"When the Scene Shifts"

March 5, 2000 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Mark 9:2-9

I was in college at the time, back in 1977. On three evenings leading up to Easter that year, one of the television networks broadcasted the mini-series, "Jesus of Nazareth." As I recall, it made quite an impact upon me, seeing the story I had heard all my life portrayed upon the screen. I remember viewing it in three different homes, one of them being my aunt and uncle’s place in Rochester, New York, where I spent Easter break that year. There is something special about the warmth of someone’s living room. At least it was so for this one student tired of the little basement apartment with no television that he shared with another guy.

It was during that same year that I shifted directions in my college training. I changed majors midstream, which eventually opened the door to pastoral ministry. Now, I’m not saying that watching this movie changed my life in some big way. It was, though, a part of my journey toward where God was calling. For better or worse, it was my idea to do something similar this year during the season of lent - to view this movie in various homes. The television screen can be a powerful means which God can use to transform us. Of course, as we all are quite aware, this medium has other, less desirable possibilities.

I’m reminded of another means of communication - the written word. It’s only been about 550 years since a virtual revolution took place that completely changed our world. The transformation began, if you will, with a German printer by the name of Johann Gutenberg, who invented something called "moveable type." Up to that point in time, written communication was limited to what could be done, one person, writing one word at a time, one tedious page at a time. It was a slow and methodical process. The so-called "power of the pen" was limited to the speed of the human hand.

And then along came Gutenberg. By arranging his moveable letters onto a printing press, he could produce multiple copies of the same page in a matter of minutes, something that might take a scribe hours or days. On August 15, 1456 the oldest surviving book in the western world, later known as the Gutenberg Bible, was completed. A brand new day dawned.

Had it not been for this invention, my friends, there would not have been a renaissance in human knowledge. It was the beginning of what we call the "modern" era. Many have said, furthermore, that the printing press paved the way for the reformation of the church. The desire of Martin Luther and others to place the Bible into the hands of the people could not have even existed as a possibility had not Gutenberg’s invention opened the door. Without this invention, in the hands of a family of printers in Pennsylvania, the Christopher Sauers, the Brethren reform movement of the 18th century would have had very little impact.

The written word - in the form of a book - has been a powerful means which God has used to transform us. Of course, as we should also be quite aware, this medium has had other, less desirable uses. An example is Adolf Hitler’s "Mein Kampf," in which that rising dictator wrote of his struggles on the way to power. "Mein Kampf" motivated a whole generation of young people down a tragic path that led to a world war. It, likewise, would not have been possible had it not been for the revolution started by Gutenberg.

A "revolution" in communication ... a similar shifting of scenes is happening right now, though I’m not sure we can pick out some "Gutenberg" as the one who started it all. Maybe future generations will. The so-called "modern" era is an age that has been largely defined by books. One of the most important institutions that came into existence for all people in this era was the library - a repository of books. Text upon a page is so ingrained in our consciousness that we cannot even imagine a time before books. Yet, as I said earlier, Gutensberg’s invention is only 550 years old. That’s not very long in the larger picture of world history.

There has been a shifting away from written text upon a page, a changeover of which we who claim to be "people of the good book" need to be aware. No matter what you think about computers or the Internet, but this invention is radically changing how we communicate, even how we think. Before you jump on some bandwagon and start railing against this development, try to imagine how our forbearers half a millennia ago may have felt about what Gutenberg and others like him invented. Change is always uncomfortable.

For better or worse, the shifting scene is not merely a change from paper to computer screen, words on a page pasted onto just a new form of "book." It’s not that simple. When reading a book, we move in linear ways - we read one line at a time, or if we’re able, one block at a time. Still, the movement is from beginning to end, cover to cover. Computers, on the other hand, allow us to jump, not from one word to the next on the same line or page, but from one thought to a related thought somewhere else altogether. In a world in which there is altogether too much information to be digested, this ability to move rapidly through multiple books, so to speak, is either a blessing or a curse. Regardless, it is drastically changing our world. Some, in fact, are saying that because of this, the so-called "modern" era is giving way to a "post-modern" era.

Things are changing rapidly. The good news is that every time such shifts take place, God is also on the move. Do you believe that? Think back to what I said about how the printing press made way for the reformation of the church. God was on the move. Our own brethren movement, believe it or not, had at its disposal the most up-to-date communication technology when our forbearers started anew here in Pennsylvania. The Sauer Press was a rival of another famous inventor/printer named Benjamin Franklin. That press helped pave the way. God was on the move.

Every period of change provides for many new possibilities, for good or for ill. That’s not only true of shifts between "eras." That’s how it is with the shifts that take place, welcomed or not, in our lives. God is on the move there as well. There are all sorts of life transitions during which God is very active - if only we could open our eyes and truly see. When the scene shifts, as the hymn we sang earlier put it, it’s "only the splendor of light" that hides what God is doing (I love that line!).

Speaking of shifting eras, some have likened the change we’re undergoing right now to another similar period 2,000 years ago. The first century was a remarkable time in the history of the world, at least the western portion of it. Now, I don’t know how true this is, but I recently read that a substance called concrete was invented during this time, which revolutionized the building industry. Construction was shifting. In fact I read it suggested that Joseph, the father who helped raise a young boy named Jesus, was, as a carpenter, more like a contractor or builder - a new breed of worker. That’s an interesting thought, though I’m not sure how true it is.

I am sure of another shift, and that was the changeover in communication from the written word on scrolls to writing upon manuscripts or codex - more like the page as we know it today. This was the real birth time of books. "One of the most amazing features of the first Christians was their preference for the paged book over the more widespread scroll ... This helps explain why, unlike all other literature from the ancient world, the New Testament (exists) in an abundance of sources." (p. 31, Soul Tsunami, Leonard Sweet, Zondervan, 1999)

The first century was a time of great change. And God chose this time, of all times, when the scene was radically shifting, to send his Son, to be the incarnation, the very presence of God in the world. Christianity as a movement of those following Jesus of Nazareth, believed to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world, arose in history during a period of great change. God was on the move - true then, true now. Perhaps, as some have said - persons on both the conservative and the liberal ends of the church (names which, by the way, don’t have much as meaning in this new era) - [perhaps] we are on the verge of another reformation of the church of Jesus Christ. When the scene shifts, God is on the move....

In the church year, this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is called "Transfiguration Sunday." On this day we often remember that moment in time when Jesus stood on the mountain and, within sight of three of his disciples, was "transfigured," the boundary between heaven and earth, between past, present, and future was almost nonexistent in his very body, as he met with Moses and Elijah. "‘Twas only the splendor of light" that hid this "immortal, invisible God only wise" from Peter, James, and John. Before their eyes the scene shifted, something remembered later as a pivotal moment of change in the 2nd letter of Peter. That event transfigured those disciples, themselves, especially after the resurrection transformed the crucifixion of Jesus.

Lent is itself a time for shifting scenes, which is the wisdom behind Transfiguration Sunday falling on this day. In some churches, Lent is a very somber time. No "alleluia" is sung or spoken. Bright colors are removed. Actually, the change of atmosphere can be quite uncomfortable. That’s the nature of change, you know. Our church may not do as some others do in this regard, but still we see the possibility in this season of change, when God is on the move.

The scene shifts as we approach the cross, which is to us many things: a symbol of death, but also the intersection of heaven and earth, the pivotal point in human history. In many ways, Lent - which is a journey not unlike the one undertaken by the children of Israel after they were freed from bondage to Pharaoh and wandered through the wilderness for 40 years - [Lent] turns our world upside down. Now, it wasn’t on purpose that we printed the bulletin the way we did today, but it’s fitting. The scene is shifting. God is on the move - not just then, but now - today.

When the scene shifts, and the cloud descends, making it hard to see the road ahead (which, by the way, is how we experience such times of change), all we can do is follow the voice of God, "This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him." Through all the upheavals, all the upside down times, all the dark valleys, through death itself, through each period pregnant with possibilities - if only we could see it as such, we follow. In the middle of these shifting scenes, as we follow God’s Son, we are transfigured, reformed, transformed.

2000Peter L. Haynes

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