Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, those weeks between Christmas and the beginning of Lent.
Epiphany ends every year with the reading we heard today, the story of the Transfiguration – the ultimate mountaintop experience where Jesus meets with Israel’s two greatest prophets, the long-dead Moses and Elijah.
It’s a dazzling, vivid story, but I have a bit of a confession to make. These stories that come along every single year become difficult to preach on after a while.
Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks that way. One commentary I read this week began this way. “The Transfiguration story is back again this Sunday, like that dreaded uncle who shows up and overstays his welcome every year.”
Of course, there are good reasons why this story is chosen to end the season. Epiphany, known as the season of light, begins with the brightness of a single star guiding the wise men to the infant Jesus.
It ends with the adult Jesus on the mountain transfigured with a blinding light, with clothes of “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
On the first Sunday of Epiphany we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, which ends with the voice of God coming from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This Sunday we hear an echo of those same words, with God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
This story reveals the true glory of Jesus, setting him above even the revered Moses and Elijah.
And it shows once again the obtuseness of what one writer called “that privileged, but theologically challenged trio” of disciples, Peter, James, and John, the inner circle who are chosen to witness this special moment.
Seeing the dazzling Jesus with Moses and Elijah is terrifying for the three disciples. James and John are apparently dumbstruck, but not Peter, who “belongs to that group of people who when they do not know what to say, say it.”
“It’s good for us to be here,” he blurts out. “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter has barely gotten the words out of his mouth when the voice booms down from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
Listen to what Jesus is saying, God orders Peter and the other disciples. And what Jesus was saying just before they went up the mountain, and will continue to say after they leave, is precisely what the disciples do not want to hear – predictions of suffering, death and resurrection.
I think this is the real reason why every year the story of the Transfiguration is the last bit of scripture we hear before we head into the season of Lent – the season in which we try to come to terms with Jesus’ teachings about suffering and mortality, with his death and our own.
Mountaintop experiences are glorious moments. But the validity of any such moment is what one does with it afterwards.
Great transcendent moments are not calling us to stop, to remove ourselves from the world, but to follow, to keep moving, to continue. These moments strengthen us and reassure us that we are not alone as we reenter the valley and confront the messiness of life and suffering there.
Jesus and the disciples are given a glimpse of God’s glory, enough to get them through the pain ahead.
Indeed, as soon as Jesus and the trio of disciples come down the mountain they are confronted with suffering.
The story that follows is not included in the Sunday lectionary, which I think is a mistake. So today I’d like to extend the traditional reading a bit, to follow Jesus down the mountain.
When they reach the valley they come upon the rest of the disciples and a large crowd gathered around a man and his son, who suffers from seizures, or what at the time is described as being possessed by an evil spirit.
The father has asked the disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they have been unable to do so, even though Jesus earlier has given them that power.
“If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us,” the father pleads.
“All things can be done for the one who believes,” Jesus replies.
The father answers with what I believe are some of the most profound words in scripture, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
And the boy is healed.
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
On the surface these words might not seem very faithful, but they are an honest prayer. In fact, it is the disciples who Jesus calls faithless in this story, not the father.
The father’s statement seems paradoxical, but it really isn’t that contradictory. He has shown a measure of faith by bringing his son to Jesus in the first place.
He is desperate for his son to be healed, and doubtful that even Jesus can accomplish what so many others have failed to do. He has come to Jesus not because he trusts him, but because he is willing to try anything.
And so he cries out for help – for his son and for his own feeble faith.
This father’s words are ones I need to hear as we head into Lent, a season when we are called to examine our own lives to see where we fall short of the way God would have us live, a season when we are called to pray more intensely, a season when our faith is tested by a pandemic that has claimed almost half a million of our fellow citizens..
Many of us can fall into the trap of thinking that our faith must be perfect, that there is no room in faith for unbelief or doubt, that our prayers must be polished and theologically correct to be pleasing to God.
But this agonizing father shows us that those who realize the inadequacy of their faith and yet continue to ask for God’s mercy are those who have truly learned to pray.
What better words to carry into Lent than these.
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.