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Myth or Reality?
Was Jesus really transfigured? Did the Transfiguration really happen or is it a myth? According to the lesson read this morning, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain. Jesus often went into the mountains, into the wilderness, where there were no people, no distractions. Jesus went to pray, to meditate, to get away, to think. This time, he took three disciples with him. While they were there, Jesus was transfigured, transformed. His robe glistened, it became white as light. His face shone like the sun. And, two figures, appeared and talked with him. The disciples recognized them as Moses and Elijah, both of whom had been dead for centuries. Then a bright cloud enveloped the figures of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and a voice spoke from the cloud, a voice audible to the three disciples, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." The disciples, filled with awe, threw themselves on the ground. Jesus went to them, touched them, and said, "Don't be afraid. Get up." And, just as suddenly, the transfiguration was over, and everything once again seemed normal.
Did this event really happen? Or, is it a myth? Some will quickly set forth reasons to explain the event, to make it reasonable, so people of a logical, rational bent will accept the event as real. Others will say it couldn't possibly have happened that way, it's a myth, and not to be taken seriously. What's the difference between myth and reality?
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, our third president, a remarkable inventor, and a very brilliant man, was a deist. He believed in the God revealed in nature. He believed only what to him was believable, logical, factual, observable. Congress once printed a special edition of Thomas Jefferson's Bible in which he had cut out all references to the supernatural. Jefferson cut out the virgin birth, resurrection, the transfiguration, healings, miracles, confining himself solely to Christ's ethical teachings. The closing, somber words to Jefferson's Bible are, "There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the mouth of the sepulcher and departed."
Jefferson had no room for anything in his religion that he could not rationally verify, he had no room for myths. Can you imagine what Jefferson's Bible, what Jefferson's religion is like? He threw out the baby with the bath. A Christianity with no Christmas, without the wonder, fantasy, of Christmas; a Christianity without the victory, the grand celebration of Easter; a Christianity without the mystery of Pentecost; a Christianity without warmth, beauty, poetry, music, and myth. What you get when you apply logic, science, rationalism, and proofs that mortal minds can comprehend, is a religion devoid of myth, and barren as Jefferson's. Myth has come to be a bad word in the vocabulary of many Christians.
In contrast to Jefferson, is Joseph Campbell who, thanks to Bill Moyers, has captured the attention and respect of many Americans. Campbell has given respectability to myth, teaching that myths give us clues to what is happening within us. He said,
People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about, and that's what myths help us to find within ourselves.
Campbell urges us to read myths because they teach us to turn inward as we begin to understand the messages of the symbols. He also urges us to read other people's myths, because we tend to interpret our own religion in terms of facts.
That is a key insight, and the point of the sermon this morning. We in our society have been too much like Jefferson. We interpret our religion in terms of facts, and often miss the meaning. We have been so intent on being factual, we have tended to discard anything that doesn't fit our tiny mind. Or, we persist in believing something is real, and squeeze it to fit our understanding of reality, and we miss the meaning. We're so intent on believing only in what is real, what is factual, what is provable or logical, that we have denuded our religion, and made it barren.
A few generations ago, there was a huge furor, raising money for expeditions to climb Mt. Aarat and find the remains of Noah's ark. We Americans, rational and scientific, have such a need to prove something. What if the story of Noah's ark is a myth? Does it destroy your religion? What is myth and what is real? What happens to literalists is they set about to prove the credibility of their faith, and when they can't prove the credibility of a certain story, they do one of two things: 1) They throw out the baby with the bath, and lose their entire faith. If they can't prove the creation story, or the virgin birth, or the transfiguration, they lose their entire faith, saying, "Well, if I can't believe that, then I can't believe anything. You pull out one domino, the entire structure collapses." 2) Or, they categorize their lives, separating their intellect from their spirit, separating their faith from their daily life. They use the theory of evolution at work, and are creationists at home or at church.
My point this morning is: your faith is not necessarily discredited or diminished if, in your intellectual growth, you find a biblical event you considered real is actually a myth, or has mythical elements and overtones. Actually, your faith can be enhanced! Don't try so hard to prove an event actually happened. Don't try to water down the event so that you end up with a puny idea to fit your understanding of what is conceivable. And, don't discredit myths.
Myths play an important role in our spiritual well being. A myth, like Adam and Eve for example, is a story that conveys deeper meanings than can be understood factually or logically. The Adam and Eve myth is not about how the world began, it is a description of the human situation, and deals with sin, alienation, disenfranchisement, suffering. It is relevant, up-to-date. When we try to make Adam and Eve historical figures, we lose much of the mythological meaning, and deny ourselves spiritual food.
Make room in your faith for myth. Let the myths feed your soul, nurture your spirit. Down in the depths of your being, let the myths feed you. Deep inside you is where your little child lives, often starved for attention because we try to be so intellectual, so logical, so scientific. Your spirit is fed with poetry, music, myths, angels. Where would our lives be without Christmas? Can you imagine how starved your soul would be without the fantasy of Christmas? How much of the Christmas story is real and how much is myth? Does it make any difference? It's in the eye of the beholder.
Let me put what I'm trying to say another way. The renowned preacher and author of yesteryear, Harry Emerson Fosdick, while riding a bus in New York City, observed a young woman with an obviously brand-new diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand. Altogether oblivious to anybody or anything except her own happiness, she sat quietly looking at her diamond. Now a diamond in prosaic, scientific terms is a form of crystallized carbon in which every carbon atom is symmetrically surrounded by four other carbon atoms, arranged at the corners of a tetrahedron in such manner that the whole crystal is one continuous molecule. That is a diamond. But, I doubt the young woman was too concerned with what a diamond literally is, the scientific description of a diamond. What the young woman saw in that diamond was something that all the scientists who ever drew diagrams of carbon atoms had never seen. What is reality? What the scientist sees, or what the young woman saw?
Looking at her diamond with face glowing, eyes shining, enraptured, with her mind reeling in myth, I imagine she saw a handsome prince charming, her strong, unequalled, undefeated hero. Maybe to other people her fiance was an ugly, overweight, ordinary, boring, common kind of guy who goes to work every day and watches TV at night. But, what is real? What other people see in her fellow, or what she sees in her diamond? As she gazed at her diamond, lost in the wonder of it all, I doubt if she thought about poverty, heartaches, unfaithfulness, drinking, or divorce. No, she was caught up in a myth. But, what is reality?
Literalists, "factualists" like Thomas Jefferson look at Jesus and see a man, a man who taught, a man who ended up dead on a cross. They see what is provable. On the other hand, the believer who has experienced the love and grace of God in his/her life is like the young woman gazing at her diamond. The believer looks at Jesus and sees not just a teacher. The believer sees hope, encouragement, forgiveness, love, a Savior, one worth following. The believer sees Jesus as one who came into this world supernaturally, unique, special, and who left it supernaturally, resurrected. The believer sees Jesus transfigured. Can such a Jesus be proven? No, not logically, not rationally, not scientifically, but what is reality? A hunk of carbon or the dreams, the myths of a woman, a believer, in love?
Jesus was transfigured on the mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John. Some may doubt the story; they can't prove it. Does it matter whether the story can fit your facts? Don't analyze it, and destroy its beauty and meaning with a rational approach. Don't throw it out because it doesn't fit what you think is real. Let the story bless you. Let the myth in the story nurture you. Imagine, believe that there are transfiguring moments in life. Your life has the possibility of being transformed, transfigured. The ordinary can become extraordinary, the every day can come ablaze with glory, problems and setbacks can be transformed into opportunities, alienation can be overcome, sin can be forgiven. You can be saved.
Don't discount your faith when the facts tell you it is unbelievable, that it couldn't have happened that way, that is not verifiable. What's wrong with myth? What is real anyway? Is myth less real than whatever you call reality? Is the world that we know as verifiable through the five senses all there is? Put wonder in your life. Put myth back in your religion. Believe with your heart, not just your intellect. After all, what is reality?
I invite you this morning to a spiritual journey of wonder. What is your picture of Jesus? What is preventing you from a personal, dynamic, loving relationship with Jesus Christ? Whatever is blocking you, let it go, that the transfigured, resurrected Christ of glory may touch your life, blessing, redeeming you.
© 1990 Douglas I. Norris