Sermon: Oooo! Scary!

March 3, 2019
Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9:28-43a

by Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau

Greetings from the mainland. If you haven’t met me yet, my name is John Madsen-Bibeau. I’m a friend of Eric’s from seminary and when I’m not doing this, I do psychotherapy in Massachusetts. I am happy to be here preaching for you this morning. Eric works really hard, and has been extremely gracious to me this week. The least I can do is preach for him.

With that said, I have come to notice that Eric knows and understands Hawaiian culture, and I don’t. There are certain assumptions about this morning’s text that I take for granted that a room full of Hawaiians didn’t share. The other morning in Bible Study, as we looked at these texts, not a single person in the room thought of God as “scary” — and Eric took their side! 

I have worked with these texts since me time in seminary over 30 years ago, and every time I do, on the mainland at least, people understand that God is scary. I blame Hawaii for it. Little old ladies are less scared by God than I am! Still, I have thought about it a lot and this is what I have come up with. You live in a place that looks like, feels like, and in fact is a living planet, where creation and the creative power of God in your daily lives is normal. You live surrounded by nature and natural myths are a part of your lives. What we call “mystery,” you call “life.” Back where I live, concrete is everywhere. Even in farm country, where things grow and change, we have to turn over the earth in order to make that happen. Here, the earth turns itself over! 

So, let’s go back to the beginning — at least for me, so that you can understand those people out there.

With all that said, Let’s turn our eyes to the texts for this morning. In our Exodus passage… Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God, and he glows when he comes down. And while it doesn’t particularly bother Moses, it is …. scary …  to the people who see the glow, because it’s obvious to them that he had gotten so close to God that his skin glows, and that kind of close would kill you average man! They, too, experience this fear of the power of God in their midst.

This is what the three disciples in today’s story have when they see Jesus begin to glow, and Moses and Elijah appear.  In his nervousness, Peter struggles for what to say or do now that God is here. Peter tries to pretend he knows what he’s doing, and says, “it’s a good thing we’re here.  We can set up tents for the three of you.” Of course, how the disciples are going to do that with no materials is another issue. They will get it done, Peter says… and God says, from the sky, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Now, many scholars say that this is God saying, “Shut up!” to Peter… with the implied, “he’s trying to show you something!” In any case, when it happens, the disciples experience fear. 

So what’s with all the fear? In the early 1900’s, two people, a psychologist and a theologian, tried to understand the phenomena. The psychologist from Harvard was William James and he spoke of the experience as a universal one that all religions have… a  mystical experience of The Divine, of facing something which is large and unknowable. Rudolph Otto, a theologian, would use the term “Mysterium Tremendum” to describe this experience of what he called “The Holy.” In Latin, it literally means “Big Mystery.” Webster’s translates it as “terrible mystery.” 

In other words, when we experience God, we are in awe of how BIG God is and also there’s a bit of fear when we realize how small we are and how little we know. In New England, fishermen would talk about “having respect” for the sea, and how sailors who didn’t have it were in peril for their lives.

Now, why do I tell you this? Because this is how calls to ministry happen, and maybe some of you are called to ministry. It is also how prophecies and mystical experiences with angels happen… the annunciation to Mary, the silencing of Zechariah, and so forth. In fact, the most used phrase in the Bible is “Be not afraid,” because angels need to say it when they show up in a world that’s not expecting them.

When God wishes to impart some piece of knowledge or wisdom, it is this “mysterium tremendum” that is evoked in the experience — the awe and a bit of fear— that comes from weird things happening in a life that’s supposed to be stable, and “normal.”

So where does the fear come from? It’s part of the wonder. Eric and I went to the beach the other day and saw the coast, and the tsunami zone.  The coast is gorgeous, and the waves are beautiful in their shape and their form — the colors a pantheon of whites and blues intertwined with each other. It was easy to experience awe at the time…. until the waves hit the shore and the foam went 20 feet into the air. Then, we experienced fear. Nature is awesome to look at until you realize that it’s bigger than you. Infinitely bigger. 

So, when God calls, when God intervenes in human history, it is scary, because it is powerful, and we’re not used to that much power in one spot at any given time. But it is real, and over time you sort of get used to it. And if this sort of thing happens to you, God is trying to tell you something. I don’t know what that is, but you want to listen to it.

If you have some Truth that needs to be said or acted on, and it won’t go away even after years, brothers and sisters, I want to encourage you to let that truth —whatever it is — be known, or acted on, or whatever needs to happen with it.

I want to close with a quote which has been attributed to Nelson Mandela, but is actually from Marianne Williamson. Because both are truth tellers, it could be seen as being from either of them. And the quote is this:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

So, maybe you are afraid of it, but try it anyway, and witness the power of God in the world. Amen.

Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Oooo! Scary!

Like Pastor Eric, Rev. Madsen-Bibeau strays from the text sometimes. It’s the creative process.

Photo of Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on March 3, 2019

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