Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany
2 Kings2:1-12 Psalm 50:1-6 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 Mark 9:2-9
Each Sunday, we talk about love - not the kind of love that Hallmark proclaims, but the love of Jesus. Perhaps, not the kind of love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day, also called St. Valentine’s Day, a holiday when lovers express their affection with greetings and gifts. Given their similarities, it has been suggested that the holiday has origins in the Roman festival Lupercalia, held in mid-February. The festival, which celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius forbid the celebration of Lupercalia and is sometimes attributed with replacing it with St. Valentine’s Day, but the true origin of the holiday is vague at best. Valentine’s Day did not come to be celebrated as a day of romance until about the 14th century.
Today’s readings portray scenes of the passing of the torch which are often heartfelt and moving. This passage from Second Kings is no exception. It draws us deeply into the surprising intimacy among the prophets. This scene of Elisha assuming Elijah’s mantle as Israel’s chief prophet shows the passing of a generation, the poignancy of parting, and the importance of maintaining a continuity of leadership.
The last Sunday after the Epiphany is always The Transfiguration. It is a familiar story for us. Fear and terror are everywhere. In Mark, Peter was so terrified by the transfiguration that he did not know what to say. Matthew reports that Jesus touched the disciples because they were overcome with fear. Luke records the disciples were terrified after they entered the cloud with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. All three Gospel accounts record the Transfiguration as an experience that was not shared with anyone else until much later, after the resurrection.
Mark makes it hard to ignore the scene, which lies squarely in the center of his Gospel. The transfiguration draws out our memories of other times. The high cloud and the heavenly voice from a cloud take us back to the call of Moses on Mount Sinai. The brightness of Jesus’ clothes recalls the resurrection of Jesus. The voice of God reminds us of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. The description of the scene compels us to join in, makes us want to dwell there.
Isn’t that what James and John and especially Peter want to do - to stay there - to hold onto something, to remember the sacredness of the moment. Isn’t that what we all want to do when we encounter those times, those moments when we experience the closeness of God. Celtic spirituality calls the places where you can experience the presence - presence of holiness, holy trees, holy mountains, holy places. We know them as mountain top experiences. Places where the veil between this world and the next is thin - it is so sheer that it is easy to step through. Once in a while, something happens to us, something so touching, so alive that it transforms us. Peter certainly experienced that on the mountain.
Peter wanted to stay in that place with Jesus, to build dwellings, tents or booths for Elijah and Moses and Jesus to live. Jesus knows that we can’t stay in those mountain top experiences in our lives. They fortify us. They prepare us for the duties and responsibilities in the valleys of our lives. This last Sunday after Epiphany’s story of the Transfiguration reminds us and awakens us to ways we can be transfigured, ways we can be transformed, like Peter. God loves us and so wants to be in relationship with us. We need to be intentional in looking for those places where we find God in our lives. We need to set aside time for communing with God in nature, in prayer, in scripture, in song. We need to strive to be the most open we can be - open to experience the holiness, and the sacredness of God throughout our lives.
The New Testament doesn’t deal with the beauty of nature like the Old Testament. But today, when Jesus wants us to see who he really is, he takes them up a mountain. There, he is transformed, struck, and changed, and his friends see it. It’s one of those unforgettable moments, because they too are struck and changed.
As at his baptism, Jesus does not act or speak; God acts and God speaks concerning Jesus. “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” The message is for the followers of Jesus. They fail to understand the event, and are afraid and confused. Peter, you just got to love and relate to him. Perhaps, see some of ourselves in his actions and reactions. His fumbling effort to honor and preserve the moment is met in silence. They are told to be silent about the experience until after the resurrection. They are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus’ messianic role. Apart from the cross, the full story can’t be told.
But, the Disciples don’t get it. Jesus’ silence before Peter’s offer says to him and to all the followers that glimpses of the glorious future are permitted, but you can’t hold onto them. The future, like that past, is not the proper dwelling place for the church. For these disciples, and all who follow, there will be one more mountain to climb - Golgotha.
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him” - their time on the mountain - a strange scene, even with the voice from the cloud to explain it, they didn’t know
what they were witnessing. It was Jesus, alright, the man they had walked with and talked with and eaten with. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. Frederick Buechner says that at the Transfiguration they saw “the holiness of the man shining through his humanness.”
We know that truth abides in these places of closeness, and there too is found the comfort, safety and strength to face the truth - because God is there. We see God and want to dwell with God. On the holy mountain, in those holy places of our lives, those places captivate our imagination. We gain connection and become part of something larger than ourselves. The human spirit is awakened and will grow if the body and the mind allow it. We can feel the mysterious power of God. We are drawn, transported into the presence of another world, the kingdom, heaven, paradise. We are moved into the presence of the power of God.
Peter, James and John also experienced another aspect of holiness, where the boundaries of time and space are transcended. Time seemed to stand still. They were standing on holy ground, and it seems to beckon them - come here and be transformed. They experience a connection û with God, and with all who have lived, are living, and will live in generations to come. We want to stay in that place where we can feel the presence of God, on that mountain top. But it is really preparing us for our lives, preparing us, empowering us, equipping us to set about doing what God is calling us to do in our ordinary mundane lives …there we can find God also.
Isn’t that what God does for us? To find Jesus, follow Jesus and to love those who trouble us, as well as those who love us. We promise here and there that we will straighten out our lives, if God would just do this and that. How can I limit my love for others, when God doesn’t limit it for me? God accepts me back time and time again - accepts you back. How can we do less when God is doing more? God continues to transfigure and transform me and you and all of us.
I know from the bottom of my heart, for the depth of my experiences, that God wants to be in relationship with us. But we have to do our part û we have to show up, open our hearts so there is more room for God, and give some of the love we receive to others. When we are in a relationship with God, God knows us, knows our wants and needs. We must remember that the Kingdom of God is within us and within the community of faith, the Church. We are called to continually learn, grow, stretch, to become who God is calling us to be.
As we prepare for Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, think about a daily practice that will connect you to God, that will feed your need for that connection, which will renew you and enliven your faith. Join us for Wednesday Evening Prayer and share from meditations from Places of the Passion, a daily walk with Jesus to the cross. Our Sunday night class will be doing a Bible study called, “By his wounds we are healed.” Both are offered on Zoom. In joining in, we are blessed by getting to share our spiritual journey with others. None of us live in a void, we are in this together.
The booklets will be available on Ash Wednesday, where the Ashes to Go tent is set up from 10AM to Noon and from 4:00 to 6:00PM. Today, we are called to embrace who Jesus is - in the Transfiguration and in our lives. God loves you, God loves me. Now is the time to accept that love, embrace God’s giftedness in our lives, and celebrate that love in our actions, and in our reactions to let God’s love continue to transform and transfigure us. Amen.