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Transforming Awe -- Matthew 17:1-9 (Transfiguration Sunday)

For the past three weeks, we’ve been spending time in the Sermon on the Mount, on a mountain with Jesus talking and teaching. This morning’s Scripture – twelve chapters later in the Gospel of the Matthew – takes us up another mountain for a different type of experience.

In the Sermon on the Mount , Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain, and he sits down and teaches. Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the peacemakers, and the merciful, and the meek. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Even, an almost-rabbinic lecture on the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been teaching – with words and rhetoric. It’s a discourse. On that mountain, it’s like Jesus with a piece of chalk and a blackboard, explaining things.

In this morning’s scripture, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up another mountain – a high mountain – and things aren’t nearly so linear.[1] There are flashes of light; Jesus glows and shines; there are Moses and Elijah; and there’s a booming voice from heaven. And we – along with Peter, James, and John – are left wondering, somewhat bewildered. What on earth does all that mean? What’s the Word we experience here in what we see, and hear, and touch and feel?

But first let’s catch up on what’s happened between the Sermon on the Mount and the Mount of Transfiguration. After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus comes down from the mountain, and he wades back into the welter of life. The crowds follow him, with all their many needs. He heals many, he calms stormy waters, he raises a young girl from the dead. Jesus calls a few more disciples, and then he sends the 12 out on their own. He begins teaching in parables. And then, in the midst of all that healing and teaching, Jesus receives word that John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod, and Jesus draws away to a solitary place and pauses for a bit. And then he gets back up, feeds the 5,000, and walks on water.

And after all that, right before this morning’s scripture, Jesus takes a breath and asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is – the Human One?” And then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” After all this, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter says, “The Christ. You are the Christ, the living Son of God.” There it is. Someone has said it out loud. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon, who I now call Peter.” And Jesus explains a bit: “This means that I am going to suffer many things, and I’m going to die, and on the third day, be raised to life.”

That’s what happens right before this morning’s Scripture. It’s already a lot to take in. And they go up a mountain – Jesus, and Peter, James, and John. And when they get to the mountaintop – Jesus is transfigured – it’s the Greek word metamorphosis[2]he’s transformed – his face shines – his clothes become a dazzling white. Something is happening here. It’s not unlike that time, in the Exodus scripture this morning, when Moses went up the mountain and experienced God.

Peter, James, and John watch – and all of the sudden – they see Moses and Elijah – talking with Jesus. And maybe they remember Jesus saying, “I’ve come not to tear down the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” And then a voice from heaven booms: “This is my Son, the beloved; with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.” The same words from Jesus’s baptism – also what Peter blurted out just six days ago: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Notice how Peter, James, and John react. I love that moment when they see Moses and Elijah, and Peter says, “Jesus, it is good for us to be here. If you want, I will build three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” I’ve seen all sorts of interpretations of that. Maybe this experience is so overwhelming that Peter defaults to doing – let me do something. Maybe this is Peter wanting to remain here – in this mountaintop experience to dwell in this moment – to savor it. Maybe it’s a deeply embedded memory of what the people did after Moses came down from the mountain – they build a tent to be a dwelling place for God. “Let me build you a shelter here.”[3]

But before the words are out of Peter’s mouth – another voice speaks over him – a bright cloud and a voice from heaven. And at this point, Peter, James, and John, fall to the ground, terrified, overwhelmed, bewildered. That is what people in the Bible do when they experience God. It’s why angels arrive saying, “Do not be afraid.”

In this moment, Peter, James, and John are experiencing Jesus, the Human One, the Christ, the Son of God, the Beloved – who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets – who has come with healing in his hands – who will suffer, and die, and on the third day be raised to life. They’re experiencing all that, right here in this moment.

What they are experiencing is so much bigger than them – so much bigger than anything they have ever known – so much bigger than anything they can comprehend.

What they are experiencing is awe.

Dacher Keltner over in Berkeley and a number of other scientists have been doing a good bit of research into awe. Keltner has just published a book on awe, and what he calls “the new science of everyday wonder.”[4] Awe is an emotion common to human experience across cultures and down through the ages. Keltner describes awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.[5] These scientists have studied awe, gathering stories and experiences of awe across cultures, and observing our physiological responses to awe – which shouldn’t surprise us – are often measured in tears and chills (or what we might call goosebumps). Awe is an embodied experience.

And out of that research, Keltner identifies 8 types of awe experiences – 8 ways that, across cultures, we experience awe. He calls them "the wonders of life." Let’s see how many we can name [folks are invited to name the experiences].

Here they are:

1. the strength, courage, and kindness of others;

2. “collective effervescence” (e.g., while attending a sporting event, concert, or protest);

3. nature;

4. visual design/ beauty;

5. music;

6. spiritual/mystical experience;

7. birth, life, & death;

8. big ideas/epiphanies.

Probably the most obvious of these is nature – that sense of standing on a mountaintop, or on a beach; seeing a sunset almost too big for the sky to hold; for me recently, watching a whale breach – jumping that big body up out of the water.

Take a moment and remember a time when you experienced awe in nature.

And here in this place, maybe experiences of music – maybe even spiritual epiphanies – “Aha! moments” – come to mind. I remember back in December that experience that the choir gave us of Handel’s Messiah. Or, when Natsuko plays the organ, and the music reverberates not just in this room, but in our bodies. When we sing together – that’s a big one. Or, remember back in the depths of COVID – when the choir was singing on video – and they put together the Benedictus – with the video of the murmur of starlings – floating through the sky. SILENCE

Now, they’ve studied these types of awe experiences across cultures. Can you guess – across cultures, around the world – which of them is the most common experience of awe?

It is “experiences of the strength, courage, and kindness of others” – or what Keltner calls “moral beauty” – what Toni Morrison calls “allowing goodness its own speech.”[6]Around the world, that’s where we most often experience of awe – in the lives and courage and kindness of others.[7] Think for a moment about the horror we’ve seen on the news from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Now think of those moments – where teams of neighbors – after digging through rubble, day after day – have pulled out from the debris someone still living – someone who has survived – pulled them to freedom and back into life by the strength, courage, and kindness of neighbors. SILENCE

Seeing humanity like that changes us – they’ve studied this – witnessing others’ acts of courage, kindness, and strength activates places in our brain where our emotions translate into ethical action, where we “give goodness its own speech” in the lives we live.[8]

Here’s the thing about awe – what they are finding: Awe opens us up and re-orients us to things outside ourselves.[9] Awe brings us face-to- face with things that are beyond our comprehension. Experiences of awe can be challenging, unsettling, destabilizing. By making us aware of something bigger than us, awe unsettles those false notions we have that we are somehow in control or that we are somehow alone. Awe transforms us. It pulls us out of ourselves and connects us – to each other, and to the systems and ecosystems in which we live and move and have our being – nature, families, communities. And, awe empowers and encourages us to seek new forms of understanding together – to create, to collaborate, to make meaning together.

Awe (1) shakes us out of our settled framing of the world, (2) points us to and connects us with something bigger, something so-much-more, and (3) then sends us off together into a journey of seeking and meaning-making.[10]

In just a few days, we’ll begin our yearly journey together through the season of Lent. This year, our theme centers on the experience of seeking, inviting us to engage “honest questions for a deeper faith.” So as we stand with Jesus, Peter, James, and John on the mountain of Transfiguration – and look forward to that journey – I’ve got two practices to suggest:

1. The first is one that Dacher Keltner recommends. The invitation is to take, what he calls, an Awe Walk.[11] One other thing about awe that they found is that we experience awe – not rarely – but all the time – in everyday life – in the experience of nature, music, the strength, courage, and kindness of others. Actually, they found that most people experience awe at least 2 or 3 times a week. So the invitation is to take an Awe Walk – moving out into the day noticing awe – those moments we encounter something bigger than ourselves.

2. And then the second practice is to gather your questions. As you experience life and the world this week, notice – what are the questions that you are carrying with you these days? What are the questions rising up in you? The invitation is to bring those questions into our Lenten journey – as we journey with Christ and seek meaning together.

Jesus begins his ministry, proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth – a Brave New World breaking forth even now. Peter, James, and John are there to hear that – to hear Jesus teach – his words themselves sometimes beyond comprehension, as he talks about something so vast that it is transforming the world. They walk with him as he shows them (and us) the fullness of our own humanity, embodied in strength, courage, and kindness, as he reaches out and heals so many – all our broken places – and even raises some from death back into life. When Peter at last stammers out, “You are the Christ,” Jesus turns even that on its head – Yes, and I must suffer, and die, and on the third day be raised from the dead. And Jesus takes them to a mountaintop – with a vista out over the vast expanse of creation – and he’s transfigured – and from the depths of their memory – Moses and Elijah appear. A cloud glows, a voice from heaven resounds.

What they are experiencing is awe – something vast that transcends

their understanding of the world – and maybe ours –

the fullness of our humanity, embodied in the life of Christ –

God, so very present that they can feel it in their bones.

But here’s the moment that gets me. Did you see it? In the midst of all that – flashing lights and voices from heaven – when they fall to the ground – scripture says that Jesus touches them. Jesus touches them and says, “Don’t be afraid. Go on – get up – let’s go.”

Take a minute and imagine what that looks like – however you want to see it.

You’ve got Peter, James, and John – fallen face down on the ground. And Jesus touches them.

Does he walk over and gently touch each one of them? Or does he linger?

Does Jesus kneel down next to them, and place his hand on their back, in that hollow between their shoulder blades, and say, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid”?

Or does he hold them, his arm around them, “Don’t be afraid, c’mon, get up, let’s go.”

And do they then rise up one by one, or together as one, shaking off the dirt, amazed to be alive in the presence of all this?

Where just a moment ago they saw Moses and Elijah – now, there’s just Jesus, himself alone. Where there was a dazzling glow of light – now, only the dim dusk that comes at the end of a long day. They’ve still got a long journey back down the mountain. Does Jesus again place his hand on their back and gently urge them forward – out from the experience of transfiguration up on that mountain – back down into the welter and turmoil of life? C’mon, let’s go.

Let’s carry that image with us into our Lenten journey: In the moments of life that transcend understanding, in the turmoil and welter of life, on the threshold of the journey back down the mountain, Jesus kneels down next to Peter, James, and John, places his arm around his disciples, his friends, and says, “Don’t be afraid; c’mon, get up, let’s go.”

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] For background on this text and generally on the Gospel of Matthew, see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz and Robert A. Bryant, Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pp.452-57. [2] Boring, p.363. [3] See Boring, p.364. [4] Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Change Your Life (New York, NY: Penguin Press 2023). [5] Id. p.7 [6] Id. p.69 [7] Id. p.74. [8] Id. p.83 [9] See the soaring conclusion of Keltner’s book, p. 249 as he asks and answers the question: “What is the end of awe, its unifying purpose?” [10] See id. [11] See id. pp. 104-07

Photo credit: Benjamin Voros, used with permission via Unsplash

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