As we close the season of Epiphany we encounter two supernatural stories in the scripture readings today. In the lingo of religious professionals they are called theophanies: derived from the Greek words “theo” for God, and “phanein” meaning to show oneself, or appear. A theophany is when God shows up in a majestic and dramatic way . . . or not.
In the book of I Kings we hear of the prophet Elijah who is fleeing from the wrath of Queen Jezebel. After all he has just engaged her pagan prophets in a duel of blazing altars, as they engage in the “My God is more powerful than your god” competition. And of course Yahweh being the real God, Elijah wins.
As penalty Elijah slaughters all 450 of the defeated pagan prophets, which to no one’s surprise, leaves Jezebel more than a little annoyed. So she sends a message to Elijah which said, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (I Kings 19: 2) This message was the ancient worlds equivalent of sending a dead fish wrapped in newspaper. The intent is the same: It means that there’s a contract been put out on your life, and you’ve got less than 24 hours to live. So Elijah flees far away to the desert: to the top of Mt Sinai.
Despondent, in fear for his life, believing himself a failure, Elijah is desperately in need of hope. And in that moment of utter darkness he encounters God: God shows up.
Strong winds, shattering rock, earthquake and fire descend upon the mountain. But amazingly God is not in any of these things. They are only the precursor to God’s actual appearance. Most of us would expect God to be in those big, dramatic events. But God is not in them. Instead God enters the scene in the most unexpected place? The Revised Standard Version translation, which we heard this morning, describes God’s appearing in “a still small voice.” Other translations say God appeared as, “a gentle breeze,” “ a soft whisper, ” or “hardly a sound. ” All of these translations have one thing in common: they speak of silence. God appears in quiet, softness and silence.
Renewed and strengthened by God’s appearing, Elijah’s faith is restored by this moment of theophany. From it Elijah discerns God’s call for him and he goes off to do it.
In the Gospel of Mark we hear of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Again, we have a mountain top setting where Jesus has taken his inner circle of apostles: Peter, James and John. Mountains are common places for theophanies, symbolizing a place that is closer to God.
No sooner does this little group complete their hike to the summit, than Jesus begins to transfigure: to radiate an incredible intense white light. In the midst of all this radiance, appear Elijah and Moses both of whom have been gone for centuries. I imagine that the apostles were mesmerized at the tableau unfolding before them. (Who wouldn’t be?) And as if this wasn’t enough, in rolls a cloud from which emanates the voice of God saying, “This is my Son; listen to him.” One of our youth might react to this scene with an, “Awesome, dude!” Awesome indeed!
Unlike the Elijah event, this theophany is high drama. The disciples are clearly over-whelmed by this display of God’s glory in their midst. The scripture tells us that, “they were exceedingly afraid.”
Regardless of how God appears - in silence or with operatic drama - one things is for sure; We do not walk away from our encounters with God the same as we were before we met God.
Contrasting Elijah’s immediate transformation and mission, Peter, James and John are ordered by Jesus to not share this moment of God’s appearing with anyone. Instead, they are to wait - holding it in reserve until the time of the resurrection. This theophany will eventually undergird the Good News of Christ’s rising from the dead: becoming yet one more piece of evidence that - as the centurion who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion exclaimed - “ Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mk.15:39)
Our rational minds tend to be skeptical of the scripture stories that relay supernatural events. We either regard them as stories for less educated folk, or try to rationalize them away, explaining them as hallucinations, dreams or out-right fabrications.
Were the supernatural encounters with God that Elijah, Peter, James and John experienced just moments of hocus-pocus? Are these just exotic yarns? Are these events on the mountains only ordinary events that were embellished by those who were there? Or are these experiences actually seeing the natural rightly. Are they the ordinary things of life seen through the eyes of faith?
On Friday of the week before last, New Hampshire experienced a powerful weather front moving through the state, as unusually warm temperatures were replaced by a cold front. High winds felled trees, knocking out power, telephone and cable lines. The violent winds wrought chaos. In the midst of this my sister and brother-in-law were due to arrive that evening for a weekend visit.
Returning home after a long day in Concord, I arrived to a dark and chilly house: my crock pot dinner half cooked. I quickly set myself to the task of making the house as hospitable as possible, igniting the gas stove, lighting candles, and rummaging in the fridge for the cheese and pepperoni I had purchased for snacks. I thought, “well, at least we would have something to eat.” Retrieving a flash-light, I kept watch out the window, so that I could go outside and guide Susie and John indoors safely upon there arrival. A car coming round the bend seemingly turned into my driveway, and so I headed outdoors.
As it turned out it was not my family. Instead what greeted my eyes and ears as I stepped outside was a theophany.
The high winds had subsided. It was so still outside that it sounded like a soft whisper. The cold air had an unusual sharpness to it, as if it were filled with electricity. My skin and nostrils tingled. And the sky: it was like no sky I had ever seen! It was velvety, blue-black in color: a canopy filled with radiant stars and galaxies. The brilliance of their combined light as it floated to earth was other-worldly. O.K. I’ll say it: It was supernatural. Time seemed suspended. I felt strangely different - not afraid - but transformed, and realized it was because I was in the presence of God. I was seeing the natural rightly for what it was: holy.
Think what you will. But for me it was an awesome experience. I feel more connected to Elijah and Peter, James and John because of it.
It’s easy to allow our senses to be dulled by the seemingly everyday ordinariness of life. It is even easier to get so caught up in the minutia of our lives, that we miss God when God shows up - which I believe God does with a whole lot more frequency that most of us are aware of.
Lent begins Wednesday. God isn’t more likely to show up during the season of Lent than any other. But what can happen is that we take the time this Lent - through prayer, quiet time, conversations with others and reflection - to become more aware of God’s showing up in our lives. To come to know what Albert Einstein called the “miraculous of reality.” And that in and of itself would be a wondrous theophany.Back to the top