Writer Frederick Buechner imagines a moment in which God decides to reveal Himself once and for all to the whole world. What would happen if God were to irrefutably prove He exists in such a way that erases all our doubts?
“Suppose, for instance, that God were to take the great, dim river of the Milky Way as we see it from down here flowing across the night sky and were to brighten it up a little and then rearrange it so that all of a sudden one night the world would step outside and look up at the heavens and see not the usual haphazard scattering of stars but, written out in letters light years tall, the sentence: I REALLY EXIST, or GOD IS.”
Then Buechner imagines the kinds of responses we would have to “this great theological headline appearing there in the stars, with suns and moons to dot the i’s and the tails of the comets to cross the t’s.” Some people would sink “to their knees, not because they are especially religious people but just because it might seem somehow the only natural thing to do under the circumstances…Some would run back into their houses in terror.”
Today is the Last Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany means God’s revelation of Himself. The gospel reading gives us a microcosmic moment of what Buechner imagines. God reveals Himself in Jesus and the witnesses are Peter, James and John. Jesus is transfigured on a mountaintop. The text says, “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. ”
Glowing in glory, Jesus stands on the mountaintop talking to Moses and Elijah – representing the Law and the Prophets. Peter, James and John bask in God’s immediate, unmitigated presence. There is no seeing through a glass darkly here – this is a full on display of God’s reality, with Moses and Elijah thrown in to boot. As if that weren’t enough, God the Father speaks audibly and directly to the disciples. Peter utters the understatement of the year, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
Lord, it is good for us to be here. What would it be like for God to reveal himself to us so unmistakably? I do hope you know that deeply peaceful feeling of being in God’s presence. Moments, ephemeral perhaps, but still moments nonetheless, when you just know for certain that all is well, that God is here and all doubts are temporarily cleared – a I Really Exist moment.
You experience a moment of worship, or a moment of unexpected clarity and assurance. It is a moment that is outside of the relentless march of moments, a moment outside of time. Sartre said that, “man’s misfortune lies in his being time-bound.” But in the transfiguring presence of God you are given moment that unburdens you from tyranny of time, the “mausoleum of all hope and desire.”
T.S. Eliot describes this kind of transfiguring moment in his Four Quartets. A moment one finds oneself, “At the still point of the turning world. / Where past and future are gathered.” Of this moment Eliot says, “I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. / And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”
But something profound happens in this moment. “The inner freedom from the practical desire/ The release from action and suffering, release from the inner/And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded / By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving” On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John were surrounded by a grace of sense, a white light still and moving in the shining face of Jesus Christ.
As powerful as they are, these moments of God’s spectacular unveiling do not and cannot last. Peter, like the rest of us, wants the moment to go on forever. He babbles on about building mountaintop chalets for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Let’s just stay up here, out of the clutter and difficulty below, out of the clamoring need and fever of actual life, out of the domestic squabbles, mortgage payments, pending lawsuits and misplaced keys. You know what he means.
But God wants no part of that kind of escapism, so “while (Peter) was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!'” No one likes to be interrupted, but if you’re going to be interrupted it might as well be God doing the interrupting.
The disciples’ response? They buckled to the ground in fear. When they opened their eyes, the “I Really Exist” moment was over. Moses and Elijah were gone. There was no one there but Jesus. All was quiet again, except for ticking of their pocket watches. Time, gentlemen! Time to march back down the mountain. Time to go back to your life, a life in which doubt and confusion and daily strain are regular companions on the way. A life where you look up in the sky and see stars in haphazard configurations, and then only when the cloud cover lifts.
This would be unbearably bleak – to have seen God and then to lose sight of Him, if it weren’t for two things. For the first we go back to Buechner’s scenario. He imagines that after years of God’s irrefutable proof blazing in the I Really Exist of the night sky, a teenager finally utters the
“words to make the angels gasp – ‘So what if God exists? What difference does that make?’ And in the twinkling of an eye the message would fade away for good, or maybe it would continue for centuries to come, but it would no longer make any difference.”
This first thing appears to make the return to time bound misfortune more difficult, but really it doesn’t. Because in the end we want more than just proof of God’s external, objective existence. What we really want is to know that
“there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world… That is the miracle that we are really after.”
This leads us the second thing that saves us from bleak existentialism. The second thing, according to our gospel this morning, is not a thing but a person. When the disciples were faced down, eyes screwed tight in fear of the God’s overwhelming revelation of Himself in the bright, overshadowing cloud, notice who comes to them, placing his gentle hand on their shoulders. “But Jesus came and touched them.”
And then again notices what he says. “Get up and do not be afraid.” They saw Jesus alone, for the Law and the Prophets are of no real help in the actual world. What you need, whom you need is the grace of Jesus. Jesus alone is the One to lead them (to lead us) back down the mountain in to the knee-deep muck and misery and marvel of the world.
I’ll close with a story about our friend Shelly, a student at the time who dropped her keys to her car and her apartment when she was on the Corner, late at night, down a sewer. She didn’t know what to do, so she called the police. The police answered and laughed at her. The police said, “Good luck finding your keys.” The Law was of no help.
So Shelly called her friend Anthony. Anthony was of tremendous help. Anthony said, “wait there by the sewer; I’ll be there in five minutes.” Anthony got in his car and was by Shelly’s side in five minutes. Anthony said, “I’ll take off the manhole cover and lower myself down in the sewer and get your keys.”
Anthony found a piece of material in his trunk that he could use to lower himself fifteen feet down into the sewer. The size of the hole could barely accommodate the size of Anthony’s body, which is strong and lean. It was dark. Being a sewer, it was smelly. Anthony didn’t have a headlamp. But he repelled down into the dark sewer for Shelly’s sake.
Anthony disappeared down the manhole and into the sewage system. Shelly waited for him up top, in the light of a street lamp. In a little while, Anthony re-emerged from the sewer, pulling himself up into the light and air. He had a big smile on his face and a set of keys in his hand. Shelly took pictures of Anthony as he rose out of the sewer. She sent me the pictures – Anthony is filthy. Smiling, but filthy.
Shelly tried to pay Anthony. She felt like she should pay him to show him how grateful she was for what he had done. Anthony accepted Shelly’s thanks but not Shelly’s money. He said he was really happy to help. It’s not the perfect illustration, because sometimes you too have to down into the time bound muck. But one thing you can know without a single doubt: Jesus is there with you. That is the miracle is the miracle we’re really after. And He is the miracle we really get.
- Matthew 17:1 - 9