Last Sunday afternoon, Ryan McKenna had a mountaintop experience. You might have seen it on TV. He was the teenager who got to take selfies with Justin Timberlake during the halftime show of the Superbowl. Imagine finding yourself standing next to your idol, lit up by dazzling beams, in a show witnessed by millions of people, and suddenly you have that intimate moment in the midst of all the excitement. I noticed that Ryan was frozen for a moment. It wasn´t until Timberlake gestured to his phone that he snapped out of his shock and started snapping selfies. Ryan will never forget that moment.
Watching the half-time show of the Superbowl is probably the closest any of us will ever get to the kind of theophany described in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel reading today. That doesn´t mean that Justin Timberlake or Pink or Lady Gaga are on a par with Elijah and Jesus: it just means that our pop idols all understand the power of spectacle to embed an experience in the heart, to give the faithful an indelible impression of light and sound and drama.
The story in the second book of Kings of Elijah´s assumption reads almost like a worship service. There is call and response, there is repetition, there are principals and a chorus, there is a subtle recalling of the salvation history, and there is a buildup to the final climactic moment of divine revelation. Elijah and Elisha travel together from one holy place to another, until the moment when Elijah will relinquish the prophetic mantle to his disciple. The way they cross the Jordan, miraculously dryshod, mirrors the way Joshua led the people of Israel into the promised land. Like Moses, Elijah ends his life outside of the land, while Elisha, like Joshua, is clearly tapped as the prophet´s successor. A double portion of Elijah´s spirit, as requested by Elisha, will parallel the portion of an inheritance owed to an oldest son.
It´s a moment of leadership transition, and such moments are always fraught with anxiety. A clear display of power, a well-witnessed handing off of authority, a time of grieving, what we might call a good goodbye, helps to calm the anxiety and clarify the way forward. When the future is uncertain we want to know who is in charge, and the spectacle of chariots of fire is a dramatic reminder of the power and majesty of God, the mighty one, as our Psalm proclaims, the one who controls all things on heaven and earth.
Similarly, Mark´s story of the Transfiguration makes clear before witnesses that God has anointed Jesus to be the successor to the great prophets, that he wears the prophetic mantle, and that he has a word for the world to hear. ¨¨This is my Son, the beloved: listen to him.¨ The disciples undergo a multisensory, multimedia experience: isolated and disoriented on the mountaintop, they are dazzled by supernatural brilliance, then terrified by the apparitions, then immersed in the cloud, then terrified again by the divine voice from heaven. No wonder they, like Ryan McKenna, freeze at first and don´t know what to say or do. No wonder the only thing that occurs to Peter is a totally impractical suggestion: let´s build three shrines right here on top of the mountain. The divine voice corrects Peter’s misunderstanding: Jesus is not on a par with the prophets, he fulfills their prophecies and surpasses them.
We all long for moments of theophany, moments when the world will recognize God´s power to surprise and transform. There is no more frightening thought than the thought that we might be on our own in the universe. In fearful, uncertain times we need to know that God is in charge, that God is with us, Emanuel, present in our world, here among our friends, to be sought and served in all people. True mountaintop experiences are few and far between: we have to be paying attention to catch glimpses of the glory of God breaking through the mess and anxiety of life.
Our cathedral mission statement is Love Christ, Serve Others, Welcome All. In our life of discipleship we learn to love Christ in the sacraments, in the Scripture, in the intimacy of our own hearts, and in those we serve and welcome. When we extend welcome to each other, in baptism or fellowship, when we reach out in humble service to each other, we are acting out the divine message of the transfiguration: you are my beloved.
Every one of us shares in that belovedness. But it can sometimes be hard to see in others and in ourselves. What do you need in order to trust that you too are God´s beloved? Perhaps a moment of God´s near presence, made manifest in the sacraments, in the beauty of liturgy. Perhaps a word of confession and forgiveness. Perhaps the loving touch of a friend, the gift of relief from pain, a moment of satisfaction and fulfillment in ministry. In this holy place, whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself in the journey of faith, you are beloved simply for who you are, because you are God´s beloved.
Jesus receives this affirmation of love and authority at the halfway point in Mark´s Gospel. He is starting the journey to Jerusalem, starting to prepare his disciples for the hard times that lie ahead. He needs to know the embrace of God´s love as he faces the danger and uncertainty of his Messianic mission. And we who follow him share in that divine love even as we trust in the power of God to save and guide us in troubling times.
And so, armed with the certainty that God is in charge, and trusting that we are indeed God´s beloved, we make ready for the journey that awaits us: the long walk through the wilderness of Lent that will take us with Jesus to Jerusalem, to the Cross, and to the dazzling, transfiguring, transforming brightness of Easter.
February 11, 2018
Last Sunday after Epiphany
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges