I have always been both fascinated by and frustrated by optical illusion pictures. As a child I can remember the Magic Eye pictures that looked like repetitive patterns until you looked at it just the right way and then you could see dolphins swimming or some such design. Anamorphosis is an art technique that makes use of perspective to either hide an image within an image or reveal what appears to be a clear image out of something by distorting it: eyes that follow you around the room, a rock star’s portrait composed of minute photos of his fans, is it an old hag or a beautiful woman? While some are intended to be a challenge, many are intended to correct distortions caused by our viewing angle, but even the most challenging ones become easy once you have seen the intended picture once.
This morning we have several glimpses into the face of God. They reveal the importance of perspective. As the apostle Paul said, “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, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12).
In this morning’s Psalm we heard the Psalmist say, “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold;” and “for you are my tower of strength.” (Psalm 31:1-2) Our English translations bring to my mind a Norman castle from the middle ages, a distortion of my perspective, but not an inappropriate representation of the poet’s description of God. Many ancient cities, Jerusalem in particular, were walled fortifications built on top of a high hill with watch towers built into the walls. Their design protected the inhabitants from enemies because they provided them greater vision of the surrounding area and provided a buffer against physical attacks from outsiders. Jerusalem was and is in scripture an icon of the presence of God with the people.
But I think even Jerusalem is an embellishment of the Psalmist’s vision. Our English rendering of this Psalm is very beautiful but the Hebrew is more primitive, more earthly. Parts of Israel are composed of high hills of basalt or lava rock. These rocks are pitted with thousands of small shallow caves that were used by shepherds and others as a safe place to shelter, to sleep. If you were in one of these indentations you were protected because there was only one small entrance. You were totally surrounded by the strong rock. Our poet begs God – “be my strong rock, my safe place” and then immediately rejoices because he sees God in the rock and says “you are my strong rock, my safe place”. We don’t know if the Psalmist is in the rock cave or wishing for a rock cave at the time he utters these words, I suspect the later, but he has recognized the face of God in the image of the rugged mountain where he can rest safely. In another Psalm he says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). Once he has seen the face of God in the hills, he only needs to look toward the hills to see it again.
As Christians we confess a belief in the Incarnation. We proclaim that Jesus is both fully human – a flesh and blood historical figure, and fully God. It is one of those concepts that is easy to define, but much harder to comprehend. It may feel like you are standing in front of one of those Magic Eye pictures with everyone saying “don’t you see?” – and you want to see – but the image is just not there. You are in good company.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus has been teaching and healing and feeding people and performing all sorts of signs and wonders and twelve men have been his close companions during this time and witnesses to all that he has said and done. Jesus is now trying to prepare them for his eventual arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. We look back on this story with two thousand years of generational experience and we understand what Jesus is saying, but for those standing there with him, they don’t understand. They can’t see as badly as they desire it.
Again, our vision of what Jesus is saying is somewhat distorted by culture and language. Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Many of us grew up with the word “mansion” which gives the idea of private ownership of our luxury spot in heaven, but this is not what Jesus meant. The translation in the NRSV as dwelling places is a bit more accurate but could conjur up many different images. In first century Mediterranean life, a household, which is what Jesus is talking about not a building, often consisted of multiple generations of relatives, as well as household servants, especially if it was a wealthy family all living together in close proximity. Think Downton Abbey without the British accents. Jesus is talking to the working class for whom this image may have been as foreign to them as life in a British landed estate is for us, but it was the closest earthly explanation of eternity Jesus could use. The disciples are grounded in their present reality and they are trying to figure out where Jesus is going to set up this new home for them. Earlier in the Gospel of John we are told “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). Their vision is that they will be sons and heirs, not servants, in Jesus’ great estate which is Good News, but he is being allusive about where it is. Thomas speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Thomas is looking at the picture but cannot see the image Jesus is describing so Jesus tries to shift his perspective.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7). Jesus is trying to get them to see that he is describing a heavenly, eternal scene. If they will only look at him with the right perspective, everything will be revealed.
Philip responds, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” (John 14:8). I can remember people physically trying to move me in front of one of those Magic Eye pictures to change my perspective and the frustration on their face that what they see so clearly, I do not see at all. You can hear the frustration and disappointment in Jesus’ voice when he responds to Philip. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” The image of God has been with them all this time and all they have been able to see up to this point is the man, Jesus. It is the voice of God, speaking through Jesus that says, “Have I been with you all this time… and you still do not know me?”
God wants to be seen and known by us and he gave us Jesus as the image in which that can happen. Sometimes that is hard, especially if we have not recognized the face of God before in the images before us, but Jesus promised us that if we keep looking we will be able to see and once you have seen, it is hard to not see. He said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). Jesus was not talking about stuff. He was talking about seeking him, seeking God, being given the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to the knowledge of God.
May Christ bless you this day with eyes that see, ears that hear and lips that confess the glory of God.