Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
March 2, 2003
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In Markís account of the Transfiguration that we just heard, Peter comes across as awfully confused, nonplussed maybe by what he had just seen. Or maybe itís Mark who is overwhelmed by the experience he is here recounting. In any event, Mark has Peter making a statement in response to the heavenly vision before him: "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." This statement suggests that Peter had his wits about him. He finds the vision of Jesus transfigured and speaking with the two great prophets extremely appealing. He doesnít want it to end. He wants to make it permanent. Letís institutionalize it, he is saying in effect, so that it will always be available to us. So far, so good. But then Mark says this about Peter: "He did not know what to say, for they were terrified." Wait a minute! You just told us what Peter said. How can you now turn around and say that Peter didnít know what to say?
Interestingly, Matthew and Luke, both of whom took this Transfiguration story from Mark, had the same problem here. They both changed Markís wording to make the problem go away. Matthew made it go away by deleting the phrase "he did not know what to say" and moving the line about them being terrified from the earlier point in the story where Mark has it to later, after they hear the Divine Voice. Luke resolved it by changing Markís "He did not know what to say" to "not knowing what he said." They both felt a need, apparently, to remove the disconnect between Markís quote of Peter and his statement about Peterís and the other disciplesí fear and inability to speak. Let me suggest, however, that Mark has the better wisdom here despite the apparent inconsistency in his presentation between Peterís statement and his inability to know what to say.
To explain what I mean, letís look at what Peter and the other disciples experienced here. In contemporary terms we would call it a numinous experience, that is, an experience in which our ordinary perception is suspended and replaced by a supernatural perception of an altered reality, often of the immediacy of the Holy, the Divine, before our eyes or in our ears. People really do have such experiences. They are recounted untold numbers of times in the religious traditions of people all over the world. Here the disciples whom Jesus took with him up the mountain both saw and heard manifestations of the Holy. They saw Jesus transformed by the infusion of the pure light of God. They saw two great figures from their religionís past, both long since dead (well, Elijah wasnít so much dead as taken up into heaven, as we heard in the Hebrew Scripture reading this morning). And they heard a voice from a cloud that could only be the very voice of God. In other words, they experienced in an extraordinarily powerful way the immediate presence of God, of the Holy, before and with them.
And that experienced provoked two seemingly contradictory responses in them that tell us a great deal about the nature of God and of our experience of God. One response was attraction. We, along with some theologians, might call it fascination. The immediate vision of the Holy is profoundly attractive. When we have it, we want it never to end. It draws us in. It comforts and elates us. It lifts us up out of our ordinary world (symbolized here perhaps by the fact that the Transfiguration took place on a high mountain apart and separate from the rest of the world), and we donít want to go back down. We may be comfortable with this part of the experience of the Holy. Some of you, like me, have perhaps had experiences that contain faint echoes of the experience recounted here. Even those faint echoes are profoundly attractive. We wish they were with us always.
But a true experience of the Holy has another side to it. This side we all too often forget in our attempts to domesticate God, to transpose God into Dog, one who is always at our side simply to comfort us and, when properly trained, to guide us (but only where we want to go). Yet this other side of the experience of the Holy again is reported throughout human cultures. The Holy is not only fascinating. It is also terrifying. A true experience of the Holy overwhelms us. It scares us. It shuts us up and leaves us speechless. You see, the Holy is so utterly beyond anything in our ordinary, creaturely experience that when we come face to face with it we donít know what to make of it. We love it. Weíre fascinated by it. And at the same time it terrifies us, just like it did Peter and the others. Maybe you, like me, have experienced faint echoes of this side of the experience of the Holy as well. Iíve had it on occasion in the sacrament of the Eucharist that we are about to celebrate. Have you ever felt almost overwhelmed with awe at the prospect of actually taking Communion, actually communing with the immediate, real presence of Christ, in the sacrament? Have you ever felt almost unable to do it because that sense of awe at the presence of the Holy virtually paralyzes you? I have. That feeling is, I think, something faintly like Peterís feeling that led Mark to write that he didnít know what to say and was terrified.
So letís not try to make the contradiction go away, like Matthew and Luke did. Letís embrace it. When we donít, our image of God can easily become far too tame, far too comfortable. God is our comfort and our guide. But if we forget that God is also terrifyingly awesome we will reduce God to what we want God to be rather than feeling ourselves challenged to become the people God wants us to be. And if we do that we will have failed in our calling as Christians.