Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that have you inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation and that you will empower our application. Amen
One of the things I was encouraged to think about in my Homiletics class - that was my Sermon preparation ad presentation class, in Seminary was to read the Scriptures and to look for common themes in the readings.
So as I read the Scriptures for a particular Sunday, in preparation for writing and then presenting my Sermon, I often find myself reading and looking for similar phrases or similar symbols or images in the readings.
Today one major, common connector is, I believe, the theme of God wanting to establish a Covenant relationship with people.
Then there is the secondary one of how the Lord uses symbolism to affirm or confirm that Covenant. Throughout today's readings, there is the imagery of people "passing through water" as a sign or as a symbol of a Covenant.
The Old Testament illustration of that, this morning, is the story of Noah and his family passing through the floodwaters. Noah and his family go into the ark and pass through the waters, as "the world they knew it" is wiped away. They come to a new world and a new opportunity for humanity to live in a renewed Covenant relationship with the Lord who has saved them.
Lots of people find the story of Noah a hard one. There are lots of people who are more than ready to see it purely as a myth or a tale of an ancient group of people. A bit of folk law to illustrate a point. Now that may well be true.
The point or the issue that most people struggle with is the idea that God would offhandedly or matter-of-factly wipe out humanity. It seems to be a harsh judgment without much recourse.
Can I just say that there are scholars who suggest that from the time God spoke to Noah about building the Ark, until the flood actually came, that there was a period of around 120 years.
So, these scholars would suggest that God outlined the plan and then gave the people of the world 120 years to respond. Eventually, when they didn't respond and repent he fulfilled what he said would happen.
Either way, it is a hard story to comprehend. But in the center of it all is still the essential point: "God seeks to establish a Covenant with people and the Lord uses the symbolism of people "passing through water" as a sign or as a symbol of that Covenant."
All of this understanding of Covenant, with its associated symbolism and imagery, is transferred into what we in the church have come to understand about Baptism. God wants to establish a covenant relationship with us and we need to pass through the waters to come into the new world, the new life that he is offering to us.
Now, when I meet with families to prepare for Baptism I often talk with them about a different story. The People of Israel, as they are leaving Egypt, finding themselves trapped between Pharoh's army and the Red Sea.
The people freshly released from captivity find themselves facing annihilation with nowhere to go. This bunch of newly released, formerly subjugated prisoners, find their moments of freedom about to be snuffed out. They cry out to Moses, the one that they are putting their hope in to be their savior, and he petitions God for a way out. God instructs him to put his staff in the water. Miraculously the sea or the waters part. The people pass through the waters to safety on the other side. This story encapsulates the imagery or symbolism of people recognizing the need for release from captivity, the need for a savior, the need for miraculous intervention, and the need to pass through the waters to safety and a new life.
In all three readings, we are encouraged to think about, to examine, what Baptism means for us. As we begin our journey towards Easter, we are encouraged to take some time, during this time of Lent, to reflect on, to examine, to ponder anew how we view and understand Baptism.
In the reading from 1st Peter this morning we hear the word prefigured. Now I don't know about you but prefigure is not a word I use much in my common conversation. In fact, if I am really honest, I don't think I even considered it much until I went to Seminary. Once I got there I heard it quite a bit. Just in case you are wondering what prefigure means, let me give a simple definition, it means to set up an example of something. To put something in place which prepares people for what is to come.
In this case, Noah and his family, and the people of Israel at the edge of the Red Sea, prefigure God's desire to be in Covenant with us. That we would realize that we are, or have been, living our lives under subjugation, that we have been prisoners. That we need someone to come and lead us out of that existence and into a new life. There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves. No matter how religious we are, no matter how morally correct we are, no matter how kind and generous we are, we can't get it right. Like Noah's family and like the people of Israel standing on the edge of the Red Sea we need something to happen to change the situation, we need someone to save us. We need a savior.
Just as Noah's family needed to pass through the floodwaters and the people of Israel needed to pass through the Red Sea, we need to pass through the waters of Baptism. We need to acknowledge that Jesus is our Savior. We need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. One of my professors at Seminary put it this way: "I am not the Savior, but I know who is, and he is ready, willing, and able to save!" As the writer of 1st Peter puts it so clearly: " baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"
Jesus, through His death, burial, and resurrection has provided the means and the opportunity for us to be set free. We in our Baptism, in passing through the waters, are acknowledging who he is for us.
Jesus, in our Gospel reading this morning, is Baptized and the Heavenly Father recognizes and acknowledges who he is, in dramatic fashion: he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Jesus then is driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit for 40 days. He is tempted by Satan. That is all Mark says about that, but we know from the other Gospels, how Jesus is challenged to renounce the Lordship of his Heavenly Father. He withstands those temptations.
Then Mark in rapid-fire progression takes us to the arrest of John the Baptist, and Jesus' proclamation "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
"This past year we have all been living through and experiencing, the wilderness, as we never have before. This past year each of us has been a dark and enduring period of questioning and uncertainty like we have never experienced before. I would suggest that each of us has been challenged to consider, in a way that we never have before, our convictions about who Jesus is and who he will be for us.
As we enter and travel through Lent this year, we have the opportunity to consider our need for a Savior, our need for a way out, a need for a renewed vision and purpose.
We may not have been through a flood, which has, wiped out the world as we knew it, but we are certainly facing a world like we have never experienced it before. What can we learn from Noah and his family, or from the people of Israel, about passing through the waters of darkness and uncertainty? Do we have the expectation that our Savior will be with us?
I am reminded of the words of Joshua, and the people of Israel, in Joshua 24: 14 - 17
“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed."
I believe that God is seeking to renew and enliven his Covenant with us, as his people. Are we willing to take some time this Lent and examine our hearts and our minds in the light of our Baptism?
Perhaps we have the opportunity to review the Baptismal Service that begins on page 299 in the Book of Common Prayer. I am sure that we are most familiar with the promises that we were made for us in our Baptism, perhaps we recall restating those at Confirmation.
Have we considered the Covenantal nature of Baptism? Covenants are two sided. We make promises and God makes promises. Perhaps we need to consider the promises that are stated on God's behalf in the Baptismal Service on pages 306, 308 and 309.
As I end this morning I hope I can encourage you to consider Joshua's question: "Choose this day whom you will serve." But that you will also look to the Lord to fulfill his promises to us:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
Video Source: https://vimeo.com/509790884
Gospel: Mark 9:2-9
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. 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. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Sermon Text – Last Epiphany 2021 - February 14, 2021
Epiphany ends as it began, with light. On January 6th, it greeted us with the star of Bethlehem, leading the Magi and us to the Christ child and illuminating his humble and divine self in a “lowly cattle shed,” as Cecil Frances Alexander’s familiar hymn text describes. And on the Last Sunday of the season, it culminates on a high mountain with the transfigured Jesus beheld by Peter, James, and John, his clothes “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Both lights proclaimed the same thing, the divinity of Jesus, in whose brightness the true nature of every person and thing is exposed; from it, nothing is hidden.
In a similar way, Epiphany begins and ends with the same words. On the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we hear almost identical words from heaven to what we hear in the Transfiguration account, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” and, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
The word, epiphany, comes from the Greek word meaning “to reveal.” Each year we begin and end the epiphanic process of Jesus being revealed to us with the familiar image of illumination and the words of divine identification that declare God’s truth about him, that he is the Son of the Most High. As the story of the Transfiguration describes, the stark brightness of that revelation is not always easy to face, especially when its light reveals difficult truths about ourselves.
The Transfiguration of Jesus was understandably terrifying. It is little wonder that Peter, James, and John did not know what to do. Before their own eyes, Jesus glowed with an unearthly light. In the company of Elijah and Moses, both of whom had ascended bodily to heaven, Jesus was radiant, the way one is when being her genuine and authentic self. The disciples didn’t know what to do with him, nor what to do with themselves. So Peter, reflecting the terror all three of them felt, gave it his best shot, offering to build tents for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, effectively to put it all back in the box. Not knowing what to say, he suggested they capture the moment and preserve the experience, but not let it get out of hand.
I sometimes wonder whether Jesus himself knew quite what to do with this, either. Instructing his followers not tell anyone what they had seen seems a reasonable response to so incomprehensible an event. I wonder whether his own uncertainty about what to do next, and what this was going to cost him, made him reluctant to have the news be widely spread. At the very least, he must have suspected the publicity would only interfere with what he was apparently being called to do. Scholars and preachers sometimes conjecture that the way to get news to spread most quickly is to ask that it be kept secret. While that can be a consequence, it seems a stretch to believe it was Jesus’s strategy.
In the radiance of Jesus’s transfiguration, Peter, James, and John must have also begun to realize what this was going to cost them. The vocation to be Christian can as well be terrifying for us, when we begin to recognize what it may cost. In our own experience, the radiant presence of the Christ illuminates both the truth about him and the truth about us. In the brightness of who Jesus was, we often see with increasing clarity our own true selves and what being his disciples will mean, and that can easily instill fear. It is ironic that, while we, like the disciples, can experience the light and presence of Christ as blinding, it equally allows us to see truths about ourselves to which we have perhaps previously been blind.
I offer a personal example. In the middle of Black History month, and following yesterday’s feast of Absalom Jones, the first Black ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church, the radiance of the transfigured Christ illuminates for me the persistent racial inequity and injustice of our society, and the systemic racism in which I am a participant. It makes me see myself with more honest definition. When I see Jesus aglow with the divine truth about who he was, it illuminates truths about God’s understanding and expectations of me.
On this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, you and I are challenged, in the radiance of the transfigured Jesus, to see more clearly the truth about ourselves, to open our eyes to what God knows to be true about us, to the end that we might, with greater authenticity, give ourselves more honestly and more fully to God. At the end of this season of revelation, we look at what the light of Christ reveals about us, and accepting who we are in the eyes of God, we join Jesus on the sacrificial journey to the cross, the Lenten journey to our full surrender to what God wants, not what we want.
When a person is genuinely herself, when her self-awareness and self-acceptance are authentic and not a projection of who she thinks she should be or who she wants others to think she is, we sometimes say that she “shined,” or we describe her as “brilliant” or “dazzling” or “bright.” When you and I are aware and accepting of who God knows us to be is when our light most shines. It is the product of humility and honesty. It is confessional. The Greek word for confess is homologeo, meaning to say the same words, to agree, and in this case, to agree with God, with what God knows each of us to be.
Like Jesus, we are each transfigured not into something we are not, but into who we already are in the eyes of God. In the light of the transfigured Jesus, we are able to see ourselves both in our imperfections and as God has always imagined us: beloved and made “in God’s image.” In the light of the transfigured Jesus, we are able to see and accept ourselves as beloved children of the Most High, enabled by God’s own spirit of holiness to shine and to shed the light of justice, compassion, and peace that comes only from the God who has created us in love.
So, in Jesus’s own words, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio