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Last Sunday after the Epiphany: “Stepping into the Light”

 

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
Mark 9:2-9

 

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany—not a red-letter day on your calendar, perhaps—but one I see as pivotal in our spiritual journey together. So I want to pause to reflect with you this morning before we head into Lent this Wednesday.

 

We’ve spent six weeks since the Feast of the Epiphany being brought into a new awareness: awareness of Jesus’s blessed birth and early ministry; awareness of the growing light of Christ in this world; awareness of the power of this light to liberate and transform.

 

And I believe the question to us this morning is: How far do we want to step into this light? How close do we want to come to God?

 

It’s as though this morning’s readings challenge us to answer these questions. They couldn’t be brighter, more spectacular, more full of God’s presence. We see the prophet Elijah ascending into heaven in whirlwind, taken up in a chariot of fire. We see Jesus transfigured into a dazzling white apparition, radiant on a mountaintop. And in Psalm 50 we see an image of God speaking from a consuming flame within a raging storm, calling the earth from the sun’s rising to its setting, a revelation of glory.

 

In these scriptures, the world as we know it is burst open with God’s shining presence. And we stand as witnesses alongside the other very ordinary human beings that populate these scenes: Elisha and the fifty men on the banks of the Jordan; Peter, James, and John on the mountaintop.

 

With them, we’re given a vision of the glory of God that’s bigger, more expansive, more vibrant and immediate than we’ve ever experienced. How far do we want to step into this light?

 

It’s possible that we’re inclined to hesitate or pull back from this bright exposure to God. Maybe it’s just too much Epiphany. Maybe the possibility that we can actually perceive God’s glory, step into the freedom of God’s love, come close and hear God’s voice and receive God’s light in this world is just too overwhelming.

 

Maybe we’ve become a bit like Mohini the Tiger, described in Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance. Hear this story:

 

Mohini was a regal white tiger who lived for many years at the Washington, D.C. National Zoo. For most of those years her home was in the old lion house—a typical twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Mohini spent her days pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, biologists and staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her. Covering several acres, it had hills, trees, a pond, and a variety of vegetation. With excitement and anticipation they released Mohini into her new and expansive environment.

 

But it was too late. The tiger immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area twelve by twelve feet was worn bare of grass.[1]

 

I suggest that the purpose of these past six weeks of Epiphany has been to awaken us from the trance of restless pacing in our lives. From the ways we’ve trapped ourselves in holding patterns of fear or anger; avoidance or shame; separation or despair.

 

Epiphany reminds us that our human nature, like Mohini’s tiger nature, is meant to live in greater freedom. In the fullness of God’s love.

 

But are we willing to risk living in this more expansive way? Maybe our old limits feel safer; our old hurts more familiar; our old cage more like home. Maybe we don’t really want to be transformed by moving into a bigger life in Christ. Maybe we’d rather step back from Epiphany into darkness again.

 

This is the choice I think we’re challenged to make as we head into Lent. Will we move beyond the limits of our cramped patterns and preoccupations to enter new spiritual territory?

 

In our readings this morning, we find the encouraging examples of Elisha who had left twelve yoke of oxen in his field; Peter, James, and John who had abandoned their nets; to walk closely with their spiritual teachers. They chose to become more than followers. They became “disciples,” devoted to learning, with discipline, a bigger way to live. We are called to do this too.

 

If we choose in Lent to let go of confining habits that keep our life small, will we take up new practices that bring greater openness, greater growth? This takes definite intention.

 

Think of Elisha’s repeated phrase this morning as he kept being deterred from following his master, Elijah—by Elijah himself. Again and again, Elisha had to restate and reclaim his intention to be a faithful disciple: “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live [Elijah], I will not leave you.”

 

To step into a new way of life, we have to have the same commitment to return again and again to spiritual practices that expand us. And what are the practices that will bring us back into our full human nature, into the freedom of God’s love?

 

Well, I don’t think they are our usual practices of busy activity, our restless pacing.

 

To reveal God’s glory, Elijah and Jesus take their disciples out of their usual narrow, crowded environments. They guide them away: across the river Jordan, to a high mountaintop. These wise teachers interrupt their students’ usual patterns of behavior to say: Pause. See. Listen.

 

And when they do, these ordinary humans, no more or less than you and me, are able to stand in God’s presence and hear God’s voice.

 

By keeping his attention focused on his teacher, in a sustained practice of seeing, Elisha is granted his greatest wish: a double share of a prophet’s spirit. Huge inner growth.

 

And by staying still in the holy presence of his teacher, in a sustained practice of listening, Peter along—with James and John—receives a greater share of Jesus’s spirit.

 

In this moment of stillness and devotion, these humble disciples too are transfigured. In the words we prayed in our collect this morning, they are strengthened and changed by a new light of awareness. They come closer to God.

 

I believe if we set the intention this Lent to walk out of our trance of restless pacing and interrupt our patterns of relentless doing . . . If we dare to step out of our habitual day-to-day cages into times and places that expand our sense of wonder. . . If we commit to simple spiritual practices of paying attention to God’s presence—pause, see, listen—through prayer and meditation and study and mindfulness, we too, as disciples, will be not only awakened, but expanded—and set free.

 

It’s our choice. What will we risk this Lent? We can walk forward with Jesus or we can walk with Mohini. Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

February 15, 2015

 



[1] Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (New York: Bantam, 2004), pp. 24–25.