Sermon 02/19/2023 – Dazzled by Reality

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Sermon Text

Reality is a beautiful thing. Despite our ability to dream up infinite worlds, and our love of fantasy and fiction, it is often hard to surpass the beauty of what is already around us. The beauty of the natural world, the wonders of the sky at night, and even the simple complexity of the bodies we live within – all of these can wow us without any embellishment. God too, in all the complexity and beauty of the divine, needs nothing additional to wow us. When we meet God, in moments of prayer or worship, or in the face of someone else, we see something raw, unfiltered, amazing in its own right.

Scripture, the record of people throughout the ages encountering God, likewise gives us beautiful and unfiltered glimpses of God’s beauty. The stories of God’s people facing hardships, and yet overcoming reflect our own difficulties. The visions of God’s brilliant being gives us words to describe our own glimpses of the divine. The teachings passed down for ages show us what it means to live as people of God, and to create a community worth bragging about. Time and time again, we are given things to be dazzled by. Yet, dear siblings, we are not always satisfied with the simple majesty of scripture.

In seminary we would sometimes joke that the hardest part of the classes we took was not anything to do with relearning how to read scripture or how to run a church. The hardest part was actually learning that many of the sermons we heard throughout the years told stories that were made up, or used images that had no basis in reality. Harder than any challenge to our faith that came from deep diving into the history of the Church and scripture, was facing the reality that a great many ministers were  not content to let scripture stand on its own, and so dressed it up with a variety of seemingly benign pleasantries. By decorating the pages of scriptures with flowery exposition, I think many ministers felt they were doing us a favor, but I disagree on its effect.

There are mountains of books and sermons that take scripture and dress up the bits that seem a bit barren. The warning from Jesus that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter heaven was too challenging, and seemed too abstract. Therefore, someone invented the idea that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the Eye of the Needle,” that required a camel be unloaded of its cargo before it could enter.[1] The image is meant to make people think of what they must give up to become holy, but it detracts from Jesus’s message – that something as impossible as a rich man entering Heaven is possible with God.

At a funeral for a colleague of mine, the preacher told a grand story about Cyrus the Great setting up a throne in town and asking random people what they would give up if he spared their life. The story was longer than it needed to be, and was meant to illustrate God’s love for the Church – that while a man would give up any object for his children, he would give his own life for his wife. The image led me to have several questions, mainly why the story would separate out what God would do for the Church and what God would do for the people in the Church, but also why it was necessary at all. Cyrus was a real person, Isaiah calls him a “Meshiak,” or “Messiah,” and he ended the Babylonian Captivity. Why tell this story, made up whole cloth, and confuse what history and scripture has to say about a very real person?[2]

These serve purposes for instruction, sure, but they pollute our understanding of what is real and what is not. This past Christmas I was introduced to a set of teachings about how Jesus was laid in a manger because that is how unblemished lambs for sacrifice were kept safe. I saw this shared by other ministers no less, and when I spent just ten minutes looking into it, I saw it was not true. Some may say, “Who cares! It is a good story and it gets the point across.” But I care very deeply, for a multitude of reasons, and I think we all should.

You see, truth is a fragile thing. Just one word spoken improperly can destroy it in an instant. Think of the times in your life where a rumor has gone out of control. All it took was one person saying something carelessly, or intentionally to deceive. Soon you have people calling you asking about evils you never committed and things you have never said. Even when the dust settles and the truth is theoretically made known to the world, those rumors will linger in the back of people’s minds, forever mixed in and entangled with the truth. Truth is a fragile thing, because the second we start adding to it, it ceases to be a thing we can call, “true.”

We’ve talked before about my love of debunking conspiracy theories and mysteries. That love is not just because I’m weird and therefore have weird hobbies, but because I am infatuated with the preservation of truth. I was criticized by a colleague of mine for suggesting that there is no benign conspiracy theories. I believe that because the moment we deny truth in any form, we make it easier to accept the next lie we are given. Looking back, I wish I had fought harder against that criticism, because more and more everyday I stand by the idea that anything but absolute truth is a dangerous thing to hold onto.

Our scripture today shows the disciples meeting truth in a way they had not before. They climbed the mountain of transfiguration and saw Jesus take on, just for a moment, the glory that he would have in his resurrection. This was not an addition to who Jesus was, per se, but a lifting of the veil to show what Jesus had always been. The God-man who could say, “Before Abraham was, I am,” shown out in that moment as our human eyes were not yet equipped to see.[3]

I think that it is important that we study as much as we can about scripture, and understand the history the underpins the beliefs we hold about it. However, if in the pursuit of understanding, we begin to create a false scaffold around our beliefs that makes them easier to handle, then we can never really see the glory they hold for us. Like we talked about last week, God did not put scripture far away from us, but put it in front of us all to wrestle with and understand. Those who proclaim they have secret knowledge or know some obscure bit of history that “unlocks,” scripture, are probably misguided themselves or lying for clout.

The greatest wonders that come from God are seen because God is never hiding from us. God is always showing us more, always opening doors that used to be closed. There is no need for us to dress up the reality around us, because it is dazzling on its own. Peter wanted to build tents for those that appeared on the mountain that day because he had added to the story he was seeing unfold in front of. He believed Moses and Elijah were not just there to speak to and encourage Jesus, but were worthy of tabernacles to house them. He added to what was happening, He decided that this was something other than it really was. Ironically enough, by building these tents, he would have hidden the beautiful thing in front of them.

We too can decide if we will hide the beauty and glory of God. We can try and make beautiful what is already radiant, but when we do so we will just be carpeting over hardwood, hiding beauty in convenience. We must defend truth, we must preach it unfettered, and that requires us to let ourselves be dazzled by reality as it is, and not as we might invent it.

[1] This myth is very old, likely dating to or before Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. See –
Ziemińska, Agnieszka. “The Origin of the ‘Needle’s Eye Gate’ Myth: Theophylact or Anselm?” New Testament Studies 68, no. 3 (2022): 358–61. doi:10.1017/S0028688521000448.

[2] I can find no particular origin to this quote, except that it is used in too many sermons. It may be rooted in a book of Sermon illustrations from 1986, but the illustrations contained there-in are probably older.

[3] John 8:58

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