Today mark’s the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is sometimes called “Transfiguration Sunday” because our appointed gospel lesson always retells Jesus’ transfiguration on the high mountain with Peter, James and John. It’s familiar enough to us that I suspect some of you might be able to hit the highlights if you were put on the spot. But this story doesn’t stand in isolation from the rest of Mark’s gospel. In fact he hints at just that when we begin our reading today: “Six days later,” he writes, “Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain.” You have to ask: what happened six days before? To answer that I want to flip back a page to the previous chapter to help lay out what Jesus and the boys were doing before they donned their day packs for that hike.
Jesus has called Andrew, Simon, and Zebedee’s boys from their fishing boats to follow him, and they did. Now on the Sabbath, they’ve all attended the local synagogue for worship and reflection on scripture. It was there during the service that a man taken by an evil spirit came in and Jesus healed him, much to the amazement of the people gathered. Mark writes that immediately his fame began to spread. People started talking, and Jesus went viral, or as viral as you could go back in first century Palestine.
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols” is quite a way to start a sentence. Of course those words were written at a different time and place, and, it seems, they were in response to a direct question that some of those church goers had back in Corinth. (A reminder that St. Paul had gone around establishing churches, including this one in Corinth.) Some leader there had this issue come up that was causing all sorts of anxiety in their congregation: Was it okay or not okay to eat meat that had been previously offered to idols? Perhaps in a couple thousand years the modern church’s conversations about what sort of music is appropriate for worship will seem just as ridiculous to the people in the future as this one from Corinth seems to us today, but I suspect for them it was no laughing matter. (On music in the church, listen to Senator Raphael Warnock’s response when asked how he, as a pastor, could work toward bipartisanship in Congress: “If you’ve ever had to get the folks who like anthems and [the] folks who like contemporary gospel music to work together, you’re ready for anything.”)
I’ve always been enchanted by the gospel hymn “They cast their nets in Galilee” that we sang this morning. The words are taken from a poem written by William Alexander Percy in 1924. It’s simplistic in a way, conjuring up images of a modest life. These first disciples worked as common folk along the shores of the lake, scratching out a living with their families, heading out onto the waters for the daily catch. It’s not unlike the work of teachers, or bakers, or electricians, or nurses, or any of the rest of us that make our living helping society run. While in our mind “fishing” might be a recreational activity—just like “baking” is to a home baker like me—these folks who did it for a living worked unbelievably hard for hours on end. Those Galilean fishermen had to deal with the vagaries of the weather or the movements of their potential catch. They had to fix the leaks in the boat and constantly mend their torn nets. Their life may have been simple, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
It was my homiletics professor—that is my preaching professor, homiletics simply meaning the art of writing and delivering sermons—who reminded us of 20th century theologian Karl Barth’s advice to preachers: When you preach, keep the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. While many of us no longer have a daily paper delivered to our doorsteps, the sentiment remains. Keep attuned to current events as you prepare and reflect and listen to God’s Spirit for a word from scripture for the people you serve. Do not miss applying the Word of God to the stories of the day, be they local or much further afield, because it will help us make sense of how God interacts with us in the world.
Sometimes I wonder what Jesus was like when he was a kid. What toy did he like to play with? Was he just like any kid when he was three demanding things for himself and getting vocal when Mary and Joseph didn’t oblige? Did Mary hang up his drawings on the fridge? Did he struggle at spelling or math? Did he love being outdoors and playing with his friends? Were there things that Mary made for dinner that he didn’t like to eat?
We get on full display how John’s gospel begins in a much more mystical way than the others. The synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all dive right in to the narrative first. They describe the foundational stories of Jesus and his ministry, and present either birth narratives or Jesus’ baptism in their openings. But John takes us back to words that point to creation. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We learn quickly that Jesus is in fact the Word , and the beginning of his story is so much earlier than when Gabriel broke the news to Mary at the Annunciation that she would bear a son.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
We were supposed to be back by now. This church full to the brim, if not overflowing in the pictures I had in my mind, including the candlelight service for those who stay up past their normal bedtimes. We would be having people over for an overladen Christmas buffet, and we’d be talking about the joy of having survived a pandemic as we raised another glass. Our family would then be hopping a plane on the 26th to the desert Southwest for the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park to celebrate 25 years of marriage, 50 years of my life, and a decade of shared ministry here at St. Mark’s. Instead I am preach a Christmas Eve sermon to you while looking at a camera and my son sitting behind a computer screen and nothing else is stirring, not even a mouse. Our vacation remains on hold, our feast and raised glasses substantially toned down, and the only people we’ll see will be found in those tiny boxes of impending Zoom.
A few years ago, I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. Hanh is a Zen Buddhist teacher originally from Vietnam, and he lived in his home country during the Vietnam War. He describes that time as “dark and heavy” making it nearly impossible for anyone to see their way forward. As a teacher, he was frequently asked if he thought the war would end soon. He replied, “‘Everything is impermanent, even war. It will end some day.’”
If someone were to ask you to describe those who have received God’s favor, how might you respond? What are the types of people you imagine? Perhaps those who are well-off, or the ones who are well-spoken. Maybe you conjure up those who have done something for God or given back to humanity. Possibly you’d think of a renowned world leader, or someone who’s worked hard in the medical field. I suspect many of us would include those who’ve done the right thing and have thereby “earned” God’s favor. We would expect that the ones we’ve imagined that God has shown favor to have done something remarkable to deserve it. Chalk it up to that ledger we also believe God has up there in heaven where every good and bad thing we do gets meticulously noted down, and we just hope to have more credits than debits during our lifetimes and earn God’s favor.