A sermon preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Paris, KY
The other day I was talking to one of my brothers and marveling about the fact that Lent was just around the corner. It seems like yesterday that we were decorating the monastery chapel liturgically in blue for Advent in the excited anticipation of Christmas. I mentioned to him in jest that Epiphany was almost over and I was a little panicky because I hadn’t had one yet. He laughed, shook his head and said “You live in a monastery Jim, it could happen at any moment!” Even though we were joking, it got me to thinking about the nature of epiphanies in contrast with the season of Epiphany. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary an epiphany is: a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. In the church, Epiphany is a season beginning on January 6th when we celebrate Christ being made manifest to the world through the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem (epiphany, from the Greek, literally meaning manifestation).
During this season we hear amazing stories about Jesus works of power, healing, and mercy. Jesus begins his ministry with fervor and at a fevered pace. This is indicated throughout Mark’s gospel by his use of the word ‘immediately’ which begins each new section. Jesus and his disciples are always moving with urgency. It’s almost as if Mark’s gospel was written with the pace of our modern world in mind. When I was in the Philadelphia Airport on Friday waiting on my connecting flight, I had some time to observe all of the frenetic activity around me; people running to different gates to make flights headed in hundreds of directions; other people sitting with their laptops open conducting business as if they were in their own office; meetings being held on cell phones; connections being made on social media…..it’s enough to make your head spin. Like us, I think it’s probable that Jesus and his disciples also grew weary of the pace with which they travelled and the crowds they encountered.
In our gospel lesson today, we see a stark contrast to the urgency with which Jesus moved. Instead of using the word ‘immediately,’ Mark begins by saying: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” Perhaps Jesus needed a break from the demands of ministry; some time of rest and refreshment with his inner circle of friends to process all that had been going on in their lives. During this surreal ‘mountaintop’ experience, it seems as if everyone involved had an epiphany. We read: “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”
We are not privy to their conversation. Personally, I have often wondered what their discussion entailed. Could this scene be an epiphany for Jesus who is learning more about what his role as the long awaited Messiah will entail? I think it’s easy to assume that Jesus in his divinity had all the answers from the beginning. But perhaps Jesus in his humanity needed time for all the pieces of the puzzle to come together. I am reminded of a story a little earlier in Mark when a woman of Gentile origin asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus rather rudely tells her it’s not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs, meaning he had come only for the salvation of the people of Israel. But the lady replied, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus was moved and realized that the scope of his mission was much larger and he healed the lady’s daughter. This conversation with Moses and Elijah takes place just before his final push into Jerusalem. I imagine that their presence with Jesus inferred a sort of spiritual debriefing session; Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, are both said to have conversed with God directly in their lifetimes. In these final days Jesus’ mission is gaining clarity.
The disciples have an epiphany of their own because they experience something in Jesus that they have not seen before. Have you ever noticed something quite unexpectedly in a friend or colleague that has shed some light on them? Perhaps this experience gave you a little insight into their situation and changed your perception of who they were….they were transfigured before your eyes. I think this transfiguration of Jesus was a game changer for Peter, James, and John because their notions of his mission were significantly changed. You may remember earlier in Mark on the way to Caesarea-Philippi, just before Jesus had predicted his Passion for the first time, He asks his disciples, ““Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah,” (from the Hebrew literally meaning ‘anointed’). The disciples’ impression of Jesus was like that of most people who followed him, that he was the one who would deliver them from the hands of Rome. But, in fact, the freedom Jesus was offering was not from Roman occupation but rather from the isolation and self-reliance born out of the original sin in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, separating their will from God’s. Jesus was to provide the bridge of grace that would reunite people with God, the one whom he called “Abba,” Father.
As Peter fumbles around with what to say on the mountain, Mark says “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” Not only had they seen Jesus with Elijah and Moses, but they had heard the voice of God identify Jesus as his son! As they descended the mountain, they knew they had witnessed something awesome but the experience shook the foundation of who they wanted Jesus to be. And as much as Jesus tried to explain, they would not fully understand until after His death, resurrection, and ascension….and believe it or not, for us, THIS is good news.
While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus and makes us say “Eureka! I got it!” While the ‘Eureka effect,’ that is, the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany, makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. You may be heading into Lent with the feeling of not having had an epiphany, that is, you’re not sure how God is working in your life. Or perhaps God is not working according to your expectations. If this is the case, then don’t panic. Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ inner circle of friends, didn’t understand right away either. While pieces of the puzzle were coming together, they still didn’t have all they needed for the picture to come into focus. And perhaps this is true for you. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest once said, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God….. Your ideas mature gradually – let them grow. Let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
I would add, take your questions to God in prayer. Ask Jesus to shed some light in your life, to transfigure it, and then be patient. It may be that you’re being readied for something, and in God’s time, when you least expect it, EUREKA!!! Amen
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