A Dose of Reality
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
February 11, 2017
Trinity Presbyterian Church
In his classic work “The Republic,” Plato describes a cave in which prisoners are chained to a wall and they are facing a blank wall on the opposite side of the cave. Because of their chains, the only thing they can see is that blank wall in front of them and that is their reality. (Are you with me so far?) Now, Plato described light being emitted from a fire lit behind the chained prisoners and objects and shapes are passed in front of the flames to create various and probably crazy shadows on the blank wall. Sort of like shadow puppets. Again, to the prisoners, the shadowy scenes on the wall represent their only reality. Yet, in fact, as we all know, shadows represent only vague images of reality. Plato’s imagery has simply become known as the psychic prison. It was Plato’s way of defining the way most people trod through life. The cave represents the world and its inhabitants are the prisoners. The chains epitomize ignorance, which means they prevent the prisoners from the freedom to explore other viewpoints in order to discover the truth.
The Apostle Paul would have probably agreed with Plato in the fact that people are prisoners to viewing and believing a whole pattern of shadowy lies versus the truth. He described the culprit as “the god of this age” who places veils before our eyes to prevent us from seeing the light of the truth brought to us from Jesus Christ. He warned the Corinthians about “preaching ourselves” and unbelievers ignoring the reality of the light of Christ right in our midst, because “… they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Even we believers get caught up in the veritable maze of veils. The details of preaching ourselves. We’re always interested in someone’s pedigree, so that we can try and figure them out. Where are they from? Oh, California. Well, that explains a lot. What do they do to contribute to the planet earth and society? Oh, you’re a politician. Well, I guess I may have some trust issues with you, then. In what part of town do you live? Oh, nothing good can come from there. When we collect our facts based on veiled assumptions, we’ll forever struggle getting to the truth, because our facts, like the shadows on the wall, will be wrong.
The god of this age loves that. It keeps us in the dark. We don’t see the truth. We don’t love one another. We get deceived in that maze of veils that keeps out the light and become prisoner to a whole bunch of little tyrannies that, like Plato’s story about the cave tells us, become our reality, become our truth, that catch us in various traps. In the later 1960s my dad’s mom was ready to downsize and move to an apartment. This is the German side of my family. Grandma Koch went on a trip and my dad and all our family and his brother, Don, and all his family descended on Grandma Koch’s house to clean it out and get her ready to move. Both my grandma, Edna, and her husband, Herman, he died some years before the big move, were born in the late 1800s, had old world values, and raised kids through the depression. Therefore, they kept stuff on the assumption that someday everything might be needed. Long story short, when we cleaned out her house, we accumulated enough junk to fill three dump truck loads. My dad took Super 8 movie footage of the junk pile and we were told to never show grandma the film in case she saw something in the massive pile and suddenly miss it. Even at my young age I was starting to get the picture. In a sense, my grandmother’s full life had so many shadows on the wall, so many veils in the maze, that even when many of them were removed, she didn’t really miss the ones departed. She lived another ten years and none of us ever heard her complain she was missing something from the stuff at her former house.
Sadly, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. Six years ago when we moved my parents out of their big house, a lot of stuff had to be hauled away. And, even more sadly, if I want to spare my kids from that same fate, I have some work to do. More so, I’m not unlike everyone else in that my life is cluttered with erroneous facts that deliver to me false truths. My daily struggle too often embodies breaking the chains of ignorance and ripping down the maze of veils in order to seek the light of truth the way God has designed it.
So it is that we examine the gospel story today in which Jesus selected three disciples for a field trip; Peter, James, and John, each cluttered with their own sets of flawed facts leading to their own inaccurate understandings of the truth. Together the four of them ascended a high mountain where they were all alone. At the top of this holy place Jesus was transfigured before them in what is described as a brightly lit splendor. Going back to Paul’s metaphor, all the veils blocking the light of God’s truth were removed for those three young disciples. Plato’s allegory of shadows was gone. This was the unfettered reality of God. Then the two biggest heavyweights of the Jewish faith, Moses and Elijah, appeared next to Jesus and talked with him.
Finally, Peter couldn’t help himself any longer. In this beautiful, unveiled moment of purely Divine truth without deceptive shadows, Peter felt the need to control the situation. For whatever reason, and I won’t try and speculate on what might have been going through his mind, but this scene before him didn’t fit with his version of the truth, so he tried to contain it. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” His logic is sound in human terms. You see, if we can just build a little house for Jesus, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah, then we’ll know their address and where they live and we can come visit anytime we need help. There, before Peter, God was trying to display the awesomeness of holy truth and Peter was trying to shove God into a definable box that fit his inadequate perception. A recent hit song by Christian artist Natalie Grant shares these thoughts: “I tried to fit you in the walls inside my mind; I try to keep you safely in between the lines; I try to put you in the box that I've designed; I try to pull you down so we are eye to eye. When did I forget that you've always been the king of the world?” We’re not that different today. We, like Peter, want to fit God into our list of definable pedigree attributes. Who are you? What do you do for a living? Where do you live? When we work to fit God into our lives, then we’re, as Paul wrote, preaching to ourselves. Yet, when we turn our lives over to the light, the glory of God, then we’re finally preaching the gospel.
After Peter’s poor suggestion, a cloud came over them and a voice came out of the cloud and declared, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” In other words, Peter, your idea does not represent the gospel message, because guess what, you, and James, and John, are going to follow Jesus back down this mountain, from this glorious moment, into the realities of the world. This time, hopefully, with eyes on the true light and less on shadows and not covered in veils from the god of this world.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed being sort of a do-it-yourself personality. I still do a little light maintenance on my truck and I do a lot of repairs and remodeling around the house. When I go camping I’m not afraid to bring along my big toolbox and even some cordless power tools, which have all come in handy from time to time. All these years of doing it myself, I’ve discovered one really important thing. Having the right tool for the job makes all the difference in the world. Over time, I’ve bought a lot of tools and I feel very comfortable they’ve all paid for themselves compared to me having to hire someone to do the work. It is simply helpful to be properly equipped.
Certainly, when the disciples came down the mountain after their experience with the transfiguration of Jesus, they were hopefully better equipped to minister to the world. Right after the transfiguration, the Gospel of Mark tells of them immediately encountering the other nine disciples surrounded by a crowd. A man had brought his son to them with the hope they would cast out a demon causing his son to not be able to speak. The man implored the help of Jesus, because his disciples could not meet the task at hand. Because of the light of Christ, the tools of faith were at their disposal, yet the god of this world still veiled their eyes and they could not bring God’s healing to the boy. Take a look at the picture on the front of your bulletin. It is a painting by Raphael and biblical scholar Frederick Grant points out, “… Mark brings this story of Jesus’ response to human need into close connection with the transfiguration narrative. The contrast between Jesus seen in glory and the impotence of the nine disciples at the foot of the mountain is very marked.”
“O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” These hard words from Jesus come in response to the inability of the disciples drive out the demon in the boy. Sometimes when we hear words like those from Jesus it causes us to wonder, if our faith will ever be up to the task. Can we really respond to the world the way Jesus wants us to? In John chapter 12 he even tells his followers that we can do greater things than him because he goes to the Father. Yet, when Peter attempted to walk on water his faith faltered and Jesus had to save him. And Thomas didn’t have the faith to believe unless he saw the resurrected Lord with his own eyes and felt with his fingers the wounds on his hands and side.
Sometimes when I go to the store to get the latest and greatest tool to help me with a project I can’t just pick it up and go to the cashier, because it is protected behind a glass case to prevent theft. In order to get it, I have to ask for help. We have to ask God for help to increase our faith. Jesus asked the father of the boy possessed by a demon, “How long has he been like this?” “From Childhood,” the boy’s father answered, “It has thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The next words from Jesus are fabulous. “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” Quickly the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” And then Jesus cast out the demon.
Remember, all this immediately follows the transfiguration; it follows Peter trying to contain God, it follows the unveiled glory of God’s presence, and it shows, in a mighty way, the power of God is not just for the mountaintops and good times of this world. It’s also for the valleys and the hopeless moments that need healing, and grace, and love. The power of God is uncontained everywhere. Shortly after the healing and in private, the disciples approached Jesus and ask them why they couldn’t cast out the demon. “This kind can come out only by prayer,” answered the master. We have to ask to get access to the tools. We have to seek in order to find. We have to knock for the door to be opened. The power of prayer destroys the veils of the god of this world. The power of prayer moves us from shadowy untruths to the bright light of God’s great truth. The power of prayer frees us to live the gospel and instead of preaching ourselves, prayer conducts our lives to the good news of Christ. The power of prayer reveals Divine truth and helps us overcome our unbelief. We possess no greater calling than to become useful instruments of God’s reality, God’s light, and God’s authentic presence among the broken places in this world. Simply put, let each of us allow God to use us to demonstrate real Divine presence among the people of this world. Amen.