The following sermon was preached on February 23, 2020 at Middlebury Congregational Church, Middlebury, CT. Thank you to Rev. Katrina Manzi who invited me to preach.
We have two mystical readings as our texts this morning. First, in Exodus, Moses goes up to Mount Sinai and enters the cloud of the glory of the Lord. We are told that the “appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” That is quite the imagery!
In our second reading, we learn of Jesus and three of his disciples also on top of a high mountain. On the top of this mountain, Jesus was transfigured before the three disciples. Again, there is a cloud and this time a voice comes from the cloud. We assume that it is the voice of God in the cloud and the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This voice scares the disciples and they fall to the ground. Jesus comes to them, comforts them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” As Jesus and the disciples go down from the mountain, Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about what has taken place.
In these two brief readings, we have the mountain of God, the glory of the Lord, something like devouring fire, someone entering a cloud, another high mountain (this one unnamed), visions of ancient biblical figures, and a voice from a cloud. These are a lot of mystical, unexplainable events. The transfiguration of Jesus leaves most of us with more questions than answers. I imagine that the disciples who witnessed those events probably had a lot of questions to ask Jesus. I wonder if they had a chance to ask him any questions as they were walking down the mountain. Or if Jesus left it at, “Now isn’t really the time to talk about what just happened.”
This idea of asking a question was what led me to reflect on the Transfiguration through the lens of the Scientific Method. Do you remember learning about the Scientific Method way back in elementary or middle school? The Scientific Method is how to conduct a proper experiment in order to prove something scientifically.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Scientific Method, let me provide the Cliff Notes version, by my reading of it. I am not a trained scientist, so this is just my interpretation of what I read online.
There are six important steps to the Scientific Method. Step one begins by asking a question. After you determine your question, step two is doing background research. Once you have completed your research, you move on to step three: construct a hypothesis. Now is the fun part, step four is a test with an experiment. As we conduct our experiment, we want to check in along the way, making sure the procedure is working, troubleshooting and checking our setup. After our experiment is completed, we move on to step five and analyze the data. As we analyze the data, we are drawing our conclusions and determining if the results prove our hypothesis. Our final step, step six, is to communicate the results.
There are so many questions raised by today’s readings it would be hard to choose just one to examine with the scientific method. If we consider the Exodus reading and the reading from the Gospel of Matthew together, one question we could explore might be, “Where do we encounter God?” Moses was on Mt. Sinai when he met the glory of the Lord in a cloud. Jesus, Peter, James and John were on a high mountain when they encountered God. Peter, James, and John observed Jesus transfigured and a cloud spoke to them. In some ways, the passage in Exodus can serve as our background research. There is evidence of God visiting people in a cloud and experiences of meeting God on mountaintops. If we were conducting a proper science experiment, we could search for other places in the Bible where God has visited people, on a mountaintop or elsewhere.
So we have completed steps one and two, in our hypothetical experiment, we asked a question and we have done some background research. Now it is time to formulate our hypothesis. Based on our question, “where do we encounter God?”, and our research, I think our hypothesis should be, We can encounter God on a mountaintop. Let’s imagine I decide to test this hypothesis with an experiment. Normally, scientists shouldn’t include themselves in an experiment, but we are way beyond the scope of traditional science anyway. So for the sake of imagination, I decided to test out the hypothesis myself. I live in New Haven, so the first mountaintop I might try out could be East Rock or West Rock. There are so many factors to consider. Does time of day affect whether or not I will encounter God? What about the time of year? Maybe the “mountains” in New Haven aren’t tall enough, so I might travel to the highest mountain in the state of Connecticut, Bear Mountain. Or slightly further afield, Mount Katahdin in Maine or Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
It would be nearly impossible to determine if this experiment had been set up correctly. We can’t pinpoint God and we can’t force God into an experiment. So we probably won’t have good data to draw any conclusions from and we won’t be able to prove any hypothesis. However, the fact that our faith in God or our encounters with God can’t be proved scientifically doesn’t make them any less valid. This is the beautiful thing about God. We can have a genuine relationship with God that might be completely unexplainable.
The final step of the Scientific Method is to communicate results. Even though Jesus tells his disciples not to share what they witnessed until later, we are able to share about our experiences with Christ and God. In fact, I believe that we are called to share our encounters with Christ.
Today is the final Sunday in the church season of Epiphany. Epiphany (with a capital E) begins with the wise men paying homage to the Christ child. The wise men encountered the divine through the baby Jesus. Merriam Webster includes several different definitions of epiphany (with a lowercase e):
- an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being
- a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something
- an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking
- an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
- a revealing scene or moment
These various definitions of epiphany point us toward the epiphany that took place alongside the Transfiguration. Moses encountered the divine on Mt. Sinai and in this encounter he was given the commandments on stone tablets, so there was discovery and disclosure as well in Moses’ epiphany.
We are told at the end of the reading for today that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. We are on the cusp of our own forty day period, the season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. Maybe you are beginning to contemplate whether you will adopt a Lenten practice? A Lenten practice of abstaining from something, like alcohol or social media, or a Lenten spiritual practice of daily prayer or meditation.
A forty day Lenten practice can often be a time of experiment, similar to the steps we examined in the Scientific Method. Thoughtfully discerning what kind of Lenten practice God might be calling you towards can align with asking yourself a question and maybe even formulating a hypothesis.
For example, I am going to try to adopt a Lenten practice of daily prayer for ten minutes a day. Contrary to popular belief, seminary does not always automatically benefit your spiritual life. It can be challenging to find time for authentic one-on-one connection with God, even when attending worship several times a week. I know that I am very goal driven so attempting to pray for ten minutes every day during Lent will help me to stay focused.
Unlike the Scientific Method, I won’t be able to calculate whether my experiment has been successful at the end of the Lent, but I anticipate that I will feel closer to God as Easter approaches. Remember the final step of the Scientific Method? Communicate results! I certainly don’t want to brag to all my friends about my prayer practice, but I do think that checking in with our community is an important part of a healthy Christian community. Whether we choose to adopt a Lenten practice or not, we will journey together through the season of darkness until we arrive at the glory of Easter.
As we enter the season of Lent, there is another lesson to be drawn from the epiphanies and the Transfiguration. Sometimes we may have an epiphany like a lightbulb moment and revelation happens immediately in the moment. But more often, epiphanies can come over time. Maybe you have “known moments of surprised illumination when, through some outwardly ordinary act, or fragment of conversation, someone who you thought you knew fairly well was suddenly revealed in a completely new light?” Epiphanies are rarely confined to the initial encounter. Extraordinary experiences of illumination often require time lapses of time for contemplation.
So as we enter the season of Lent, whether you choose a Lenten practice or not, whether you embark on a journey of experimentation or ignore the Scientific Method completely, let us find our comfort in the words of Jesus to his disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We do not know what epiphanies may await us in our Lenten journey. But we must get up, and go out into the world, we cannot remain on the mountaintop. We will journey with Jesus through the challenging season of Lent. No matter how heavy the burden of the cross may seem, we wait with anticipation for the joy of Easter morning. And for now we celebrate the mystical experience of the Transfiguration. Amen.