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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Transfiguration 03/04/2019

The Bible seems full of stories of people who have direct experiences and encounters with God, direct and personal conversations with God, experiences of the divine that while possibly being frightening, remove any doubt about the existence of God. Because such stories seem so far removed from us they can take on something of “once upon a time” quality or, on the other hand, perhaps they make us envious, wishing that we could have the same kind of close encounter that would remove all doubt for us.

Transfiguration Sunday is about such close encounters starting with Moses. Today we get the end of the story of Moses going up on Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. He goes up and a cloud covers the mountain for six days, a cloud that represents the glory and the powerful presence of the Lord. On the seventh day the voice of the Lord calls him still higher and Moses enters the cloud that includes a devouring fire and he stays there for forty days and forty nights in the presence of God. When he comes down from the mountain he has the tablets with the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God with his face shining from being in the presence of God.

Now that’s an experience of the divine that would remove all doubt with the voice of God, the finger of God, clouds and fireworks all making clear that, while mysterious, something big is happening; the presence of God is real! I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had that kind of experience.

The gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is another mountaintop experience, another close encounter of a divine kind as Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray. With him are Peter, James and John and on the mountain they see the appearance of Jesus’ face change and they watch as his clothes become dazzling white. Adding further to the drama, suddenly Moses and Elijah, two great figures of the faith, are with Jesus, talking to him. Adding still further to the experience, Peter, James and John are overshadowed by a cloud and a voice comes out of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had that kind of experience either. Any divine experience I’ve ever had has been much more subtle than either of these, much quieter, maybe a momentary biblical insight, a brief sacramental moment quickly gone, only a glimpse, still real but not like the experiences of Moses, Peter, James and John, not an over the top theophany as such events are called. My guess would be that the same is true for you too.

All of this could lead one to ask why these things happen to people in the Bible but not to people like us. The more skeptical however, might go further than that and ask if these things really happened at all. They might say, “Show me one such miracle now and I don’t mean something that can be chalked up to coincidence and I don’t mean something about spiritual transformation. Give me a full blown miracle with all the bells and whistles, clouds, smoke and flames, voices from the sky. Give me one such miracle and I’ll take all this more seriously. Otherwise I’ll depend on science and reason as my source of revelation.” That, you know, is the prevailing view for many reflecting the old Marxist idea of religion as the opiate of the people.

I would suggest that both asking why these things don’t happen to us and rejecting it all as superstitious hogwash are examples of asking the wrong kinds of questions and asking the wrong questions can only lead to drawing the wrong conclusions.

Some of you know that while it seems to have died down, I started a bit of a firestorm back in December with a letter I wrote to the Mining Journal suggesting that there was more than one way to read the Bible. Moses on Mt. Sinai and the Transfiguration represent cases in point regarding what I said. One can read these two stories literally, as reports of historical events that happened just as the Bible says. To be honest, I think we all read it that way at least some of the time and that’s OK as long as the truth of the story isn’t dependent on its historical accuracy, as long as believing in such historical accuracy isn’t made the litmus test of real faith.

The truth of Moses on Mt. Sinai doesn’t have to do with believing in clouds and smoke and voices and Moses’ shining face. It has to do with the Ten Commandments and understanding them as the will of God, as a guide to how we live life as people of God. If reading the story literally helps you to get to that truth, go for it!

Likewise, the truth of the Transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t have to do with his face and clothes shining like the sun. It has to do with recognizing that Jesus is more than a prophet and teacher, that while fully human, he is also fully divine, the revelation of God. If reading the story as a factual report of history helps you to get to that truth, again, go for it!

If however, you can relate to the skeptic who wonders if such things really happened, there is an option other than dismissing it all as superstitious hogwash. Before I go on though, lest I be burned at the stake as a heretic, let me say that I believe in the truth of both of these stories and not just the truth I just stated about the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ divine nature. I also believe the truth that says that something happened.

In the case of Moses I believe that he had an experience of the divine, a revelation of the divine. Through his observation of an oppressed people, he was divinely inspired to imagine a different way to be in the world, a way that wasn’t about prosperity and power for some at the expense of the enslavement of others but instead reflected God’s vision for humanity which was about love of God and love and care for the neighbor. I believe that a divinely inspired Moses recorded God’s vision and God’s way in what we know as the Ten Commandments.

Those who wrote the Bible though, knew that the way I just reported this is kind of dry, so they crafted a story that used all the symbolism available to them, mountaintops, clouds and fire to make the point that this wasn’t just the work of Moses, this was the work of God. They wrote a story that would be remembered.

In the case of the Transfiguration, I believe that Peter, James and John had some kind of experience that served as a revelation to them concerning the more of Jesus. Most likely they had many such experiences, maybe the same kinds of glimpses that we get. In order to convey that more, the gospel writers combined it all into one dramatic mountaintop experience using the same kind of symbolism the Old Testament writers used to tell the Moses story. They too wrote a story that would be remembered.

What I’m describing is another way to read the Bible, one that might be helpful. It reconsiders the notion that the Bible is a historical account that reports revelation the way a newspaper reports the latest drug bust or what happened at a city council meeting. Instead of thinking about the Bible as reporting revelation, it’s more helpful to think of it as participating in revelation. In the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai and in the story of the Transfiguration, those who wrote the accounts participate in revelation in that they use symbols of God’s presence to report deeper theological truth. The story then doesn’t just report revelation, it participates in revelation and...it enables us to share in the experience.

Going back to the question of why we don’t seem to have the same kinds of direct experiences with God that characters in the Bible had, the answer is, maybe we do but maybe we are not as attentive to them as were the Bible heroes. Like I said, we do get glimpses, those moments that, while quickly gone, do awaken us to God’s presence with us.

But think about the story of the Transfiguration. If it’s correct to say that in the way that it’s told, the story participates in revelation rather than reporting it, it may be that the actual experience of Peter, James and John wasn’t all that different than those glimpses we get. Even in the way that the story is told, with clouds and voices and Jesus’ appearance changing, the vision of Moses and Elijah, it was still just a moment quickly gone. Then they were headed back down from the mountain and about the work of being disciples, but…they had experienced Jesus differently! They had glimpsed his divine nature!

With the story understood as participating in revelation, we join Peter, James and John in experiencing Jesus as divine, as God’s Son. We become part of the world that the Bible gives us. We see Jesus differently and importantly we hear that voice from the cloud saying, “Listen to him,” and that’s what we do. We end this Transfiguration Sunday having had a glimpse of Jesus as divine and with that, we join Peter, James and John in the work of being Jesus’ disciples.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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