ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 7, 2016
TRUTH AND REALITY
Exodus 34: 29 – 35; 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2; Luke 9: 28 – 36
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
We’re all familiar with the saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. It’s a phrase that gives people license to do illicit things they normally wouldn’t do; things that should only be retold in contrite confession. There’s no decree saying, “What happens in Punta Cana stays in Punta Cana” so I could tell you all about my vacation but some things are best not shared simply because they’re only interesting to the speaker. There is also no rule stating, “What happens on a mountain in Israel stays on the mountain” but that’s what happened after Peter, James and John went up a mountain with Jesus to pray: “They kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” (Luke 9: 36) Yet what happened on the mountain was neither immoral nor uneventful. It was just the opposite. While “Jesus was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white” (vs. 29). The change in Jesus’ face reminds us of Moses’ face-to-face encounter with God on Mount Sinai. This personal encounter with God caused his face to shine with a light so bright he had to cover it with a veil in order to speak to the people. Being in intimate communion with God also caused Jesus to gleam with light. The disciples saw Jesus in his “glory” – in his transcendent splendor. The man, Jesus, was transformed or “transfigured” into his Divine essence. And, speaking of Moses, who should appear with Jesus at that moment but Moses and Elijah. The 3 were discussing Jesus’ impending death. The disciples almost missed this miracle because they were exhausted, but unlike their sleep when they accompanied Jesus in Gethsemane, this time they managed to stay awake. Just as Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter, wanting to be useful, offered to build them each a shelter. Luke recorded, “he did not know what he was saying” (vs. 33”) – it seems the absurdity of Peter’s offer became a source of laughter when the story was told. While he was saying this “a cloud came and overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered the cloud” (vs. 34). “A cloud” is an expression for the glory and presence – what is in Hebrew the “shekinah” of God. We can only imagine the thoughts that ran through the disciples’ brains as they were completely enveloped in the mysterious cloud of God. “Are we going to die? Face judgement? Be brought up into heaven like Elijah?” “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘this is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (vs. 35) Words which re-iterated God’s declaration at Jesus’ baptism. No sooner than these words had be uttered then the whole scene was gone – the cloud, Moses, Elijah even the brilliant light. The world was as it had always appeared. Likely, the first reaction of the disciples was to stand there in stunned silence; the second was to question their sanity. When they realized they’d all witnessed the same scene, they may have thought, “mass hysteria” and decided, “no one will ever believe us. It’s all too “out of the ordinary”, too extreme. Let us never speak of this again.”
Apart from the immoral and the uneventful, a third reason we don’t talk about some events is that we’re worried that it’s so far beyond “reality”, either we’ve gone nuts or people will think we’ve gone nuts. If this was true in Jesus day when people were much more open to spiritual mystery and miracles, how much more in our western culture which defines “reality” solely in tangible and empirical terms. If we can’t touch, measure or prove it, it’s not real. If it’s not within the laws of science or it doesn’t happen on a regular basis or if it requires faith, it’s not real. We discredit everything that doesn’t fall within our definition of “real” as “make-believe”. I recently read this quip, “I don’t believe in Jesus because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.” Because Jesus shone with light, met with prophets, and resurrected he’s put in the same category as Mother Goose. A fairy tale. A made up story. To some degree we, like the disciples, buy into this. No one will believe us, we can’t prove it, people will argue and we’ll feel stupid, so “What happens to us spiritually, stays in us.” We opt “never to speak of this again.” Like Moses, we “put on a veil” (2 Corinthians 3: 12) or throw up barriers which keep people from gazing at God’s glory. Yet how we define “reality” and what is “true” are not necessarily the same thing.
When people give credence only to a very narrow definition of reality it is as if “a veil lies over their minds” (vs. 15) and this veil blocks them from acknowledging what is true in other ways. There are many true things that can’t be measured or touched yet which are true, as these words written by a holocaust victim attest: “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining; I believe in love even when I don’t feel it; I believe in God even when he is silent.” There are many things that do not cease to be real because we cannot prove them. Not only are the sun and love and God true in spite of humanity’s inability to verify them, so is faith, hope, joy, peace, love, grace, forgiveness, freedom, transformation, miracles, holiness, resurrection, glory and heaven. In a little bit we’re going to prepare for communion by reflecting on The Beatitudes; Jesus’ teachings are filled with truths like poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, purity and peace which cannot be confirmed by science. And doesn’t it fly in the face of all we deem “real” that the people who are grieving, starving for righteousness (or according to Luke’s version, just starving), or persecuted are the happy ones? How do we inherit, let alone substantiate, the Kingdom of Heaven? In what way do we “see God” or become God’s children? Can we measure or weigh a blessing? Yet these concepts, attitudes and states of being are all real and true. Further, because someone is no longer with us in their body, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. It doesn’t mean our memories of them are not true – flawed perhaps but still real. And it doesn’t mean they don’t continue to exist in some other dimension or realm. What the disciples’ witnessed on that mountain was unusual and unexplainable and it was both real and true. It was a real event seen and experienced by 3 ordinary people. And it was a mystery that revealed the truth of Jesus’ full, divine nature.
If we cannot touch or prove truth, how do we encounter it? Paul said this veil that keeps us from seeing what is true and real is removed “when one turns to the Lord; now the Lord is the Spirit…” (2 Cor 3: 16 & 17) Opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, making room for unseen mystery and having faith in Christ are the first gateways to truth.
Prayer is another path to unobserved realities. It’s interesting that the transfiguration of Jesus and the brightness of Moses’ face both came about as they were praying. They were in God’s presence, “talking with God” (Exodus 34: 29). Prayer is another gateway into the realm of the shekinah, the true, full glory of God.
A third place where we encounter truth is in the mystery of the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. In the sacraments God uses physical components to transport us into his reality. In Communion what is visible and touchable is a piece of gluten free bread and a cup of grape juice. Through those elements the Holy Spirit renews our redemption through the crucified body and blood of Christ. The bread and juice are not nearly as real and true as the saving action of Christ which removes the veil completely and allows us not only to see Jesus in his divine essence, but it transforms us so that we too stand in God’s holy presence. What could be more real than that truth? What could be more true than that reality?
It is an awesome thing to have the veil that blinds us to truth and grace in Christ removed. With the veil removed we recognize the foolishness of our limitations and the depth of our need. We come into his presence in humility and we are promised the blessing of the greatest reality. As we come to the table I’d ask you to join me in preparing your hearts for this holy encounter, remembering Christ’s sacrifice for you. Please join with me in the liturgy that is on the screens.