Light and Darkness

Last Epiphany B – 2 Kings 2:1-14; Psalm 50; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Have you ever been in a place of absolute darkness?  I remember as a high school student in Kentucky visiting Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave system in the world.  Even on the quick, two-hour tour, the tour guide would gather the tour group into one of the large chambers and douse all the lights.  The darkness is intense.  Often the tour guides would warn us amateur spelunkers not to try to touch our face because in the darkness with no light to help serve as a visual reference, we might poke out our eyes by mistake, which of course made all the high school boys in the cave immediately reach their hands toward their faces…

Then, in this truly pitch blackness, the tour guide would strike a single match.  I saw this done many times, but it never ceased to amaze me how bright that light was, just one single match.  The tour guide would go on to tell the group that this is all the light that the first European cave explorers would have had two hundred years ago when the caves were discovered.  They could only see a few feet ahead as they moved through the cave, guided by a flickering and guttering lamp.

I’m not sure if these tour guides are always aware of the power they have to influence young minds.  I can tell you – after seeing a demonstration like that, my teenage imagination went to work.  Mind you, my strongest subjects were the humanities, so it wasn’t like I was thinking like a physicist, but the idea of light caught hold – from rainbows to lightning, prisms to bioluminescent glow sticks, I was hooked.

But what I loved to contemplate most was the relationship between light and darkness.  At first I’m sure I thought of them as equal opposites, competitors as it were, but upon consideration I realized that darkness is not truly the opposite of light.  Darkness isn’t a “thing” at all, it is the absence of a thing – it is the absence of light.  No one can increase the darkness; one can only decrease the light.  You cannot turn darkness on with the flip of a switch, you can only deprive a room of light.  Darkness and light can’t compete, because light always wins in the end.  Light scatters the darkness, and as John writes in his Gospel – the darkness has not overcome it.

Shadows, eclipses, you name it, I loved to think about light and darkness, but my mind’s eye would continually return to the image of that park ranger holding a single match over her head in Mammoth Cave.

Each of our readings this morning feature light in some form, whether it be the fiery chariot that bears Elijah to heaven, or God’s beauty shining in the Psalm, the reference to Genesis 1 in the reading from Corinthians, or the account of the Transfiguration in Mark.  Light is everywhere, and this is not a coincidence.

This is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany.  If you’ve heard me preach over the last few months, ever since the beginning of Advent, you’ve no doubt heard me mention light.  These three “winter” seasons of the church year, Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, share light in common, perhaps because for us, this is the darkest time of the year.  The days are at their shortest, the nights their longest.  The church, however, is filled with light and images of light this time of year.  In Advent the light is growing, at Christmas it shines at its brightest, and during Epiphany, the light spreads to all peoples and nations.  The light of the Gospel is spreading, dispelling the darkness of sin and oppression.  Just as the star guided the magi to the Christ child, so we have been lead these past few weeks through the early stories of God’s power made manifest in the person of Jesus to this mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration.

Most of us know the story of the Transfiguration.  It is a scene full of not only profound mystery and symbolism in the life and ministry of Jesus, but it also depicts such “special effects” that any of the greatHollywooddirectors would be envious.  Jesus had invited his three closest disciples to come up onto this mountain.  Little did they know what else they would soon witness.

What might have gone through the disciples minds as they witnessed the transfiguration?  Might a story like that from Exodus?  Moses is with God on a mountain.  There was fire onMt.Sinai, and smoke, and when Moses came down off the mountain, his face was shining.  Here Jesus and the disciples are atop a mountain praying to God when suddenly Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  No wonder the disciples became afraid.  Perhaps they knew that God was at hand.

But before God made an appearance in the scene, two other men appeared with Jesus – Moses and Elijah.  These men have appeared in glory and talk with Jesus – and who are Moses and Elijah – they represent the Law and the Prophets.

If the disciples hadn’t guessed it before, they might have a clue now that something big is taking place in their very sight.  And this man, this Jesus, must be very important, after all who is this Jesus that he might converse with two of the central figures of their history as Jews?  Peter is so excited, and yes, terrified, that he doesn’t want it to end.  He wants to build a theme park!

Perhaps to silence Peter’s ravings, a voice thunders from the cloud, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased, listen to him!” says a voice from the cloud.  Where had they heard these words before?  When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, God spoke very similar words over him.

However, where at his baptism Jesus was just starting his ministry, here we see a turning point in his ministry.  When Jesus comes down off of this mountain, his steps will turn towardJerusalemand his confrontation with the leaders of the Jews will increase.  This is it, the turning of the tide, God, Moses and Elijah are there to surround and support Jesus, energizing him, as it were, for the difficult time ahead.

Here we are at the end of Epiphany, facing what for us may be a difficult time ahead – the season of Lent.  As we descend from this mountain top experience, we will trade light for ashes.  We will be reminded that we are but dust.  We will face deprivation and self-examination.  Our steps through Lent will lead us toJerusalemto be with Jesus as he walks his final steps from the upper room toGethsemaneand ultimately toCalvary.

We need to remember the glory of this moment as the coming days begin to darken.  As we descend this mountain into the 40 days of Lent, the light of Epiphany may serve us well as a guide.

Lent is a time when are reminded that we are all made of mortal stuff.  Indeed, our parish family has been reminded of that far too often during these past few weeks.  For us, walking the path through Lent can often seem like walking through the valley of the shadow of death, between the shining moment of the Transfiguration and the glory of Easter morning.  Light and darkness, sun and shadows – our lives are marked by both light and darkness.   In the darkest days of Lent, a moment like the Transfiguration may very well be like a single match in a pitch black cave.  Or perhaps your light might be more like the star that guided the magi.  Whatever image of light you may have, hold on to it, especially during the coming days of lent.

But never fear.  God is near us, walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  The shadows of Lent can seem long and dark indeed, but God is a God of light and of a God of dawning.  In the darkness we must wait for the return of the light.  Amen.


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