Archive for February, 2015

MARK 9:2-9

February 16, 2015


2 Kings 2:1-12;  II Corinthians 4:3-6;  Mark 9:2-9

Suppose through some accident you got left behind.  You’ve been exploring the Carlsbad Caverns, part of a tour group.  Maybe you strayed off the path.  Maybe the guide didn’t do a head count; just started back up to the surface.  Suddenly you realize you are alone and the light has gone.  You’re afraid to move, afraid of becoming even more lost, afraid of falling or hitting your head.  You pat your pockets: no lighter, no matches, no flashlight, no iPhone or other device.

I’m trying to recreate the situation that challenged the early Jewish sages.  They weren’t thinking of caves, of course, but of the cosmos.  How did the first light arise?  Before suns or stars, and long before there was anything to burn, how did light begin?  With nothing to originate from, how did light originate?  They solved this mystery by embedding it in a larger mystery: “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

No wonder the church dedicates a whole season of the year to the mystery of light.  Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and I propose to grope around with you in that mystery.

Here’s one possibility.  Perhaps the sages wrote Genesis as a metaphor.  The darkness they wondered about was not physical darkness, but the kind of darkness that prevails when we have no moral flashlight, when we really don’t know what steps will lead us to the kind of society where every member can feel safe and secure — where we can feel free to be ourselves, free to express ourselves, free to love.

This would be like being in a cave without a match.  In this moral cavern I’m picturing, any move could make things worse; any move is fraught with fear; because we are lost in the dark.  Where, then, would this moral light come from?  We cannot answer: from the Ten Commandments; from good civil laws; from the teachings of parents and schools.  Because remember, we are picturing a moral cavern where, like the cosmos before God created light, no source of moral guidance exists.  Commandments and precepts would be like matches, oil lamps, or flashlights.

So we are thrown back again on God.  Where, then, could this moral light originate?  Might God have said, “Let there be Wisdom”?  And out of God’s own being, as spontaneous as the light that fills the universe, would come Wisdom.  And, just as light does, wisdom would manifest itself in countless ways, — in laws, in proverbs, in moral precepts, in parables, and most succinctly in the Ten Commandments.

That should be the end of the story; because moral light does fill the universe; but if so, why are we beset by violence, injustice, poverty, and fear?  I often lie awake at night, feeling as if a tidal wave of moral darkness is descending over us — over our nation and the world.  Do the sages have an answer to this?  Something isn’t working, but what?

We need to follow the story further, this time to today’s reading about Elijah and Elisha.  As Elijah’s disciple, Elisha looked to Elijah for his moral light.  He observed how Elijah conducted himself, how he treated people, what he taught — in short, how Elijah lived.  He noted that Elijah had tremendous power.  I don’t mean political power.  Rather, think of that third grade experiment with iron filings, a sheet of paper and a magnet.  Until the magnet is applied to the underside of the paper, the iron filings are scattered around chaotically.  Once the magnet draws near, the filings form into beautiful, orderly patterns.  Elijah’s presence among people acted like the power of that magnet.

Elisha knew he did not have that power, but he wanted it.  Elijah had the moral light we are speaking of within himself.  Elisha did not; he needed Elijah the way we need precepts — what I’m calling a flashlight in a cavern.  Elijah knew he could not hand over that power to Elisha.  If Elisha wanted that power it would have to come from God and would spring up from within Elisha, himself.

Elisha’s chance was coming.  The test was this.  Elijah would be taken away in a burst of light.  Perhaps it was the same light that Moses experienced when he came into God’s presence — a light so searing that any impurities of the soul would be consumed.  So if Elisha had any ulterior motive in seeking Elijah’s power — for instance, personal aggrandizement — he would be forced to look away.  Only purity of heart could follow that searing process through to the end.

This, I suggest, is the sages’s answer to my question, which is:  If moral light does fill the universe, what isn’t working?  Why is our society beset by violence, illness, injustice, and fear?  The answer?   Because it makes a difference where the light is coming from.  Too many of us are dependent on Elijah, so to speak, and not enough of us have taken the step Elisha took.

Picture those ancient tombs of the Pharaohs.  Passageways led deep underground, turning one angle after another, until finally no light penetrated.  How did they get sunlight down to the interior?  Mirrors.  One slave stood at the entrance and reflected sunlight down the stairs.  Another stood at the first corner and reflected that light down to the next corner; and so on many times, until the light of the sun shone, however weakly, in the burial chamber.

In a similar way, we can ask, “How do you know this is right?”  Answer: “My friend told me.”  “How do you know your friend is right?”  “Her mother told her.”  “How do you know her mother is right?”  “Her priest told her.”  “How do we know the priest is right?”  He read it in the Bible.”  How do you know he interpreted the Bible correctly?”  In other words, the light of truth can grow dim if it reaches us at all..  We need more strong sources of light and fewer, weaker reflections.

This is another way of saying what Paul was writing to the people of Corinth in today’s Epistle.  Paul was another who had, so to speak, passed the test as Elisha did.  Paul confessed, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  In other words, Paul, too, had stood up to the searing light of God’s presence and allowed it to burn away any self-seeking.

He went on to explain, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Among Jesus’ followers, some of us are like Elisha before Elijah was taken away, looking to someone, or some thing, outside of ourselves to provide the moral light we need.  All of us start out that way.  For Christians, that someone is Jesus, as mirrored through Scripture and the Church.  Some of us are like Elijah; we have the light within us.  As Christians we call it the light of Christ.

What can we do, supposing we, too, want that light within?  We, too, want that power of the magnet among iron filings?  One of my favorite hymns holds out the answer.  “Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  What is that light inaccessible wherein God hides?

Let’s go back to the Carlsbad Caverns.  Supposing you got left behind.  Supposing, instead of panicking, you relaxed.  You recognized that at last you were in a place of absolutely no external distractions.  Supposing, gradually, all the internal distractions — all the busy thinking and planning and worrying — subsided and settled, matching the stillness and peace of the surrounding cave.  Then supposing you opened yourself to God’s presence, opened your eyes to the light behind all light, opened your ears to the silence behind all sound; opened your heart to the love behind all love.

Lent begins this coming Wednesday.  Why not find a Carlsbad Cavern, so to speak, somewhere in your daily routine?  Why not make it a practice to enter once or twice a day.  What might happen?  We might find ourselves, in the words of today’s Collect, “beholding by faith the light of his countenance….”  We might find ourselves transfigured.  AMEN