Based on the Bible readings we have heard recently, you might think we were in the season of Epiphany. Last Sunday, we had two accounts of divine epiphanies, one to Moses and one to Jesus’ inner circle. Today, we get another two epiphany stories, one to the prophet Elijah and one to a boatload of Jesus’ disciples.
Let me start out by setting the scene for the epiphany to Elijah. Elijah had bested the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al in a contest and ordered the losers in the contest to be executed. Queen Jezebel, in turn, ordered that Elijah be executed. He ran away to a cave on Mount Horeb to hide and to bemoan his fate.
There, in that cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord asking him what he is doing hiding in a cave. Elijah complains that he is the last faithful Israelite left in the land and is now under a sentence of death. The Lord then instructs Elijah to go out onto the mountain and await his appearance. Here is where things get really interesting! Instead of instantly obeying, Elijah waits in the cave for a sign. First, there is a great wind. Elijah stays put. Then, there is an earthquake. Elijah stays put. Then, there is a great fire. Elijah stays put. In each case, we are told, the Lord was not to be found in these terrifying phenomena. Last but not least, there is the faintest of whispers, the merest of murmurs. At long last, Elijah leaves the cave to meet with the Lord, rightly discerning that the Lord has finally arrived. We are told that he covers his eyes with his cloak, lest he be struck dead by the sight of the Lord’s face. Outside that cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord asks Elijah the very same question he had asked before. And again, Elijah gives the very same answer. It is as if he has learned nothing about the power of the Lord! He is still afraid. He is still discouraged. He is still bone-weary. At this point, the Lord shows him mercy, allowing him to retire after he has trained up a successor.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is one of a very few feasts that are of such importance that they take precedence over a Sunday. In the appointed readings, we hear about two epiphanies. First, we hear about a very early epiphany to Moses on Mount Sinai—the prototypical mountaintop experience, you might say. Then we hear St. Peter’s brief recollection of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Finally, we hear a somewhat fuller account of the Transfiguration excerpted from Luke’s Gospel.
In that account, Jesus is transfigured on the top of Mount Tabor in the presence of the three disciples who formed his inner circle: Peter, John, and James. And these select few are granted a vision of the Uncreated Light of God, a glimpse of Jesus’ hidden glory. We are told that his face, and even his clothing, emitted a dazzling light, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mount Sinai. The three disciples see Jesus talking with two famous figures from the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Elijah, with Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets. Their appearance confirms to the three disciples that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah, foretold in Holy Scripture. He is, in fact, the Light of the World.
Four days ago, June Foray died at the age of 99. You probably don’t recognize her name, but you just might recognize her voice—at least if you are of a certain age! You see, she was the voice of a whole host of cartoon characters in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which was popular when I was a child. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, I was particularly fond of that cartoon. And second, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” gives us some insight into today’s Gospel. You see, a regular feature of that cartoon was a segment called “Fractured Fairy Tales.” In it, they would retell a well-known fairy tale, but then give it an unexpected twist. You just never knew how the “fractured fairy tale” was going to end. I think that Jesus’ parables are like the fractured fairy tales of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” They all have some kind of twist to them.
Consider the well-known parable of the mustard seed. We are told that someone planted a mustard seed in his field, which according to the parable is the smallest of all seeds. But in reality, the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. Next, we are told that the mustard seed grows into a tree and the birds of the air nest in its branches. This is even more problematic than the error about the mustard seed’s size. For mustard bushes simply don’t grow to the size of trees, and the branches are too flimsy to support bird nests. So what are we to make of this impossible parable? Here’s what I think: Jesus knew very well that mustard bushes weren’t trees, but he wanted his audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment…to imagine the impossible. For if we can imagine that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and then imagine that it can grow into a large tree and provide nesting for birds, then and only then are we ready to imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
Last Sunday, I visited my mother in Salinas, and I got the chance to spend some time with the children of my niece and of my two nephews. Sometimes, the little kiddies played nicely together, and sometimes, they did not. (I’ll spare you the sordid details!) Well, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares the unresponsive leaders of Israel to squabbling little children who won’t play nicely together. Some want to play the “wedding game” and dance to the piping of a flute; others want to play the “funeral game” and wail. The result of their squabbling is that they don’t play any game at all!
John the Baptist came to call the people to fast and repent, and the elite of Israel were largely disapproving. They didn’t like that game! And they accused John of being crazy. Jesus came to call the people to rejoice at the wedding banquet of the Messiah. But many refused to RSVP to the party. They didn’t like that game any more than the first! And they accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. The moral of the story is that sometimes you just can’t win.
When Americans use the word election, we think of going to our local polling place and voting for the least bad choice of candidates for political office to lead us. But when Christian theologians use the word election, they mean something quite different. In a theological context, election is God’s choosing of a person or a people to lead the world to him. And in all three readings today, we get hints of such divine election.
The reading from Exodus is a clear example. God explicitly states that he chooses the twelve tribes of Israel to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” He offers to form a covenant with this ragtag federation of tribes. If they obey his voice, he will guide and protect them. And “the people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” Of course, they didn’t, in fact, do everything that the Lord had spoken! We are given no real reason why this group of people was chosen among all the peoples of the world. But more important than the question “Why were they chosen, and not others?” is the question “For what purpose were they chosen?” What does it mean to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”? Well, to be a priestly kingdom is to be a united people under God that serves as an intermediary between God and the Gentile nations. To be a “holy nation” is to be a people set apart and dedicated for God’s express use. In other words, Israel was elected by God to be a light to the nations of the world, so as to draw them to the living God and to salvation.
Today is the Day of Pentecost, one of seven principal feasts in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar. It has been called the “birthday of the Church,” but this title is hotly disputed. In any case, all agree that it is a day to “pull out all the stops.” And so we will have incense at the Offertory.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us the story of that first Pentecost, when the disciples encounter wind and fire and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They miraculously find themselves able to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in languages that they do not know. The heart of their message to the crowd is found in the very last line of the reading: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So far as we know, this miraculous gift of tongues did not remain with the disciples, but even so, they were not left bereft of spiritual gifts.
As St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Church has at divers times received a variety of gifts: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, the proclamation of prophecy, the gift of healing, the discernment of spirits, and the working of all kinds of miracles. All of these have been useful to the building up of the Church, but later in that same letter Paul reminds us that the most important spiritual gifts are faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these three is love.
Since the Day of Pentecost completes the fifty days of Eastertide, we quite fittingly return to Easter Day in the Gospel reading from John, which takes place on the evening of the Resurrection.