It has been said, “It is seldom that the same man knows much of science, and about the things that were known before science.” That is because when the only valid way for our sense of what we know to grow is through the accumulation of knowledge, there is no room left for wisdom. Knowledge is gained by attaining proof. Wisdom is granted by God and is a mystery. Because we live in an age in which “proof” reigns supreme, it seems to me that we have lost a sense of what it means to be gifted with Biblical wisdom.
An epiphany is a gifting of Biblical wisdom. It is like the conversion story of C.S. Lewis when he wrote, “That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed.” In an epiphany, we are granted the gift of letting go of that which we cannot prove so that we can receive it back as that which we can believe.
The season of Epiphany that we celebrate each year in the Church comes to a close today. It is the season in which we look at those epiphanies that are recorded in the Christian scriptures. Epiphany began thirteen days after Christmas. The gospel passage we read on that day was the story of the visitation of the wise men to the manger at Bethlehem, who were led by a star—an epiphany.
The second gospel we read in this season—on the first Sunday after Epiphany—was the story of Jesus’ baptism, where the Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased” –an epiphany.
But the best epiphany is saved for today— the last Sunday of the season. It’s called The Transfiguration, when Jesus appears to his disciples the way he will be when he returns in glory.
The scene we heard this morning comes at the completion of the teaching ministry, the Galilean period of Jesus’ life. It’s a critical time for Jesus. Jesus was from Galilee. He lived there all of his life. Galilee is in the north. Jerusalem is in the south. Think of Palestine like California. Galilee is like the Bay Area. Jerusalem is Los Angeles. And as in California, Galileans (in the north) did not think Jerusalem (in the south) was a place you wanted to visit if you could possibly avoid it. By the way . . . on this map, Tijuana? That would be the garden of Eden.
In our minds, Jerusalem is a holy city. We visit it as tourists, or on religious pilgrimages. But in the minds of the Galileans in the first century, Jerusalem was the seat of oppressive power. It was where the absentee landlords lived, those who owned the land on which the Galileans farmed. Jerusalem was the home of government bureaucrats who harassed them. Jerusalem was the home of the Roman army that occupied them. The authorities in Jerusalem sent men to spy on Jesus. Some of them came to Jesus when he was preaching, stood in the crowd, took notes and sent them back to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a bad place in the minds of the Galileans. And all of the disciples, you will recall, were Galileans.
The disciples were happy in Galilee. Things were going well. Jesus was increasingly popular. The disciples even discovered that their association with Jesus meant that some of Jesus’ power had rubbed off on them. They, too, were able to cure illnesses. They wanted this to continue—in Galilee. And they knew that no Galilean would ever go to Jerusalem willingly, except for the high festivals, when they had to go to the Temple.
But after three years, they were at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus said to them that they now had to go to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified, and die. The disciples protested—Peter especially—and Jesus rebuked him, turning to him, and telling him that he was, “possessed by the devil!” It was pretty ugly.
According to the gospel it was left like that for six days—this distance between Jesus and the disciples, especially Peter. Then on the seventh day Jesus said to Peter, James, and John, “Come with me” and they went up on a mountain.
Now, remember that the writers of the gospels tell these stories to remind you of another story. The second story helps to interpret the first. So, when anyone goes up a mountain in the Bible, especially in a stressful time, you immediately think of Moses, who went up a mountain when the Jews were complaining about having to wander around the desert.
So Moses, wondering why he had ever said “Yes” when God chose him to lead his people out of slavery, went up the mountain, and there God appeared to him in, an epiphany. When Moses came down his face shone, because he had seen the glory of God. He came down with Ten Commandments, and the Jews rallied, their spirits renewed, and went on in their journey.
Jesus went up a mountain, with Peter, James, and John, and there he prayed. And as he prayed, the disciples saw a great light. It surrounded Jesus. Peter and the other two disciples saw this. Then, all of a sudden, there were Moses and Elijah, standing on either side of him, and a voice said, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him” As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared and Jesus was there, alone, praying. That’s an epiphany. That’s a big epiphany—the Transfiguration.
Moses and Elijah were there representing the Law and the Prophets. Moses brought the Law down the mountain, and Elijah was the first prophet. The Law and the Prophets is all the authority a Jew needs. They were there, on either side of Jesus, saying, “He is the one for whom we have prepared you.”
Then that voice, the same one that was at Jesus’ baptism, makes a public statement, an epiphany, for the disciples. “This is my Son; listen to him.” And in that moment, the disciples gained not knowledge, but wisdom. They had an epiphany.
That epiphany was for the disciples, especially for Peter, like C.S. Lewis’ epiphany. It was like having their eyes and ears opened so they could see and hear for the first time what was there all along. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God. That was true all the while, they just hadn’t seen it.
When the disciples came down the mountain, Jesus said, “Don’t tell anybody about this.” Which wasn’t going to happen, which is why the story is in three of the four gospels. It is also in the Second Letter of Peter. We heard it this morning.
Listen to the text again. “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
They’re saying, “We didn’t make this up when we came to you and said, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ but we have been eyewitnesses to his majesty.” They are telling us that they were there at the Transfiguration, because the question that is being addressed in the Second Letter of Peter is the question of authority. The author is saying, we speak to you with authority as those who have had an epiphany, a transforming experience that opened our eyes and enabled us to see the truth.
Then come those beautiful lines that are addressed to you and me. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
People tell me all the time that they have a hard time believing the stories of the Bible. They say, I don’t understand the Bible, or I have a hard time believing the Bible so I don’t pay much attention to it. What I often tell them is, the problem may not be that the Bible is too obscure. The problem may be that your vision of God is too small. The problem may be that you have not yet experienced the kind of epiphany that the Biblical texts talk about.
But—and this is an important “but”— that’s okay, because the disciples said, “you will do well to be attentive to these things as a lamp shining in a darkness, until the day dawns,” until it dawns on you, “and the morning star rises in your heart.”
The author of Second Peter is telling us how to wait for our own epiphany. How to have patience with the process of spiritual growth. He says it will happen and that we should expect it to happen. Expect it to dawn on you. Expect to see the light. But – be willing to wait for it.
I think that is a wonderful image for us to take into the season of Lent. A season when the Church invites us all to be more attentive to God’s presence, to learn once again what it means to bring God’s holy word into our daily routine, to open ourselves to the wisdom of the epiphany that is as simple and as profound as acknowledging that God is God.