February 11, 2024

The Last Sunday After The Epiphany

February 11, 2024

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings:    2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

From the Gospel according to Mark, “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     One of the marvelous things about holy Scripture is its use of stories. Stories that engage the listener in the action of story and, at the same time, affirm that God chooses ordinary, everyday people like you and me to carry forth God’s message of redemption, hope, and light to this world. Today’s scripture lessons offer such stories and are well-timed given that today is the Last Sunday in this Season of the Epiphany and Lent looms before us.

     Our Old Testament reading from 2nd Kings tells the story of how Elisha received a double blessing from Elijah so that he could continue God’s mission of reconciliation to the people of Israel. Elisha had no special training nor did he possess any of the skills one would think necessary for someone to be successful in ministry. Frankly, he was a nondescript person who spoke poorly. And yet, there was one unique thing about him: he was totally dedicated and committed to his master and that was all God needed for someone to carry forth God’s message and light into this world.

     Our gospel lesson tells the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. Present with Jesus were Peter, James and John. We know Peter as someone who was often brash; jumped to conclusions; and seemed all too quick to speak and slow to think. And in today’s story, once again Peter speaks before thinking. Oh, he starts out okay when he says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here” but he should have stopped there. But, no, he just had to say more. Peter blurts out, “Let us build three booths (or shrines)” to commemorate this occasion and in speaking those words, he affirms that he has missed the whole point of the Transfiguration. In all honesty, I see myself in Peter. Perhaps you do as well. So often, when confronted with an act of God, a miracle, an answered prayer, a sense of God’s presence, we think we have to do something special. Yet, Jesus responded to Peter’s proposal with utter silence. Then a voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my Son; the beloved. Listen to him.” God does not need more shrines and dwelling places. What God needs, what God seeks, is people who will listen to God and then apply God’s words to every aspect of daily life.

Now in all fairness to Peter, he is not alone in his shortcomings. We might remember that James and John were ill-prepared for ministry and often said things without thinking. On one occasion they were so preoccupied with greatness rather than hearing our Lord’s words about servanthood, that they asked Jesus who will be greatest in the kingdom of God. And let’s not forget that during the events of Holy week - Jesus’ passion and death - James and John could not stay awake for even one hour while Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. So, all three of these men were prone to wrong choices and actions. In other words, they were ordinary, everyday people just like us and everyone else in scripture called to ministry. There is something going on here in these texts that actually issue a challenge.

     The voice from heaven echoed the words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “Listen to him.” And, we love listening to the words of Jesus, don’t we? We love those stories of Jesus. Growing up, one of my favorite Sunday School songs was, “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear.” But what about the stories we don’t love to hear; don’t want to listen to? Yes, Jesus spoke about loving our neighbor as ourselves; loving God with all our heart, soul, body and mind; Jesus spoke about how blessed are those who do this or that. His words bring us great comfort. And yet, in the midst of all those feel-good words, in the midst of saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here” we need to remember everything Jesus actually said when he lived and died among us.

     See, when we truly listen to Jesus, we must hear these words: "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." When we listen to Jesus, we must hear: "Whoever wants to be first among you must become last and servant of all." When we listen to Jesus, we should hear: “As you have done to the least of these my brothers, so you have done to me.” When we listen to Jesus, we should hear: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we listen to Jesus, we hear: “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was naked and you gave me no clothes.” When we listen to Jesus, we hear: “No one comes to the Father but through me.” When we listen to Jesus, we hear: “Depart from me, I never knew you.” When we truly listen to Jesus’ words and ponder them, we cannot help but realize just how far we fall short of God’s expectations and that should trouble all who claim Christ as their Lord and Savior, and trouble us deeply. So, within the context of truly listening to Jesus and what he requires of us, when Peter says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” I am inclined to ask, “Is it really?”

     Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Susan Gamelin, reflecting on today’s gospel reading observed, “It is wonderful to hang out with Elijah and Moses, Peter and James and John. It's a blessing to spend time with the folks in our congregations, our families, our friendship circles, folks who cry out, ‘Jesus!’ and sing of him and to him.” But, she asks, “What about the rest of the week when we are confronted by injustice, unfairness, and urged to think only of, and for, our own selves?” See, the voice from heaven says, “Listen to him.” And that means, listening to everything Jesus said and listening to it so deeply that we apply it to our lives: we make it an integral part of who we are. So, when Peter, with his foot in his mouth says, “it is good for us to be here” and I ask this morning, “Is it really?” I realize that Peter is actually right: It is good because in spite of ourselves, our shortcomings, God still chooses us, calls us, graces and blesses us, just as we are.

     Scripture reveals that God chooses ordinary everyday people like you and me to be God’s witnesses and reconciling presence in this world because ministry is never about us. As St. Paul reflecting on his own life-story said so well in this morning’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians, we do not proclaim ourselves. Otherwise, anyone who really knows us especially our inmost thoughts and desires, knows those off-the-cuff remarks we have made when we thought no one was around, would laugh when we speak about how God has transformed our hearts and minds. Paul, very cognizant of his own checkered past, says, no, it’s not about me: “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as slaves.” God’s transforming work within us is a life-long journey of continuous conversion so that we, growing in God’s grace and our understanding of God’s love and desire for all persons to be reconciled to God and neighbor, can continue God’s ongoing mission in this world and do so just as we are if we will choose to truly listen to Jesus and make his words our way of life.

     Today marks the Last Sunday in the Season of the Epiphany. And just like every year on the last Sunday of Epiphany, our gospel lesson tells this story of the Transfiguration. It is an important story because of its theological teaching about who Jesus was and is. In fact, this story is so important we will visit again on the Feast Day of the Transfiguration in August. Yet, all theology aside, those words “listen to him” sum up what it means to truly know Jesus and follow him. And therein lies a challenge. It is the same challenge heard by Elisha and St. Paul. It is the challenge to make God’s words, Jesus’ words, our words. And when that happens then, like Peter, we can honestly say, “it is good for us to be here” because we realize that wherever we go, God’s words go with us because they dwell within us and shape who we are.

     Our scripture lessons are well-timed as we prepare to enter the Season of Lent this Wednesday. Perhaps it’s their emphasis on the ordinariness of God’s people and our human propensity to speak without thinking. Perhaps it’s their reminder that ministry is never about glorifying ourselves. Perhaps it’s considering our gospel lesson as an invitation to spend time during Lent to once again, really listen to those words of Jesus – all of them – and then recommit ourselves to making Jesus’ words our words. The truth is when communities of faith truly listen to Jesus and embody everything he taught – even the hard sayings, then Peter’s words, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here” take on a whole new meaning because churches become a place where lives are forever changed. And, friends, I can’t imagine a better place to be.

“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” God grant us the grace to say the same. Amen.