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Mystery and Wonder
February 19, 2023

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

MATTHEW 17:1-8

Your life is more than what you can see, taste, smell, hear, and touch. Your life is even more than your mind can understand. We live in a time of amazing technological advance, but art, poetry, music, philosophy, theology have taken a back seat to technology. We are infatuated with facts, data, statistics, empirical proof; we want everything analyzed, explained, and proven. And, in so doing, we miss much of the majesty, mystery, and wonder.

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration when Jesus was transfigured by a brilliant light. Moses and Elijah appeared in their spiritual bodies and talked to Jesus. Peter wanted to build shrines to honor the moment and the place. The disciples were terrified  by this experience which they did not understand. A friend in Merced said to me "I have difficulty with passages like this. When I read the Bible, I want to read it like a manual, with steps 1, 2, and 3." Many read the Bible with the left side of the brain, when much of the Bible, especially the account of the Transfiguration, speaks to the right side.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, a remarkable inventor, and a very brilliant man, believed only what to him was logical, factual, observable, and provable. Congress once printed a special edition of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible in which he had removed all references that violated what his mind could prove and accept. Jefferson cut out the virgin birth, the transfiguration, healings, miracles, and the resurrection. The closing, somber words of Jefferson’s Bible are, "There they laid Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the mouth of the grave and departed." What you get when you apply logic, science, rationalism, and proofs that mortal minds can comprehend is a Jeffersonian Christianity without the wonder and fantasy of Christmas;  without the victory, the grand celebration of Easter; without the mystery of Pentecost; a Christianity without warmth, beauty, poetry, myth.

On the other hand, there are those who frantically try to prove that everything recorded in the Bible actually happened. They send expeditions to Mt. Aarat trying to find a remnant of Noah’s ark to prove there was a flood, believing that if Noah was not an actual person, or if Adam and Eve were not real people, or if God did not create in six days according to their interpretation of Genesis, their faith in the entire Bible would be eroded. They want a factual, literal, historical, believable faith; but in so doing, miss the wonder, mystery, and poetry. Don’t try so hard to prove something actually happened. Don’t try to water down the event so that you end up with a tiny idea to fit your understanding of what is conceivable! Small minds make for a puny religion.

If we see with the eyes of faith and the wonder of a child, a whole new world opens up. There is more than what we perceive. There is more than our logical, limited minds can explain. 

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the renowned preacher and author, was riding a bus in New York City when he 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 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 a manner that the whole crystal is one continuous molecule. That is a diamond. 

Do you think the young woman was interested in the technical, literal, provable description of a diamond? With face glowing, eyes shining, mind enraptured, she very likely saw a handsome prince charming in that diamond, her strong, faithful, incomparable hero. Maybe to other people her fiancé was an ordinary, common kind of guy. But, what is real? What other people see in her fiancé, or what she sees in her diamond? What that young woman saw in her diamond was something that all the scientists who ever drew diagrams of carbon atoms had never seen. What is real? A hunk of carbon or the dreams and myths of a woman in love?

Thomas Jefferson looked at Jesus and saw a man who taught and ended up dead on a cross. But, we who have experienced the love of God in our lives look at Jesus and see hope, encouragement, forgiveness, love, a Savior, one worthy of following. We see Jesus as one who came into this world supernaturally unique and special; and who left this world supernaturally resurrected. We see Jesus transfigured. Can such a Jesus be proven? No, not logically, not rationally, not scientifically, but what is real? 

In Merced one Saturday 25 boy scouts participated in the Walk for Reverence. They visited four churches to learn about faith. We gave them a tour, talked about our faith, and asked for questions. There were several questions about the symbols in the stained glass windows, and then one little boy, a cub scout, asked, "How do we know there really was a Jesus?", a profound question for a young boy! Off the top of my head, I gave two reasons: one I realize now was a left-brain answer and the other was a right-brain answer. I said we have the Bible which has come down to us through the centuries written by eye witnesses. And, Christians know there was a Jesus because he is with us now. He was raised from the dead, and we now experience his presence.

My plea this morning is for open minds and hearts. Read the Bible, not just with your mind, but with your heart as well. Don’t close your mind to what you cannot prove or believe logically or what does not fit your experience. 

Three year old Brian had been trapped beneath the automatic garage door for several minutes when his mother found him and thought he was dead. The door had crushed his little sternum right over his heart. They worried about both heart and brain damage. 24 hours later, Brian woke up, reached out to his father, and said, "Daddy, hold me." He had no permanent neurological or physical damage.

A month later, Brian said to his mother, "Sit down, Mommy. I have something to tell you." Brian, only three years old, usually spoke in small phrases, so the long sentence surprised his mother.

"Do you remember when I got stuck under the garage door? It hurt really bad. I started to cry, and then the birdies came.

"The birdies?" his mother asked puzzled.

"Yes, the birdies made a whooshing sound and they came into the garage. They took care of me.”

"They did?”

A sweet, powerful, reverent feeling filled the room. His mother asked, "What did the birdies look like?

"They were so beautiful. They were dressed in white. Some of them wore green and white.”

"Did they say anything?”

"Yes, they told me the baby would be all right.”

"The baby?”

"The baby laying on the garage floor. You came out and opened the garage door and ran to the baby. You told the baby to stay and not leave.”

His mother nearly collapsed, for she had indeed gone and knelt beside Brian’s body. Seeing his crushed chest, she had looked around her and whispered, “Don't leave us, Brian, please stay if you can.”

"Then what happened?" she asked.

"We went on a trip, far, far away. We flew so fast up in the air. They’re so pretty, Mommy, and there is lots and lots of birdies.”

And then he said the bright light came. Someone in the light hugged him and said, "I love you but you have to go back. You have to play baseball, and tell everyone about the birdies.”

Do you close your mind to such accounts? Or, can you open yourself to the possibility that there is a spirit world all around us, that Moses and Elijah did appear to a transfigured Jesus and his disciples? Can you believe there is more than what you perceive?  Can you open your eyes and see all the mystery around you?

© 2023 Douglas I. Norris