Sermon: Do not be afraid of this story

Sermon for Williamstown
Transfiguration, 26th of February 2017

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

Every time we baptise a child I remind us all that: ‘the Uniting Church, in baptizing children, takes responsibility for their instruction and nourishment in the faith’. This year the Electra-Lights program will include an occasional group for children in grades four and above, called ‘The Overs,’ that we’re hoping will contribute to that instruction and nourishment. The plan for 2017 is that these older children will learn not so much about what’s in the Bible, which is what the children hear in church and learn with the rest of the Electra-Lights, as about what the Bible itself is.

It’s vital for us as Christians to learn about what the Bible is, and just as importantly what it’s not. There are two big mistakes that people can fall into about the Bible. The first is to believe that the entire Bible is to be read as history and as law, that we’re meant to believe that everything described in it happened just as it’s written, and that in this history we hear commandments that we must obey. We use the shorthand ‘Biblical fundamentalist’ or ‘Biblical literalist’ to describe people who read the Bible this way, and there’s a whole history I could give you about the ways in which this fundamentalism or literalism is a response to modernism and the theory of evolution and the discovery of fossils – but I won’t worry about that today. Ask me later if you’re interested.

The other mistake, the second ‘wrong’ way to read the Bible, is to see it as absolute fiction, totally made up, and so to reject the truth of everything that it contains. I recently saw a discussion on Facebook about whether Jesus really existed or not. Not whether Jesus is the Son of God, not whether he understood himself to be the Messiah, but whether or not he is completely fictional. I think a lot of people fall into this mistake – that nothing in the Bible is real – as a way of falling out of the previous mistake – that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. We don’t want that to happen to the children that we instruct and nourish in the faith here. When I heard that one of the Electra-Lights had asked whether Adam and Eve were real I knew it was time for us to start talking with them about the nature of the Bible.

All of that’s an introduction to what we hear in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, the story of the Transfiguration. One of the commentators I read this week writes of this story: ‘The chief problem [for the preacher] is one of genre. If one takes it as a strictly factual report, one can miss the rich symbolism. If one focuses on the symbolism, the text can dissolve into an allegory.’[1] He suggests that the Transfiguration should be described as a vision. I want to describe it as a story.

‘Story’ is a dangerous word. Stories aren’t seen as particularly important in our very scientific world. The word itself can be used as an alternative for lies, when we tell children not to tell stories, and contrasted with truth and fact. And yet, stories are an essential part of life. We understand ourselves and our world through telling stories; we create our identity through narrative; we explain our experiences to others by telling them our story. This is particularly true in the church. We explain who we are and, more importantly, who God is, by telling stories.

The ‘Christian story’ is the story of God’s actions in the world and the story of the experience believers have of God. It includes the Christian meta-narrative that begins with creation and will be completed at the end-time; the gospel narratives of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; the myths that use imagination to reach a deeper truth (and I would put the story of Adam and Eve into that category); the experience of Christians throughout history; our experience of God here and now. We exist as Christians within the Christian story. We understand our faith through the Christian story. The story that we hear today, the story of the Transfiguration, is one story within the broader Christian story, and it is a story that tells us important things about Jesus, and about Jesus’ relationship with God, and about our own faith.

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Some people are scared of the idea that the Transfiguration is a story. I’ve been dipping in and out of a book on faith and art written by Madeleine L’Engle, whose most famous book is the children’s fantasy A Wrinkle in Time, which won the Newbury Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 1963. (I own two copies if anyone would like to borrow one.) Serendipitously, this week I can across something that she wrote about the Transfiguration.

The artist at work is less bound by time and space than in ordinary life. But we should be less restricted than we are. We are not supposed to be limited and trapped. As a child it did not seem strange to me that Jesus was able to talk face to face with Moses and Elijah, the centuries between them making no difference … As I read and reread the Gospels, the startling event of the Transfiguration is one of the highlights. You’d think that in the church year we would celebrate it with as much excitement and joy as we do Christmas and Easter. We give it lip service when we talk about ‘mountain-top experiences,’ but mostly we ignore it, and my guess is that this is because we are afraid … We are afraid of the Transfiguration for much the same reason that people are afraid that theatre is a ‘lie,’ that a story isn’t ‘true,’ that art is somehow immoral, carnal and not spiritual.[2]

Here, today, let’s not be scared of the Transfiguration, the story of a mountain-top experience unrestricted by time and space. So what are the truths it has to tell us?

The lectionary has cleverly paired the Transfiguration story with part of the story of God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai, to remind us again that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is seen as the new Moses, the one who provides the authoritative interpretation of the law. At the Transfiguration, with the cloud, the six days, and the three companions, another event in Jesus’ life is reiterating an event in the life of Moses. Just as the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai nourished the people of Israel during their forty years’ journey to the Promised Land, so remembering the glory of the Transfiguration was intended to nourish Jesus’ closest disciples as they accompanied Jesus through his Passion, and it’s intended to nourish us during the forty days of Lent as we too journey towards the Cross.

The story of the Transfiguration begins by saying ‘six days later’ and what happened six days ago was that Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus then made the first prediction of his suffering and death; which Simon Peter rejected. (Matthew 16:16, 21-22) That ‘six days later’ reminds us that we need to read the Transfiguration story in the light of the approaching Passion. The next time that these three disciples will be alone together with Jesus will be on the night that he’s betrayed, when Jesus prays alone on the Mount of Olives while the disciples sleep. The revelation of the glory of God in Jesus can only be understood by looking at the cross, seeing him as the suffering Messiah. This is why, as they come down the mountain, Jesus orders the three to tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead. It’s only after both the crucifixion and the resurrection that the glory of God can truly be understood.

As at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God claims Jesus as Beloved Son and praises him. But something is added: ‘listen to him!’ Jesus is still God’s Son, the Beloved, and with him God is still well pleased, but now God’s message to those listening is not just about Jesus’ identity. It is also about what they should do in response. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is the pre-eminent teacher, and we’ve spent the season of Epiphany learning from him as we’ve read our way through the Sermon on the Mount. On that other mountain Jesus gave his disciples the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer and told them to be salt and light in the world. Everyone was astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Matthew 7:28-9) Now God confirms Jesus’ authority as teacher.

The story of the Transfiguration is full of revelations about Jesus, but it also reveals to the disciples something of themselves. At first Peter, James and John seem to cope well with Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Yes, Peter does suggest making three dwellings, but Matthew, unlike Mark, doesn’t tell us that this is because the three were terrified and Peter didn’t know what to say. (Mark 9:6) It seems to have simply been an understandable, if misguided, attempt to hold on to the moment. The fear comes, instead, when God’s voice comes from the bright cloud. The people of Israel said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ (Exodus 20:19) When God does speak at the Transfiguration the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. It’s a natural response; I don’t think any of us would be braver.  But then Jesus comes to the three and touches them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ When they look up, they see no one but Jesus.

‘Do not be afraid’ is one of Jesus’ key messages. It’s what he says to the disciples when he walks on the water and they think that he’s a ghost: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 14:27) It’s what Jesus says to the women after his resurrection: ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’. (Matthew 28:10) Here Jesus doesn’t just tell the terrified disciples not to be afraid, he touches them. The unmediated voice of God, the presence of God in the light and the cloud, is overwhelming, but the presence, the touch, of Jesus is comforting. God, Creator of the entire cosmos, so vastly beyond our comprehension, comes in Jesus to comfort the fearful. The story of the Transfiguration is a revelation of God’s glory but it’s also, paradoxically, a revelation of the warmth, kindness and gentleness of Emmanuel – God with us.

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I believe that all good stories tell us something about ourselves and about God. Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way: ‘when we are at a play, or looking at a painting or a statue or reading a story, the imaginary work must have such an effect on us that it enlarges our own sense of reality.’[3] When reading the story of the Transfiguration I recognize that I am just as afraid of a direct encounter with God as were the people of Israel who trembled at the sound of thunder and the trumpet, and the sight of lightening and smoke on one mountain (Exodus 20:18) and as Peter, James and John were when a voice spoke to them from the cloud on another mountain. I am no more eager to have an unmediated encounter with the Creator of the cosmos than they were. But in this story I also encounter a God who is the gentle hand laid comfortingly on the shoulders of the terrified. My sense of reality is enlarged to include a God who says to the disciples who will desert and betray him: ‘do not be afraid’. Whenever I’m scared, and I get scared a lot, this is something that I hold on to. I offer it to you as a message from this story, an expansion of our sense of reality. The Creator of the cosmos does not want us to be afraid. Do not be afraid of God. God is always with us, touching us gently on the shoulder and encouraging us to rise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 256.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, New York: North Point Press, 1995, p. 80.

[3] Walking on Water, p. 79.

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