Building the Mystery
Passage: Luke 9:28-36
Date: March 3, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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Can all mysteries be explained?
Nearly sixty years ago, my aunt and uncle were married. She was a refined North Carolinian woman, the daughter of a senator, a law school graduate. She was always well read, loved cooking, and was the most gracious of hostesses. He was from Tacoma, back in the days before the Pacific Northwest was trendy and full of espresso bars. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering, loved horse racing, cigars, and fishing – the harder to get to the stream, the better the trout. How they fell in love, and how they stayed married all those years until her death in 2016, remains a mystery to our family.
Some of the most brilliant minds on the planet have spent their days contemplating and theorizing about the origins of the universe. Physicists and astrophysicists have created a new subcategory – particle physics – and have given all sorts of stellar beings excellent names like red dwarf, black hole, wormhole, primordial soup, and quark. They have posited all sorts of theories about what happened, at the particle level, to create the universe. But in the end, most will tell you that despite all the extraordinary knowledge they have, the origin of the universe remains a mystery.
And the Transfiguration of Jesus – is that a mystery too?
It’s a weird story, and not one of my favorites, but here it is again, the Sunday marking the end of the season of light – Epiphany – and the Sunday before the beginning of the darker season of Lent. The three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all tell the story, with a few details tweaked by each author. In each of these gospels, the preceding story is about Jesus’ predicting his death and telling the crowd they must take up their own cross to follow him. And in each of these three gospels, the Transfiguration is followed by the story of Jesus healing a child possessed by a spirit.
We can attempt to unravel the mystery of the Transfiguration in different ways. We might say that in Jesus’ time, and in other places in the world today, people experienced altered states of consciousness, a trance-like event in which one sees things that are impossible although the brain registers it as possible. Gods and spirits reside in this alternate reality. Some scholars identify the Transfiguration of Jesus as a communal visionary experience that three of Jesus’ disciples have, in this simultaneously experienced altered state of consciousness. (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pp. 327-328)
Or to unravel this mystery, we might turn to a different means of Biblical interpretation and heed the words of Womanist scholar Dr. Wil Gafney, who writes, “For more than a thousand years Christians in the Holy Land have identified Mt. Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration. …
“The holy ground of Mt. Tabor that [the ancient prophet] Deborah purchased in blood has been made holier still by the appearance of two archetypal prophets from each end of the spectrum in Israel: Moses the Law-Giver represents proclamation prophecy; Elijah the Wonder-Worker represents performance prophecy, and Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s Child, is the inheritor of both their mantles.
“Who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop with them? I know I wish I were there.” (https://www.wilgafney.com/tag/transfiguration/)
Or we might heed the words from this sermon by 18th century preacher George Whitefield. “We say, a man is as his company. Persons by conversing together, frequently catch each other’s tempers: and if you have a mind to imbibe the divine temper, pray much. And as Christ's garments became white and glittering, so shall your souls get a little of God's light to shine upon them.”(http://www.ccel.org/ccel/whitefield/sermons.xxxii.html)
A vision? A story about Jesus’ identity? A call to prayer? The Transfiguration is a bit like that elephant being described by people wearing blindfolds. We might understand a part of it, but an understanding of the whole still eludes us.
For me, the greater mystery is why this scene is in the gospel, and what, if any, relevance it has for us today.
Why is this story in the gospel? I think it’s there to give the reader or hearer hope. Remember that in all three gospels, Jesus has just told his disciples that he must suffer and be killed before he will rise again. Then he tells them that if they really want to follow him, they will have to pick up their own crosses. And then a few days later, the Transfiguration happens away on a mountaintop apart from the others. Then they come down the mountain, and Jesus faces the deep needs of humanity again.
Perhaps the disciples, still reeling a bit from Jesus’ telling them that he will be killed, need to be reminded of the fullness of who he was. He has picked up the mantle of law and prophecy from Moses and Elijah; like Moses, he glows in the presence of God; as at his baptism, the voice of God proclaims that Jesus is God’s son and that the disciples should listen to him.
And then, when they come down the mountain, they see this extraordinary prophet, this son of God approached by the crowds. They see his compassion and his power as he heals a child.
Maybe the gospel writers tell this story of the Transfiguration because it is one of many stories about the power of God and the love of God, which work together to heal humanity and to give us hope.
But does that resonate for us today? Does this weird story about a communal experience of an altered state of consciousness make a difference for you and me, who come with faith to this, or to the rest of the world who wonder about all this religion stuff?
Perhaps Dr. Gafney has a word for us in all of this. She identifies herself as a Womanist scholar, which is a Black feminist, and as a Black woman, she reads the Bible from a perspective different from my own. She, like all of us, brings her unique experience to the task of interpreting the holy scriptures and trying to unravel the mystery just a bit.
She describes the Transfiguration as being a bit like Mardi Gras, a great party that Peter, James, and John never want to leave. Revelry, jazz, and King Cake all the time. But that’s not life, she reminds us, and she goes on.
“And there, at the base of the mountain, Jesus gives them another glimpse of God. He shows them God in service. God revealed in the glory of the cloud, attended by the holy ancestors is also God who ministers to the desperately ill. Jesus came down from that mountain because his sisters and brothers needed him. I needed him. You needed him. The world needed him. We need him. And Peter and James and John needed to learn how to be the church in the valley, in the field, in the streets and in the trenches. As we descend into the Lenten valley from the mountaintop of Epiphany, may we be the ones to meet the needs we encounter.”
This story may have implications for us as believers, as people who believe Jesus was the son of the all-powerful God. And it may have different implications for us as followers of Jesus, who desire to live in the way that he calls us to, a way that involves love and healing.
As someone who believes in God, which is to say, I believe that God exists, and that God is eternal and powerful, this story reminds me of one way we see God’s power. Glowing, brighter than the sun, able to summon up ancestors in the faith long dead. Able to speak from a cloud. Able to make the spark that set off the Big Bang. Able to cement the sixty-year marriage of complete opposites. Able to love a pretty faulty humanity.
As a follower of Jesus, this story reminds me of what is asked of those who would follow. We are called to rest sometimes, to go off to pray, and to listen to Jesus. We are also called to come back to the crowds, and to pray not by bowing our heads and speaking silently in our minds, but to pray by feeding hungry people and advocating for laws and policies that will give all a better life.
As followers of Jesus, we listen to him and hear him say, “You – you have these gifts. You have these passions. Use them for good. Use them for those whose aren’t able to live as fully.”
Before we know it, we’ll be glowing too.