“This is my son, the Beloved”-Sermon for Epiphany Last, Mark 9:2-9
On the last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany we return each year to the story of the Transfiguration. The mountaintop moment with Jesus, Moses and Elijah transfigured into their divine glory in the presence of three of Jesus’ disciples and friends Peter, James and John. And, I believe the lectionary that orders our Sunday scripture readings uses this story each year to mark the transition from the Season of Epiphany to the Season of Lent…for this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, begins, once again, our shared Lenten journey…to the cross and then on to the empty tomb of Easter. Moreover, this mountain top moment marks a significant transition in Jesus’ own earthly ministry. For in it, he begins to, as the Evangelist Luke describes in the transfiguration, set his face toward Jerusalem…meaning that Jesus is preparing for the fulfillment of his time and purpose on earth…his story is reaching its climax…the beginning of the end has arrived. On the mountaintop, Jesus is preparing himself to, indeed, go to Jerusalem and there to suffer and die on the hard wood of the violent cross to take away the sin of the world…and in doing so to defeat death our ancient foe for all time and forever.
For, Jesus’ death on the cross and God’s eternal act of raising him to new life on Easter is at the center of God’s great Good News. It is the proclamation that life and love are stronger even than death. This is good news for all of creation and everything that has, does or will exist within the bounds of time and space…even you…even me. The cross and empty tomb are our hope…that our own lives and the lives of those we love are indeed eternal and everlasting. As CS Lewis describes in the “Last Battle” the 7###sup/sup### and concluding book of the Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus’ death and resurrection both promise and make eternally possible the temporal and spiritual fact that the life we now gloriously and gratefully live is but chapter one of our own never-ending story, and, further, that each subsequent chapter that makes up our own eternal story is even richer and more rewarding than the last…in a book that never ends. Today’s story, Jesus’ Glorious Transfiguration, indeed, points us to the Good News that is the purpose and end of Good Friday and Easter that still lie ahead in the story.
But, before I jump over Lent entirely and go straight from Transfiguration to Easter, I want to say that we must never forget that such great love, that such hope, that such grace that the God of love extends to each of us…an eternal, personal and lasting love that sustains our own lives from birth to grave to new, eternal and everlasting life beyond the grave…comes…it comes to us at a great cost…a beloved life lost…the very real and entirely felt experience of suffering and death by Jesus…our Savior…who though God incarnate is also as fully human, fully able to experience all the suffering, pain, and sadness that exists in this often death-dealing world…just like each one of us. And, it this experience, the humiliation and pain that Jesus no doubt experienced on the cross just outside the walls of Jerusalem, that Jesus prepares for in this mountaintop moment we remember today…that he wrestles with…that he sets his face toward…a mission that he blessedly accepts for the life of the world…for each of us…who he loves and knows personally…from everlasting to everlasting.
And, I believe with all of my heart that just such a love, that comes with such a great cost, indeed, requires, even for Jesus, again, intentional preparation. He needs the wisdom shared with him on the mount by his spiritual ancestors Moses and Elijah. He needs the moment of actually being transfigured into his own divine glory, which points him to Easter…that reminds and promises him that his own suffering will be redeemed by the God of love…his own beloved mother and father…that the suffering that he will endure will not have the last word. He needs the presence, empathy, support and encouragement of his human friends, those who have earned his trust and the right to hear his story…represented by the presence of Peter, James and John who join him on the mountaintop. And, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel which we just read together, I believe most of all, to live into his own story, Jesus needs…needs to hear with his own ears…the physical ones on the side of his own head and the ears of the heart…his own beloved parent…the one from whom he is indivisible…the one with whom he shares his very substance…he needs to hear God say to him…the words shared both at his baptism and, again, here on the mountaintop, “Jesus, I love you. You are mine…my child. You belong to me. And, I am so, so very pleased with you”. It is then…and only then…after receiving that glorious affirmation…those blessed words…that he is ready to descend the mountain and face his future…face Jerusalem…face all the pain and all the glory that still stands before him.
Now, I am likely not the only one in this virtual crowd…but I am big fan of the band Mumford and Sons. When their breakout album, “Sign no More”, came out it was pretty much the only thing I listened to for like a month. I think it was Matt Abrahamson who turned me on to it. I would sing every word to every song in order from the beginning to the end with all the passion I could muster. I was the guy on Mopac driving and singing at the top of his lungs looking as ridiculous as possible, and I did not even care. And though I can’t list my favorite track from the album because there are too many…certainly in the top two or three is the song “The Cave”. And the chorus to the song reads this:
But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again
Now, my name is Miles and yours is yours…but I think our given names just begin to describe who we really are…what we are capable of…our innate and glorious beauty that is far more than skin deep…our character…our values…our worthiness. And hearing all of that described…put to words…and hearing those words…with our own ears…those on the side of our heads…and the ears of our hearts…hearing that…can change our lives…change our ways…find strength in pain…give us hope…when the noose feels like it is tightening around our necks. Those words, God’s words shared with Jesus on the mountaintop, which I believe we were intended to overhear, for I believe, further, that they were intended for each of us as well…those words, God’s love-words, calling out to us to remind us of who we really are…not Just Miles…but God saying to me…“Miles, my beloved one…Miles, my own child dreamed up in my mind before time/space even existed…Miles, whose body, whose heart and whose mind are so good…so pleasing to me your first and forever Mother and Father…just as they are…as you understand and know yourself to be…so good, so loved, so pleasing.” For, this is who Miles is…and this is who you are…the beloved one, a child who belongs to God and God’s own family, one who is pleasing to the God of love and to God’s family on earth. And, this is why Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem…why he prepares to suffer. For the climax to Jesus’ own story, the cross and empty tomb, affirm that we…that I…that you…are worthy to die for…to die for and to raise to eternal life…to exist…worthy of love and belonging…from before time and forever.
Though the book that holds within it the never-ending story of our own lives may not read identically to Jesus’ story, ours will and does also include suffering and glory…mountain tops and valleys…frustration and creativity…things and relationships lost and found…failure and success. And, how we live through it all…make sense of it all…overcome what’s hard and discover a life worth living…even just the growth, self-understanding, and closeness to God we hope to experience in the Season of Lent before us…all of this that defines the life we live…finds its beginning…finds its strength…finds its hope…to meet and make meaning in the challenges and opportunities that our own journey requires us to face…the power to live into this life is found and begins…in the unfailing and certain knowledge of who we really are…God’s own beloved.
So, hear it again…just like Jesus our brother on the mountaintop…close your eyes if it helps…fire up your imagination which is the place that God speaks most clearly to us…feel it in your good heart, feel it in your good mind, feel it in your good body…for God is sweetly speaking into your ears even now…giving you what you most need for the living of your days, for the redemption of your life, for that which we set our own faces toward…God is speaking these very words to you, “I love you. You belong to me. You are mine…my child. I am so, so very pleased with you…every part of you”.
And, finally, may we have the courage to be for one another that affirming voice, for I believe we are called by God to be that very voice for each other…God’s own voice, speaking into one another’s ears…into one another’s lives…speaking to each other the truth of who we really are. And, that truth…that we are God’s beloved one’s…that we are loved and belong…empowers everything, every possibility, overcoming every challenge…for the living of our days…in the undiscovered future that still lies ahead. Amen.