Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.
When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.
Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
I have a confession to make. Last Sunday morning, I played hooky from church.
Erron and I were in Louisville last weekend, home to the Presbyterian National Headquarters. There were dozens of churches we could have visited. Some are even pastored by people I know.
But we didn’t go to church. We went to the art museum.
Because for me, that is a spiritual experience all its own.
I love art, and I love museums, and I especially love putting the two together. I love being immersed in the sweep of millennia of human creativity, skill, aspiration and inspiration. This love drove me to, for no practical reason, minor in art history in college. That means I can talk some pretty fancy talk when it comes to art.
But the best thing I saw last week wasn’t any of the art, although there were some pretty incredible pieces at the Speed. The best thing I saw was a little boy running around the galleries with us.
His mom, bless her heart, had brought a four year old to an art museum—whether out of a desire to inculcate sophistication or a need to let him run off some steam in some big empty rooms, I don’t know. But as he toddle-ran from frame to frame, he had only one big, loud, joyous question:
He’d wait a minute while his mom answered. That’s a bird. That’s Zeus. That’s a knight. That’s fruit. Then he’d run off again, tennis shoes loud and squeaky on the floors.
“What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?”
They didn’t stop to talk technique, or era, or composition, or chiaroscuro. It might come, in time. But for now, that little boy is thrilled for two reasons: one, that there are more and more things in the world to learn about, and two, that his mom already knows all about them.
There is much to learn, and there is someone to trust.
I don’t recall seeing any images of the transfiguration at the Speed Art Museum, but that doesn’t surprise me. While the Transfiguration is a hugely important moment in the Eastern Christian tradition, it has tended to go unnoticed in the Western art world. There are only a handful of famous images, and even those aren’t that impressive. It’s a hard moment to capture—hard to express the wonder, the confusion, the awe, the divinity, the sound, the mystery—in a static form.
I was curious to see how Donald Jackson handled it in the St. John’s Bible.
I have to admit, I was not blown away by this one when I first saw it. I suspect, though, that it is the same challenge we have faced throughout this sermon series—digital images of the St. John’s Bible, no matter how hi-res, do not do the original art justice, because the gold does not shine. The gold, you remember, is the presence of God. So while we have been looking at the images, and while there has still been much to learn, and plenty of beauty, the presence of God has been a bit muted, a bit lackluster. That’s a tragedy.
Jackson painted this scene fairly literally. Jesus shines white here, face and clothes—an unearthly white, translucent almost. This has nothing to do with melatonin. His body disappears into a cloud of white crosses against a gold background. If you blur your eyes a bit, he disappears altogether. It is not, to my eyes, exactly beautiful—more strange and discomfiting than anything else. But perhaps that is appropriate. After all, the disciples were terrified by what they saw. The transfiguration was not a moment of delight, but of confusion. The disciples had glimpsed—only glimpsed—the glory of God, shining through Jesus Christ, their companion and friend. But what did that mean for them?
“What’s that?” I can hear the disciples asking. “What’s that?”
I have seen the glory of the Lord, but what do I do with it?
When I first laid out this sermon series, I thought I might preach Revelation today, on the last Sunday. It would only be appropriate—Genesis to Revelation, beginning to end. That way I could skip this unpreachable transfiguration. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of circling back around, to the middle of the story, to a moment that asks more questions than it answers. Because the last thing I ever want is for you to close your Bible without a reason to open it back up again.
It occurred to me this week that studying scripture is our own chance at seeing transfiguration, our own hike up the mountain to catch a glimpse of God’s glory. Like the disciples who fought through exhaustion and fear and confusion, this book can feel daunting, disorienting, even terrifying. But also, like the disciples, if we can stay awake to it, it can change our whole lives.
Some of you love this book. Some of you don’t. Some of you love it theoretically because you know you are supposed to, but you wouldn’t want to examine it too closely in case the bubble bursts. This Bible—our Bible—it is not for the faint of heart. But there is gold in these pages.
In her book, Inspired, Rachel Held Evans wrote about her relationship with the Bible—a relationship, she says, that can be as complicated and fraught and sustaining as any human relationship. She was raised fundamentalist, and the Bible was a quote book and a science book and law book and a weapon all rolled into one. The Bible had all the answers. You just had to know what they were before you started reading, so that it all fit together.
As she grew, Rachel began to pick those answers apart, began to question, began to doubt. Her church panicked, as if the Bible was a fragile thing that couldn’t withstand the wonderings of a teenager. Their response only confirmed for her that the Bible wasn’t for her.
As a young adult, she drifted into more mainline congregations, with a tradition of biblical scholarship, designed to help us read the Bible more faithfully, more seriously, more respectfully of its own culture and time. But in her hands, she admits, these scholarly tools became simply another set of weapons—another way to flatten the Bible into something only the right sort of people could really understand.
But underneath it all, she still found herself drawn to the scriptures that had enchanted her in childhood. And so she began to try to heal her relationship with scripture, to broaden it, to approach this book with curiosity, to come to love it for what it was. Like any good relationship counselor will tell you, the best way to heal a relationship is to ask questions, and never assume you know the answer.
“These questions,” Rachel wrote in the introduction, “loosened my grip on the text and gave me permission to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be. And here’s the surprising thing about that. When you stop trying to force the bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic. The ancient rabbis likened scripture to a palace, alive and bustling, full of grand halls, banquet rooms, secret passages, and locked doors.
‘The adventure,” wrote Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky in Reading the Book, lies in “learning the secrets of the palace, unlocking all the doors and perhaps catching a glimpse of the King in all His splendor.’” (Rachel Held Evans, Inspired)
The disciples saw the King in all his splendor. First hand, without even a veil between them and the glory of God. And they still weren’t sure what to do about it. They couldn’t have told you what it meant, that first day—perhaps they never could have. What they did know, is that they wanted to stick with Jesus—that Jesus was worth following, for the rest of their lives.
Like that little boy in the art museum, they knew: there was much to learn, and someone to trust.
Despite my seminary degree, I don’t know much about the Bible. I ask much, and I question much, and I wonder much, and I assume too much sometimes. Mostly I love it much, and I find myself flipping from page to page, faced with unfamiliar names and places and miracles, asking God to help me understand. “What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?”
Without the work of the Spirit, this book is dead. It’s a fossil. It’s like those digital images of the St. John’s Bible, that just don’t shine like they should. But when we invite the spirit into our reading and studying and listening, that’s when the transfiguration happens.
So I’ll stick with this book. I’ll keep at it, until I see God shining from every page.
Because this is what I do know: there is much to learn, and someone to trust.