Last Sunday after the Epiphany Sermon
For us in the church, we’re at the end of the Season after the Epiphany. But as Pacific Northwesterners, we’re still smack in the midst of the Sun Holiday Season. You know what I mean. Your Facebook feed is filled with people’s pictures from Hawaii or the desert. This is the season when we’re so weary of enduring the damp and the dark and the gray, our bodies craving Vitamin D. We yearn to feel the actual warmth of the sun on our bare skin! So those who can, board a plane and get out of Dodge.
And it never ceases to amaze me when I fly out of Seattle’s dreariness, how – minutes after take-off – the plane enters the clouds, then – suddenly! magnificently! – bursts into the brilliant blue beyond and we’re surrounded by nothing but pure, brilliant, clear sunlight. It’s measureless and unbounded, of a scale vastly more substantial than that thin veneer of cloudiness at ground-level.
Beyond our perception of endless gray lives this far more magnificent reality: Right here, over Gig Harbor, it is ALWAYS a sunny day.
It’s like the artwork on the cover of your bulletin: the epiphany star that led the magi to Christ. It’s hard to see at this small scale. But I remember once staring at the original (which is quite large). And the longer I looked, I no longer simply saw a star in the night sky. Instead, all that blackness became like a swarm of eels slithering away. And by their parting was revealed a brilliant daylight. Such that it wasn’t so much a star, as it was the in-breaking of the vast, eternal Light beyond it. The night (it turned out), was only a veneer. Behind it was endless day.
And this is how it is for us, with every epiphany we receive, every “a-ha moment” when – suddenly – something is revealed, something bursts into clarity and we know it’s real. We know we are now seeing something true that a moment before was concealed from us.
Like a conversation Henry I were having the other day. We were talking about St. John’s organ concert and I said, “It was great to hear Dennis, literally, pull out all the stops.” “Oh, wait,” he said. “Is that where that phrase comes from?” And, yep, that’s where it comes from – when you pull out a “stop” (one of those knobs on the organ), you’re letting a whole rank of pipes be played. When you “pull out all the stops” you’re letting all the pipes do their thing.
A minute before, Henry’d never even thought to wonder where that phrase came from. Now, he’ll never forget. It’s his epiphany forever.
This is how epiphanies work. Whether it’s a minor epiphany exposing the etymology of a phrase or an extraordinary epiphany revealing the Divine Mystery, when the break-through happens, when our hearts and souls see truth, it’s our treasure forever. Even when the veil closes, even when we come down from the mountaintop, that knowledge remains ours.
But, of course, it’s more than knowledge. It’s like food consumed – food now absorbed into our bodies and become part of us.
Not long ago, I was re-reading a book I’d read many years before. I had no particular memory of ever having read this book, but it was filled with markings clearly my own – my own little checkmarks and commentary scribed in the margins. And it was fascinating to me how clearly epiphany-like my first reading had been. I could see how I’d engaged with this author as one showing me new wisdom about God and the Kingdom of God. And, years later, reading it again, that same wisdom was now quite familiar to me; it was a perspective of God I now claim as my own. These words had been as food to me, nourishing me, and forming me.
Because this is how epiphanies work. They form us. They shape us into the souls – the divine vessels – we are, carrying God in us, as we are carried in God. This is what the spiritual life is all about. This is what life is about. Our origin is God. Our destination is God. This journey of life, in all its tumult, in all its damp and dreary grayness, is pierced with in-breaking moments of clarity, of brilliance, of certainty. It is pierced with the glory of God. And our work of faith is to live forward with whatever light we’ve been given. And to those who are given much, much is expected.
And as it is for us, so it was for Christ. In his human sojourn, he, too, was formed and informed by the daily act of living and seeking to make sense of this human life we are living – and for him – the particular life and mission to which he was called. So many times, the gospel story tells of him “going up to the mountain to pray.” Who knows exactly what those prayers included and what (or who!?) he experienced there?
But we know, once, he took three disciples with him – the story we read this morning – where they witnessed him, glowing in light, talking with Moses and Elijah. Clearly, it was a significant moment for them. It was an epiphany of their own that changed their life forever, where they not only saw Jesus in splendor, but heard God speaking directly to them, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Years later in one of his letters, Peter would write about that moment. It changed his life.
But it was also a pivotal moment for Jesus. It took place right at the major turning point of his ministry. Until then, he’d been largely in the Galilee region up north, teaching and healing people. The energy and excitement around him had just been growing and growing.
But everything’s about to change, and somehow, he knows it. He’s about to head south, to Jerusalem, where he’ll be rejected and undergo suffering and be killed. In fact, he’d just broken that news to his disciples, who upon hearing it, immediately pushed back: “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” It was said in loyalty, surely. But it was, in fact, the beginning of their rejection. It was the reprise of his own temptations and the pressing isolation of being alone.
Jesus’ journey to Gethsemane and Golgotha had now begun.
But first, he goes up the mountain to pray. And at that moment, the veil is pulled back, like being on a plane that’s piercing through the clouds. Jesus is bathed in light. And for that moment, all is clear. He’s entered heaven (as it were). He’s entered into this eternal, divine reality, where he is not tempted, where he is not suffering, where he is not alone. No. In this moment, he is joined by companions, by Moses and Elijah, two men of yore who knew what it was like – who knew what it was like to be faithful in hideous conditions, who knew what it was like to be reviled by the children of Israel they were called to lead.
The scriptures don’t tell of what they spoke. But what seems clearest to me is what a gift this moment must have been. No matter how dreadful the future would be, he could now carry with him this experience – not only as a memory – but the faith of a now-still-present reality, even if veiled by the clouds. He was not alone. Moses and Elijah were beside him.
And I wonder, (and this is pure conjecture) if the conversation itself hadn’t been informative. Maybe they had actual information for him: instructions, perhaps, of what was coming and what he needed to do. But more than that, perhaps they had messages of hope – hope of what lay beyond the suffering.
For here’s what’s also interesting about Moses and Elijah: they’d both had unusual ends. There’s a vagueness surrounding Moses’ death and at the time of Jesus there were those believed God had already carried him to heaven. And of Elijah, the story’s explicit, how he was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire. Which is all to say, perhaps they were inspiring him with just how good and certain his resurrection beyond the grave would be. “Yes, it’s going to be really bad. But listen to how good it gets…” How many of us have endured awful things by holding on to the hope of what came after?
We are living in violent and perilous times. It feels like everything around us is crumbling. The earth itself is quaking and killing by the tens of thousands. Rivers are drying up. So far in 2023 there have been more mass shootings in America than there have been days. I watched a high school counselor break down in tears last week, describing just how bad and widespread the despair and anxiety amongst students is – that this school year is unlike anything he’s ever experienced in his professional career.
So let me say this: I am aware that the gospel I preach is typically a call to join God as partners in bringing forth in this world the good news of love and community, of compassion and forgiveness. And I believe all that is true. And I believe an awakening to that call can itself be a form of epiphany.
But I am also very mindful today that sometimes the good news we need is a piercing of the clouds to see and know the absolute purity and holiness and worthiness of God – that God Is.
We need it as individuals. We need it as a church. We need it as a society. Desperately.
I’ve felt a rumbling in my spirit for months now, a kind of prayer: “God, we need to experience you. To be the people this world needs us to be, with strength of character and conviction, to live out your gospel of hope and love and passion, we need you in a much more real way than we’ve known so far.”
In a word, it’s a prayer for revival – a word saturated with suspicion and prejudice. And much of it historically vindicated. But nonetheless, “God, we need you.”
So my interest has been piqued these past couple weeks, by reports of a spontaneous revival happening right now on the campus of Asbury University in Kentucky, one that’s spreading to other college campuses as well.
Will it be a flash in the pan, like so many others – so much emotion with so little substance? I don’t know. I’m watching.
But my prayer remains, “For the love of this world you love, God, we need an epiphany of you, that we might be changed.”