I’d like this morning to address an issue that sometimes is like the elephant in the room that we are uncomfortable to talk about, but we sense others are thinking the same way, and having their own private struggles.
It is the elephant of Bible readings we hear read in church – or we read them – and they have us shaking our heads and thinking, ‘I’m not too sure how to take that,’ or ‘I’m not sure I believe that,’ or ‘I am uncomfortable with that.’
Lots of times I find myself thinking, ‘I’m looking forward to hearing Dave preach on this one – or I hope he does preach on that text! It’s got me puzzled.’
And, thankfully, he often does preach on the more difficult passage. I haven’t known Dave to run away from a challenge. In fact, I think it’s what he likes best – taking on a difficulty or a problem … and trying to untangle it and shed light on it. And I am not just saying that because it’s his birthday. It is true.
Today’s readings maybe had you wondering, ‘Hmm, not quite sure what I think about that!!’
Today’s Gospel reading is probably not as challenging as some, though it does raise some questions that aren’t easy to answer. One that has occurred to me is, ‘How did the disciples recognize that it was Moses and Elijah who were standing there with Jesus?’ They wouldn’t have had pictures or paintings, or statues … or Madame Tussauds to help them recognize these giants of their nation’s past.
Now that isn’t the hardest of problems, is it, because Jesus could well have told them, or they may have even overheard Jesus addressing them by name.
But there are other problems, or, at least, puzzles. It is likely that first century Jews and/or Christians would have been entirely comfortable with the idea that it was Moses and Elijah who were meeting with Jesus, because of the belief that Elijah, and possibly also Moses, wasn’t dead, like the rest of the Old Testament’s great figures.
Elijah, according to our first reading, from 2 Kings, had escaped death by being flown directly to heaven on a fiery chariot, like an ancient version of the Tardis flying off into space.
There was also a tradition, possibly current at the time, that Moses also hadn’t died, or, if he had, that he had been taken by God to heaven – making him, with Elijah, a logical choice to come and encourage Jesus in the days before his death. Everyone else was in the shadowy world of the dead – awaiting the general resurrection at the end of history.
Moses had also had his own experience of being up a mountain and of being so affected by his encounter with God that his face shone. He too became dazzling in appearance, making him (once again) an appropriate person to witness the glorification of Jesus.
The story of the transfiguration opens a window on the whole Bible and its amazing characters … and amazing stories … amazing because these sorts of stories and these sorts of ideas aren’t part of our everyday experience in 21st century Dulwich Hill orSydney.
Which raises the question of how we take these stories, what are we to make of them? How are we to understand them?
There are some options.
At one end of what is a spectrum of options are those who read and accept these and all Biblical stories at face value. What they say happened, happened. What the Bible says, God says, and our job is just to accept what is said as factual – even if what it says may seem incredible! God is incredible! Why not?!
That is not to say that stories that are obviously not factual – like parables – need to be taken as fact. They don’t.
My dad used to have a rule of thumb that if a passage could be taken literally, he did take it that way. He would have taken the transfiguration story literally, and the story of the chariot of fire flying up to heaven, and the story of Noah (which we will hear read and preached about next week), and the story of Adam and the garden – even maybe the talking snake bit.
Dad was aware of the presence of symbol and metaphor – but, as I said, if something could be taken literally, that is how he took it.
Dad was what you would call a literalist … mostly.
Down the other end of the spectrum are those who make fun of literalists – and love to ridicule those who, in a scientific age, keep believing things that can’t possibly be true – like a young earth or a world-wide flood (just a few millennia ago), or dead people coming back to life, or of not dying, and then turning up to talk with Jesus!!
Even within the broad Christian community are people at both ends of this spectrum – those who believe that almost everything should be taken literally, and those who rule out pretty much anything that would represent a violation of a closed universe of cause and effect – because of the conviction that God does not (and would not) interfere in the orderly workings of nature.
Anything super-natural is dismissed as legend or myth.
You may be sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t identify with either of those extremes. I’m not a literalist and I’m not a miracle-denying liberal! I am not down at either end of your spectrum Keith!’ Neither am I. Neither am I.
Is there a middle way between these two extremes?
I think there is. There is a middle way. Some people would say that evangelicalism is that middle way – between fundamentalisms to its right and liberalisms to its left. There is some truth in that suggestion.
Evangelicalism at its best is willing to take on board the best and the more sure results of scientific discovery and to let those feed in to the way they read and understand the Bible.
Archbishop Peter Jensen, for example, has long since given up the idea (if he ever had it) that the earth is just a few thousand years old, or that we had a huge flood more recently that engulfed the whole earth.
But he also believes that God is capable of anything. God is God. God isn’t so constrained by the regularities of nature (that he himself is responsible for) that he couldn’t pick up a prophet in a fiery chariot, and give it after-burners and whisk him up to heaven. It is not beyond God’s capabilities to bring a Moses or an Elijah to talk with Jesus – to encourage him before his death.
And God could make a snake talk if he wanted to.
We should never have to ask when we read the Bible, ‘Could this have happened?’ It could have. God could pretty much do anything, surely!
Those who argue for a really young earth sometimes suggest that the light that we now know is coming from stars hundreds and thousands, in fact millions of light years away – wouldn’t have had that sort of time to get here if the earth is just 6 – 12,000 years old – so what God did, they suggest, was to create the light waves in transit as if they had been travelling all that time!!!
Which doesn’t work for me, because it makes God out to be a trickster, a deceiver – in making a universe to look like it is old, when it isn’t – just so we can keep reading Genesis literalistically!!
All sorts of things are possible, but we do sometimes need to ask, ‘Is this the best way of reading this passage?’
We do need to find non-literalistic ways of reading the Scriptures – certainly for Genesis, but also for other of the Biblical stories.
How then should we read the stories of the Bible, including the story of the transfiguration?
I’d suggest we read it with an open and enquiring mind. We don’t rule out that what is written might have happened just exactly how it is described.
But, at the same time, we do ask questions of the text. And there are some considerations that need to guide us in this.
One is that we need to take account of the fact that this is ancient literature. The Bible is ancient literature. It was written between 2 and 3 thousand years ago.
The Bible needs to be read as an ancient document that follows ancient literary conventions. The early Genesis stories, for example, are almost certainly theological myth. They are colourful and deliberately symbolic, as mythical stories are, but with a point to make about God and us.
They were written at a time when other ancient writers like Herodotus and Dionysius were writing similar histories of the ancient world – and they too included myth at the outset of their histories (as they thought back into the mists of time).
It is good to know this because it helps us to read and appreciate what we find in the Bible.
We need, therefore, to also ask of any passage, ‘What do we think the ancient writer is trying to say? What is the genre he is employing; what literary conventions does he make use of? Should we take this literally or not?’
That is a question we can ask of the transfiguration story. Scholars have asked that question – and come up with a number of different answers.
Some do take it literally and ask, ‘Why not?’ Fair question. It is told in narrative form.
Others notice that the story is patterned on similar Old Testament stories, like the story of Moses meeting God up on a mountain – and becoming bright with the glory of God – and they suggest that what the Gospel writer is doing is interpreting the meaning of Jesus from the vantage point of his death and resurrection.
What we have here is a post-resurrection understanding of Jesus imported back into the text of the story.
The story doesn’t quite fit (or fit easily) into the rest of the narrative of Mark’s Gospel – because what we get throughout most of Mark is a more ambiguous and tantalizing depiction of Jesus … with the disciples never being sure about who he was.
Right up until his death they didn’t know, couldn’t see, didn’t understand. Even when he rose from death, they were afraid it says at the end of Mark. Even then couldn’t quite believe.
The story of the transfiguration is, I think, a literary device designed to highlight the significance of what was happening as Jesus walked into the hornet’s nest of the last dreadful week of his life.
It is the writer’s way of saying, ‘This is no ordinary death, no ordinary life. As with Moses and Elijah, something extraordinary is about to happen! There is about to be another escape from death that will cast pure light on the meaning of all life and death.
There is about to be an event that will fracture the normally ordered sequence of cause and effects, life and death, and when it does, there is one man who will be illuminated above all else – this man Jesus who was crucified for the sake of the world.
Listen to him. Listen to him.
First preached by Keith Macrod on February 19, 2012, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.