I want to introduce you to someone who has been coming to Scottsville Presbyterian’s worship services for quite a while now—in fact for as long as I have been preaching here. His name is Sam Skeptic. Sam is sitting in the back row, behind the La Fontaines and next to Bobby and Linda—You’ve probably never noticed him, but believe me when I tell you I always notice him. Usually he’s got his arms crossed in front of him. He often wears a smug gotcha grin. Every Sunday I do my darndest to convince Sam that the text I am preaching on has some words of wisdom for us all. Some Sundays I do an ok job, and Sam slinks off after the benediction—Other Sundays, though, while we are enjoying our fellowship time, he is moving among you whispering in your ears, “You don’t really buy that, do you?” Given the strangeness, the weirdness of today’s text, Sam Skeptic is sure he is going to be entertained—he’s actually brought a box of popcorn and a soft drink with him. He’s ready to sit back and enjoy me squirm, dance, and maybe even stand on my head, as I try to make sense of this text from Matthew.
This text from Matthew—It’s so beyond the realm of what is believable. You’ve got two prophets, Moses, and Elijah who by the time Jesus walked the earth, had been dead for a long time—Moses by some estimates, 1500 years dead, and Elijah, by comparison, a short 800 years dead. Yet, they appear on the mountain with Jesus and three of Jesus’ disciples—John, James and Peter. One question that immediately comes to MY mind and maybe yours, too, besides the fact that Moses and Elijah are dead, so how could they be there, another question I have is, “There being no photography in ancient days, how did the three disciples and Jesus , KNOW that the apparitions were Moses and Elijah? What exactly gave them away?”
There are other questions though, this is such a mysterious story—for instance, Jesus’ appearance—he is suddenly lit up, like a light bulb—gleaming from the inside out--that part is referred to in religious circles as the transfiguration—how did he do that? And then a voice booms from heaven, as it did at Jesus’ baptism—presumably God’s voice, “This is my son, the beloved, in him I am well pleased.” Then, before you can say higglety pigglety three times fast, everything goes away—the voice stops its booming, Jesus’ light is no more, and Moses and Elijah are gone-with-the-wind. There are John, James, and Peter staring at each other, and we are staring too, wondering what in the heck happened. Jesus tells the disciples to keep it all to themselves—which of course, they certainly will, because absolutely no one would believe what they had to tell.
So, I’ve come up with three possible explanations for this story—which may or may not be acceptable to Sam. Remember Sam Skeptic. Three explanations--one academic, one scientific, and the third, spiritualistic.
You with me so far? Ok. For the academic explanation, I thought I would look the part of an academic. (Put on glasses).
I want to talk about milieu. How’s that for an academic word? Milieu—It means surroundings, the surroundings in which Matthew lived and moved and had his being. Matthew lived in and wrote and preached his version of the gospel in a Jewish milieu. He fervently believed and he wanted his fellow Jews to believe that from a faith perspective, Jesus was at least as important as Moses. For that reason, he took what he knew about Moses, and crafted a life story about Jesus that in major ways paralleled Moses’ own life.
Since we are talking academics, and academics love tests, I thought we would actually do this part of the sermon as a test. No need for pencil and paper. This is an oral test. Think back to what you yourselves know about Moses—and Jesus: When Moses was born, what did Pharaoh do to little Jewish boy babies? When Jesus was born, according to Matthew, what did King Herod do to little Jewish boy babies? How many years did Moses wander in the wilderness? How many days did Jesus wander in the wilderness? Moses performed miracles, parting the Red Sea, for instance, and likewise, Jesus performed what? Another of the miracles Moses performed involved blood—what liquid did he turn into blood? And what did Jesus do, according to Matthew at a wedding in Cana? And now one more: Moses climbed a mountain where he received the 10 commandments and what happened to his face while he was up there? It was transfigured. And Jesus goes up to the mountain top and his face lights up—we say that his face is what? transfigured.
So as academics, which I am at the moment, remember the glasses, I can say that the whole incident of the transfiguration is simply a parallel story from the life of Moses, contrived by Matthew to give credence (another academic word) to Jesus’ stature as a man of God, indeed, God’s son.
Ok. It’s time to move on. We are moving on to a possible scientific explanation of the text. Glasses off. White coat on. You’ll have to imagine the white coat. This is really a stretch, but I’m going to share it with you anyway. Maybe you have heard of the Oracle at Delphi. You men from the Discovery School? The Oracle of Delphi was actually a priestess. She spent her days in the sanctuary on Mount Parnassus back in ancient Greece. For a fee, that priestess would predict your future. So, say you are a soldier. Before going into battle, you might climb Mt. Parnassus, give the oracle a few gold coins, and she would move into a trance-like state, and tell you whether you were going to win or lose that battle. Actually that is what she was supposed to do, but usually she didn’t. Usually the oracle’s forecasts were extremely cryptic—So you ask, “Who’s going to win the battle?” And she answers, “I see many chariots and a white horse.” What does that mean? Nevertheless, people came in droves to Mt. Parnassus to hear her prophesies.
If you’ve studied some about ancient Greece, maybe besides knowing something about the oracle at Delphi, you also know something about Plutarch? The Greek writer Plutarch lived during the time that the oracle at Delphi was making her predictions, that is the end of the first century BC and the beginning of the first century AD. Plutarch suggested that the oracle’s trance-like state was induced by gaseous emissions coming from the ground at Mount Parnassus. Now here’s the punchline--In fact, about 15 years ago, scientists concluded the same thing. The ruins of the sanctuary where that Oracle prophesied, was on top of a geologic fissure through which plumes mind-altering gasses! The oracle was high! I’m not making this up!
Could the disciples’ minds have been similarly altered up there on that mountain with Jesus? Surely not, right? Ok, as I said that’s a stretch.
So now we move on to the spiritual explanation.
Someone has said, “Gratitude bestows reverence allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life.” Beautiful right? (from John Milton)
Maybe you’ve heard of Jane Goodall? She’s an academic and behavioral animal scientist and she also claims to be a spiritual person.
Turns out that academics, science and spirituality are not necessarily mutually exclusive then, since Jane Goodall is all three—an academic, a scientist and a spiritual person. What inspires her, what convinces her that there is more to living than academics and science, is what she has witnessed in her study of animals, in particular, chimpanzees, and of the natural world in general. She writes in her book, Reason for Hope, about following a family of chimps for many weeks in the jungles of Africa. Jane Goodall wanted to keep her distance so that the chimps wouldn’t know they were being watched. She thought she was succeeding in staying out-of-sight, but one day, as she crawled into a clearing, an adolescent chimp was waiting for her. In his hand was a piece of fruit. He held it out to her.—She interpreted that gesture as his gift of friendship and she took it. That chimp’s gesture, was for Jane, a transcendent moment that changed forever how she experienced life.
Some mornings I wake up and the world seems to me to be especially fresh and exciting. This week. My goodness! Tell me, this week, couldn’t you just hear the blades of grass singing their welcome to spring-come-early? Couldn’t you just see the daffodils stretching their leaves wide as they awoke from their brief winter hibernation?
Walking my dog Pepper two evenings ago, I was near a wooded area. All at once I heard a ruckus; a clattering on stone. A deer, a full sized deer, bounded onto our path—so close, if I had had my wits about me, I could have stretched out my hand and touched him. Pepper was silent. The sudden encounter with the deer sucked the bark right out of her! The deer and I looked at each other, my eyeballs to his one eyeball—he was staring at me profile—then he leaped past me and Pepper and back into the woods. In that moment, I KNEW that the deer and I had recognized each other as equal participants on this God-created planet. A transcendent moment.
One more encounter with nature I’ll share with you: While I was in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, again, walking Pepper, I saw a shadow move across the sidewalk. I looked up and saw a Red Tailed Hawk, it’s wings spread wide. I read later, that Red Tailed Hawks are supposéd divine messengers meant to bring guidance from the heavens. And that is what I choose to believe—I am being guided by God, as are we all. That day in Nashville, I received nature’s confirmation. Another transcendent moment.
Something happened up there on the mountain with Jesus and the disciples, something awe inspiring and transcendent,—like Jane Goodall’s adolescent chimp extending the fruit, like my eyballs to eyeball encounter with the deer, like the red hawk delivering a message. What that was, and how it happened, though, I truly don’t know.
So we are back where we started. Sam Skeptic has finished his popcorn and his Pepsi, and he’s got that gotcha grin on his face. I haven’t convinced him of anything. And maybe I haven’t convinced you of anything either. You already knew, when you came in here today, before I began to preach, that our lives are punctuated by transcendent moments. We thank God for those.
May it continue to be so for you as for me. Amen