Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

Missing the Meaning
February 21, 1993

MATTHEW 17:1-8

When our middle son Tim was about four years old, he and a neighbor friend were caught playing with matches and starting a fire. Realizing she had to do something dramatic to teach him a lesson, Ellie took a newspaper and tore it into the shape of a figure. She said, “Let's pretend that this is a boy playing with matches and his sleeve catches on fire.” She lit the match and lit the sleeve. They watched the flame rise and she said, “The boy got very excited. He tried to put out the fire with the other arm. He flopped it over and that arm caught on fire. Then he rubbed his arms against the legs, and they caught on fire, and soon the whole body burned.” She dropped the burning newspaper into the fireplace and Tim, with eyes big as saucers, said, “Now let's burn a girl.” Somehow he missed the meaning. I've told that story before, and I apologize for telling it again. But it's such a wonderful example.How much of life passes by with us missing the meaning? In the play Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Old Deuteronomy, the old cat, quotes TS Eliot, “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning.” How often do we miss the meaning because our eyes see but yet don’t see; our ears hear but yet don’t hear? Elizabeth Barrett Browning has stated this dilemma poignantly—

“Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”

Those who only see blackberries on the bush miss the meaning. How much of life do we take for granted and see only what is apparent, rather than what the poet sees, or what the artist sees, or what the spiritually alive person sees. Most sit around the bush and eat blackberries. But one who sees the bush afire with God, realizes he is treading on holy ground and takes off his shoes.

Today is the last Sunday before Lent, traditionally called Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, his clothes became dazzling light, and there appeared Moses and Elijah talking with him. But the three disciples apparently missed the meaning.  Note Peter’s immediate response. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. This is really something. If you wish, I will make three shrines here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Knowing he was treading on holy ground, but not really understanding or appreciating, Peter’s first response was to do something. He didn't know how to respond really, he didn't know what to say. But he knew he could do something. He did know how to build a shrine. He did know how to get his hands busy doing something.

I wonder how often we miss the meaning because we are too active or too busy. Notice what Peter wanted to do. He wanted to build a shrine to commemorate, to mark the event. He wanted to contain the experience. He wanted to build a nice little shelter as if he could capture the Transfiguration so others could make pilgrimages to the site and vicariously experience the Transfiguration, again missing the meaning. After a voice spoke out of heaven and said, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him,” the disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. They were afraid and missed the meaning. Fear prevented them from experiencing the Transfiguration and all its glory. The disciples were privileged to be in the presence of Jesus, privileged to experience wonder and glory as they saw Jesus transfigured before them, but they missed the meaning. They were afraid and tried to disguise their discomfort by doing something, by building something. They wanted to enshrine the moment rather than give themselves to the experience, rather than participating wholeheartedly.

Remember how Martha reacted when Jesus came to their house. She hustled and bustled around the house, putting this away, picking things up, putting water on for tea, getting things out and setting the table. Finally, Jesus said,” Martha, Martha, settle down, settle down.” Her sister Mary was quite content just to be with Jesus, just to sit and listen. Martha had to do something, and missed the meaning while Mary gave herself to the experience and enjoyed the company and presence of Jesus.

The meaning, which we often miss, is that God is present in every situation, in every relationship, and wants to enter into relationship, into fellowship with us. In every experience, God is present, wanting to be in relationship with us. That's the meaning. Earth is crammed with heaven for those who have eyes to see. Earth is crammed with heaven, and ready to reveal the mystery of the presence and the joy of God to whomever will see. Somehow, like the disciples, we become frightened of the holy. We shy away from deep experiences. We’d prefer to eat blackberries rather than see the bush afire with God, and hesitant, afraid, wanting to hold back. We find it difficult to give ourselves freely and trustingly to the experience. We want to be in control, in charge and to give ourselves in faith is to lose control because we don't know what the outcome might be. It’s safer to pick blackberries than to venture into the unknown mystical experience of seeing the fire of God.

Let’s adopt the code of DHB. Have your heard of FHB? When there were guests for dinner and mother was afraid there might not be enough food, she'd whisper, “FHB (Family Hold Back).” Just take a little bit the first time around and see if the food does stretch—FHB. Well, let's reverse FHB and say DHB. Don't hold back. Let yourself go. When you are in the presence of beauty, don’t hold back, be totally present. Give yourself to the experience. Believe that God is present in the beauty. Don’t do anything; just be there, relax and enjoy. Consider for example, every flower and gift from God. Discover God, study, get pleasure from the structure, color and fragrance. Listen to a bird; take the song as a personal message to you from God. Hearing a bird sing in our urban area is rare and unique. And when you hear a bird, then stop and enjoy the message. What is God's singing to you through the bird’s song?

In 1979, we went on an exchange. We exchange churches with an Australian pastor for four months. The first Sunday morning in Australia, I went to the church early to check to make sure everything was on, to pray and go through the sermon one more time as if it would help. Suddenly I was interrupted by the most awful noise, raucous, loud, screeching cackle. I thought it must be a bunch of kids outside raising trouble so I ran out. There was no there. I learned later that I had heard a kookaburra bird. Have you ever heard a kookaburra? The process of evolution left Australia with the oddest assortment of animals and birds. The kookaburra has a laugh, a cackle like you've never heard —and loud! I soon learned to laugh whenever I heard a kookaburra as if God were saying to us through the kookaburra— “Hey, relax. Enjoy life!” Isn’t that wonderful! Laugh, have fun.

What do the birds sing to you? How differently we would live if we looked at flowers and listened to birds as personal messages from God. The meaning in every situation, events and nature is that God is present, wanting to enter into a deep relationship with you. Christ wants to walk with you and talk with you as a friend. Think of the multitudes who followed Jesus because they were eager to get something they want to be healed, or taught or fed. How Jesus must have cherished the times when he found people who only wanted to be with him, not to get something from him. He took Peter, James and John up the mountain just to be with the, not for them to do something or build something or be afraid. How long will a friendship last if your contacts with him or her are only limited to those times when you want something? How long will a friendship last if you only call when you want to borrow something or ask for something? What percent of your praying time is spent in asking God for something?

What percent of your praying time is spent in presenting a wrong? You are missing the meaning if you only pray or worship when you want something, when you want to be blessed, or when you want to feel good. Jesus wants to be loved. Jesus wants just to be with you sometimes. Jesus wants you to dwell, to abide in his presence. Jesus wants to tell you through a flower, or the song of a bird how He loves you how He loves you. He wants to enjoy your presence and you enjoy his presence. He doesn't necessarily want you scurrying around doing something or building something, and he certainly doesn't want you afraid. He doesn't want to hear from you only when you want something. He wants to be with you. Not to do, just to be. “Wait on the Lord,” says the Bible—wait, trust, relax, and listen. Usually in silence. Be silent before the Lord. Don't feel you have to say anything. Don't feel you have to do anything, just be present. Millions cry out to God. But few wait to hear a reply.Listen, DHB. Don't hold back, be totally present. Give yourself wholeheartedly or you will miss the meaning.

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris