Time for a true confession: I really tried to get out of preaching this sermon. As a matter of fact, Transfiguration Sunday comes around every year, and every year, I try to find a way out of preaching it. But Kimberly White preached for Martha Stearns Marshall Sunday a couple of weeks ago, and Cody preached last week for Scout Sunday, and Dr. Molly Marshall will preach next Sunday as a part of the Theologian in Residence program. So if someone else preached this Sunday, you guys would be onto me that I was really just trying to get of preaching this sermon.
So why do I not like preaching on the Transfiguration? It terrifies me. Every time I read one of the Transfiguration passages, I get this pit in the bottom of my stomach. I finally realized this about the passage this year: this story terrifies me because I have absolutely no explanation for it.
Because for someone who purports to be an educated, thoughtful human being, I cannot explain faces like lighting and clothes that are dazzling white. I cannot explain dead people coming back to life and walking around. I cannot explain a disembodied voice from heaven talking to people. And my fear is this: “how much of my faith is based on what sounds like a magical fairy tale?”
Maybe I am the only one in the room who has ever had that fear. But I doubt it. My guess is that many of us have shared the same fear. It’s just that some of us are better at hiding it. Some of us think that if we yell loudly enough that we never have doubts or questions about our faith, then no one will realize the truth. Some of us think that if we just pretend to know what we are talking about, and we say it with fancy enough words, then no one will know. And I suspect that some of us, including some of the loudest preachers at some of the biggest churches, are terrified deep down about what people might actually find out about our doubts and fears.
So, what we do is come up with explanations. It’s what we do. When we are afraid, we explain. It’s why we rationalize the scary movie that it is just special effects and fake blood or the Steven King book that is “just a story.” It’s why we argue away the things we see on the news – that couldn’t happen in the safe place where I live! And when we feel that pit of fear in the bottoms of our stomachs, we work to explain, explain, explain.
We find a way to explain what is happening in this passage:
There’s the literary explanation. Mark meant to convey this to his readers, in his context, with this message. We focus on the intent behind the story more than the story itself.
There’s the psychological explanation…one of my favorites. Peter and James and John “saw” the Transfiguration. But what did they need to see? What did they need to hear? What was happening in their lives that brought this experience of this event to fruition?
There’s the “Harry Potter” explanation. Of course, we don’t use words like magic, but sometimes we talk about some of the stories of the Bible in this way: “God never seems to do anything like that in our lives, but that doesn’t matter – just close your eyes and believe.”
But at the end of the day, here’s the deal: none of those attempts to explain the Transfiguration are fully satisfying. I have no idea what happened on top of that mountain.
So here’s what I have decided to do.
I am not going to explain the Transfiguration to you today. I am not going to tell you what happened on top of that mountain. What happened to the disciples. What happened to Jesus. Because I don’t know.
But instead, I am going to ask you to fall in love with the Jesus of the Transfiguration, anyway.
Now, this will be a disappointment for some of you, especially those of you who really like to have things explained. You know who you are. Those of you who checked those books out of the library when you were a kid that had the cross-sections of gadgets and how they worked. Those of you who took apart your toaster when you were seven because you wanted some kind of explanation how the magical lever made your toast hot. Those of you who want to see the how behind the what. You will probably be disappointed by the time lunch rolls around.
Because instead of explaining the Transfiguration, I am simply asking you to fall in love with the Jesus of the Transfiguration.
In order to do that, I’d like to talk about zombies for a minute.
David Lose’s commentary on this passage uses the example of the TV show The Walking Dead. Now, I have never seen an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s not that I have any problem with the show, or with zombie movies or shows. I actually kind of like them. And from what I have heard and read, the Walking Dead is one of the better ones. Like most quality zombie movies – it is less about dead people walking around, and more about us. Our fears. Our relationships. Our passions and priorities. Placed against the backdrop of survival and terror, who are we?
And Lose suggests that the characters of this drama ask that very question. Some of them find themselves in the chaos of a zombie attack that has no rhyme or reason. But others say that there needs to be a reason for this. There needs to be a plan. There needs to be a purpose behind such suffering. If I am going to go around killing zombies, including some who used to be my beloved family members, there has to be a greater purpose happening here!
But Lose uses the Walking Dead to ask the question, what if there is not always a plan? After all, he reminds us, sometimes, our attempts to find a plan make things worse. How often do our attempts to find the plan turn out shallow or even ugly? The church member who tries to console her friend by telling them that their child died because God needed another angel. The television evangelist who says that the natural disaster was caused by that state’s stance on abortion. The best-selling author who says all you need to do is say your prayers in the right way, and you can have whatever your heart desires!
But Lose asks, what if there was no plan? Or more specifically, what if the plan is not as detailed as we’d sometimes like it to be, with an explanation and a reason behind everything. We want life to be like one of those books with the cross section that we can check out say that’s why this is happening. But our yearning for a plan, Lose says, ends up more often than not, domesticating Jesus to fit into our understanding, our explanation. So, instead he suggests: “Maybe, just maybe, there is no plan. Maybe there’s only love.”
After all, that seems to be the story of the Transfiguration. After all, if there was an all-encompassing and perfect plan, this would be the perfect opportunity for God to share it with the disciples. They are definitely paying attention! The fact that dead people are walking around definitely has their ears perked.
God could have announced to them the real meaning of life. God could have laid out the plan of salvation with clear steps and procedures. God could have given them the most accurate horoscope ever, and explained what every second of their life was going to look like. God had the chance to deliver the plan. To give them the explanation. Wouldn’t this be a good time?
But God didn’t do any of that. God just said, “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. For those of us looking for a plan or an explanation, maybe that’s as good as we are going to get.
Listen to him. It is the first step in any relationship.
My first session for premarital counseling: always communication and learning to listen to one another:
The first thing they teach you on day one in CPE – school to become a chaplain: how to listen.
The first step for reconciliation procedures: listen to one another.
The first step in our relationship with God. There is a reason that the passages chapters surrounding the Transfiguration are all about hearing and seeing. Listen. See. Soak in Jesus.
Listen to him. If you are looking for a plan, that’s it. If you need an explanation, it’s that simple.
I don’t think my faith is based on a fairy tale. Because somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the Jesus of the Transfiguration. I may not have an explanation, but I have a relationship. And out of that relationship, I see in the chaos of life that God is speaking:
- I have listened for Jesus in my life, and heard him in the Gospels, in the Psalms, and echoed again in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor or Shane Claiborne or Frederick Beuchner.
- I have listened for Jesus in my life, and “in the rustling grass, I hear him pass; God speaks to me everywhere” as the old song sings, reminding us of the ways that God speaks through the beauty of nature and creation
- I have listened for Jesus in my life, and heard him in the silly voices my children make to each other or the first time I hear my wife at the end of the work day.
- I have listened for Jesus in my life, and heard his voice bouncing off the dang concrete floors of this imperfect but breathtakingly beautiful church: heard it in the song of the choir, the buzz of a Wednesday night meal, the laughter of a staff meeting, the greeting at the back door on the way to Sunday lunch. When I really listen, I hear that voice, even when I can’t explain where it is coming from, or even completely what it wants me to do.
Now, there are still days when I feel frustrated that I don’t have an explanation. When I don’t have the plan. When my need for perfection or control are thwarted by a God who refuses to give me all the details that I need. But I find words of comfort in Matt Skinner’s words of advice for preachers trying to figure out how to preach about the Transfiguration:
Somehow we expect that we have to guide people toward making sense of why the Transfiguration happened…Seriously? When has the idea of a brilliantly glowing holy figure ever “made sense” anyway? The transfigured Jesus isn’t supposed to be figured out. He’s supposed to be appreciated. We should be drawn to him, as if we were moths. …[we should instead] bask in the warm wonder of his glow.
Today, I want us to simply look at Jesus, and bask in the warm wonder of what we see there. I want us to stop trying to figure the story out and just appreciate the Jesus that we meet there. To let ourselves be drawn to him. And to fall in love – some for the first time, some for the 1,001st time – with the Jesus that brings light to our darkness. With the Jesus who loves us, no matter what we do or say. With the Jesus who doesn’t invite us to figure him out, but does invite us to love him back. Because that is a sermon that I have no fear to preach!