It’s sometimes hard to describe something that is overwhelming, powerful, and glorious. Sometimes, it’s so hard that people won’t ever believe you until they experience it themselves.
One of my favorite science fiction movies is the movie “Contact.” Based on the book by Carl Sagan, it’s about the life of astronomer Ellie Arroway, and her search for intelligent life in the universe. Her justification for this is an often repeated phrase in the movie, “If we’re the only life in the universe, well, that’s an awful waste of space.” Thought crazy by most of the scientific community, she waits patiently, listening to the stars, searching for signals from extraterrestrial beings.
One day, she gets her wish. A signal arrives. It’s unlike anything ever recorded in human history. A series of sound waves and frequencies, hidden in this anomalous sound are plans, blueprints, for a large machine of some kind. What the machine does? Nobody knows. But she’s bound and determined to be the first person to use it.
So she applies to be the person to use the machine, which requires a person to be in a pod and dropped through the middle of this spinning, mysterious machine. She’s almost all but perfect for the job…save for the fact that she doesn’t believe in God. The council that came together to determine who would use it decided against her because, if the machine is some kind of transport, and the person who uses it is the first to contact alien life, they should believe in some deity, because most of the human population does and they want someone to represent.
Thus is the central conundrum of the film. There is irony here: she doesn’t believe in God. Most of humanity does. But she also believes in alien life, which most people think is absurd. What do you do when you believe in something few people do? And when does your belief run into everyone else’s? What happens when your beliefs are not deemed worthy?
By the end of the film, the tables have turned. Ellie got the chance to use the machine. She is then transported somehow to a distant place, beautiful and beyond explanation or description, and is contacted by alien life. To her this journey takes 18 hours. To the rest of humanity, it appears as if nothing happens. She is then brought before an investigative committee, who disbelieves that she had this experience at all, but she is convicted, resolute: she saw something that opened her mind, and changed her point of view. She saw something amazing, and it transformed her just by witnessing it. And she doesn’t care if nobody believes her. She knows what she saw. And she begins to understand what it is for the rest of humanity to believe in something without a shred of proof. She begins to understand why they didn’t choose her to begin with. And so she goes on, continuing to live based on an overwhelming belief nobody else can understand, and transforms people around her by living out her beliefs.
This movie is, for all intents and purposes, and extended parable on faith. Whether Carl Sagan intended this to be the case is irrelevant, because the film itself stands firmly on its philosophy: Belief and faith matters, even if nobody else can experience what you experienced. Beliefs can transform you, and that transformation should change how you live. That’s the message that I hear, and that’s the message that I am reminded of today.
Transfiguration of the Heart
Today is the last Sunday before Lent, and that means in the Liturgical Calendar that today is Transfiguration Sunday.
Transfiguration Sunday is when we recognize and celebrate the moment when Jesus revealed his true and full glory to three of his disciples upon the mountaintop, shining brightly with a dazzling gleam, and communing with prophets of old. It memorializes when God the Father spoke and told the disciples that this Jesus who you are witnessing is in fact his son, that he loves him, and that he is to be listened to.
It’s a beautiful moment in the Gospel, and a turning point as well, as it marks the transition from Jesus preaching and teaching to Jesus preparing for his ultimate crucifixion. It’s placed right before Lent for that reason as well: it’s the high point of Jesus’s life on earth. There will be nothing to top the moment when his full glory is revealed to his friends. There is nothing that can surpass this moment of transcendent, overwhelming beauty.
In my time as a Christian, I’ve come to call this moments of being overwhelmed by the glory of God “Mountaintop Moments.” They give you a spiritual high, in a way. They reflect the dramatic emotional transformation found in this very real transformation of Jesus Christ, and in his disciples.
One can’t forget how the disciples were transformed by this event–Peter especially. Peter, Jesus’s faithful friend, ever the hard-headed zealot, responds to this transformation by wanting to manifest his inward transformation by building temples or shrines where he was–on the mountain top. He wanted to stay there on the mountaintop forever.
That’s a tempting prospect for many. Going back to the movie Contact, Ellie wants to stay transported to this alien place far longer than she was allowed to do. She wanted to explore, to learn, to experience this new overwhelming reality even more than she was already doing. Ultimately, she was denied, and sent back. Back to a world that wouldn’t understand her. To a world that couldn’t understand her. She was sent back a resident alien, a stranger in her own homeland, for having this transcendent, transformational experience.
Peter, James and John, in our Gospel story, play a similar role to Ellie. They experienced something amazing. They wanted to stay. But they were bound to go back to where they were from, and though sworn to secrecy, they eventually attempted to relay the experience in the Gospels. And I have no doubts that what we have only scratches the surface of this transfiguration. There are no words that can adequately describe God’s fullness. These meagre ones are all we have.
It’s important that they had this transformation though, because for anything to change, one’s heart must change first.
Ellie had a change of heart through her experience with new life. Peter, James and John had a change of heart when they saw Jesus in his glory. They were transformed inwardly, in a way that is impossible to explain. And God will do that. I’ve had experiences like that myself. Experiences so indescribable, they seem almost silly in hindsight. And yet they changed my heart.
You can have these transformational experiences too. I had mine on a UM Army trip. Others have had them on Walk to Emmaus retreats. Others still have had them in other ways, other places, be they with many people, or all on their own. Transfiguration happens in its own way, on its own timeline, and respects nobody’s schedule. But they all transform the heart.
Transfiguration of Life
It’s a remarkable thing when someone’s heart transforms, because it often transforms their life as well.
Ellie in Contact goes on to become a teacher, and not just a researcher. Her search moves from self-fulfillment to enrichment of others’ lives. Peter, James and John, often preoccupied with determining who is the greatest amongst themselves, become the pillars of the early church. Peter became the first Pope, despite his own shortcomings and over-eagerness. They’re lives were changed from looking inward to looking outwards.
When we are overwhelmed by the presence of God in a real and deep way, our lives can’t help but change. We can have emotional highs in our spiritual life. It’s easy to get caught up in a stirring praise and worship song. It’s easy to find that mountaintop and just stay there, never changing, never growing, never moving on. When we experience God’s grace and splendor, we can’t help then to move that focus outward.
We can be a part of the transformation of others, and enable them to come to that moment of overwhelming, transcendent glory.
If you’ve never been to the mountaintop, don’t worry–your mountain exists, you just haven’t climbed it yet. There’s no shame in not finding it yet. God has made your path especially for you, and it’s only in hindsight do you truly appreciate how far you’ve come. I hope that you do find that mountaintop, and become transformed inwardly in an indescribable fashion. I want that for all of you, because nothing compares.
If you have been to the mountaintop, then I cannot be happier. But I want to remind you to not stay on the mountaintop. It’s on you now to descend that mountain, and share the good news. You may be disbelieved. You maybe thought of as crazy. It may be impossible to adequately describe what you experienced when you found God’s glory. That’s ok. It’s okay because it’s in sharing your story, you help someone else in their own path to finding their mountain. You become a co-wanderer on their journey. And one day, God will find them, and they will remember you.
Inward transformation leads to transformation of life. And my prayer for you is that all of you are transformed by the overwhelming glory of God. Amen.