180211 – Dazzling Darkness

Yr B ~ Transfiguration ~ Mark 9:2-9

[A monologue in the voice of Simon-Peter]

Dear Diary. What a week it’s been! Six days ago I was walking along with Jesus and the gang and out of nowhere he asked what people were saying about him. We answered that people were saying all sorts of things, like calling him a prophet, or even Elijah himself! Then Jesus asked who we thought he was. I should’ve kept my big mouth shut! But I couldn’t help myself. I blurted out, “You are the Messiah!” He said not to tell anyone about him. I thought that was a bit weird, I mean, wasn’t that the whole reason we were out travelling from place to place preaching about the kingdom? So people could know who Jesus was?dazz;ing-darkness

Well, I guess it’s more complicated than that, because then Jesus started talking about how people who preach the kingdom and know that they’re one with God end up suffering, and being rejected, especially by the religious establishment, and that they’d even go so far as to kill him to shut him up! And then he said something cryptic about being raised up again.

Well, that was just too much. I mean, I’d just called him the Messiah! You don’t reject a Messiah and make them suffer and kill them! So I took him aside and told him so! I know, I know – again I should’ve kept my mouth shut! He didn’t like that at all! He said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That hurt, but I guess he’s right. I wish I understood what divine things looked like! So I started praying that I could understand better, that I could see.

Well, six days later, today, I sure got to see something all right! It happened early this morning. James and John and I went up the mountain together with Jesus to pray. Jesus loves getting away from everything and really focusing on prayer! And I love going with him. I’ve done it many times, but today was really different!

Today as we were all praying something happened to him that I still don’t know how to really describe. His clothes seemed to become pure white – whiter than I’ve ever seen before. And it was like Jesus was…I know this sounds weird…but he was glowing. It was like light seemed to be coming right out of him. It wasn’t shining down on him, it was coming from him. Or maybe through him would be a better way to say it.

And then, and I checked with James and John after to make sure I wasn’t dreaming it, then I saw what looked like Elijah and Moses standing right there with Jesus. And they were talking together! I mean, what?!?! Why them? Am I supposed to think that Jesus is like, equal to Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets? Really? Equal? I was going out of my mind! It was just too much to take in – too much to figure out.

So I blurted out – yes, I know, I really have to work on that – I said, “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

I mean, I didn’t know what else to say! I’ve never felt that way before – so lit up, so awestruck, so utterly bewildered. I didn’t want that moment, that feeling, to ever end.
But at the same time I was terrified. We all were! It was Moses and Elijah for crying out loud! Can you imagine?! The biggest names in our whole religious history! Of course they deserve a tabernacle, a place where we can worship. What was I supposed to do?

And then, believe it or not, it got weirder!
Because the next thing we knew we were totally engulfed in a cloud. It was like a super-dense fog rolled in in an instant and completely surrounded us. I couldn’t see a thing!
But it felt amazing. It felt warm, and safe, and happy, and I felt like I could’ve climbed every mountain there was.
And peaceful. So incredibly peaceful. I wasn’t terrified anymore.

I honestly don’t know how long it lasted. It may have only been a short time but it felt like forever – like time didn’t matter anymore. I really don’t know.
But I know what I heard. It was like a voice was just emanating from the cloud. And the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

That wasn’t the first time I’d heard that! Well, it was but it wasn’t. Jesus told us one night around the fire about his baptism, and how as he came up out of the water he experienced God’s Presence totally enfolding him – kind of like that cloud did to us today – and he said God called him God’s beloved. I never forgot those words. And now I got to hear them myself.

And I know this is going to sound really big-headed, because I know that the voice was talking about Jesus. But while I was in that cloud, and feeling those feelings, and experiencing that sense of being so totally immersed in God’s Presence too that I felt like I was being baptized in God’s Spirit too! And I know that I’m God’s beloved too!
No, I don’t mean that I think I’m Jesus. But I swear I know in my heart that God loves me too. Like Jesus. Like Jesus has been saying all along! And I’ve been listening – but you can bet I’ll be listening even more closely now!

And then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as it all happened it all stopped. The cloud was gone. Moses and Elijah were gone. And it was just us and Jesus again.
And it was so quiet. And we just prayed, and prayed, and prayed. We stayed and prayed a long time.

Eventually Jesus looked at us and we knew it was time to go. I guess you can’t stay on the mountaintop forever. And as we were making our way down the mountain, getting closer and closer to the noise of the world, Jesus looked at us and insisted that we not try to tell anyone what we’d experienced until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

And I was just about to say something, and tell him that after what we’d just seen, and heard, and experienced that there was no way he or anyone else was going to suffer, or be silenced, or killed by anyone – but I’d learned my lesson! I’m going to keep my mouth shut and just listen!
For now anyway.

But I had to get it off my chest and spell it all out just so I could start to make some sense of it all. So here I am, writing it down in my journal, and I can barely believe what I’m writing. It’s so implausible. It’s so bizarre, and strange, and mysterious, and fantastic, and wonderful, and awesome.
And I think the thing that will stay with me the most, and the thing I’ll have the hardest time putting into words if I ever get to tell this story, is how it felt to be in that cloud – that cloud where I knew everything, and knew nothing at the same time.
I wonder if I’ll ever experience anything like that again?
Or maybe, O God I pray this is true, maybe I’ll experience that every time I pray!
That would be heaven on earth!

[End monologue]

Peter had what we today might classify as a mystical experience. Have you ever had one? An experience of God so profound and real that it left you utterly unable to really describe it, or put it into words? I have. And I wish I could tell you about them. But I really can’t!Mystics struggle to find language to describe their prayer experiences, and when they do it often ends up being somewhat ephemeral, and dreamy, and otherworldly, and uses complex metaphors and imagery that when you’re done reading or hearing them you’re sometimes more confused than when you started! But that sense of disequilibrium is a key part of it all. If it all made logical sense and neatly fit into an understandable box it wouldn’t be much of a mystical experience!

One image that mystics often speak of is to describe God as a dazzling darkness. I know what you’re thinking. We spend all our time talking about how God is love and light and now I’m saying that God is darkness. Isn’t darkness usually associated with “bad” stuff that light comes to defeat?
Yes, that’s one set of images for dark and light.

But the imagery that mystics use talking about the dazzling darkness of God, is referring to trying to find language to actually describe God Godself. Our usual darkness and light imagery speaks of the darkness in the world and God’s light making it better – but that’s about the effect God’s Presence has on us. It’s a “functional” kind of imagery.

A mystic referring to God as dazzling darkness, or infinite darkness, isn’t talking about function, they’re talking about God’s ontology. Ontology is a fancy technical word that is all about the nature of being – or the character of existence. It’s not about what God does but who God is. It’s all very metaphysical and impossible to put into words. And that’s the point!

Mystics would say that God is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that every single image we could ever come up with to describe God is entirely inadequate and limiting. And they say things like:

The only way to describe God is to leave every element of description behind.
The only way to understand God is to go beyond understanding.
The only way to talk about God is to go beyond words.
And the only way to know God is by unknowing – by forgetting or leaving behind every word, image, thought, or concept about God that you’ve ever had (because those images are stopping you from really knowing God) and so to know God you have to enter into that place of absolute unknowing – which is like utter darkness.

But it’s a darkness that is so full of God, so full of Presence, so full of being that it’s, paradoxically, dazzling and overwhelming. Doesn’t that sound exactly like what Peter experienced on that mountain, watching Jesus become transfigured, and being engulfed in a cloud of God’s Presence?
One of the most famous books about mystical experience is called, “The Cloud of Unknowing”!
Are you dazzled yet? Is your mind swimming a bit? Is this all making you feel off-balance? Then you’re on the right track.

Karl Rahner was one of the most important Catholic theologians of the 20th century. Rahner famously said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or will not exist at all.”
Historically, especially in the mainline churches, we tend to privilege knowledge, interpretation, and theology and regard personal, emotional, spiritual experience with suspicion. Rather than celebrating hearts strangely warmed we look askance at warmed hearts strangely!
Frankly, I think we’ve been wrong, and Rahner is absolutely right. In the future, and even today, if we’re not about something like mystical, personal spiritual experience, there won’t be a Christianity worth having.

And that brings us back to what was my not so subtle overarching theme for this season of epiphany – evangelism. Inviting people into awareness. Ultimately, that’s the point of evangelism after all. It’s not about trying to convince someone of some theological insight.
It’s not about content.
It’s about conveying an experience and awakening in someone the awareness that through something like church they themselves could actually have a deep spiritual experience too!

Of course, the challenge is that mystical, spiritual, awe-filled, wonderstruck experiences are so personal that telling about them is virtually impossible.
But try we must.

Evangelism is about helping someone have an epiphany!
An epiphany that faith isn’t about dogma, or rules, or checkboxes – it’s about personal spiritual experience – like Peter had.
It’s about letting that experience transform and transfigure you.
It’s about a journey into the dazzling darkness of God’s indescribable Presence.
Share that with someone, and watch what happens!