They got exactly what they wanted. And it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot. They wanted to experience of a numinous, all-powerful, in-control power that they could easily recognize as the one they called God. And it wasn’t enough. In fact, the very experience they longed for; — the very experience of awesomeness and otherness they thought would give them proof of God’s existence and favor and bring them comfort and hope had the exact opposite effect. It made them uncertain and it made them afraid. And so 35 hundred years ago Moses veiled his face to hide the effects of God’s glory from the Israelites and 15 hundred years later, Peter, James and John were terrified into silence. They got what they wanted and it wasn’t enough. In fact, it had the exact opposite effect.
I do a lot of listening; and as I listen to people inside the church and outside the church; — in fact, as I listen to people who are of any kind of faith community or religion, I hear them longing for that same kind of numinous experience too. In fact, even people who are indifferent or not religious or spiritual at all cite their lack of experience of a numinous,
all-powerful, in-control God as the proof that there is no God at all. Because that’s what people expect a god to be: other-worldly, all-powerful, in control, and wholly other. When people speak of the absence of God, especially in tragedies and disasters natural or human, that’s the kind of God whose absence they are noting. You can tell what kind of God is being longed-for every time someone asks, “how God can allow bad things to happen? A spoof article (I think) in a recent issue of the New Yorker made this poignantly clear, describing an interview between God —“ I prefer to be called ‘Yahweh’” — and a quintessential New York PR firm whose representation God was seeking to counter the bad press God was receiving. I think it was supposed to be funny, but as everything New Yorker, it had a deep barb too.
Even if they are seeking it in the negative, people seek proof of a numinous, all-powerful, in-control God. Well, Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness and Peter, James and John on the mountain wanted that experience too. They got exactly what they wanted. And it wasn’t enough. In fact, it had the exact opposite effect.
So Moses veiled his face and Peter, James and John were terrified and silenced.
As far as I can see, there’s never been a way to tell people, then or now, that their attraction toward or repulsion from such a God is a problem. As I study our whole human story, including the story we call the Bible, that attraction/repulsion attitude toward God seems wired into everyone’s DNA. Allone can do is acknowledge that futile longing.
By the same token, one cannot adequately explain absence of that kind of God or share a compelling experience of that kind of God either.. “To justify the ways of God to men,” as Milton wrote, has never been a particularly successful enterprise. To paraphrase an old spiritual, “It was not good enough for Moses; not good enough for Peter; not good enough for Milton and not good enough for me. Or those like me. But that doesn’t mean that there is no God or that we have no experience of God to savor, celebrate and share!
It seems that the best we can do, in the absence of proof or of our own experience of a numinous, all-powerful, in-control God
is to emulate the writers of our Scriptures — of the multiple authors of Exodus and of Paul the Apostle and of the Evangelist Saint Luke — as they faced with that same lack of proof and experience amidst this same nagging attraction/repulsion attitude toward a numinous, all-powerful, in-control God
First, they acknowledged — and affirmed — the authenticity of that longing. We see them doing precisely that today as they tell us the story of veiled Moses in the wilderness and Peter, James and John on the mountain.
And then they tell us of another way, another, quite different, quite earthbound and human experience of a God who is present, but not numinous, in-control and all-powerful; — who is vulnerable and, at least in their experience, bound as we are in the confines of time and of space.
“How are you experiencing God today?” I asked in my Christmas Eve sermon. In the shadow of the mount of Transfiguration I ask that again today.
I assume you’ve never had and are not now having a numinous “mountaintop” experience of a numinous, all-powerful, in-control God, even if you’ve wanted it. I assume, therefore, that absence that kind of experience, you think you have nothing to share except maybe your own story of your own experience of God in word and water, bread and wine, in the lives of other people, in compassionate and creative community — an experience of God that seems all too simple, course and common. But today’s Gospel assures us that that experience — your experience — is enough; enough to savor; enough to celebrate; and more than enough to share.
If you read a bit further in Luke’s Gospel, you can see Jesus making this abundantly clear. After the vision on the mount of Transfiguration, after healings and signs and the unending admiration of the crowds, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them what to expect as an authentic and shareable experience of God. “Let these words sink into your ears,” Jesus tells them, “for the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.”
Not very numinous; nothing close to all-powerful; no way near being in-control, yet present and accessible to everyone in the simplest of means and in the most common experiences and available to all: Enough to savor, enough to celebrate and more than enough to share.
That may not be exactly what everyone wants, but it is exactly what everyone needs. And it never has the opposite effect.