Sunday, February 27, 2022

Sermon: “Like Moths to a Flame”, Exodus 34:29-35/Matthew 5:1-16 (February 27, 2022 - Transfiguration Sunday)


Transfiguration Sunday is a day of divine transformation. Each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) recount the “mountaintop experience” of Peter, James, and John as they witness Jesus’ face “shining like the sun” and his clothes becoming “as white as light”. This year’s lectionary also gives us a fascinating First Testament parallel: this account of Moses descending into the valley of Mount Sinai with his face similarly illuminated after having received the law for a second time. Moses is certainly no Jesus—he’s flawed and sinful, like any of us, and yet his encounter with the divine left him transformed in the exact same way.

Even more interesting than either of these stories, though, are the reactions of the people to seeing the faces of their leaders divinely illuminated. In the transfiguration story, the disciples are afraid, but they’re drawn to the spectacle. They suggest building shrines so that they might continue to dwell in the presence of the holy light. In Exodus, on the other hand, the people refuse to even approach shiny Moses. He ultimately has to cover his face a veil when he isn’t directly instructing the people to keep them from scattering.

I’d be curious to hear an entomologist’s interpretation of these stories: such phototactic responses are unusual in human beings, but quite common in bugs. Phototaxis is a fancy way of describing an organism’s movement in response to light. Negative phototaxis is when an organism moves away from a light source, while positive phototaxis is when an organism moves towards it. It sounds very academic, but we’ve all observed this behavior in insects plenty of times without giving it much thought. Have you ever seen cockroaches scatter when you turn on the light? That’s negative phototaxis in action. Remember how moths seem to gravitate towards your porch light in the summer? Positive phototaxis.

Now, obviously, what we see here in scripture isn’t exactly the same thing that we observe in phototactic bugs, but the parallel is uncanny. So much so that I think it’d be useful to examine each transfiguration response through the lens of a theological entomologist (which is something I invented just now). Scientists don’t really know WHY certain bugs are attracted to or repelled by light, but they have theories. So, let’s see if we can “shine any light” on why the people might have reacted to Moses’ and Jesus’ bright faces the way they did (pun 100% intended).

As I mentioned before, cockroaches are the paradigm for negative phototaxis. Since they’re pests, people seem to care more about how to get rid of them than figuring out why they’re repelled by the light. However, one theory suggests that it’s an evolutionary habit developed to protect cockroaches from predators: many of their natural enemies, including humans, are diurnal, so they instinctively know that light holds more danger for them then darkness, and react accordingly.

Now, in Exodus, the people definitely recognized that Moses wasn’t a predator, but they, like the cockroaches, instinctively knew that the light shining from his face meant danger for them. It, along with the covenant tablets Moses carried, meant that their way of life, the way they wanted to do things, was being threatened. That light meant no more golden calves, no more hedging their bets with false gods, no more bullying leaders into condoning their sin. That light meant that there was no longer any excuse for immoral behavior; the instruction that Moses gave came directly from God. That light meant that all of their wrongdoing was laid bare for everyone—especially themselves—to see. And so, they fled from it.

Sometimes, people behave like cockroaches. We know all that the divine light requires of us—justice, mercy, love, and righteousness—and so we choose to avoid it altogether rather than submit to its high standards. This doesn’t make the light go away, of course. It doesn’t make our behavior in the shadows honorable, either. All it does is separate us from God and keep us from knowing the deep joy of God’s kin[g]dom.

Don’t be like a cockroach.

There are far *more* examples of positive phototaxis in the insect world, although moths are perhaps the best known. Again, scientists haven’t been able to determine conclusively what draws moths towards light, but the most prevalent theories have to do with navigation. Most experts either believe that moths and other positively phototactic bugs use natural light, like the moon, to orient themselves, or else they believe that flying towards natural light aids insects in escape from predators. In both cases, the idea is that artificial light confuses their internal navigation systems, which is why they don’t seem able to fly away.

This may be why Peter, John, and James were drawn to the light of the transfigured Jesus. High up in the mountain, far away from the politics and pressures of human civilization and culture, the direction given by the divine light was clear. They saw that the law, represented by Moses, the prophets, represented by Elijah, and the Messiah, Jesus himself, were the celestial lights that would help them to navigate this life. Down in the valley, the artificial lights of charismatic leaders and greed and self-righteousness confused their internal navigation systems, but up on the mountaintop, the correct orientation was unmistakable. Of COURSE they wanted to stay there, where following God’s will was simple and easy.

Sometimes, people behave like moths. We recognize our need for help navigating this world, and we’re drawn to the light that leads us exactly where we need to go. We recognize we’re all too easily led astray by artificial lights, so we do everything we can to make sure we’re following the divine light. It doesn’t just illuminate the path before us; it helps us to orient our entire being towards what is good and holy. When we move towards the divine light, we know that we’re moving towards God’s kin[g]dom.

It’s not such a bad thing to be like a moth.

But a world full of moths isn’t necessarily what we need, either. Being drawn to the divine light like moths to a flame will just result in a whole bunch of moths who stay in one place and never do anything. We’re all here in the sanctuary because we’ve been drawn to the light, but just sitting in the church building isn’t enough. Positive phototaxis towards God’s light is good, but it isn’t the endgame. If it were, Jesus would have let Peter, James, and John stay in the presence of his light indefinitely. Instead, Jesus led them back down the mountain. In fact, the very next thing Jesus did in Luke’s gospel was to send 72 of his followers AWAY to prepare nearby cities for his arrival.
Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be satisfied as moths. He wanted them to be fireflies.

Fireflies are able to emit light from their own bodies for the purpose of drawing others (generally, mates) to them. If you’ve ever seen fireflies out in nature, they don’t stay blinking in one place; they wander all around, searching for a partner. They don’t hang out near a lamp and wait for others to join them; they go out into the world and use *their own light* to make it happen.

Jesus tells us, “You are the light of the world. People don’t light a lamp and put it under a basket; instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.” When we encounter God, we, like Moses, begin to reflect the divine light ourselves. This light is not meant to be kept private. We’re not meant to huddle around it obsessively, obstructing the view for others. We’re meant to go out and let it shine through us, through our lives and our words and our actions. We’re meant to make it so the cockroaches can’t avoid it, and the moths can’t become complacent. We’re meant to BE the light in every corner of the world.

It's not an easy task. Jesus warns repeatedly that those who are righteous and do as he does—in other words, the fireflies—will be insulted and persecuted. When he refers to harassed prophets in verse 12, he very well could have been thinking about Exodus 34—when Moses became a firefly, he had to veil his face because the people were afraid of it. But Jesus also promises that those same people will be blessed, happy beyond measure in God’s kin[g]dom. He promises that it’s WORTH IT to be a firefly.

There are plenty of cockroaches in the world. Some of them don’t even realize that they’re fleeing from the light; they simply don’t know anything different. Others do it brazenly over and over again, ignoring the clear benefits of peace and justice in favor of the personal advantage of empire-building and domination. They have no interest in the light, because it would force them to change their narcissistic way of life.

There are also plenty of moths in the world. They’re satisfied with their own proximity to the light, and they see no reason to move or change anything. They readily criticize the cockroaches, clucking their tongues and sending “thoughts and prayers” to those negatively impacted. They reserve all of their energy for fluttering in one place around the light, trying to be closer than anyone else.

But there’s no better way to be close to the light than to BE the light. To actively stand up for what’s right and good, to insist on love above all else, to go out into the world and draw others to the light with your own being. Even though it requires effort, even though it’s not always safe or easy, even though it benefits others more than yourself, it’s by far the surest way to bring about the kin[g]dom of heaven.

When the world is full of fireflies, there’s nowhere for the cockroaches to hide. When we stand up and hold each other accountable for our actions, no one can stay in the shadows. Global leaders can’t sacrifice their people and their neighbors for the sake of their imperial ambitions. Governors can’t criminalize personal choices made to protect the vulnerable for the sake of a rigid and unnuanced morality. Regular citizens can’t pressure their neighbors to do things that make them feel unsafe.

The more fireflies in the world, the more easily we can all see what’s right. The more fireflies in the world, the faster we build the kin[g]dom of heaven. The more fireflies in the world, the more of humanity can know true joy, right now. The more fireflies in the world, the closer to God we all will be.

So be a firefly. Your light may not be enough to cast out the shadows alone, but together, we can create an abiding mountaintop experience that spreads throughout the whole world. Amen.

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