Today is a transitional Sunday in the lectionary, one that moves us from the season of Epiphany, focused on the revelation of Jesus divine role into Lent, a season focused on reflection, introspection, and penance. In this coming week, the focus of church life will turn from looking out of ourselves and to the majesty of God toward looking inward at the things that prevent us from fully experiencing the joy and wonder, looking at the idols Paul calls “the god of this world” in our reading from his second letter to the Corinthians.
Our Gospel lesson, Mark 9:2-9 is Mark’s rendering of the Transfiguration, a story that foreshadows the resurrected Jesus, with Peter, James, and John witnessing Jesus in clothes “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” while consulting with Moses and Elijah. Moses, of course, was the prophet who led the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the forty years in the wilderness and Elijah, as we read earlier today, is the only person other than Jesus clearly depicted ascending bodily into heaven.
Unlike the story of Elisha, however, Jesus’ disciples do not appear to be so on the ball. We have no indication they understood what was happening. The only words they say on the mountain are an offer to build homes for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, a misguided, if well-meaning, effort to contain the divine Jesus. Elisha comes away from the experience as Elijah’s designated successor, while these three disciples come away told to keep quiet, because they do not yet understand what they have seen. Their ideas about what is possible are still bound up in the power structures of Rome and occupation.
Fitting to the close of the Epiphany season, we also have the second proclamation from God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” We read the first five weeks ago, on January 10, at the beginning of the Epiphany Season in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John. At that moment, God proclaimed: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Considering these two moments together, I am struck by the change in pronouns, the change in audience. In the first, God is speaking in the second person, speaking to Jesus directly, though we assume others overheard. This comes at the beginning of Mark, just the 11th verse in the story, and is a commissioning of Jesus. Jesus has come to the Jordan, has come to John, to begin his public ministry, and with the baptism and the divine proclamation, God declares that yes, it is time. The divine declaration is saying to Jesus, “Yes, you are ready.”
Now, five weeks later in our readings, some longer period later in Jesus’ and the disciples’ lives, we have a new divine proclamation, but this time, the pronouns have shifted. God is now speaking in the third person. God has shifted and is no longer speaking to Jesus, but instead to the disciples. God is telling them that there is more happening than they yet understand and is telling them they will have a role to play in it, though they are not yet equipped. They must still listen and learn. Even as Mark’s story now has them turning toward Jerusalem, even as this account comes after Jesus’ first foretelling of this death and resurrection.
The disciples’ initial reaction, the offer to build homes for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, shows that they do not yet understand. Just a few verses earlier, as Jesus first told the disciples about his coming trial, execution, and resurrection, Peter rebuked Jesus. Mark does not tell us the content of Peter’s complaint, but Matthew does: “God forbid, Lord, this shall never happen to you.” We may all remember the words Jesus says next, “Get behind me, Satan,” but Jesus continues beyond that famous phrase, saying to Peter: “You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
Paul picks up this thread, on human things distracting us from divine things, on the way our human worries and concerns obscure the Gospel, in his letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church is questioning Paul, doubting the Gospel Paul preached. They wonder why the church is not growing faster, why there are still people who they, and even Paul himself, cannot convince of the truth of the Gospel. Why they, among the first converts to this true religion, are not more important members of society, why they are not respected by those with power.
Paul points to the “god of this world” who “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” Paul is not speaking of a real god in opposition to the true God. Paul is speaking of the idols we construct, the attention we pay to status and politics, to greed and consumerism, to money and pride. Neither is Paul speaking only of the “god of this world” as blinding the minds of unbelievers. Paul thinks it blinds plenty of believers as well. Paul is pointing to the quest to rise ever higher in the social, economic, and political hierarchy of the Roman Empire, a persistent problem in the Corinthian community and remarkably similar to the desires operating on us today. Paul is pointing to all of the things that we, in our fallen state, would rather do than obey that divine proclamation from the mountaintop: listen to Jesus.
This Tuesday, known in English variously as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, is the last day before Lent. The name Fat Tuesday, or, in French, Mardi Gras, comes from the tradition of removing temptations before Lent. For those who are giving up meat, or fat, for Lent starting on Wednesday, Tuesday is the time to use up whatever is left in the house so to reduce the temptation to have some during Lent or, less theologically, but perhaps more practically, to make sure it will not go bad.
The name Shrove Tuesday is derived from an old English word, shrive, which points to the tradition of confessing one’s sins on the Tuesday before Lent began so that the priest could then give a person a specific penance to be performed during Lent.
I invite you all, over these next few days, to think about those names and their meanings. I ask you all to consider between now and Tuesday: What are the temptations in your life? What gods-of-this-world are holding you back, are turning your mind from God? If you struggle to pray, takes these next few days to think about why. If you struggle to feel God, give yourself space to consider why. If you struggle to see the image of God in others who look, act, or think differently, or who look, act, and think the same, think about why. Take these next two days to look for the things that are obscuring God so that, come Wednesday, you can try to remove them.