A sermon preached on February 10th, 2013 – Transfiguration Sunday – based upon Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a].
This has long been one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Far and away, this is the most common passage I preach on when I go to nursing homes. Why am I drawn to it so? The same reason I am drawn to people describing Near Death Experiences. It describes a moment when the veil was lifted – when the doorway between this world and the next was momentarily cracked open allowing Peter, James and John to catch a glimpse of that dimension of reality we call “heaven.”
I figure the old folks in the nursing homes with their physical bodies deteriorating want to hear about what it is the three disciples witnessed that day.
Throughout most of my life there has been this intuitive sense for the reality of the spiritual realm. I’m weird I’m sure, but as a little kid I would marvel at the basic philosophical question: “Why is there everything and not nothing?” In the asking of the question the answer seemed self-evident: there had to be some unseen creator with a purpose in mind.
In my more reflective moments, I sense an inherent meaning and purpose to life that I myself didn’t create; it simply is. There is this sense I have that my life is a story, with a kind of plot, with many setbacks and struggles to overcome as in any good story. There is another author beyond myself whose hand is moving the plot towards something.
During my adolescent years my access to this intuition was blocked. In the turbulence of that time, and with the pride of my growing intellect, I bought into the world view of secular materialists who say there is no reality apart from physical reality – that everything is ultimately explainable in terms of atoms and molecules, or brain chemistry or some other form of physical phenomenon.
Since the age of the Enlightenment, this point of view has steadily become more and more common in intellectual circles. There are no shortage of foolish and destructive behaviors by religious people that secular materialists can point to discredit the notion of a spiritual reality, and I did the same myself during my adolescence.
(I think that there are signs that maybe the human race is beginning to leave behind its collective adolescence. The weird stuff unearthed from Quantum Mechanics suggests that reality if far stranger than ever imagined, and people with overdeveloped intellects are beginning to reconsider the realm of Spirit. But that’s another sermon.)
As I passed through my personal adolescence my childhood intuition returned that there is indeed a spiritual reality. For me, this perception was most evident to me in times of stillness. On the other hand, when life becomes stressful, and I get caught up in frantic busyness, I begin to wonder once more if the secular materialists might have it right.
But invariably, when I am able to return to that place of stillness – as the psalm says, “Be still and know that I am God” — the underlying intuition returns to me – that there is indeed a creator who created me and all of life for loving purposes.
Nonetheless, I long to see what Peter, James and John saw. It seems as though it would give me a kind of certitude that the crazy stress of this world wouldn’t be able to rock.
Hence, my fascination with this story.
And yet when I read how Jesus himself felt the need to frequently withdraw from the busyness of this world in order to pray in stillness – I realize that even he wasn’t immune to the deadening of spiritual sensitivities that the chaos and confusion of this world can cause.
And so in our story this morning, Jesus seems to feel such a need, and in this instance he wants the company of his three closest friends – Peter, James and John — and so he leads them to the top of a mountain (like Moses before him) where he prays through the night.
As he is praying, his face is transformed, a light begins to come off him more bright than lightning. Two spiritual ancestors, Moses and Elijah long since dead, appear from heaven in order to speak with Jesus regarding that lies before him in Jerusalem. The disciples have fallen asleep, and so it is not until they are awake that they witness this astounding glimpse of the reality of heaven.
There is another world view besides that of the secular materialists that I’ve never been able to buy into, and that is the world view of the religious fundamentalists. They come in a variety of forms: Christian, Jewish, Moslem, with multiple variations in each tradition. They each would accuse the others of being dead wrong, but they all share this in common: In contrast to the secular materialists, they affirm that there is indeed a spiritual reality, and they possess the knowledge of exactly how it operates — what you have to believe and to gain access to it. They’ve got it all mapped out in their inerrant book, whether that book be the Bible or the Koran or whatever.
Such a notion has always struck me both intuitively and intellectually as absurd, and another reason I am drawn to our Bible story this morning is expresses the absurdity of the notion as well.
Standing before this portal into heaven, Peter starts talking, even though, as Luke tells us, “he did not know what he was saying.” He can’t seem to help himself, although it would have been better for him to simply be silent and experience what was happening with a holy awe.
Peter has in mind building three shrines; one for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. The idea is understandable – he wants to capture what he is experiencing so that he can have access to it afterward whenever he wants. He wants to put the experience and its meaning into a box, so to speak — which is essentially what fundamentalists try to do.
But it soon becomes clear on that mountaintop that this won’t be happening. What they are being allowed to experience is not something that can be captured. That great ultimate mystery that we call “God” is the one who is in charge here – not us.
The next thing that happens is that a cloud suddenly appears, covering the top of the mountain so they can’t see a thing. Talk about disorienting. Who knows which way to go? An anonymous spiritual writer would later write a classic little book inspired by this moment called the “Cloud of Unknowing,” the basic premise of which it is only through letting go of all we think we know that we can draw close to God.
In that Cloud of Unknowing, where all vision is lost, there is nothing to distract from the voice that suddenly speaks: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
Then suddenly the cloud is gone, as well as the blazing light, and Moses and Elijah.
The “portal” is closed. Luke tells us, “The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.” The experience is too personal, and the words so grossly inadequate to express the mystery and wonder of what they have seen. Later, perhaps, they can try. But not now. It’s simply too soon.
It is the antithesis of the fundamentalist viewpoint. No rigid doctrines to adhere — very few words at all. The disciples come forth with two things: One, the conviction that the spiritual realm is absolutely real – awe-inspiring and impenetrable in its mystery. And two, the directive to pay attention to Jesus.
There are only a handful of places in the Bible where anything like this occurs. In the New Testament there are the resurrection appearances – and then there’s the experience of the Apostle Paul. In Acts we hear of his encounter the risen Christ in a blaze of light, that leaves him blind, and essentially mute for three days. What he experienced that day absolutely changes his life, but as far as we know it would take him another fourteen years to try and speak directly of the experience, which he finally did in this 2nd letter to the Corinthians in the 12th chapter. He’s so reluctant to speak of what he experienced that he writes in the third person of a man he knew who fourteen years earlier was caught up into a third heaven – whether in the body out of the body, he doesn’t know. This man, Paul says, heard inexpressible things –things that no human is permitted to tell.
Having seen what he saw, the word Paul continually comes back to throughout the rest of his writings is the word “grace,” the unmerited love of God given freely to us in Jesus Christ.
From the glimpse he was given of what is in store for us, he wrote in his letter to the Romans that “the glory that is to be revealed to us far outweighs the suffering of this age…” He writes that if the resurrection isn’t true; if it is nothing more than a myth, than we Christians are of all people most to be pitied. But because of the glimpse he was given, he was absolutely convinced that it was true.
And in the end, though, he says, life comes down to love. Love is the one thing that never ends; the one thing, that, if we don’t have it we are nothing. This is the same message that people in all ages have come back who have been permitted to take a peek through a portal to the world beyond.
Countless others — not just Bible people – have testified to having seen similar visions.
Thomas Acquinas, the great medieval theologian who wrote thousands of pages of brilliant theology, had a mystical vision at the end of his life that he found so overwhelming that afterwards he refused to write another word, declaring that all his many words were just so much straw.
Blaise Pascal, the great mathematician of the 17th century with a journal entry sown into the liner of his jacket that described and experience he had undergone seven years earlier. It read:
From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. (November 23rd, 1654)
One of my favorite words written by someone who had undergone a Near Death Experience was this one:
I saw in that vision what a stuck-up ass I was with all that theory, looking down on everyone who wasn’t a member of my denomination or didn’t subscribe to the theological beliefs that I didA lot of people I know are going to be surprised when they find out that the Lord isn’t interested in theology. He seems to find some of it amusing, as a matter of fact, because he wasn’t interested at all in anything about my denomination. He wanted to know what was in my heart, not my head. (The Light Beyond, p. 49)
Jesus leads us in a path between the two extremes represented by secular materialists and religious fundamentalists. Sometimes we’re tempted to despair that the secular materialists have it right: Life has no inherent meaning, no higher purpose. Sometimes on the other side we’re tempted to claim to know more than we can possibly know about the ways of God.
The challenge is to walk open hearted and open-minded. The one simple message of the disciples got was “listen to Jesus.” He has a path for us to follow. He leads back down into the valley to minister to hurting people who need to know of the grace of God.
The test of the spiritual life is our ability to descend. If we’re going to be a blessing in the valley, we have to take something of heaven with us.
So we’re three days away Lent.
The poet William Blake said in one of his poems that if we can cleanse the windows of our perception, the world will be seen as full of the glory of God.
Lent is the time to clean the windows – to let go of the addictions we flee to that keep us from descending into that place of stillness where the grace of God becomes evident.
During Lent, ask God to help you clean those windows. Find stillness in each day in which you let go of your agendas, so the giftedness, the beauty, the love that is life may once more become evident.