What to Do When You’re Squeamish About Miracles
The great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, was standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville when he had a great revelation.
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Walking around shining like the sun.
That is apparently what Moses was doing after his encounters with God on the mountain.
And that is what Jesus was like in the Transfiguration.
Jesus put aside his glory because he had a lot of specific work left to do in the world and he couldn’t do it if people were so awestruck by him in his glorious form that they fell on their faces and trembled at the sight of him.
It was hard enough to avoid doing that when he healed people and multiplied loaves and fishes looking like a perfectly ordinary person.
Not twenty minutes after the Transfiguration Jesus was back down in the marketplace healing a young boy with epilepsy and going about his good work.
Jesus didn’t need the appearance of physical glory to get people’s attention. The goodness that flowed out of him nonstop did that all on its own.
But why did Moses hide the evidence of his encounter with God?
Why did he veil himself when his face was shining?
Exodus says, “When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.”
So Moses wore the veil to soothe the Israelites and make them comfortable around him.
But I think Moses did the Israelites a disservice by veiling his experience of God from them.
The Israelites, like all of us, clearly liked shiny things, as evidenced by their quick devotion to the Golden Calf.
Why not show them what an encounter with the true and living God can do to a person?
Because the Israelites weren’t really afraid of the light shining out of Moses’ face.
What they were really afraid of was the fact that he had been changed by his encounter with God.
We make this same mistake over and over ourselves.
Sure, I’ll pray and go to church and help out with ministry projects, as long as I don’t have to actually change anything about my life or myself.
Inertia, the biggest enemy of individual and corporate spiritual growth, is a seductive master.
We as human beings love routine. We live to snuggle into our comfort zones.
We know instinctively, as the Israelites did, that being in true encounter with God Almighty will rip us completely out of our old habits, opinions, stances and life choices.
And that is a fear, for many of us, worse than any concept of hell or death.
I can picture myself entering the dungeons of hell, thinking, well, this won’t be so bad, as long as I get to keep my usual parking spot.
Torment me with fire and brimstone, I can endure, but move Monday Night Football to Tuesday, and suddenly I shout, “Save me, Lord Jesus!”
And so I think that we not only shield ourselves from change, we shield each other, just as Moses did for the Israelites.
When was the last time you told someone about the most important spiritual experience of your life?
When was the last time you asked someone about the most important spiritual experience in his or her life?
Maybe it was last week, and if so, congratulations.
But maybe it was never. Maybe too often we’re allowing ourselves and our neighbors to live veiled.
I think part of it is cultural. We predominantly white Midwestern Episcopalians don’t talk about these things very well.
Some Christian traditions talk freely about God’s intervention in their lives, about experiencing signs and visions.
Of course, God doesn’t always make God’s presence known through signs and wonders, and burning bushes and voices from the mountains are few and far between these days.
But if someone asked us how we had seen God in our lives lately and we found ourselves unable to answer, maybe we aren’t looking hard enough.
God is present in the small things, the everyday things. The beauty of a sunrise or the smile of a baby or the fellowship of a family night at home—those are important moments of God’s presence, to be cherished and rejoiced in.
But today’s Bible stories are about when God goes big, when the signs and wonders have been extraordinary—perhaps because the audience was too dense to pick up on the smaller signs.
There is virtually nothing God will not do to care for us if God determines we need it, even if it includes bending the laws of physics.
What I’m leading up to here is that there are more people in this room than you would guess from our proper Episcopalian exteriors who have experienced the God of wonders.
There are more people in this room than we realize who have seen God in a very special, out of the ordinary way—an act of healing, a voice or a vision.
But because we’re so uncomfortable talking about it, we don’t often hear or tell those stories.
We wear the veil, and we expect others around us to wear the veil.
And when it comes to being uncomfortable with stories of healings, voices and visions, I’m the leader of the pack. It’s a terrible sin I’ve been hiding from you all these months.
It’s ridiculous and I’m totally ashamed of it, but the awful truth is that when someone begins to tell me a story of a truly remarkable, miraculous experience of God, I freeze up. It’s so dumb.
I mean, I have no trouble believing in the miracles in the Bible.
Jesus walked on water? No problem.
Literal feeding of five thousand people from two loaves and five fish? Excellent.
But a friend starts talking about how her cousin received a cancer diagnosis and then after having prayer poured out for her by family and friends, has her doctors baffled because the cancer cells are just gone? I recoil.
I think the reason some of us want to reject God’s miracles in our own day and time is because they somehow offend our sense of fairness.
For every friend whose cancer magically disappears, there are ten more who fight a long battle, also saturated with prayer, and never see remission.
For every friend who has a voice or a vision of God, there are ten more who are good and faithful Christians every day of their lives and never so much as hear a cricket chirp out of rhythm, much less a divine voice.
But I’m coming to realize that is a mental stance of scarcity and jealousy, and God is about abundance and blessing.
God is about glory bursting forth in unexpected places, not about a carefully arranged veil that blocks the grace from shining through unless we’ve earned it.
Nine times out of ten there may be no miracle, and we will just have to slog it out among the hard circumstances of life, praying and trusting that there is a goodness that underlies it all.
But that tenth time.
We should—I should—try to get more comfortable with that terrifying tenth time, when God breaks the rules.
I’m encouraging all of us to take off the veil.
Let’s talk to each other about what God does in our lives, the ordinary stuff and the extraordinary stuff.
If you’ve never experienced anything out of the ordinary from God, don’t feel bad—frankly, it’s probably a sign of spiritual maturity. St. Teresa of Avila said spiritual consolations are for the weak.
Or to say it a little more kindly, you’re probably already listening to God so well that God doesn’t have to resort to skywriting to communicate with you.
But for the rest of us schmucks who need the lights and the fireworks sometimes, God did it for folks in the Bible, and it appears that God does it for us from time to time.
We are all walking around shining like the sun, as Merton says.
We should start acting like it.
We should share and treasure our experiences of God in both the ordinary and the miraculous.
Don’t be afraid to shine forth with God’s glory.
As Paul says in our lesson today, “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed…And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
If we push away the glory, we push away transformation, transfiguration.
If we turn toward the glory, take off the veil, we run the risk of being changed, and challenging our neighbors to be changed.
But isn’t it worth it for the chance to live in the light?
If you liked, please share!