1 The Lord, the God of gods, has spoken; *
he has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, *
God reveals himself in glory. (Psalm 50:1-2)
I spent this week at a prayer retreat. It was held at the beautiful Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Each day we got up at 5:00 am and began Centering Prayer. Following our time in prayer we participated in the monastic worship, a wonderful setting of scripture and chanting. It was a completely silent retreat except for the monk’s worship. During this time, when Facebook could not get in and the sound of my talking was quieted, I had the clear opportunity to listen for God’s spirit moving in me.
But I also know that I do not have to be completely quiet for four days for God to speak. Thanks be to God—or I would never hear from Her. But in this time, I became particularly aware of how God is speaking all the time and I may be missing opportunities to listen.
Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who teaches and writes about Centering Prayer, says that God is always trying to communicate with us. Just like all the communication devices we have in our world–telephone, email, texting, Facebook, and God have mercy, Twitter; God uses every avenue to talk with us. He quotes St. Teresa of Avila, “Difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent. In fact, God is always present. It is us who can be absent.”
Today we have two readings about God’s communication. In the reading from First Kings, Elijah is fleeing the lethal wrath of Queen Jezebel who has vowed to take his life following Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah, who has ‘been zealous for the Lord,’ has given up. He has tried to show the Israelites the error of their turning from God. Yet despite his triumph on Mount Carmel, he remains on the run. He travels into the wilderness and falls under a solitary broom tree and asks God to let him die. He is worn out and experiences what he believes to be a complete defeat by the world. But Elijah is not defeated and God has not abandoned him. First God sends him sustenance, cake and water—enough to sustain him as he travels to Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai, forty days away. Then God inquires as to why Elijah has come to the mountain of God. Elijah tells God that though he has given it his all, the Israelites continue to forsake the covenant and now he is alone and being hunted in his faithfulness. God listens to Elijah’s lament and then tells him to stand on the mountain as God passes by.
Elijah’s life is filled with drama so drama is what he expects. So when there is a great wind so strong that it splits mountains, he looks for God there. But God was not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, but God was not speaking in the earthquake. Then a fire, but God was not inviting through the fire. Then there was “sheer silence.” In the Tanakh it is translated: kol dememah daq–a calm, whispering voice. After the spectacles of the violent winds, the shattering earthquake, and the raging fire, there was this calm, whispering voice, this sound of sheer silence from the Almighty God, Eyeh Asher Eyeh –“I am who I am.”
Then on the other side of God’s communication spectrum, Jesus takes three of his followers up a mountain. He has been traveling with his disciples throughout Capernaum. Much has happened within their witness. Demons have been confronted and cast out, people with leprosy and fevers have been healed. Those suffering from blindness have their eyesight restored. A young girl has been brought back to life. Stories have been told. Jesus has walked on the water and fed thousands. His followers may have thought they knew Jesus by now. But when Jesus begins telling them that his path to glory is not through a throne room, but through suffering, rejection, death and then rising again, they turn away. Peter, who earlier had declared that Jesus was the Messiah, now rebukes him for these hard words. So when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain they have no idea what they are to experience.
The earliest version of this story is found in Mark’s gospel, the one we read this morning. As the writers of Matthew and Luke repeat this story that they borrowed from Mark, they elaborate some of the small details. But Mark’s story is filled with wonder. Within their sight, Jesus appears to them in clothes so dazzlingly white, that “no one on earth could bleach them.” The dazzling specter reminds us of Moses, whose face shines after being in the presence of God.(Exodus 34: 29-35) And in the Book of Daniel, the mysterious messianic figure, the Son of Man, who will bring about God’s will and God’s justice is a supernaturally stunning figure. (Daniel 7:9-14) Standing on either side of Jesus is Elijah and Moses, talking with him. Peter believes something should be said. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
The text tells us that his terror made him speak without thinking. But Peter speaks from a Jewish expectation that God will usher in the new age, the “Day of the Lord,” during the Feast of Booths. So Peter believing that the end times are coming offers to construct the booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Now we know his timing is off, as Mark’s gospel suggests. He seems to have forgotten Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death. But the word from God sets them all back on track, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In this moment, Jesus’ identity is clarified. Jesus stands transparent before his followers as God’s Son, the one who must be listened to and followed.
Some of us have had a mountaintop moment. A time when God’s presence was bright and visible and clear and adamant.
And some of us have heard God’s calm whispering voice to follow, to not be anxious, to trust.
And some of us have strained to hear God when life takes a sudden turn.
But one thing we can rely on is that God is always there. God is trying to break through. God is coming from many directions. Even when God’s absence seems evident.
God does not come to us only in predictable ways or at expected times. We may experience God in prayer or in worship or on prayer retreats. But God can speak to us through surprising people and in unexpected settings. God comes to us in every way possible. God does not always provide answers. In fact, God often provides more questions. But God’s faithfulness is sure.
Yesterday your Vestry met for a retreat—a time together to pray and talk. It was led by the always mind and heart opening Mother Jenny Gregg. Around the theme: “Tending the Life Within” she invited us to share an experience of transformation when we were moved from one way of seeing or being in the world to another.
We shared stories from our youth and as adults. We spoke to the ways God communicates with us—through powerful sermons and worship, in quiet times in creation, in times of despair and disappointment, and in simple quiet ways that through God’s grace we offer each other glimpses of God’s love and God’s mercy.
Elijah was running for his life. He was so desperate that ending his miserable existence seemed the only answer. God came to him in food and drink for the journey and then passed by on a mountaintop with a calm whispering voice.
God speaks with us and provides us nourishment. Food for the journey can come from the beauty around us, caring actions that lift us, compassionate presence that supports us. God communicates with us in silence. We may not walk away with quotable quotes that we can chant throughout the day, but in silence God can take us to a deep place where the noise of life is replaced with a peace that fortifies, that energizes, that balances.
Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain and there they experience the overwhelming presence of God’s full glory in Jesus. On the mountain, the indescribable happens. Before their eyes, they see Jesus for who he really is. This man they have walked with becomes at once fully himself and also fully unrecognizable. And the stunned and terrified disciples find themselves standing at a threshold. We may too have witnessed a transfiguration experience. We may have experienced God’s transformation in our lives. But whether in a shining mountain top experience, or a sweet and quiet moment of peace, God is there always for us.
We hear these ancient stories on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is also the last Sunday before Lent, when we begin our journey to the Cross. Like Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we need the spiritual resources to make that journey. Through this time of Epiphany, we witness moments of revelation where we catch a deeper glimpse of the way things are, and God’s loving presence with us.
Epiphany tells us something of the basic character of God—that God is active in our world—that God is always seeking us—that God does not leave us abandoned. I don’t know how God will speak to us in this time. But if these stories bear witness to something true about this life with God, then we can trust in the One who is always communicating with us. That surely is the great epiphany of these past few weeks, and the ultimate source of hope as we journey to the Cross in Lent.