Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Delivered March 2, 2014.
As a social Ethicist, one question that I discuss with my students often is the ways we distinguish between fact and truth. We live in a modern world obsessed with factuality and empirical verification. Scientific method born of the Age of Enlightenment bequeathed to us this world. We are the better for it.
Nevertheless, as people of faith who believe in truths and a reality that supersedes our finite comprehension, a scientistic culture of fact fundamentalism can dilute human experience and delimit human potential. Love, for instance, cannot be placed under a microscope. Care and compassion, more often than not, are philosophically illogical, if not impractical. And evidence reveals that empathy and altruism are fool’s errands in a natural world that privileges self-preservation. In other words, being a Christian causes us to adhere to principles that defy reason.
Yet even beyond confessional commitments as a Christian, I want students to see that truths may be hidden in multiple genres. Demonstrated fact or acknowledged fiction should not be the litmus test that defines truth. Whether non-fiction or fiction, the epistemic dividing line is not “real” vs. “unreal.” But rather, as good literature can attest, ancient myths and well-crafted novels can provide us with insight and language to uncover and capture reality.
I offer this somewhat fulsome explanation as a means to introduce today’s New Testament text, the story of the Transfiguration. It is the beautiful account of when Jesus goes up the mountain and ends up in conversation with the great lawgiver Moses, and the powerful Hebrew prophet, Elijah. Like the many other miraculous, supernatural stories printed in the Bible, such narratives have much to teach us about life and living.
Consider where the Transfiguration narrative is located in the book of Mark. Jesus’s ministry is at a turning point. Up until now Jesus has ministered to the masses. He was an orthopedic surgeon for a man with a withered hand, a pediatrician for the Centurion’s daughter, and carried antibiotics in the hem of his garment. The Bible says that he provided Lasik surgery to two blind men, and catered a party for about five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread. He was a crowd favorite. But at the end of Chapter 8 Jesus turns directions. He tells those gathered, “anyone who wants to be my follower must pick up their cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save their life should lose their life. Yet whoever loses their life in my cause, will save it.” In many ways the transfiguration scene marks the transitional period in preparation for Jesus to embrace his fate as one who will go to the cross alone. Maybe this is why Jesus wanted some time alone to commune and converse with God. Jesus goes up a mountain to pray.
In the ancient world, mountains signified the boundary between heaven and earth. This was true across cultures. Zeus and the Greek pantheon lived atop Mt. Olympus. Moses went up Mt. Sinai to receive the law from Yahweh. The prophet Elijah met God atop Mt. Horeb. And even the city of Jerusalem is referred to often as Zion, a mountain in the region. This is how prolific songwriter Isaac Watts, the father of English hymnody could give us that unforgettable refrain:
We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.
This is exactly what Jesus went up the mountain to do. Seek quiet time in order to converse with God—listen to the sound of God’s voice in the silence.
All of us need this. Whether you call it prayer, meditation, mindfulness or simply stillness, we all need time of silence and solitude in order to combat the pressures of everyday, the tyranny of the urgent. Numerous scientific studies have verified the benefits to the body and brain. I just read last week in Forbes magazine that prayer and meditation lead to increased blood flow in the brain which improves concentration, focus, and memory. Meditation reduces stress, lowers cortisol levels, and helps mollify symptoms of depression.
In this world, we all need quiet time. Stress and the sheer busyness of life can diminish our health, diminish our humanity. We live in an increasingly anxious society. And an anxious culture cultivates anxious individuals—individuals who rather than being led by their faith are led by their fear.
Surely Jesus had much to fear. He was aware that he had difficult days ahead. So Jesus took a trip up the mountain to converse with God in silence. For it is in such silent conversations that all of us can tap into the love of God that is latent within all of us as a source of inspiration and encouragement. And here not only might we be transfigured into a better self, others might even recognize the glow of God’s love and grace radiating from our faces.
After Jesus engages in private meditative moments, the disciples look upon him and he looks different, and he is no longer alone. His face shone like the sun, and he is in conversation now not simply with God, but with prominent members of his own tradition, Moses and Elijah. This is where Peter, the often eager disciple, steps forward and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
I suspect that Peter must have had a career in fundraising and development. “Let me erect monuments and put your names atop of them,” he says. “We can secure your spot in history here forever!”
To be fair, I do not think Peter was being unreasonable, as there was precedent for capturing and containing the sacred in his tradition. But I do think this demonstrated a lack of understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus was about. Jesus represented God’s glory, yet never sought to be glorified.
Remember this is the man who taught his disciples, “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, standing in the synagogues to be seen by others. But go into your closet and shut the door, and pray to your God in private.” Remember this is the man who said, “The son of God has not come to be served, but to serve.” This is the man who taught that “everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, and everyone who humbles themselves God will exalt.” And remember this is the man who taught that those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leaders should be like your servants.”
Moses, Elijah, or Jesus did not need their names upon any material edifice that would surely crumble and decay. These three men are immortal because of the great impact they made on the lives of others. And if I can take creative license, I can imagine what the conversation between the three sounded like. I doubt it was self-congratulatory in tone or puffed up in its pronouncements. But rather I imagine Moses and Elijah providing Jesus with sober insight concerning the difficult and dangerous path that lie for him ahead. To be atop a mountain, communing with God toward the service of others is to endure the thin, asphyxiating air rather than acclaim or accolades from the crowd.
I can hear Moses saying, “It was convenient being in the palace of Pharaoh in close proximity to power. Yet I could not remain comfortable with the persecution and suffering of the people. This is why I risked my life before Pharaoh. This is why I stood down and split a Red Sea. This is why I fought to abolish the oppressive system of slavery and move my people to the land that God had Promised them. But don’t be fooled. I go up the mountain to pray, and they built a golden calf in my place. I delivered them from Egypt only to hear them complain that they would rather have the steak of servitude than the daily bread of heaven. Do not believe, Jesus, that because you do right, people will not do you wrong. The crowds that once adored you and laid claim to your love and grace will cry out, ‘Give us Barabbas’ when it’s their time to repay the favor.”
Then I imagine Elijah chiming in. “Well, it wasn’t any better once the people came into their kingdom, Moses. King Ahab, the king of Israel, did not even refer to me by my name but as ‘troubler of Israel.’ I was the one who tried to convince Ahab and his wife Jezebel not to exploit the people and promote widespread injustice. I was the one who called the king out for seizing the land of others land way of murder and deceit. Yet I was the one who the people said was crazy and the source of their problems.”
This was a tough conversation, but it was a critical conversation. It was the sort of conversation that all of us who embark on this Christian life need to have with one another. We are transfigured and transformed not solely through our victories and successes, but through our vicissitudes and struggles. I think this is why God intervenes and says about Jesus, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Hence Jesus is calling us into this sort of conversation today. Jesus’s life and ministry reveal to us the hard truths of discipleship as well as the high price of positive change and transfiguration. In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “If you want that good feeling that comes from doing things for other folks then you have to pay for it in abuse and misunderstanding.” Yet we see from Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and so many others who have lived lives of faith and sacrifice that even when you feel that you are at your wit’s end, there is a blessing on the other side of through. This is the good news of the gospel this morning.
God hath not promised skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through;
God hath not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
But God hath promised strength for the day.
Rest for the labor, light for the way
Grace for the trials, help from above.
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.
This is the critical conversation that Jesus is inviting us into this morning.