Being the scholarly pastor that I am, I get all my sermon material from the very best and most intellectual sources; for example – “Peanuts” cartoons.
Picture it: Linus and Charlie Brown lying on their backs on the pitcher’s mound, staring up at the clouds in the sky. Charlie Brown says, “Linus, do you ever see anything in the clouds? Linus replies, “Well, yes, Charlie Brown, I do. For instance, that one over there bears a striking resemblance to Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And that one, there over the school, looks like a map of Scandinavia, see – there’s Denmark and Sweden. And that one above the water tower looks like a helix. Do you ever see anything in the clouds Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown frowns and says “Well, I was going to say a ducky and a horsey, but I changed my mind.”
Every time I am confronted with a biblical story like the Transfiguration, I feel a bit like Charlie Brown; compared to the religious experiences of others the things I have seen are simple and plain.
My personal religious experience contains no bright flashes or red-hot emotions, no defining moments of transcending clarity, no poetic, mystical exuberance. My religious experience tends toward the mundane and the ordinary; reading the Bible, family prayers, church on Sunday, familiar hymns. I have no frame of reference with which to begin to try to understand what happened to Jesus and his disciples on top of that mountain.
The experience is completely and totally foreign to me. And yet, there is something within it that tugs at my heart, that pulls at my soul, that preys on my mind. There are two ways to approach a story like this: One is the rational, analytical, scientific approach. The other is as a child, with eyes attuned to seeing mystery and magic.
Soren Kierkegaard told this parable: There were two young people, one a German girl, the other an English boy. They met on the beach in France; they conversed in high school French. After returning to their respective homes, the girl wrote the boy a passionate letter in German, which he did not know. First; he laboriously translated it, using grammar books and dictionaries and lexicons. But, he did not stop there. He then put aside his intellectual work and read the letter for what it was; a love letter from a girl; a love letter aimed at his heart, not at his head.
So it is with holy stories, with the Bible. While we must not turn off our brains in looking at a biblical text like this, neither can we stop at the rational level; we must remember to read the Bible for the other thing that it is – a letter of love aimed at the heart. Luke wrote this story to touch our hearts and souls, to let us know something important about the love of God for us.
I learned to read using Dick and Jane books. Some things have stayed with me. “See Dick. See Dick go. Hear Jane. Hear Jane talk. Go Dick go. Go see Jane. Etc.” One way of looking at, listening to, hearing the story of the Transfiguration is through the mind of a child, through the simple words of see – hear – go.
What did they see? We must remember that this was a vision, a thing seen! So the important question is not what actually happened, what factually occurred. The important question is what did the disciples report that they saw? What was revealed to them? What did they see? They saw light and clouds, which are ancient symbols of God’s presence; remember the Exodus through the desert?
God led the children of Israel with a cloud by day and a fire, a light, by night. The disciples saw God’s presence and guidance, a cloud and a fire, on Jesus.
They saw Moses and Elijah. In Jewish tradition, Moses represented the law and Elijah stood for the prophets. Both Moses and Elijah were to return before the Messiah came. The appearance of Moses and Elijah signaled to the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah. Moses and Elijah give Jesus their blessing and then the disciples see Jesus’ alone. This shows that Jesus completes, fulfills, the law and the prophets.
What did they hear? They heard divine speech silence human speech: “This is my Son, my chosen!” (Luke 9:35) They heard a command to pay attention to Jesus: “Listen to him” (Luke 9:5).
Through the eyes of Peter, James and John, we have seen the vision, we have heard the voices. How are we called to respond? Where are we to go?
First, we are called to the mountain. Not to blinding lights and booming voices but to time apart with Christ. We are called to look at Christ with awe, hope and love. We are called to listen to his commands to love one another with body, mind and soul.
Then, we are called off the mountain and back into life. Like Peter, we want to build spiritual “tents, to stay on a spiritual high – but we can’t stay, we have to go back down to where life is lived for real. For it is down here, and out there, in our homes and schools and jobs and communities, in the mundane, ordinary, “so-called” real world that real faith is shown forth to the world. That is where we live our faith, that is where we are invited to shine the light of Christ, because that is where it is most needed, and that is where God has sent us.
Amen and amen.