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Waiting for the Light to Shine

Mark Twain once said that his pious, sainted mother never missed a Sunday’s service her whole life long, but that she never once heard a sermon against slavery. The Civil War took place not only on bloody battlefields but also from behind dueling pulpits where, with greater degrees of bravery and cowardice, God and the Bible were quoted for and against human bondage.

Huckleberry Finn, the unreliable narrator of Twain’s classic, is fleeing civilization down the Mississippi River in the company of the runaway slave Jim. Finn has been civilized enough by well-meaning folks to know that what he’s doing, helping Jim escape slavery, is the worst possible sin, but he’s come to realize Jim is more human than anyone he ever met. When the moment comes and Huck miserably realizes there’s no way he can betray Jim back into slavery like the good Christian he wants to be, he utters the most important line in American Literature – “All right then; I'll go to hell.”

I don't know if you've seen the musical Big River, based on the novel Huckleberry Finn, and featuring music and lyrics by the late, great Roger Miller, but there's a wonderful song that captures this moment titled Waiting for the Light to Shine. I encourage you to look it up. Huck sings that he is waiting for the light to shine but the irony is that it is already shining in his heart, and even though he thinks he’s lost, he’s doing the godly thing.

These three stories are about the light revealing the truth -- about Moses and his encounter with God, about the dawning of the light exposing cleverly devised myths, and about the transfiguration reveal who Jesus really is

The light is shining in these three scriptures. Like a devouring fire, God is shining shockingly brightly in the ten words about to be written in stone. Peter reminds his listeners that Jesus was fully revealed in the divine light of the Transfiguration and warns the believers they are not to let “cleverly devised myths” blind them while waiting for the dawn of God’s kingdom.

And in Matthew we see that Transfiguration, Jesus revealed as a creature of light honored by Moses, Elijah, and the Voice from Heaven, a sight that is normally veiled from them and us.

In some ways it still seems like we're waiting for the light to shine, when actually it's shining brightly in our hearts. The question is whether we're going to actually open our eyes and look.

Exodus 24:12-18
Sometimes it seems like we're seeing the same scene over and over again -- Moses on the mountaintop, receiving the Ten Commandments. It's a pretty tangled tale. What we ought to see, what the people see, is a devouring fire up on their on the mountaintop.

Moses has already received the Ten Commandments, hasn’t he? Well yes. But this is the written version. Moses may well have written the commandments down on his own, possibly with pen and ink on papyrus, but when God inscribes them in stone there is a sense of permanence to them.

Because Moses will be gone for a while, and because he is taking his second-in-command, successor, and protégé Joshua with him, he makes sure that someone is appointed to take care of any legal matters that arise in his absence. The NRSV uses the term “disputes,” but literally it means “owner of words.” Moses knows that time will not stop, even with him standing before the devouring fire of the divine presence. Certainly, when the pastor or others in the church travel on vacation, someone must be in charge of whatever needs doing while they’re gone.

2 Peter 1:16-21
There’s a rabbinic story from the Babylonian Talmud that is retold in several versions. For some Jewish denominations certain prayers are to be recited at dawn, but dawn, unlike sunrise, can be difficult to determine, so some students as their rabbi, “How light does it have to be to constitute dawn?” The rabbi turns the question back to the students. They give various answers. One says, “When I can see two animals in the field, and I can tell the cow from the horse.” Another says, “When I can tell a fig tree from an olive tree.” And a third said, “When I see a person and can tell if that person is a woman or a man.”

“No,” said the rabbi, “When you can see a person and know that person is your brother or your sister, when you see that person is your friend, then the night is over and the new day has dawned.”

The author of this letter is suggesting that we might well fall prey to "cleverly devised myths" until at last the morning star rises and the light dawns. In his day perhaps these “cleverly devised myths” were not only the stories of the Greek and Roman gods, but also competing philosophies like Epicureanism and Stoicism. We may not worship the old gods, or feign interest in the old philosophies, but truth has been taking a beating in recent years as people and their leaders have repeated falsehoods. These myths, telling falsehoods about ethnic groups or political personages, take on a life of their own, and constant repetition and the fact they confirm the long-held prejudices held by some gives them a life they do not deserve.

The truth of the gospel story is confirmed, the author tells us, in the Transfiguration, when the divine nature of Jesus was fully revealed. That should be our guide while waiting for the revelation of God to be fully known by all.

Matthew 17:1-9
Translations vary for the word skene, the word used for the three structures that the apostle Peter suggests be erected to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. We derive the word “skin,” as in animal skins used to make tents, as well as the word “scene,” a reference to the animals skins that were painted to provide a scenic backdrop for ancient theatricals. This is indeed a dramatic scene, a turning point in the gospels when Jesus is revealed as fully divine and fully human before his death and resurrection. The offer to build three tents is an appropriate way to provide for the comfort of three honored personages. The tents also called to mind what is sometimes referred to as the tabernacle, a word that hides the fact that the Ark of the Covenant and the presence of God were housed in a tent that traveled with the slaves freed from Egypt as they travelled through the desert, even when their sins stretched the journey to forty years. Perhaps these tents were a way of creating historical markers for this amazing event. I also wonder if Peter mentions the skene because he felt like he had to fill the space with talking, even though an awed silence might have been more appropriate.

But I think at its heart this was an attempt by Peter to keep the holy in one spot, as if we could return to a certain place and summon God. All that became moot when the heavenly voice spoke and knocked them senseless -- which was a way of knocking some sense into them.
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