My sermon for Last Epiphany, February 19, 2012
In my last Manifest article, I wrote about some of the features of the Gospel of Mark, including the way it ends. Matthew, Luke, and John all end with the resurrection and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Mark, it seems, from the earliest copies of the text we have, does not. It ends with an empty tomb story, and with the women who had gone to anoint Jesus’ body after the Sabbath running away in fear after encountering a strange man in white who announced (but didn’t show) that Jesus had been raised from the dead. So there’s the promise of resurrection, but we don’t get to see it for ourselves in Mark; an omission that later editors of the Bible sought to correct by adding an ending more similar to Matthew and Luke.
What Mark does have is the story we heard today: the Transfiguration. This is the Easter moment for Mark. It is clear in who Jesus is and how he is related to the Divine presence, and that he is not just a prophet or a wise rabbi. It’s the story that makes you want to say, “Alleluia.” And it’s interestingly similar to that empty tomb story in Mark’s Gospel. In today’s Transfiguration story, there are three disciples who witness the event: Peter, James, and John. In Mark’s empty tomb story, there are also three disciples: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Today Jesus is dressed in a blazing white robe; at the tomb, it is the young man who proclaims the resurrection who is wearing white. At the transfiguration, the male disciples are terrified; at the empty tomb, the women are terrified.
In both cases, the disciples see something that will profoundly change their lives. At the transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell what they’ve seen until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead (so you get the promise of resurrection in both stories); at the empty tomb, the man in white tells the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus would be going ahead of them to Galilee, and that they would see him there. Nobody tells at first—even the women who have been commanded to do so—but word gets out eventually; the Good news must be shared.
Transfiguration is the summit of the Epiphany season when we feast fully conscious of the long 40 days of penitence and fasting ahead of us. It’s like being on the mountain with Elijah and Moses and Jesus propels towards the cross and ultimately toward the resurrection. It’s like we zip down off the mountaintop on a bicycle to pick up speed so that we can pedal hard enough to climb the mountain of Calvary. We need to be fed today, because it’s going to be a long 40 days. And in other areas of our lives as well—when it is time to feast, we need to feast, because famine will always come. Remember the Joseph story from Genesis—Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows being devoured by the seven skinny cows signifying the seven years of abundance followed by the seven years of famine. God does not promise us a permanent feast on earth. But—there is also always the promise that the fasting doesn’t last forever. Resurrection comes; the feast takes place.
So how do we approach Lent this year, when we know we aren’t going to get the exciting payoff we usually do of hearing the story of the risen Christ standing at the tomb. If I were to preview the Easter sermon right now, the theme might be something like, “Alleluia! Christ is missing. The Lord is missing, indeed, Alleluia!” Not as satisfying as “Christ is Risen!” is it? We are not going to get fed spiritually on Easter morning this year quite like we may want to be fed. We will not see Jesus with Mary Magdalene or Peter or the other disciples in the Gospel story on Easter morning. So in anticipation, we need to feast all the more.
Some family members of mine had an adventure a few years ago where they sailed from Baja California to Hawaii. In their preparations, they made a few mistakes: the list of supplies that the women were buying included beer; and the list of supplies that the men were buying included toilet paper. As reported after their safe arrival in Hawaii, there wasn’t enough of either. They assigned the wrong supplies to the wrong people to correctly estimate what they would need to get through the journey.
Lent is the church calendar’s way of identifying a particular season of fasting and repentance—a period of leanness—but of course, our own spiritual dry seasons don’t adhere to any calendar. I’ve been reading the book Still: confessions of a mid-faith crisis by Lauren Winner, which is her account of what her life was like when she encountered a sustained low place in her faith—after the emotional bloom of excitement at her conversion to Christianity, after her divorce, after the endless conversations with Jesus things just became still. God was absent—or at least, that’s what it felt like to her—and her faith sagged as she felt like God was no longer speaking to her—even when she knew God was speaking to her, she couldn’t or wouldn’t hear it. But she still went out and got fed-in her professional life, in her church community, and I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but I think that’s what’s going to eventually enliven her faith again, but this time in a more mature, sustainable way. Even during her lean years, she had some supplies: a church community, rituals of prayer, Bible study, the Eucharist; that got her through.
So what will your Spirit need this Lent, because you don’t want to run out. What do you need to feast on now to get through to the resurrection? Look at today’s story—Jesus is transfigured—it is an extra-ordinary moment. Moses is there. Elijah is there. There is continuity for the people of Israel and hope for the future in the form of the voice from heaven. And there is hope for Peter, James, and John, too—they don’t get it right away, they are terrified, they try to do something silly first in building the booths, but they come down off the mountain, and on the way down (in the next verses that we didn’t read today) they continue to ask Jesus questions about what they’ve seen. They are curious and inquisitive and willing to keep bugging Jesus until they can understand.
I always come back in the transfiguration story to the clarity of the voice from heaven. “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” It tells us who Jesus is, and how we should be interacting with Jesus. The command isn’t really to take action, just to listen. Which is a good thought for the Lent ahead of us. Listen. To Jesus. Go back to scriptrue. Read the stories—read what Jesus has to stay. Tell them to your children—bring out those Bible storybooks, and if you don’t have one, get one. Let this Lent be a season where you ration out the words of Jesus a few at a time—whether by using Day by Day or reading the daily lectionary or just planning to read, say, the entire gospel of Mark over the next six weeks. Listen to the words of Jesus.
And let those words be food. Just as we say at the Eucharistic offering, “Feed on him in your hearts by faith and with thanksgiving,” feed on his words by faith, and with thanksgiving. Hear the healing story we read last week, and Jesus’ response to the leper’s statement that if Jesus chooses, the leper can be healed. Jesus responds, “I do choose.” Jesus does choose to heal us, whether in body, or mind, or spirit. Hear the call stories, and know that Jesus is calling you to follow, not just some first century Galilean fishermen. Hear the teachings, and incorporate loving God with your heart and your mind and your soul and loving your neighbor as yourself into your daily life. And if you are really despairing, listen to Jesus’ words from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we encounter despair, we are not going anyplace that Jesus has not gone before. His prayer can become our prayer, and his resurrection our own.
And there is one more character we need to be ready to listen to: the young man at the empty tomb. Can we believe in the resurrection without seeing it? Can we listen to the young man on Easter morning, and believe not with our eyes, but with our ears? The next six weeks are the time to work on that, so that when the feast comes, and that young man says, “He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you,” we will remember today, and we will remember Jesus’ own promise of the resurrection that we heard today, and we will believe. And we will be blessed. Because we will be those who have heard, but have not seen, and yet who believe.