Whenever my grand-niece come to stay with us we spend lots of time singing songs like: The wheels on the bus, Five little monkeys and Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
Whenever we sing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”, it evokes an intense memory of staring, gazing into the night sky during my travels. I have been mesmerized by the sight of more than my mind could comprehend. Darkness, darkness, like you never experience near the city. Darkness so deep and so vast. Darkness full of twinkling lights. Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are. Vast, immensities, stretching, beyond, the beyond, and beyond that also. Vastness beyond my mind’s ability to comprehend. And yet, staring into the night sky, or peering into my beloved grand-niece’s little face, I can almost touch the face of God.
This morning we look at a mythical incident in the life of Jesus called the ‘transfiguration’. This story is very imaginative.
Jesus and some of his friends climb to the top of a mountain.
They enjoy the magnificent views.
They breathe deeply the fresh air.
They are engulfed by a cloud.
They allow the experience to recharge their flagging spirits and re-sensitise their imaginations.
And they wanted the experience to last for ever. ‘Let’s build our own chapel and you, Jesus, can be our private chaplain’ they said. I recall the Dalai Lama saying about Mt Everest “you do not conquer the mountain, the mountain conquers you”.
But a booming voice out of a cloud put an end to their dreams.
The mountaintop is a refuge, but it is not home.
The mountaintop is safe, but it is removed.
We are forever changed up on the mountain, but we are useless to the world if we do not return and share what we have experienced.
We go up the mountain so that we can come back down.
When I think back to our ancient forebears wandering around in the wilderness, desperate for a sign that they were not alone and forsaken, I can almost hear the confusion of those who demanded to know the presence. They demanded of Aaron, “Come and make a god for us, someone who will lead us. We don’t know what has happened to that Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt.” Aaron took the gold, melted it down and cast it in a mould, and made it into a calf, a young bull. Then the people said, “Israel, here is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
These ancient wanderers longed to put their faith in someone, something, anyone, anything, that would sooth their fears. How did they respond? They build their own god, and worshipped it in their own way. The disciples were no different – they wanted to contain the presence of God in tents.
The urge to contain the MYSTERY, was alive and well and beat in the hearts of the followers of Jesus, who could not comprehend the invisible God that Jesus made visible. The radiance that they saw in Jesus surpassed that of Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet. In Jesus they sensed that the glory of YAHWEH far surpassed anything that had gone before. And so, up there on that mountaintop, the followers of Jesus couldn’t help but see something in Jesus that they wanted to contain, and worship in something a little more manageable than images Jesus evoked in them. Let’s build some tents to contain the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel. Let’s worship what we can contain of the MYSTERY. The MYSTERY itself is too much for us to bear. So, let us do what we always do. Let us manage the MYSTERY, in small, acceptable, ways, lest the vastness of all that lies Beyond our comprehension overwhelms us. So, we settle for less. We worship that which we can contain within the limits of our mind. Until somewhere, deep within us, we hear the MYSTERY speak to us, “Do not be afraid.”
How do we approach this story?
My approach would be to ask: what connection can we make to this story? What is this story saying about Jesus or even God?
That God who is mystery is to be understood as a creative transforming ‘energy’ in the lives of people. And that we are called to come down off the mountain top and serve in the towns and cities and the valleys below. To reach out our hand, so to speak and touch the One who is incognito in our neighbour.
I would like to offer comments made by theologian Marcus Borg on the transfiguration:
“Jesus… was a Jewish mystic. …I think he was a ‘religious quester’, which seems the best explanation of his going to the wilderness to John the Baptizer. I think he had visions, though I don’t know whether we have an account of any of them. I have a hunch that he had experiences of nature mysticism… this would be consistent with his sense of the immediate presence of God… I suspect [he] had an experiential sense of the reality of God in his prayer life, which I assume included some form of meditation”. (Borg 2002:132).
There is good news this morning in this story.
The good news is, God, however we use that word/symbol/metaphor, is not aloof and detached and supernatural, but rather God works like an expert weaver, naturally.
God uses the fibres of our lives,
weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love…
empowering us for mission (as a congregation)
and our continuing theological journeys (as individuals).
And the good news is also, the presentness of God is:
in the beauty of the universe around us, and our ability to apprehend it,
in the close encounters with new life and death,
in a special way during a period of suffering,
in praying and meditation,
in church liturgies.
So listening to Marcus Borg’s comments, may I suggest again:
Don’t ignore or throw away these imaginative and mysterious experiences.
Don’t let go of those things that we don’t understand or cannot explain.
Rather, meditate on them, delight in them, use them in all their exciting particularity…
As imaginative ‘energy’ or Creativity that vitalises your faith.
As a source of strength for living (and ministry) in the valleys below.
As we revere how things are, and find ways to express gratitude for our existence.
I came across a story from Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, which may also offer a clue to a new awareness and imagination. He was sharing in a conference on ‘Prayer and Spirituality’ with a Zen Buddhist nun, called Geshin. He says: “We were having a vigorous intellectual go at prayer and spirituality, with all their implications. In the midst of our intense discussion, Geshin raised her hand and said, ‘Do you hear the bird outside, singing?’ I realised at that point that she had included not only what we were talking about, but also the whole environment around us. She was connected ‘with the way things are in all their exciting particularity’”. (Peters 2008:104).
So as a final gesture may I add: imaginative and mysterious experiences… can allow us to balance our personal selves with the sense we are in a context that is larger and more important than our selves.
Humans need stories. Compelling stories.
Stories from the sages and artists of past and present times, which “help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos”. (Goodenough 1998:174).
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the sky so high, 40 billion light years beyond this place, and yet as close to us as our own breath.
Over and over again, the idols and the temples we build fail to convey the radiance and the glory of the ONE who IS, WAS, and EVER MORE SHALL BE. So, over and over again we must smash the idols and tear down the temples so that we can dwell in the MYSTERY, the glorious, radiant, MYSTERY in which all the mysteries of life, death, birth, pain, lost, joy, music, desire, laughter, go on and on and on, and then beyond that also.
Do not be afraid. For even in the darkness, when all you can see is the outline of a little face, there in the darkness you have seen the face of God.
Do not be afraid. Jesus the revelation of the divine energy surging through the entire cosmos, speaks to us: “Do not be afraid.” Listen to Jesus, God’s Beloved, “Do not be afraid.” For there is nothing in the vast cosmos that can separate us from the LOVE that is God.
Borg, M. ‘Jesus: A Sketch’ in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Carter, S. ‘Friday Morning’ in J. A. T. Robinson. But That I Can’t Believe. London. Collins/Fontana, 1967.
Goodenough, U. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations. Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress/FACETS Books, 2008.