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