This week, spurred on by conversation at our staff meeting, I began to wonder how often we are awestruck in our lives. I mean, how often do you find yourself struck with wonder or terror to the point where you fall on your knees or are rendered completely speechless? I asked that question of my Facebook friends this week, and the responses were actually pretty few and far between. There was only one who claimed to have such experiences regularly, and indeed, in my own experience I would argue that we rarely experience a deep sense of wonder; awe, or even terror anymore. I would almost like to argue that we are desensitized to it.
You may wonder what I mean by that, so let me explain in terms of technology. There is an urban legend surrounding one of the first motion pictures to be publicly screened. The film’s name is “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” which was a silent documentary about a train arriving at a station. The legend tells that people were so awestruck and terrified seeing a life sized train coming toward them that they ran to the back of the theater to avoid being hit! Now, whether or not that actually happened is disputed by some, however, according to one report in Der Spiegel, folks really were this terrified and awestruck! Fast forward several decades, and I can tell you that there were many who were awed by the film Star Wars that came out in the late 70's. George Lukas pushed the envelope when it came to special effects, and for a good chunk of time, movies were special effect driven. People came to be blown away by what they were seeing on the screen. But what is happening now? Can a film get away with simply a lot of special effects? They cannot. Because we can computer generate basically anything, no longer do special effects cause us any awe, wonder, or terror. We are completely desensitized to it.
I think I could say the same about the news. I mean, every time you turn on the television and watch the news there is another story trying to scare you to death. Depending on the day, we either have to worry about terrorists, murderers, kidnappers, severe weather, or some sort of disease bursting into our lives. There have been so many crises pumped into our homes that we are no longer shocked by the stories. We’ve heard it all and seen it all when they wanted to show us. So we hear about the slaughter of hundreds of people by ISIS and most of us shrug our shoulders. Meh. What can I do about it anyway? Desensitization.
Oh, it happens to us as members of faith communities as well. Either one of two things happens to us. One, we have been a part of a church our entire lives, and when we hear the story, we’ve heard it before; we’ve heard it explained before; and it is old hat. There’s nothing more we think we need to hear. We’ve got it down. Desensitized. Or, if you are here this morning, you may hear the story and think, “What in the world does this have to do with reality? What in the world does this have to do with the world that I live in now. How can something weird that happened 2000 years ago on a mountain have anything to say to this world today governed by smart phones, computers, and technology? Haven’t we moved past all that superstitious stuff?” Desensitized.
And yet, I know there is part of the human spirit which longs to feel awe and wonder and terror. I know there is part of the human spirit which longs to experience such moments because it is during those moments that we most feel alive. It is during those moments when we often feel a deep sense of the presence of the Holy. It is those moments which leave us with a lasting sense of peace, and so often we try to manufacture them. We try to stage things which terrify us; which exhilarate us; which bring us a few moments of peace. But it always goes away. It always leaves, and we try to move on to the next high–the next mountain top experience where we find some sort of glory.
This, of course, brings us squarely to our Gospel lesson this morning from the book of Mark. It is a mountain top experiences shared by three of Jesus’ disciples. It was a moment of awe and wonder. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and when they reach the top, Jesus is transformed in front of them. His clothes become dazzling white. Then, standing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah. The glory of God was indeed shining at that moment! It must have been a sight to behold, and we are told that it terrified the disciples.
Peter even spoke up, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles. One for you. One for Moses and one for Elijah.” We are told that Peter said this because he didn’t know what else to say. He too was overwhelmed; overawed. Terrified.
Now, some people think that Peter is sticking his foot in his mouth here. Peter does have a habit of doing such things, but I’ve had to rethink this a little bit. I’ve had to rethink why indeed Peter said what he said, and I’m not sure it was because Peter was ignorant or stupid. I’m not sure it was because Peter went completely brain dead. In fact, perhaps, just perhaps, Peter was digging deep into the faith which he had been taught as a child. Peter was digging back to another mountaintop where the glory of God had been revealed. Peter was digging back to Mount Sinai when the shekaniah glory of God was revealed upon that mountain; where Moses entered into God’s presence, and God gave the Law including the 10 Commandments. When Moses came down off that mountain, he was glowing with a radiant light. And Moses instructed the people saying that God would now dwell in their midst. God would dwell with them...in a tabernacle. “How good it is for us to be here, Lord. Let us build three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Surely this is a sign from God that He is dwelling with us. This will be a center of worship and power and majesty. The glory of God has been revealed!” In a very real way, Peter’s statement makes a whole lot of sense! But he doesn’t get it. Not by a long shot.
For right after Peter finishes his statement, a cloud enshrouds Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This would have terrified the disciples even more, for they knew the meaning of the cloud. They knew that God shrouded Himself in the cloud on Mount Sinai. They knew Gold lead the people by a pillar of cloud as they fled Egypt. This cloud only mean that God Himself was now upon the mountain, and in the other gospel accounts, we are told that Peter, James, and John fall face down on that mountain! They are overcome with terror. And the voice of God thunders! “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to Him!”
That last sentence is so important–so very important. “Listen to Him!” Why is this statement so important? Because of what Jesus had been teaching His disciples right before this event. Let me give you a reminder. Mark 8:34-35: “He (Jesus) called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
You see, God was affirming on that mountain what Jesus was teaching. God was letting the disciples know that Jesus was speaking the absolute truth. It was something they didn’t want to hear. It was something they didn’t want to consider. It was something they never could have wildly imagined. The Messiah’s true glory would not be revealed in dazzling white clothes, but in red, red blood. The Messiah’s true glory would not be revealed in three tabernacles, but in three crosses. The Messiah’s true glory would not take place on this high mountain, but on another hill outside of Jerusalem–a hill called Calvary. For the true glory of God would be revealed as He suffered and died for you and for me.
Oh, you may think at this point, well, I’ve heard this before. I’ve heard it numerous times. I know that Jesus died on the cross, but what’s so awe inspiring about that? Why should that cause my heart to pause? Why should that make me fall to my knees or render me speechless? Why should it fill my heart with peace and make me feel truly alive?
Let me start to answer in this fashion. You know, there are numerous reasons I have heard that people don’t attend church. Oftentimes they say: those folks are a bunch of hypocrites. And they are right. We are. They also say: those Christians over there are a bunch of judgmental people. And they are right. We are. They say: those Christians over there go to church on Sunday but they are right back at Crossroads on Monday living it up. And they are right. We are. They say: those Christians say they believe in Jesus but you almost can’t tell the difference in their lives. They keep doing the same stuff they’ve always done. And they are right. We are just like that. We are judgmental. We are self-righteous. We are self-centered, and we are broken. We have fallen fall short of the glory of God. We don’t even come close to being the disciples that Jesus needs us to be.
At this point, if you are here checking out Christianity and have said such things before, don’t let your chest be pumped up just yet. Don’t start thinking you’ve nailed things perfectly and you are somehow off the hook because what are you doing by saying such things? What are you doing by saying that you don’t hang out with a group of people because of the things they do and how they act? What are you doing when you point the finger at those of us in church and say, “You are judgmental!” Aren’t you judging as well? Aren’t you being self-righteous? Aren’t you being self-centered? Aren’t you essentially saying, “I’m not going to hang around with you because I am better than you. You aren’t living like you should, and I don’t want to be like you.” Well, guess what. You are. You are just like me. You are just like us. You are just as broken, and if you are angry at me for saying that, I think it’s because you know the truth but you just don’t want to admit it.
The fact of the matter is, we are all broken. We are all self-centered. We are all self-righteous, and this self-righteousness and self-centeredness is at the heart of all the division we face in society. It’s at the heart of racism, sexism, poverty, warfare, and misery. We’ve made a mess out of things because of it, and if God had any sense at all, He would look down at us and say, “You know, this creation of mine is too self-centered; it is too self-righteous; it is too hard hearted. They refuse to get along with one another, and they are constantly causing one another grief and pain and suffering. I should just wipe them out.” That would be the most reasonable thing to do.
But instead of wiping us out, God decided to forgive us. He decided to wipe the slate clean. You may be asking at this point, what does this have to do with Jesus? Well, whenever you forgive someone, you decide not to offer retribution. You decide to bear the cost of what harm was done to you. If someone lies about you, rather than make them pay and lie about them, you bear the cost of the lie. You bear the emotional pain and hurt. Forgiveness comes with a cost.
Now imagine the emotional, physical, and spiritual cost of our self-centeredness and self-righteousness. Imagine the cost of the wars that have been fought and the deaths that have been brought about by our division and hatred. Imagine the cost of poverty and racism and sexism and fascism and all the other isms out there. Can you imagine the burden that our self-centeredness has brought? Can you imagine the terrible cost of humanity’s sin?
If you can even begin to wrap your head around that, imagine the punishment due for that falling upon one man–one being who was fully human and fully divine. Imagine that punishment falling upon the one who was there at the creation of the universe for whom and through whom all was made. And imagine He endured that for you when you least deserved it. When He knew you were self-centered, and self-righteous and hard hearted. He did this for you because He loved you.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”
Jesus revealed His glory on the cross as He did for you when you were least deserving. If that is not enough to fill you full of awe, I don’t know what is. Amen.