Love and Wonder and Awe in the Story

A sermon based on Matthew 17:1-9
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 23, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

When Tristan, our firstborn, was old enough to enjoy stories I began a tradition of telling her about a little girl named Tristan and her friend Barney, a giraffe who wore striped overalls and could magically transport the two of them to any place real or imagined. The Tristan in the stories just had to hold Barney’s “hand” and say “Please take us to X” and off they went. In the imaginary stories Barney and Tristan went to known parks and other places we frequented, but also to story lands and places we made up. As the stories began to wind down Barney and Tristan stopped some place for ice cream– and Barney always ordered vanilla ice cream which he topped off with lots of . . . ketchup. While the stories were fantastical, they always had the truthful theme of Tristan being loved and the world being full of wonder and awe. Indeed as we sat in reality engrossed in the stories, those moments my daughter and I had were filled with love and wonder and awe.
Another amazing thing about the “Barney and Tristan” stories was watching our lovely wide-eyed preschooler enraptured without disbelief as each adventure unfolded. It was not that Tristan was unable to discern the real world from the one we shared in the Barney stories – she could– it was that she gladly and instantaneously set aside disbelief in order to imagine inhabiting the fantasy world before her mind’s eye. She became a willing bystander following the intrepid pair wherever they wandered on their adventures. As we had other children they heard similar stories and wandered in their mind’s eye on fantasy adventures too.
Adults often think only young children do this hopping out of reality stuff, but actually most of us do something similar when we read fiction, turn of a TV show, watch movies or see a play. We probably don’t think about it, but when we listen to stories, or read a book, or a view a show we set reality a little to the side so we can enter into the world depicted in the story, so that we can perceive the story. We even do this with non-fiction. I love non-fiction and a good biographer invites me to hop in and imagine their subject’s world unfold. In stories, real or imagined the human mind sort of partially teleports out of reality and into the narrative. As stories unfold on pages or screens or stages, they unfold in our mind.
Provided nothing jars us back to reality we willingly participate in the story as if we are a character like a fly on the wall, or better yet an unseen spirit watching. So while we may in reality be sitting in a our livingroom or a theatre, a part of our mind hovers in the story where we accept the not presently really happening world as, well, presently happening. It’s pretty cool.
Stage actors are even trained to understand the audience as a character participating in the scene. If the play is done right the audience “buys in” and transports themself, as a bystander, into the scenes. In theatre we call it “the willing suspension of disbelief.” The idea goes back to Aristotle, who long ago grasped that audiences set aside critical thinking about whether a story is real or not, and agree to pretend that it is. 1 If a stage production is done well within a few minutes the audience hops into the story until it is over, or they are jarred back to reality. “Can’t put it down” books are like that too. We buy into the fiction or nonfiction story so well that we don’t want to come out of it.
While adults can and do willingly suspend disbelief, things can stop us more so than they can for children. Modern adults in the west are particularly prone to apply science and historical accuracy to stories, that children do not apply. Consequently we have a tendency to reject stories that do not appear to be fact based. Factual accuracy is among the things that can keep us getting into a story or jar us out the story destroying the suspension of disbelief. The sad thing is historicity and science dogmatically applied can keep us from a lot of good and meaningful stories.
All of which leads me to today’s lesson on the Transfiguration of Christ. When it and the rest of the Gospel of Matthew were written the type of historicity and science modern adults commonly use today as lenses for stories were not around. In the pre-Enlightenment Era, people did not typically approach Bible stories insisting that the contents add up in what we might call a scientific way. Empirical proof as we have come to understand it was not the be all, end all of truth. Some specific Truths in the context of Jesus’ era that are relevant to our lesson include that Old Testament stories taught that Moses was said to have spoken to God in a cloud; met God on a mountain top and experienced luminous transfiguration himself when given the law; which he brought off the mountain.
Truth in Matthew’s context included that Moses and Elijah were both rejected by people, yet vindicated by God, and both were said to have not died but to have been taken directly to heaven (NIB363). Truth in Matthew’s context included that Elijah was to return before the Messiah arrived. Truth in Matthew’s context included that a “vision” – as Jesus calls the event– could be a dream or trance that revealed supernatural appearances and revelations in something other than a moment that can be filmed were cameras available.
All of these images and symbols and revelations of Truth are in the reading today because Jesus for Christians was envisioned like them. So prophets and God met Jesus on a mountain. Jesus is transfigured and glowing. God appeared as a bright cloud and spoke to Jesus’ followers. Then Jesus came off the mountain like the new Moses, like the new law, as the Messiah and as the Son God . . . and by the time Matthew was written Jesus also was said to have ascended to heaven. Those truths about how Jesus was experienced by Matthew’s community are accurate whether the story is understood as fact or as fiction or a mixture of both . . . or as Jesus in the story calls it, a vision.
Any insistence that literalism, historicity or science apply to the vision, miss the Truth in the story– which is the long held Truth in Christianity that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God to whom Christians are to listen. Or as God in the Transfiguration vision puts it “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Note that this ultimate truth told by God to Jesus followers has three parts: #1 Jesus is God’s beloved Son; #2 God is well pleased with Jesus; and #3 We are to listen to Jesus.
There is not a word spoken by God in this vision about beliefs in literalism, inerrancy, or even belief “in Jesus” . . . whatever that means. There’s nothing suggesting historicity and science apply or are needed to find truth. The Truth Christians are to take away from this story is that Jesus came down to His followers as the new Moses, the new law, the Messiah, and the Son of God. No matter how we come at this story the Truth for Jesus’ followers is that Jesus is God’s beloved Son with whom God is well pleased, and we are to listen to him.
This lines up beautifully with the age old Truth that for Christians Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. What he tell us we are to listen to. I find great comfort in that because what Jesus is recorded as saying whether we think it is fiction, non-fiction or a mixture of both, all of it if we listen is about well being. If we listen to what Jesus says we can give and get well being. It’s all about peace on earth good will to all. I’ve summarized how we do that before, that what I hear Jesus’ saying when we listen: that God is love; and that we are to believe in Love; and that we are to love Love; and that we are to be Love.
I hear THAT without concern about whether the stories about Jesus and his teachings are literal and science or historical. I experience the stories to be poetic and parabolic. Such experiences have lead me to personally believe that summary is decisively True: that God IS love, and we are to believe in Love, love Love and be love. I find that truth full of love and wonder and awe. And I love that the images in our lesson are mystical, picking up the wonder and awe with a spirits of great prophets and bright shining Jesus and a bright misty cloud providing the voice of God validating Jesus.
This religious stuff we do always has elements of mystery to it. Our very existence–LIFE– has a mystical side. Creation and the Creator – and love– are experienced shrouded in a mysterious cloud that nonetheless speaks to us. And we follow the voice because it speaks to the depths of our being as Christians. It tells us Jesus is the Son of God. It tells us to listen to Jesus. And when we listen, we sense Jesus speaking in and to the depth of our being, what Jesus speaks reveals Truths to us, decisive Truths.
Sadly the decisive Truths revealed by Jesus in the Bible got all knocked out of whack when people started to insist that the Bible stories were meant to be records of historical events, which caused others to insist then that they are false records when science and historicity are applied. In these debates science, historicity and the Bible are misused by both sides. The Bible does not insist it be read as literally true and inerrant. Science and historicity are not meant for measuring Truths in Bible stories in an empirical evidence sort of way. Yet we hear people insist the Bible is a record of events that everyone must read as literally true historic facts. And in response we hear science and historicity applied to that literalism to show the Bible is not history or science and so it is untrue.
No one has to agree with me, but I see both sides as off base. None of Bible was written in the context of the Enlightenment where science and historicity measure truth. Nothing in the Bible claims it is an affidavit of cold hard facts. Indeed the truth is that Bible stories were all created in times and places untethered to science and historicity for expressions of truth. Truth was understood to exist in symbol and metaphor and in blended mixtures of them with facts. We modern folk allow for this sort of truth in poems, songs, fiction stories and even in depicted stories of history. But a lot of us balk at it in Bible stories because people keep treating them as written to be purely factual accounts, when they are not. Bible stories often mix history and metaphors, people and parables.
And you know what? It doesn’t really matter whether the story took place in a way that could be video taped today, or if it is all fiction or if it is a mixture of fact and fiction. What matters is, do they help us find Truth. Can they help us experience love, wonder and awe. Today’s lesson undoubtedly seems fantastical. Yet taken in the context of Matthew we CAN find it full of love and wonder and awe.
I am going to close by reading our lesson again as I do keep in mind Matthew’s context that Jesus is understood to be like a radiant new Moses and the new law; and that Elijah came back in the vision before Jesus becomes the Messiah. Keep in mind too that God appears in cloud like he did to Moses and tells us who Jesus is to Christians and what Christians need to do. Finally, willingly suspend disbelief as I read it. Matthew 17:1-9:
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Truth in the Gospel of Matthew.
One more thing, the Son of Man has been raised, so we can tell everyone about this vision. We can tell them what Peter, James and John heard, the Truth of God’s very own assertion that:
#1 Jesus is God’s beloved Son;
#2 God is well pleased with Jesus; and
#3 We are to listen to Jesus.

: something seen in a dream, trance, or ecstasy
especially : a supernatural appearance that conveys a revelation