A sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany

Our Gospel this morning is a sort of bonus edition. We get two stories, instead of just one. First Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, and while he’s there his appearance changes and his clothes start to shine. And then he comes down and heals a boy that his disciples weren’t able to help on their own.

We hear this Gospel in church every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins. And if I’m preaching, I usually concentrate on that first story about what happens at the top of the mountain, what we call the Transfiguration, because it’s so important.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain, and Luke tells us that he went to pray. And while they’re there, they see the way his appearance changes, and watch him talking with Moses and Elijah. And they’re talking about his “departure,” which is a reference to his coming crucifixion and death.

And Peter wants to build three dwellings on that spot, to memorialize it, maybe to prolong the experience—but just then a cloud comes over them and they’re frightened out of their wits. And out of the cloud they hear a voice that says, “This is my Son, my chosen”—which calls to mind the voice that called Jesus “the Beloved” just after his Baptism.

And all of this works as a sort of bridge between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent by including some of the themes of each: The identity of Christ is revealed and confirmed. There’s a hint of the suffering that’s about to come. And it marks a turning point in the Gospel, because very soon after this Luke says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

So maybe it’s really no wonder Peter wants to stay in that moment on the mountain.

But then they come back down to earth—literally—a reminder that as important as it is to make time for prayer, our ministry to the messy brokenness of human suffering is just as important.

So as I said, this past week as I reflected on this Gospel, I found myself drawn to prayerfully explore that second story, because I think that’s really where we find ourselves today.

That story takes place on the day after the glorious Transfiguration on top of the mountain. A huge crowd has turned out to meet Jesus, and out of that crowd a voice cries to Jesus for help, the voice of a man pleading for relief for his son, his only child, who’s possessed by a spirit, a demon that tosses him to the ground in convulsions.

So, demons and unclean spirits. We don’t use that kind of language much these days. And in fact in the translation of the Bible that we use here in church, Matthew’s version of this story says the boy has epilepsy. And maybe that’s easier for us to understand, but I still think there’s resonance in the notion of a disease that’s spiritual as well as physical—in particular when we’re talking about society as a whole—and we’d do well to keep it in mind.

Anyway, this father says that he begged the disciples—the ones who weren’t taken to the mountaintop—to heal the boy, and they weren’t able to do it. And Jesus chides the ones who failed. He calls them “faithless.” And he heals the boy, and Luke tells us that “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”

And I’ve been thinking this past week about what it must have been like for those disciples who failed. Who remained at ground level while the others went up with Jesus and had this amazing spiritual experience.

How did they feel about being left behind to take care of business while the others were praying?

How did they feel when they tried to heal that boy, and everyone saw that they couldn’t do it?

And why did they fail, anyway? Earlier in this same chapter,[1] Luke tells us that Jesus “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” and sent them off “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”

And they did it then. So why couldn’t they do it now?

And Jesus calls them “faithless,” and I wonder about that. I think that coming from him, that must have really hurt, because after all, they did try, didn’t they?

They must have been at least a little embarrassed by their failure. And certainly they could see that the crowds that turned out for Jesus weren’t there for them.

So I don’t know how they felt about that, but when I look around our churches now—and I’m not just talking about here but every place I’ve been in the last few years—I can’t help noticing the way attendance is shrinking, and I do feel a little of that myself. Is it something that we’re doing wrong?

Why did Jesus call them faithless? They were trying, and they were all still there when Jesus got back, after all.

But then I thought, maybe they weren’t trying so hard. Maybe they stopped trying when the evil spirit resisted their call to leave the boy. Maybe they told father that he ought to just to hang around until Jesus came back and he’d take care of it?

Maybe they were starting to believe that the work that they’d been asked to carry out in Jesus’ absence was really just too hard for them?

And in so many ways, I think this feels exactly like the place where we church people find ourselves today. So many of my colleagues are trying to do church without the resources and support that we used to expect. So what are we doing wrong?

So let me ask you: Is there anyone here this morning who feels that they’ve been left with more responsibility for church ministries than they ever expected to have?

I mean, it’s hard, isn’t it? Things you might have thought were supposed to be taken care of by someone at a higher pay grade have become your responsibility now.

And even outside of church, I look around at what the world’s become, and I find myself more and more distressed. And I can’t help wondering, where is God now? Where is God when we clearly need so much help?

Maybe we don’t use the same language as Luke, but we have our own demons in our world, too. We have forces of evil that seem way beyond our power to overcome.

And where did God go and leave us with this mess?

I’ve been feeling that way more than ever this past week, watching videos of bombs falling in Ukraine. The dead and the wounded. People who look a lot like us trying to get to safety. Trying to leave cities that look like ours being bombed. I have friends from Ukraine, and friends from Russia, and they’re all feeling this heavy on their hearts, and my heart is breaking for them.

And it’s almost overwhelming, that sinking feeling that someone needs to fix this, but it feels impossible. It just feels too big for any of us. How can we make a difference?

And we still have our own problems much closer to home. We have the divisions in our country. This inability that we have now to come together to face the problems that are tearing us apart. Poverty, hunger, injustice, the environment, and the opioid crisis, and covid. All of these things are still there. They haven’t gone away.

So where did God go and leave us with this mess? And when is Jesus going to come back down the mountain and fix it for us?

Well, so far that’s been pretty depressing, hasn’t it?

Now comes what I hope is the good news, even though we might wish for easy answers, and there aren’t any easy answers. There’s nothing for it but faith, and trust. And that’s not nothing.

I came into church and I saw the banner up here that says, “Trust in the Lord,” and I thought yes, that’s right. That’s just what I’m going to preach. But what does “trust in the Lord” mean? Well, it doesn’t mean just kneel down and give it to God and then go home and relax.

I was reading something last week and I came across a quote from the novelist Alice Walker. She said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

By thinking they don’t have any. So what power do we have? Please don’t tell yourself we don’t have any. There’s prayer, of course. And living faithfully.

And doing every little thing we can—as Luke said—“to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”

Those disciples weren’t asked to change the whole world, those disciples in today’s Gospel. They were just supposed to help the poor boy who was there in front of them, because that’s where we always start from. We begin with what’s right there in front of us.

And we aren’t asked to change the whole world just like that. We begin with what’s right there in front of us, by doing every little thing we can.

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

So maybe that was the problem those hapless disciples had. Maybe they lost faith in themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. And I can understand how that might happen.

So what power do we have? I think actually there’s a hint of that in today’s New Testament reading, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians.

The first Gospel story—the Transfiguration—as you know, is a dramatic description of the glory of Jesus Christ, witnessed in a fleeting moment by Peter, James, and John. But Paul is reminding us that we, too, are being transformed to share Christ’s glory.

“And all of us,” he says, “ … seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

We do not lose heart.

Our responsibility—each one of us—is to carry on with the ministry that has been given to us, to carry on the work of the church. To carry on with confronting the demons and with the work we’ve been given, in our own ways, no matter how small, of healing the broken world around us.

And therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.


Preached at the Church of St. James the Greater, Bristol, PA.

[1] 9:1-2