Last Epiphany: Reading the Bible as Poetry not History

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Link to Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9:

The liturgical Reading
“Transfiguration” by Frederick Buechner

His face shone like the sun,” Matthew says, “and his garments became white as light.” Moses and Elijah were talking to him. There was a bright cloud overshadowing him and out of it a voice saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The three disciples who witnessed the scene “fell on their faces, and were filled with awe” (Matthew 17:1-6).

It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.

Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, or a woman picking peas in the garden, or sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”


The Bible is not history.

There is some history IN the bible,
but the Bible itself is not history.

It is true that we know many of the incidents
and people mentioned in the bible
are identifiable, historical, moments in human history
but the Bible itself was never written
to preserve a historical record.

In fact, the Bible wasn’t written at all
in the way we think of writing today.

When we talk about writing today,
we think of people sitting at the computer –
or not that long ago,
with a typewriter or yellow legal pad –
and writing a long book of connected chapters.

Writing in our world
has a beginning and an end,
and often has a duration lasting
only a few minutes, hours, days, months,
or in the case of books, a few years.

But the Bible was TOLD
long before it was written.
The stories were shared over campfires,
ritualistic meals at the family table,
and among small knots of organized believers.
Competing groups told the same stories
a little differently,
giving the characters they liked best
the best parts and punch lines.
Which of those versions was included in the Bible
as it began to be written down,
involved politics as well as story telling.

The Bible as we know it,
was edited together as a big, fat book
over a thousand or more years
while those stories circulated.
And while the stories about Jesus
were compressed into a much shorter period of time
than the stories about Moses,

the nature of the Gospel’s evolution –
is the same kind of process.

I mention all of that because
more often than not,
we treat the Bible as if it is an historical narrative.

We read it out loud in church,
or study it in small groups,
as if the words
and the characters
and the events
were a textbook
unwrapping exactly what happened.

But that is a very hazardous way to receive the Bible.
It will lead to outlandish,
bizarre, downright dangerous,
and bigoted ideas.

Instead, more often than not,
we ought to hear biblical stories
like the two we heard today…as poetry.

If we treat Moses on Sinai,
and Jesus on his mountain, as a poem –
or even as a marvelously madcap abstract painting
with strange, vibrant, swaths and slingers of color –
then we begin to feel our way
to some pretty good stuff in these stories.

All we need to do is be a little lithe and elastic,
and follow that sweet slight-of-hand
exemplified by writer-theologian, Frederick Buechner,

For example,
I have never been enclosed in a cloud
on top of a mountain,
or had a vision of Jesus
hanging out with Moses and Elijah,
but I have had mountaintop experiences
from which I could suddenly see clearly,
and breathe deeply again.

I have never been handed tablets of stone
that set out the perimeter of my life and actions,
but I have had astoundingly clear guidance
from time to time – even if I didn’t really understand
that advice until I was looking back on it.

I have never heard God speak in an audible voice
from out of a cloud,
but God has spoken to me clearly
in the audible voice of a friend,
and in the speech of prophets,
and even in the whisper of dreams
and inner voices.

We know what Matthew is up to here,
with this vision-quest story of his,
and it is a kind of poetry.

Matthew, remember, is a Jew,
and a follower of the dead Messiah, Jesus.
He understands that if he is ever going to grab
the attention of his fellow Galileans and Judeans about Jesus,
he is going to have to do it through Moses.
So Matthew poetically arranges Jesus
in the image of Moses.
Just compare those two readings today!

In Exodus, Moses goes up the mountain.
Jesus goes up the mountain too.

Moses takes Joshua – the heir apparent –
and some other leaders with him.
So Jesus takes Peter – the heir apparent – and
some other leaders with him too.

Moses was in the clouds for six days,
just like the Creation of the world took six days.
In Creation, God rested on the seventh day,
and God finished with Moses on the seventh day too.
Well, wouldn’t you know it,
after six days Jesus goes up the mountain,
and he gets transformed up there
on the seventh day also.

Moses’ authority is confirmed
by being given the commandments –
proof positive that he is the one to be followed.
And of course, Jesus’ authority is confirmed too,
by hanging out on a cloud with Moses AND Elijah –
proof positive, if ever there was any,
that Jesus is the one to be listened to.

We will see the same parallels between Moses
and Jesus next Sunday in the wilderness.
What we need to remember
when we come to these stories,
is they are literary not historical;
and poetry not prose.

If we read these stories
as if they are an historical account;
or worse, if we read them like the side of a box of cereal
that tells us what kind of daily vitamins we need;
then we will miss what we are supposed to get
and get what we really ought to miss.

Today’s Gospel story, for example,
gets used by the Church to assert its imperial theology
that Jesus is the one and only,
biggest and bestest god
that ever was
and ever will be.

But that would be an historical reading of it,
or worse, a mind-numbing
literal point of view.

If we read Matthew more poetically,
with a little verve and spirit,
then we might see and hear something different.

Here is how I read it as poetry.

In the presence of a terrifyingly awesome
and overwhelmingly spectacular experience
up there on the mountain,
Peter just doesn’t know what to do.
Like a lot of people who are anxious and afraid,
Peter dithers – he runs around and chatters.

He is like a mouse in the corner of its cage
nibbling on its own tail.
He is frightened.

Here is God, in so much more spectacular power
and magnificence than he had ever imagined.
He is just plain scared,
like all of us would be.

In his frightened dithering
all he can do is offer up a lame idea:
“Do you want us to…”
“Shut up,” the voice of God thunders!
“Listen, don’t talk,” God says to the little mortals.
All three of them then fall to the ground
with their faces in the dirt,
and probably wet their robes.
I’m thinking Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion.

Now if we are reading this as poetry,
the key event blossoms quietly right here
in the middle of the story:

Jesus reaches down…and touches them.
He touches them.

Just like he did with the lepers, he touches them.
Just like he did to Peter’s sick mother-in-law,
he touches them.
Just like he does with the blind,
lame, lost, and marginalized
in all the stories,
he touches them.
And, as should be familiar to us
from the various Christmas and Easter stories,
he says, “don’t be afraid.”

The fact is,
we are afraid.
At least we should be
if ever we find ourselves
in the presence of God.
And that is part of the poetry of this story.

We should be afraid of God;

not because we will be judged or condemned
or any silly, human idea like that!
But we should fear God, as in be awed by God,
because God is so much more
than we have ever allowed ourselves to imagine.
God is so much more incredible
than the little boxes that our religions
have packaged the Creator of the Cosmos in.

Peter represents our propensity
to button down God;
to define God with little receptacles
so we can pretend to have control
of this thing that is so much greater than we are.

But God is so much more massive,
so much more powerful,
so much more dangerous,
so much more unpredictable,
so much more ravenous for us
than anything we have ever imagined.
We should be afraid.

And yet, immediately in the moment of fright;
at the most dangerous point of the story;
a small verse of the poem
pierces everything blooming around it;
and we are alerted to listen.
That is when we are touched by God
and assured we need not be afraid

We are touched.

I imagine if I asked you to close your eyes right now,
you could sit back and remember
moments when you have been touched.

Through small mysteries like bread and wine,
we are touched.

Through a friend, or even a stranger,
appearing at just the right moment
to utter just the right words,
we are touched.

At the moment we are least able to
rise above the pain and grief of our lives,
something happens to give us strength
and resilience,
and we feel touched.

This odd story in Matthew,
if we read it as history,
is about coercive power and majesty
and used to assert orthodoxy.

But when we receive this story as a poem,
and we feel the tenderness within it,
the message comes through
that the Creator of the Cosmos
reaches out and,
even in our smallness and insignificance,
touches us.

Well, because it is not history
or a table of vitamins,
so we get to interpret stories like these.
So that is our work.
You may interpret it differently than I do,
and therein rests the beauty of art –
poem, painting, or sculpture.
Its beauty
and its meaning
is rendered by the one who receives it
more than by the intention of the one who created it.

Whatever you do with these stories,
this is the last Sunday of Epiphany,
and on Wednesday we meet our mortality
with ashes.
Then next Sunday,
we enter into Lent.
All of that is poetry too.