2 Kings 2:1-12+Psalm 50:1-6+2 Corinthians 4:3-6+Mark 9:2-9
Even though we are in the depths of winter with Lent looming on the horizon, there are a few things that I usually look forward to this time of year. One is the Westminster Dog Show which should be starting tomorrow over in Madison Square Garden but is postponed until June and moving out of the city up to Tarrytown, at least for this year. Another is the Academy Awards which should be later this month but is postponed until April. Now, I will confess that I normally have seen few if any of the nominated films, and this year that will be even truer than other years, I imagine. However, it’s a cultural moment that I enjoy, always on the lookout for the controversial acceptance speech or head-scratching winner, like last year’s Korean masterpiece Parasite, which outraged fans of Scorcese’s The Irishman and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The backlash against Parasite was surely more about cultural bias than anything, by the way. By most accounts, it very much deserved to win.
If you look back at the history of the best picture winner at the Academy Awards, you will find a long list of films that are rated in the top-10 worst Oscar winners, like that time Rocky beat Taxi Driver (1976) or Ordinary People beat Raging Bull (1980) or Dances with Wolves beat GoodFellas (1990) or Titanic beat Good Will Hunting (1997). It’s like having a Standard Poodle win Westminster, for pete’s sake. (Sorry, not sorry to all you poodle fans out there.)
But one film that often ends up on the worst winner list is one that I actually love: 1981’s beautiful and inspiring British film, Chariots of Fire, that beat out Warren Beatty’s 3 ½ hour epic Russian Revolution drama, Reds. Chariots of Fire, for those of you who don’t remember it or who are too young to have seen it, is about running. Specifically, running in the 1924 Olympics. It centers around two characters, Eric Liddell, a devout Christian born in China to missionaries from Scotland, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew whose running is intended to strike a blow against anti-Semitism. The plot hinges on Liddell’s refusal to run in a 100-meter race on the Sabbath, the race he was favored to win. A teammate gives up a spot in the 400-meter relay, giving Liddell his chance at a gold medal. After the Olympics, Liddell returns to missionary life in China, dying there during the Japanese occupation of China in World War II.
The title of the film, they say, is taken from a William Blake poem adapted as the British hymn, Jerusalem, with the words
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
All due respect to the great poet, but we would not have had the poem, either, without the text from 2 Kings that we heard today, when the great prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven on the whirlwind in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). Elijah did not die a human death. He’s the one who is expected to come to announce the messianic age. This is why his appearance on the mountaintop with Jesus is so significant. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets, all of which rest now on Jesus.
When Eric Liddell faced criticism from his family for putting running ahead of work in the church or as a missionary, his response was, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” You might say that he was transfigured, underwent a metamorphosis, when running, living into the purpose for which he was created. Perhaps missionary work was his higher calling, but it was through running fast that he bore witness to the world about Jesus Christ.
The words “transform” and “transfigure” are, in the Greek, pretty much interchangeable. In the context of the Transfiguration, which we read in Mark’s telling this morning, we say that Jesus was transfigured, his clothes whiter than any launderer could possibly get them, and he radiated with light, situated between his ancestors and anointed by the voice of God saying, “This I my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). This is Jesus, Son of God, fulfilling the purpose to which he was called.
Have you ever watched someone who is doing the exact thing they were called to do? It is as if they, too, are transfigured, radiating light and energy. When my son performed onstage, he was transfigured, not so much by way of taking on a character, but it was his home; it was where he was doing what he was created to do. The man who knows me best, my spouse, tells me that the first time he witnessed me celebrating the Eucharist, it was as if I had been transfigured, radiant, doing what God called me to do. I was, finally, home.
What is it that God calls you to do. Where do you find your greatest joy? Where do you feel like you are really home? I have seen parents with children who radiate that kind of fulfillment. Artists, athletes, writers, laborers, businesspeople, crossing guards – I have seen such life’s purpose in all of these places among so many people.
Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Whatever it is that puts you on a chariot of fire, in an indescribable state of fulfillment and contentment, in that place where you know God is calling you Beloved – that is what it means to be transfigured. Jesus’s transfiguring moment came on a mountaintop, and when he descended, he set his face for Jerusalem. Eric Liddell’s transfiguration found its expression through running, but it was lived out among the people of China, giving his life alongside those with whom he lived and ministered.
This season of Epiphany that ends today is all about who Jesus is and the miracles and signs and wonders that point to that identity. Who are we? Who are you? What signs and wonders point to your identity as Beloved? It’s a good way to move from Epiphany into Lent, when knowing who and whose we are is what we are sent into the wilderness to discover.