I Love Tales of the Supernatural…, Last Sunday in Epiphany (A) – 1996
February 18, 1996
I love tales of the supernatural. Perhaps it’s because my mother wouldn’t allow me to watch them when I was younger. All it took was the first telltale strains of the theme music from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “The Twilight Zone” to emerge from the TV set, and immediately my head flew up from the book I was reading and my eyes and ears zoomed to focus on the black and white shining light. I couldn’t control my response to the sound and its promise of fear and awe and surprise that would make all the hairs on my arm stand up amid the chilly bumps of gooseflesh.
But just as immediately, my mother’s reflexes primed her muscles and moving faster than was normally her choice, she was up out of her chair in those pre-remote-control-days with her hand on the dial. “Clunk,” it went as the picture changed to Perry Como or something or other. As she eased back into her chair, invariably she sighed, “there.”
By that time I would have shaken myself from my chill-anticipating reverie to wail, “Mom! I wanna watch it!” Her unvarying response echoes with me to this day: “Nobody wants to watch that glawm.”
That ended the discussion. (And by the way, I did not know then, nor do I know now, what “glawm” is. I even had to invent a spelling g-l-a-w-m in order to write it down.)
In those days when parents still had control over the television, I discovered a way to beat my mother’s censorship of “glawm”. I read. I read all sorts of scary stuff at night under the covers with a flashlight. It was a lot scarier that way. And as I created in my mind’s eye all the terror-choked scenes from the written page, I longed to see the stories reveal themselves in from of my physical eyes so that I could be a witness.
Well, now that I am an adult…it continues. Many’s the night that finds me nestled under the covers in a bedroom made eerie by black and white light. (I know it’s not good for my eyes to watch TV without a light on, but it’s scarier that way.) And I’m riveted to Cable reruns of Alfred Hitchcock and the Twilight Zone. I’m still seeking the thrills of the supernatural, still trying to define “glawm”. It’s funny but even to this day when I hear the theme music, I also hear my mother’s admonition. Perhaps the willful defiance of that voice which I consciously undertake whenever I watch an episode is part and parcel of the thrill…not only does the subject matter excite me but I’m being a bad boy by watching it!
I’m certain that it is my penchant for the supernatural that rivets my attention on two of today’s lesson: Exodus and Matthew. They come alive for me. Using the skills of imagination honed by devouring those many volumes by flashlight, I find myself standing in the stories. I’m there beside Joshua as he watches Moses go up into the cloud filled with fire, and the flesh stands up on my arms. I’m there with Peter and James and John as they see light shining through Jesus as he’s flanked by Moses and Elijah. And as the cloud overshadows us, my skin turns clammy with fright. When the voice speaks, my knees positively give way and with the three in the story, I collapse on the ground in fear and trembling.
Fear and trembling. That must have been what it was like to have been with Moses when he disappeared into the fiery cloud on Sinai or to have been covered by the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration. Fear and trembling all around. What is everyone afraid of?
They are afraid because they see something they cannot explain. A cloud blazes with fire into which Moses disappears. Jesus shimmering in light from an unseen, inner source and talking with Moses and Elijah. No one had ever seen such sights.
The apostles were shielded from the radiance of the light by the thick fog of a cloud, only to hear, in fear and trembling, the voice of God.
Fear and trembling. Throughout Holy Scripture those are the words which describe at all times and in all places the meeting of humans and our God. “The Lord is King,” the psalmist sings, “let the people tremble…let the earth shake.”
The God of fear and trembling is all-powerful. The God of fear and trembling is distant. The God of fear and trembling is high and exalted. He is a stern judge and a king whose deeds surpass human understanding.
And in a strange way people are comfortable with this God. They are comfortable because they know how to act in his presence. They bow down in craven fear, knees shaking, eyes covered and bodies pimpled with the little mountains of gooseflesh. And like me under the covers with my books of terror, they adore the thrill of the fear. They adore it, because the fear keeps God distant. You never can approach this God of fear and trembling.
And that’s the trouble with the “fear and trembling” perception of God. We have found a way of dealing with it and never have to see God face to face. We never really meet the God of fear and trembling.
Left to ourselves nothing would have changed. God would remain distant and we would be bowed down, immobilized by fear, bowed down like Peter and James and John, little hump-backed islands, separate from God and from each other.
But you see, God did not create us to be distant from him. God did not create us to be separate from each other. And God got tired of it! God decided to do something about it. Many times throughout our story as God’s people we see God moving towards us to show us who he is. Prophets reveal God’s will to us. God calls us through Noah and Abraham and Moses into covenants–contracts–with him. But it’s not enough. If God gets too close, human beings fall down trembling or turn in fear to face their backs towards God.
God decided to do something about it in a new way. The new way is Jesus. Jesus looks like us, he walks and talks like us, he laughs and cries like us, he bleeds and dies like us. God come among us as one of us, and Jesus reaches across the gulf of fear and trembling and touches us and says, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
God comes among us in our own image, in order that we can see that we are God’s image.
It is not that God has a body like you and me, but at the core of who we are, we are God’s likenesses in this world, it was this likeness to God that what was visible shining through Jesus on the mount.
But exactly what was it that was shining through? Scripture speaks of it only as light, but we know what it is. It is love.
God is love. That’s one of the first verses of Scripture that we each learned and that we teach our children and grandchildren. We say it with ease, but do we know what it looks like?
We do know that love does shine. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all seen someone in love, perhaps it was your own face in the mirror.
The eyes are bright with a new sparkle, the smile is radiant, the cheeks aglow. The same is true of a woman pregnant with child. Her love for the new creation growing in her womb shines through her face.
That’s how God wants to be seen by us, as love making radiant all of God’s creation. All of it, mind you–especially you and me. God wants us to shine with the light of that love, just like Moses and Jesus and Elijah. Because each one of us, as we walk through our lives, is a moment of Transfiguration for the people we meet. It is through us that God’s love shines to fill the world with light.
But now it is fear and trembling with a difference, because it’s no longer the last word, for in the midst of that fear and trembling the forgiving, the loving hand of Jesus touches us and his voice calls us to turn our faces once again to the face of love himself.
“Get up,” he says, “and do not be afraid.” He pick us up as a mother picks up a child who has fallen while she is trying to learn to walk, puts her feet back under her and says, “Get up. Don’t be afraid. Let’s try it again. I won’t let you get hurt.”
The old fear and trembling are no more the final words. The is a new word now, Jesus the Word of God himself.
Listen to that new Word. Lift up your heads. Take off those veils of solemn faces; open up those eyes which have learned not to see.
Trust him. Get up and do not be afraid. And let the light shine through your face and through your caring hands so that the world will see and know the love of God in Jesus Christ as it is made incarnate in you.
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