar, but each has been put together with the idea of allowing us to glimpse God in our midst.

As we watch this video, you might see your own image. Our passage today in 2 Corinthians suggests something truly shocking, that we can be bearers of God’s presence. It says in verse 17 and 18

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Slide13There are dangers with iconography. There’s the danger of this practice becoming self-worship or devoting our attention to something man-made, but the idea is not to focus on the image itself or the created thing or person themselves, but rather that through that image, through that creation you seek to witness God’s creative brilliance, God’s gifts of love and grace, God’s overwhelming goodness. This is the difference between “adoration” and “veneration.” Adoration is an act of submission and worship that should only be offered to Almighty God.

Veneration is something very different. Tony Jones writes, “Veneration…is how one uses an icon in prayer – not unlike the Bible, which we venerate and respect, but don’t worship. The Bible brings us closer to God, guides us in prayer, and is considered a gift from God, even though it was written and translated by human hands. Similarly, an icon, painted by human hands, leads us into God’s presence…The bottom line is that we use icons to pray, but we pray through them, not to them.”

Slide15In order incorporate praying through iconography into your own devotional life, the first thing to do is to get an icon that you might use to focus your prayers. This image might change from time to time, but choosing one icon for your devotional time will keep your mind from wandering too far. Once you have this icon in hand, find a quiet place where you can be alone. Then, when you are ready, gaze upon the image and look for how God is looking to reveal God’s divinity in this image. What does this image tell you about God? What are the sounds, smells, or senses that this image evokes? How does it make you feel? You can think about all of these things, or if your head will allow you comfort in the stillness, feel free to simply gaze at this image, simply taking it in for however God will have you see it.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Icons… have imprinted themselves so deeply on my inner life that they appear every time I need comfort and consolation. There are many times when I cannot pray, when I am too tired to read the gospels, too restless to have spiritual thoughts, too depressed to find words for God, or too exhausted to do anything. But I can still look at these images so intimately connected with the experience of love.”

It is my hope, that sometime during this week, or at least during Lent, that you would take the time to try this practice. And it is my prayer that God would be revealed in your experience. Amen.

Below is the video shown in worship following the sermon


[1] Exodus 34:29

[2] “The Sacred Way” by Tony Jones, page 99

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly;” Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; February 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly”
Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
February 3, 2013

First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Since Valentine’s Day is coming up next week it may seem fitting that today our New Testament passage today is from the “love chapter” of First Corinthians. This passage is often read at weddings, usually preceded by the rest of the chapter, but today we will be intentionally focusing on the later part of the passage and what it may be saying to us today. This passage is a message about love, but it is more than earthly and relational love. It is about the unimaginably vast love that God has for us. A love that God desires to reveal to us, a love that “now we see in a mirror dimly.”

SLIDE 2 Ancient MirrorThe original intended audience of this text, the community of Christians in Corinth, would’ve understood what was meant by the dimness of a mirror. The city of Corinth was famous for its mirrors. However, their mirrors were not like ours, but rather were made of hammered copper or brass. The reflection that they showed could give some idea of shape and form, but not exactly a clear image.

SLIDE 3 - Eye Doctor EquipmentA couple of weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for an eye exam. They used that big machine that goes in front of your eyes, and the doctor clicks through on the different prescription, asking “is this one better?” “or this one?” Each prescription changing my view ever so slightly. One might be a little clearer, one might compress the vision sideways a bit. As I have to make each decision, each preference, I come a little bit closer to what is the right prescription for me, the view I’d like to keep for my next pair of glasses.

This is we’ll be doing in worship this Lent. Though our view of God is as in a dim mirror, we will be discussing various spiritual practices that will hopefully each allow us to see God a little clearer, each one allowing us to focus a little bit differently as we seek to see God through each of them.

Unlike this eye exam we are not looking for one set prescription that will give us the way to see God. Our vision of God will only be entirely clear when we leave this earth and meet God in heaven. So, these different lenses of spiritual practices, this different mirrors reflecting God are all tools that may help to reveal just a bit more about God, help us to see God from a different angle.

Slide04 So, what are spiritual practices then? Just as we refer to doctors as “practicing medicine,” practicing our faith is a similar exercise. We can dig deep into the knowledge of God by encountering God through scripture and through shared experiences of God in history and our lives today. The more we get to know God, the more questions we have, but we also grow in our familiarity and comfort in asking those questions. They also seek to prepare us for the sort of encounter with God that Jeremiah experienced in our text today, enabling the Lord to “put [God’s own] words in [our] mouth[s].”

Slide05Today the nation will watch as the 49ers and the Ravens face off in the Super Bowl. These teams have been training for this one event for months, some of them playing football for their whole entire lives. This one game is the culmination of every other NFL game that has happened this season. Fans all over the country, and even around the world will watch with intensity to see what will happen on that football field.

Can you imagine how very different this game would be today if there was no sort of preparation? If there was no work to come to this point? Perhaps if someone like me decided to walk on the field and play today? I can say with certainty it would not go well for me. Best case scenario I would confuse everyone. Worst case scenario I would get utterly crushed. Nothing in my life has been directed towards becoming a professional football player. I am utterly unsuited for such a game and trying to jump in would be a terrible situation for everyone

SLIDE 6 - Spiritually FitThis is not to say that each of us needs to have professional athlete level of understanding of God in order to “get in the game,” but that we should work to be as spiritually “in shape” as we can be in our own lives, in our own time, so that we may be equipped to do the work of God in this world. God desires to meet us just as we are, just where we are, and to change us through the ways we seek God in our world.

SLIDE 7 - Encountering GodSome of the pieces of this spiritual equipment that we will encounter this Lenten season are: iconography, seeking God’s image in this world; fasting, hungering for God; prayers of petition, crying out to God when we feel hopeless; traveling a labyrinth, encountering God on our journey; prayers of confession, admitting our need for forgiveness; foot washing, encountering others with a servant’s heart; and prayers of praise. Each week we will discuss a different spiritual discipline and each week we will add another lens through which we may seek God.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorEncountering our 1 Corinthians passage with today’s mirrors in mind provides another level of understanding what was intended here. Though our mirrors are much clearer than that of ancient Corinth, mirrors only show us one side of things. Even when we use another mirror to reflect an image behind us, we are still only seeing the surface of things. Mirrors only allow us to see what is tangible, not what is intangible. Trying to encounter an uncontainable God in a two-dimensional way will always lead to disappointment.

Richard Foster, theologian and author of “Celebration of Discipline,” writes this of our need for spiritual practices: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to answer to a hollow world.”

Slide10During Lent, many Christians around the world temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in these various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In our passage in Corinthians, Paul says we will know God even as we are known. That is an exciting thing to think about: that one day we will fully know God, and that right here and now God fully knows us. This knowing of God requires us to “grow up” in our faith, as it says in verse 11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

What does it mean to understand God as an adult? Episcopal pastor, Rev. Robert Wright explains that it has much more to do with an attitude of selflessness than with our age. He writes, “The beginning of understanding comes with listening. A grownup love listens.  It listens to God and it listens to the world.  It hears what is said and what is not said.  It hears with the heart.”SLIDE 13 - Lent Child

This message of calling us into adulthood seems contradictory to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10: 14-15: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

We are called to live in this tension: to have the faith of children but seek to understand God as an adult. The faith of a child is one of trust but also one of questions. As we study the different spiritual disciplines throughout this season of Lent, I would encourage you to ask these questions, but also to live firmly in the faith that God is seeking to be present in your life.

May we discover new ways to connect with God, so that we may be spiritually fit to bring others into God’s kingdom. Amen.