Many people enjoy family history and genealogy. They like to know something about the backstory of their relatives; what hardships, challenges, and triumphs they may have faced, perhaps some family secrets or skeletons in the closet. They hope that in knowing something of their past they will understand what has shaped and formed them in the present.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS you’ll know that as the host Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr takes his (often well-known) guests through a tour of their family history, they make connections about their own personal qualities and characteristics. They see in their past some of the events and forces that have shaped their identity, self-understanding, and sense of purpose.
Perhaps you have spent some time digging into your own family history and reflecting on how that may have influenced you. Maybe you recount family stories to keep alive the memory of those who have gone before you, their accomplishments and trials, and the values they held dear. The telling of these stories are the epics of our ancestors, the over-arching narratives that give a framework to our lives.
We see this in popular culture, as well – even when we tend to think that everything around is ephemeral, of the moment, that we can’t focus on anything longer than just a minute or two. When the story that is being told is about truth, goodness, justice, and mercy we get riveted; we hang in there, no matter how long it takes to tell the story. Here are a few examples:
• The Lord of the Rings trilogy is 1178 pages long, and the film version takes 11.2 hours to watch.
• The seven Harry Potter books (the US version) are 4099 pages long, and the eight movies are nearly 20 hours in length.
• All eleven Star Wars movies are a combined 25 hours and 7 minutes to watch; and it took George Lucas nearly 40 years to tell this generations-long story.
They are all epics and they grab our attention and our loyalty because they tell the truth about good, and evil, and righteous action, human frailty, triumph, redemption, and transformation.
The Biblical narrative and Christian faith are this same kind of epic. Often the sense of it being an epic is hidden from us. Perhaps this is because we have trouble seeing the larger story while we are living it; or because we don’t know enough of all the smaller sections that go to make up God’s big story, and how they all go together.
After all, in the King James translation of the Bible there are 783,137 words in 66 books of the Old and New Testaments; that is a huge number of stories! And yet, they all are part of the big, over-arching story, spanning generations and centuries; the meta-narrative of God’s relationship with humankind. It continually tries to point us to the vision of love and goodness and wholeness that life with the Lord and Creator of the universe can lead us to.
This morning’s Gospel recounts an episode within the Christian epic that reminds us that we stand within a much bigger story, and that transformation by the love of God is our purpose.
Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John up a mountain, presumably to have some quiet and dedicated time for conversation and reflection. Right away we should hear a bell ringing, as the Gospel writer Mark would have been well-aware. Mountains were places where people in the Bible went to worship and to have an encounter with God, as was also the wilderness or desert. So the scene is already set for something important to happen.
Jesus is transformed or transfigured before the eyes of his closest followers. What that means exactly is hard to put words around, but it involves Jesus being suffused with the light and love and power of God in a way that was visible to them – he was different, and yet recognizable.
In the midst of this experience Moses and Elijah appear. Both of these Hebrew prophets and leaders had their own very important and transformative mountain experiences.
Moses first encountered God in the burning bush on what later tradition tells us is Mt Sinai. And it was there that Moses returned with the Hebrew people whom God had freed from their enslavement in Egypt. On the mountain Moses received the covenant that was to form and shape the life of the people with God – what we call the Ten Commandments. It then took forty years - two generations - for them to be fully influenced and shaped by this Law before they were ready to move into the land God promised them.
Elijah, about five hundred years after Moses, became a fugitive from the wrath of the evil queen Jezebel. He had accused King Ahab of apostasy and idolatry by worshiping the Canaanite deities, rather than Yahweh: I AM WHO I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. And to make matters worse, Elijah had defeated the priests of these Canaanite gods in a contest and then slain them all, infuriating the Queen who was not a worshiper of Yahweh.
Elijah was on the run, and eventually took refuge from Jezebel, and from God, in a cave on Mount Sinai, only to encounter God there at the mouth of the cave – not in the earthquake, or wind, or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice. Elijah then returned to his ministry in Israel with renewed purpose and sense of God’s presence. And at the end of his life he passed his authority and the responsibility for continuing his mission on to his protégé Elisha. That’s what it means when we say that the mantle of Elijah has fallen upon Elisha.
The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus give us a glimpse of God’s big story; a reminder that Jesus’ ministry was connected to God’s purpose and that it had a direction and focus.
For Peter, James, and John heading to Jerusalem and what would be Jesus’ eventual face-off with the religious and political authorities, and the power of evil that took advantage of them, this experience of Jesus’ transfiguration may have given them some insight even if it didn’t give them the clarity and strength they needed to follow Jesus all the way to the Cross.
We hear a version of this transfiguration story every year on this Sunday before the start of Lent. We hear it on the actual Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th, as well. But we read and hear and reflect on this story every year for at least two reasons.
The first reason is that it is a culmination of all the other stories in the season after Epiphany in which we see Christ being made manifest, being shown forth; the truth of who Jesus is for all the world to see.
A second reason to listen to this story before we begin Lent is because it is part of the epic that shapes us and forms us as we make our own journey to the Cross, the Tomb, and the Day of Resurrection.
Lent is a time of preparation, of getting ourselves and our faith community ready to celebrate that most epic of events: God’s defeat of sin and death in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Disciplines and spiritual practices of personal sacrifice like fasting from sweets or wine or Facebook can all be very helpful – particularly if they are paired with some practice of generosity like donating to a food pantry the money you would have spent on meal with meat, for which you have substituted a less-expensive vegetarian option.
So, discipline and self-sacrifice can be good and holy, but have just lived through nearly a year of giving up things that are dear to us. We have had a lot of privation in one way or another – and some have had quite a heavy dose of this.
Perhaps the better, more helpful, practice this year would be to spend time looking back over all the ways God has met us, taught us, sustained us over the last twelve months. And then ask ourselves how what we have been living through fits in with God’s bigger story – however much you know of that.
Ask how some of these ancestors in the faith – in the words of Scripture, in the lives of the saints, in the personal narratives of your own Christian heroes – have shaped and formed you. See yourself as part of the epic story of faith. Understand that there are people in the future who will look back on this time of your faith and faithfulness and see in your story God’s purpose and goodness and blessing during this time.
God has been writing another chapter in the Acts of the Apostles this year. You have your own Gospel, your own Good News of God in Christ that you could write or tell. And all of it is part of this epic journey of faith whose goal is the transformation of human lives to a condition of joy and goodness and peace and love with and for God the Lord and Creator and Sustainer of the universe.
Let us pray.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 291
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Last Sunday after Epiphany
February 14, 202