Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Today is a very special day. I’m sure you know that already. I’m sure you all have it marked on your calendar. Today is the last Sunday before the Season of Lent, a season of fasting and reflection as we contemplate Jesus’s road to the cross and his self-emptying love for humanity. And as always, on this last Sunday before Lent, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus, the time on the mountain when Jesus’s appearance was changed in the presence of his closest disciples. Everyone has Transfiguration Sunday marked on their calendar, right?
I suppose there might be another reason that you might have this day marked on your calendar. February the 14th is Valentine’s Day, or as it is properly called, the Feast of St. Valentine of Rome. Valentinus was a third-century, Italian clergyman who ministered to persecuted Christians. He was arrested for his work, and while imprisoned, he healed the daughter of his jailor of blindness. He was later executed by being beaten and beheaded on February 14, 269. Shortly before his martyrdom, he reportedly wrote a note to the girl he had healed and signed it, “from your Valentine.” That note is supposedly the basis for modern secular celebrations of Valentine’s Day.
Of course, liturgically speaking, a minor feast like St. Valentine’s Day can’t be celebrated on a Sunday; the Sunday always takes precedence. That means that, properly speaking, Valentine’s Day should be celebrated on February 15th this year, not on the 14th. But I wouldn’t recommend trying to use that argument with your beloved. “No, I didn’t forget. Valentine’s Day is on the 15th this year.” It probably wouldn’t go over so well.
But I’m getting sidetracked. Our focus this morning is on the Transfiguration. Jesus takes his three closest disciples—Peter, James, and John—up onto a mountain to be alone. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is always trying, and mostly failing, to find some time alone, away from the crowds. Every once in a while, he does manage to get away on a mountaintop, and this is one of those times. And this particular time he has three disciples with him.
And while they are up there on the mountain, Jesus is transfigured. Whatever that is supposed to mean. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word transfigure used anywhere except in relation to this one particular event in the life of Jesus. The English word comes as a direct transliteration of the Latin version of the Bible: transfiguratus. However, the word from the original Greek version of the Bible is actually more familiar. It’s μετεμορφώθη, metamorphosis. Jesus was metamorphosed in front of them. Literally, his form was changed. He’s like a mighty morphing power savior.
Mark doesn’t give us any more detail than that to describe how Jesus’s form changed—did his features change? did he change size? did he start to look like something other than human?—we don’t know, except that his clothes started shining, that they were exceedingly white, whiter than any dry cleaner on earth could bleach them. Whiter than bleach, whiter than Borax, whiter than liquid bluing, whiter than Oxy-Clean. Perhaps his robe was changed to silver sequins.
As if that weren’t strange enough, as the three disciples are watching, both Moses and Elijah appear and start having a conversation with the transfigured Jesus. Most modern readers would assume this means that the spirits of Moses and Elijah show up, some kind of ghosts or something. But that’s not what the first readers would have thought. Careful bible readers would remember the story we heard this morning from Second Kings, the story of how Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Elijah never died. He was transported bodily into heaven. In Moses’s case, it’s not quite as clear, but some interpreters argue that something similar had happened to Moses, that he hadn’t died, but had been bodily transported to heaven.
So Jesus isn’t talking to ghosts or spirits. Presumably he’s talking to the real, living, breathing Moses and Elijah, who have each been hanging out in heaven for several hundred years, waiting for just this moment. We don’t know whether their clothes looked all shiny like Jesus’s did.
In any case, the disciples are utterly terrified. Not really knowing how to respond, Peter offers to build shelters for Jesus and his two distinguished guests, the same kind of shelters used during the Jewish Festival of Booths, when the people remembered the providential care that God had showed to their ancestors in the wilderness. Peter seems to think that this strange event has deep religious significance, and he wants to mark it in some way. He realizes that it is indeed a good thing to be present for this miraculous moment.
But before anyone can answer Peter, a thick fog suddenly envelops them, and they hear a voice, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
And then in an instant, everything returns to normal. There is no cloud. Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus and his temporarily bedazzled robe have gone back to their ordinary, drab forms. And it is over. And they go back down the mountain. And Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about what they have seen, not until after he has been raised from the dead.
So, what did they see up there? Mark doesn’t try to explain any further. So, what happened? Did they see Jesus in his divine form? Did they see him as he looks when he’s in heaven? Did they see him as he appeared after the resurrection? The creeds tell us that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, so did they see a form that more fully revealed his divine nature? And why did Elijah and Moses appear? Maybe Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets, meaning that together they represent the whole of the Hebrew Bible? Was this some kind of special occasion when they visited Jesus on earth? Or maybe this is what happens every time the Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray, but this is just the only time that any of his disciples are there to witness it. Because they stay with him, they see something that seems extraordinary, something that is there to be seen, but most people miss it.
That’s kind of like what happens in the Elijah story too. Elijah knows that he’s going to be taken away. Elisha knows too, but they don’t speak of it. Elijah keeps trying to ditch his disciple, to leave him behind, but each time Elisha refuses to let him go. Each time that Elijah tries to leave, Elisha makes an oath to follow him wherever he may go. And because Elisha doesn’t leave his side, he is there when the fiery chariots come from heaven to take Elijah away. And because he is there, he sees the most remarkable thing, and he receives a blessing. There are other prophets looking, standing a ways off, but they don’t see what Elisha sees. They see a flash and Elijah is gone. But Elisha sees the fiery chariot swing low to carry Elijah home.
Peter, James, and John, because they are there with Jesus at a moment they normally would have stayed home and let him be by himself, they see a majestic sight. They see the Son of God, high and lifted up, shining in the light of his glory. They see the Word of God standing at the center of the Law and the Prophets. They see a foreshadowing of the Risen Lord, before he has even been handed over for crucifixion. Sometimes just showing up can make a big difference. Showing up can make the difference between seeing and not seeing.
And that’s why in these last few days before Lent, I’d like you to think about the habit of prayer. Prayer is one of the key ways that we show up for Jesus, one of the key ways that we show up for God. It’s how we cultivate our relationship with God. And forming a habit of prayer means that we’re showing up on a regular basis, not just when we are most desperate. It means we’re showing up when we feel like it and when we don’t.
The Season of Lent is an excellent time to spend intentionally forming a habit of prayer, something that you do every day. It is a season when Christians all over the world are putting particular focus on spiritual practice. There are lots of kinds of spiritual practice, including fasting, pilgrimage, service to the needy, worship, and yes, prayer. And maybe this Lent is the time for you to take prayer from just an occasional thing into something that you do as habit.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that they pray informally throughout the day, that they are always talking to God, and so they don’t need any kind of formal prayer practice. And if that’s something you’re able to do, to regularly and consistently pray to God throughout each day without taking any special times for prayer, then I salute you. That’s never been something that I’ve been able to pull off. If I don’t have a little more structure to my prayer life, I find that I forget, or a get distracted, or my prayers become pretty shallow.
But taking time out to pray can actually seem a bit intimidating. How does one actually put words to prayers? How do you know what to say to God? How do I take the silence and fill it with words that God is supposed to listen to. And of course, people suggest just to pray what you feel, but if you don’t have much experience with composing a prayer in the moment, it can be pretty challenging to even know where to begin. When I teach kids and youth how to compose a prayer, I usually suggest starting by thanking God for things you are grateful for and then asking God for help with the things that are weighing on you. Joys and concerns, basically. That’s a good place to begin.
Some people say that the best prayers are prayers that you pray without any preparation or assistance, prayers that come from the heart. In fact, some people claim that these extemporaneous prayers are the only authentic prayers. They’re not constrained by any outside forms. They are just spirit speaking to spirit.
I’ve found, though, that if all of my prayers are prayers that I make up on the spot, that something a bit paradoxical happens. You’d think that making up your own prayers keeps all of your prayers fresh and relevant. But I’ve noticed that it can be really easy to get stuck in a rut. Even though I’m not following the form of a rote prayer, my mind begins to create a new form of its own, and I end up praying for the same few things over and over, in much the same way each time.
Prayers from the heart are very important, but it can also be useful to inject your prayer life with some of the wisdom of other Christians that we have accumulated over the past couple of thousand years. Sometimes this can mean using rote prayers. The Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm are very popular rote prayers. And sometimes when we don’t have the words ourselves, it can be helpful to have some memorized words to fall back on.
A lot of Christians use written prayer aids that can lead them through a year or a season of prayer. Many United Methodists use The Upper Room a monthly prayer magazine that every day gives a brief piece of scripture, a short devotional reading, and a one-paragraph prayer. It only takes about three minutes. You can find The Upper Room online now, as well as in print. They also publish a book called Disciplines each year that is a slightly more in-depth prayer guide. Having something to read daily as part of your prayers can spark new ideas and may often prompt you into your own prayers and make them even more meaningful. It won’t feel meaningful every single day, but doing it every day creates the opportunity for you to have those meaningful moments.
My personal prayer discipline is called the Daily Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s based on a pattern of prayer of early Christians, praying at specific hours of each day. Benedict of Nursia gets credit for formalizing it. There are seven times of prayer each day: Morning Prayer at sunrise; three times of prayer in the middle of the day, at nine, noon, and three; evening prayer or vespers at sundown, compline right before bed, and sometimes a vigil or matins at some point in the night. I pray morning prayer and evening prayer each day. In the standard form, they each take about 15 minutes, and each day it leads me through a prayer of confession, the reading of 4-6 psalms, the reading of three other passages of scripture, a reading from the writings of the early church, the praying of four biblical canticles, an affirmation of faith, the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers for the day and season. The United Methodist Book of Worship has basic instructions for praying the hours, but if you’re going to do it regularly, you’ll need some additional resources. The United Methodist Order of Saint Luke provides some.
I’ve been praying the Daily Office off and on for close to twenty years now. I’ve tried several other forms of prayer, but I keep coming back to the office. But I also had trouble sticking with it all the time. That is, until I got a concussion last summer. I had several months when there were a lot of things that I couldn’t do. I wasn’t supposed to exert myself physically, I wasn’t supposed to exert myself mentally, and I wasn’t supposed to use any screens. It can be kind of hard to fill a day without doing any of those things, and even harder to fill weeks and months. But I could read the daily office. I didn’t need a screen to do it. And I could do it even when I wasn’t thinking very clearly. And over those weeks and months while I was recovering, it became a habit rather than a chore. And now every day I pray at least two of the hours. I don’t always get to them at exactly the right time of day, but I pray them consistently.
I’m not saying that you have to pray the Daily Office. That’s just the form that works for me. But I can tell you about the benefit of having a habit of prayer. I don’t have amazing spiritual experiences every time that I stop to pray. Some days my prayers seem pretty flat. Most days they feel grounding and inspiring, at least to some degree. And every once in a while, there is a miraculous moment, when the eyes of my heart see something that I would not have seen if I hadn’t been showing up to pray each day.
I’m not too concerned with what particular style of prayer you choose to practice, but I would strongly encourage you this Lent to develop a prayer practice of some kind. Maybe you’re already doing that, and if so, you can recommit to it with special intent this Lent. Maybe you’ll decide to try a few different forms of prayer of the course of Lent. Just find some way to prayer every day. And maybe at the end of forty you’ll be glad to be finished. But perhaps you will develop a habit of prayer. And within that habit of prayer, not every day is going to shine with the brightness of Jesus’s Transfiguration. Most days will not. But some days your eyes will be opened to see something marvelous, something you would never have seen if you hadn’t shown up to pray.