Maybe A Little Bit Too Much Reality

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 02/11/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  2 Corinthians 4:3-6 & Mark 9:2-9. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, to speak with God and receive the law, he went alone. He climbed to the mountaintop to be alone with God, and when he came back down his face was shining. From what it says in the Book of Exodus, it sounds like his face had turned into some kind of giant flashlight. It was disturbing; the people were freaked out by it! They wouldn’t come near Moses at first.

Eventually, Moses was able to convince Aaron and the people of Israel to approach him, and he shared with them the commandments of God. But still, they were terrified. They didn’t know how to handle Moses’ shining face, reflecting some of the glory of God back at them. They weren’t ready to see it. So Moses, being sensitive to the tough time that his people were having, wore a veil most of the time. When he went up on the mountain to talk with God, he took it off and he left it off while he was sharing the law with Israel. But once he was done teaching the law, he put the veil back over his face.

Reality can be hard to take. Even if we can be convinced to come and get a dose, most of the time we prefer the veil.

In our reading from Mark this morning, Jesus also ascends to the mountaintop; though unlike Moses, he doesn’t go alone. He takes his three closest friends – Peter, James, and John. He invites them to accompany him up onto the high mountain.

While they are up on the mountaintop, something very strange happens. Something ineffable. It’s clear that the writers of the gospel are struggling to communicate what the disciples experienced on the mountaintop with Jesus. The disciples themselves were struggling to comprehend it in the moment.

They write that Jesus was “transfigured” before them. Jesus was transformed in appearance. His clothes became dazzling bright – he was shining like the sun. Peter, James, and John saw Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets – and these two were talking with Jesus.

At this point, the disciples were freaking out. It was like they were in a dream. Their legs were knocked out from underneath them; they had no idea of what to do. So Peter, always the bold one, says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let’s set up three tents – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (At this point, the gospel writer interjects what should be obvious: “[Peter] did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”)

At this point, in the midst of their holy terror, the mountain was covered by a cloud. Out of the cloud came a voice, saying, “This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

And that was it. The fever broke. Suddenly the disciples were looking around stunned; the vision had ended. They saw no one with them anymore: No cloud, no voice, no Moses and Elijah – only Jesus.

Reality can be hard to take. Jesus invited Peter, James, and John up to the mountaintop to get a glimpse into bedrock reality: the true identity of Jesus – who he really was in God. They could barely take it. In the midst of a powerful display of God’s glory, a revealing of who God is, the disciples’ reaction was to make meaningless small talk and build monuments.

That’s what we do, isn’t it? The Holy Land is full of monuments. Jesus was born here – let’s build a church! Jesus died in this very spot – let’s erect a cathedral! Jesus ascended into heaven on this hill – we’ll build a chapel! We human beings are monument-builders, all the way back to Isaac, who built an altar at Bethel after dreaming of angels.

We are monument-builders. We struggle to remember what God has done for us, so we write religious post-it notes. God calls us to transcend the determinism of the material world, so we adorn the earth with images of heaven. We are monument builders, and God seems to have made us this way.

But this monumental nature of ours has been twisted. We were created to be symbol-makers, dream-painters, and meaning-builders – all in the service of life. All in the service of wholeness and reality. But instead, we are tempted to harness life in the service of our monuments. 

The artifacts become the thing. Rather than serving as reminders of the raw experience of life and love and power and glory, our religious post-it notes write us. All the reminders and tools we’ve gathered along the way – the meeting houses, committees, organizations, titles, and traditions – all these things become the veil standing between us and the glorious, naked now with God. Our mouths, our eyes, our faces have become covered in holy post-it notes.

Paul writes that the gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing.” Our human artifacts, ideologies, and explanations blind us to the naked now. But for those who are receiving life, the veils are removed. Light shines out of darkness. We see the world as it really is, bathed in the light of Eden. Glory. Joy. Peace.

Do we want to live in the bright light of reality? Do we want to see the dark-darks? Do we want to see every hue in their full splendor? Do we want to take off the sunglasses and see the unmediated landscape? Or, like Peter, do we rush to erect monuments to shield us from the glare?

What are the veils that get between us and an immediate, present-moment experience of God? What are the safety blankets that we are clinging to? What is the transformation that we are being offered?