Celebrating a Mystery

Let me tell you a riddle: What is greater than God, more evil than Satan, the rich lack it, the poor have it, and if you eat it you will die? If you’ve heard this before, please keep quiet for a few moments so that everyone has a chance to ponder it. What is greater than God, more evil than Satan, the rich lack it, the poor have it, and if you eat it you will die?

I know that a riddle at the beginning of a sermon is risky business, since some of you will not hear another word until/unless you solve it. I’m willing to take that risk this morning to suggest there is something more important, more faithful, and more satisfying than figuring out the answer to every question, and the solution to every puzzle.
For over forty years, I’ve tried to explain the morning text, which always pops up on the Sunday before Lent.

Commonly referred to as “The Transfiguration of Christ” it narrates a supernatural, mountaintop experience shared by three of the disciples in which Jesus is filled with extraordinary light from no earthly source; in the midst of the vision, pre-eminent figures of prophetic wisdom and sacred law appear, and a voice resounds from heaven with Divine command.

What does it mean? Why did it happen, and how does it inform our lives today? Who can understand this event, full of mystery and hidden behind literal and figurative clouds? A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the ninth chapter, verses 2 through 8. Listen for God’s Word that celebrates, rather than solves, a mystery. [Mark 9:2-8]

Classic interpretation of the Transfiguration focuses on the event as a confirmation of Jesus as the Messianic fulfillment of Judaic Law and prophecy. This is the One the others have merely pointed to, and his authority comes directly from Almighty God. Listen to him. The image of Jesus immersed in dazzling light and cloaked with Divine glory provides a powerful antidote to the scenarios awaiting him just ahead: suffering, betrayal, abandonment, death.

Some version of this interpretation has informed my sermon-writing for. . . forever, and that’s fine and good. But some details of the account—as well as some contemporary realities—have prompted me to wonder about another perspective.

At Central we value a thinking faith. We appreciate the contributions of hard science and social science (as well as theology and Biblical studies) to understanding ourselves and the world we inhabit. We don’t just tolerate the inconvenient questions of teenaged confirmands, we encourage inquiry, curiosity and the expression of doubts and questions at every age and stage. As Socrates claimed that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, so we say an unexamined faith is a poor instrument by which to live a purposive and joyous life.

Yet I wonder sometimes if we have swung the pendulum too far. By centering intellect we may imagine that knowledge is the goal of faith. We may think that if we apply our minds to theology (literal definition is “the study of God”) we’ll come to “know” God, define Divine attributes, and explain how it all fits together. Perhaps unconsciously, our faith becomes a way to control God, to put God in a neat little box and have God act and respond the way we want God to act and respond.

Jesus’ transfiguration defies reason and expectation. And maybe that’s the point. God cannot be contained even by brilliant human intellect, systems, and institutions. Perhaps this incident served to enlarge the disciples’ understanding of God beyond their imagination and experience. It blew their minds and their limited understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission. I’ve always been sympathetic to Peter as he tries to bluff his way out of fear and trembling by commodifying (and thus controlling) this incomprehensible vision. I do the same whenever I “faithsplain” – and try to answer the questions that most trouble us.

Questions like “If God’s so good, why is the world so messed up?” and “Why didn’t our prayers for our ill child work?” “Is there ever going to be peace on earth, goodwill to all and if so, why is it taking so long?” Best-selling author, hospital chaplain and Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler eloquently challenges even well-meaning “explanations” of these hard problems in her book with a telling title: Everything Happens for a Reason—and Other Lies I’ve Loved. She counsels silence in the face of these unanswerable questions, and prays for blessing upon all whose dreams have disappeared, who wonder how to become whole again; when those familiar strategies of mastery, control, determination and grit fall miles short.

I’m pretty sure that “blessing” will not be found in talking, no matter how positive and uplifting we intend.

When I read the story of transfiguration I am struck by the one person who doesn’t speak: Jesus. Not a word of explanation. No recounting of the illuminating conversation with Moses and Elijah. No reproof of Peter’s misguided efforts. And most surprisingly of all, no response to the Divine command to listen to him. Wouldn’t that have been the best time—the “teachable moment”— to clear up the disciples’ confusion? To lay out his agenda with absolute clarity?

Friends, human life cannot be reduced to a jigsaw or crossword puzzle, a math problem, a formula or motto or creed. Neither can God. Some realities call for awe, reverence, breathtaking awareness of something more, something larger than our little lives and systems. Jesus’ transfiguration is meant to produce that kind of wordless amazement and humility as the truth breaks upon us: it’s not just Jesus who is Divine; everyone of us is created in God’s image and infused with glory and power. Earth itself is, as the poet put it, charged with God’s grandeur. Jesus didn’t take the disciples to heaven to show them his glory; on the mountain he showed them the proximity of heaven and earth.

I had a transfigured moment this week. As part of the Colorado Trust board retreat, trustees visited a grantee, Relevant Word Christian Cultural Center and Church in Colorado Springs. Rev. Promise Lee described his ministry as both pastor and community organizer. Every member of the church is a minister, he said matter-of-factly. Every member is expected to volunteer in one or more of the church’s ministries: the regular stuff like ushering and teaching Sunday School, and outreach programs—such as the food reclamation and gardening program providing nutritious meals to neighbors in need, as well as composting services and environmental education.

The church owns a storefront in a strip mall nearby that offers boxing, martial arts, exercise, and dog training for youth of all ages. The place was hopping on a Monday afternoon, with lessons and work-outs and cute kids wearing oversized boxing gloves punching bags twice their size. After the tour, I casually asked Rev. Lee about his background. I did not expect his response.

Well, I got into trouble when I was fifteen and was incarcerated in a maximum security prison with a life sentence for murder. Then God got a hold of me. His story continued on a circuitous route that brought him years later to Relevant Word and this incredibly transforming congregational ministry. Light shone from his eyes as he spoke and I realized I was in the presence of divine glory. (I’ve invited him to preach here and hope you will have opportunity to be in his presence too)

God is greater than even our most systematic theologies and profound thinking. In fact, nothing is greater than God. And there you have it: the “answer” to the riddle, if you can call it an answer. Nothing, nothing is greater than the One we worship and serve, before whom we glimpse our own greatness and glory—not self-aggrandizement, but a recognition of our Divine origin and destiny. It’s a mystery, my friends, a thrilling, awesome reality that will take a lifetime and a faith community . . . . not to solve, but to celebrate.

Thanks be to God, who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we ask or imagine.