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The Incomprehensible Glory of God

Updated: Feb 13

Shelley Denison

Scripture: Mark 9:2-9

One of the best books I’ve read recently is called Babel. It’s half historical fiction, half fantasy. It takes place in 19th century England at Oxford University. More specifically, it takes place at the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford.

The Royal Institute of Translation is one of the most prestigious places to study and work in the world. And that is because one of the crucial tasks performed by its students and professors is silver-working.

This is where the fantasy element comes in.

In the book, silver is found to have magical properties. And England is harnessing those properties to expand its empire. Silver makes agricultural and industrial production more efficient. It aids England’s military by making bullets more accurate and making wounds heal faster. It makes trains run without coal or electricity.

And the reason why translators are the ones who do silver-working is because the thing that gives silver its magical powers is the meaning that gets lost while translating one language to another.

A silver-worker takes a bar of silver, inscribes a word in one language on one side, and then inscribes a word with the same definition in another language on the other side. But although the two words might have the same general meaning, there are subtle but important differences in the ways that the speakers of those languages use the words.

One scene in the book has the protagonist with his first silver-working project. A native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, he writes the word “míngbai” on one side and its English counterpart, “understand,” on the other.

Because I’m me, I’m going to read about half a page from the book.

Robin took a deep breath and exhaled. 'Míngbai,' Robin blurted. 'Mandarin. It means - so it means, "to understand", right? But the characters are loaded with imagery. Míng - bright, a light, clear. And bai - white, like the color. So it doesn't just mean to understand, or to realize - it has the visual component of making clear, to shine a light on.' He paused to clear his throat.

The professor gave him an encouraging smile. 'Well, why don't we see what it does?"

Robin took the bar in trembling hands and positioned the tip of the stylus against the smooth, blank surface. It took an unexpected amount of force to make the stylus etch out a clear line. This was, somehow, calming - it made him focus on keeping the pressure steady instead of the thousand other things he could do wrong.

He finished writing. 'Míngbai,' he said, holding up the bar so that the professor could see. 明白. Then he flipped it over. 'Understand.'

Something pulsed in the silver - something alive, something forceful and bold; a gale of wind, a crashing wave; and in that fraction of a second Robin felt the source of its power, that sublime, unnameable place where meaning was created, that place which words approximated but could not, could never pin down; the place which words approximated but could not, could never pin down; the place which could only be invoked, imperfectly, but even so would make its presence felt. A bright, warm sphere of light shone out of the bar and grew until it enveloped them both.

One of the reasons I am really loving this book is because it asks what I think is one of the most interesting questions in the philosophy of language: because the words we use have a ton of social and cultural context, is a true, direct translation between two different languages actually possible? Because English has historically been spoken in very specific cultural contexts and Mandarin has been spoken in its own, can we actually really translate the subtle, nuanced meanings between the two languages? And if not, can two people who speak two different languages ever really know each other?

Let me take this one step further and bring a theological element into that question.

We often talk about God in metaphors. We refer to the “mystery” of God. And good luck if you ever really want to truly understand exactly what the Trinity is. I think all of this is because we, as humans, with our capacity for understanding the Divine significantly limited by our human-ness, don’t have the words to talk about God in a complete and accurate way.

So, if we are speaking one language, and God is speaking another, is translation possible? Put another way, can we ever really know God?

And the Transfiguration of Jesus responds, resoundingly: yes.

While our Gospel reading today was from Mark, I love the emphasis on Peter’s response to the Transfiguration in the book of Matthew: “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’”

But God was uninterested in Peter’s offer. In fact, God interrupts Peter: “while he [Peter] was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’”

Peter, James, and John fall to the ground in fear.

I’ve always wondered what exactly Peter was trying to do. Why did he want to set up tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah?

How I interpret this was that Peter wanted to establish a kind of permanency for this experience. He wanted to give Jesus, Moses, and Elijah a reason to stay. And something about the tents, the act of building a structure for the Divine to fit into, seems like a way to take something unexplainable and fit it into some kind of understandable boundary.

What if Peter's desire to build tents on the mountain symbolizes our inclination to create fixed structures and dogmas around our encounters with the Divine? What if Peter’s tents represent us, as it is often said, creating God in our own image?

In the Transfiguration, we witness a moment when the divine radiance of God is revealed in the person of Jesus. The disciples, Peter, James, and John, are granted a glimpse of the incomprehensible glory that lies beyond our human understanding.

The Transfiguration was not merely an intellectual revelation; it was a profound experience that the disciples underwent. In the blinding light that surrounded Jesus, they encountered the living God in a way that surpassed words and doctrines. This moment challenges us to move beyond a purely intellectual pursuit of God and into a deeper, experiential knowledge.

Our human inclination is to seek certainty, to grasp tightly onto concrete answers and defined boundaries. However, the Transfiguration calls us to release our need for absolute certainty and embrace the mystery of faith.

The poem in today’s bulletin is one of my favorites. Many of you know that I was raised in the LDS, or Mormon, Church. In fact, I am a 6th generation Mormon on both sides of my family. I have pioneer ancestors whose journeys across continents and countries were enormous acts of faith. My great grandmother, Magda Swenson Hallman, left her home in Gottenburg, Sweden to join her fellow Mormons in Utah by herself when she was 14 year-old.

My journey out of Mormonism was my own enormous act of faith. Even amidst what I thought was absolute certainty in the truth of the religion of my youth was a deep, consistent longing for my own greater spiritual authenticity.

Letting go of our need for certainty requires a courageous surrender to the unknown and a willingness to journey with God into uncharted territories. It invites us to trust in the midst of ambiguity and to have faith even when the path ahead is unclear.

As the poem reads, “Where truth flies you follow if you are a pioneer.”

Knowing God is not confined to theological debates or doctrinal certainties. It is a dynamic and transformative encounter that occurs in the depths of our hearts and souls. Through prayer, contemplation, and a willingness to be open to the Spirit's movement, we can draw closer to the ineffable presence of God and allow God’s transformative light to shine on us.

And, as the Transfiguration shows us, it is Jesus, part-human and part-divine, who is the meaning that makes sense between our humanity and God’s divinity.

As we grapple with the mysteries of faith, let us embrace the humility that comes from acknowledging the limits of our comprehension. God, in all Their majesty, remains a mystery that transcends our intellectual grasp. Instead of seeking to confine the divine within the boundaries of our understanding, let us open our hearts to the awe-inspiring reality of an incomprehensible God.

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