2 Kings 2:1-12 We’ve talked about Elijah before in the context of Sunday School; you might have heard today’s story in Sunday School, too. It’s the story of the ascension of Elijah.
We’ve already said there are stories about passing on leadership in the Old Testament. There was the one about Moses passing on his leadership Joshua before the people of God passed over the Jordan into the Promised Land. Then there was the story of Elijah taking on Elisha as his young protégé. Elisha was very loyal to Elijah, and that’s part of what we see in today’s reading (in a way, it also reminds me of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi). He refuses to leave Elijah, no matter how often Elijah says, “Stay here.”
The trip Elijah and Elisha take is an odd one; it’s certainly not a straight line from Gilgal to beyond the Jordan. It twists and turns from Gilgal to Bethel, then to Jericho, and finally to the Jordan and beyond.
The story also has some parallels with the Joshua story—the parting of the Jordan, which itself has parallels with the story of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. It seems to be a repeated motif that to get to a new stage, you have to get beyond obstacles.
It’s clear that Elisha admires Elijah; he knows that Elijah is a powerful worker in the hands of God. Just as Elijah is about to be taken up, he turns to Elisha and says, in effect, “If you could have anything you wanted from me, what would it be? I’ll give it to you.” Elisha doesn’t hesitate. He says, “I’d want a double share of your spirit.” That’s what sums Elijah up: his spirit, so Elisha is asking for the same thing: to be a strong worker for the Lord. Elijah says, “That’s a hard one, but if you see me as I’m taken up, you’ll get it.” What is this? Conditions? To me, it’s more like, “If you remain focussed on me, then that’s what you’ll get.”
And that’s just what happens. The picture of Elijah being taken up is very dramatic and exciting—horses of fire and a chariot of fire—yet Elisha doesn’t allow himself to be distracted. He’s focussed on Elijah. The last sentence of the reading shows Elisha doing what people did in moments of sadness or anger: “But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.”
But do you want to know what’s next? Just read the next few sentences of the story—beyond what we’ve heard today. Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle—which is already significant if you consider the imagery of “passing on the mantle”—and strikes the water of the Jordan with it. And the waters part. Did Elisha get his wish?
Psalm 50:1-6 There’s fire in the psalm, too. Fire—and light—are common signs of God and the power of God.
Just as we saw parallels between Moses and Elijah in the reading from 2 Kings, we’re seeing them again. God’s first revelation to Moses was through what? Right, the burning bush. And that revelation changed Moses’ life forever. He became a powerful instrument in the hands of God, and flame was a constant thing in the lives of Moses and the people: a column of fire by night to lead them, and flame on Mt. Sinai as God gave Moses the Law. Flame/fire and light. And when God, in the company of the Spirit, begins creation, what does God do? “Let there be light.” Light, blazing, dazzling light, is a sign of God and the breath-taking, humbling power of God.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 If you’ve ever been on a wilderness camping trip—hmmm … does that smack of the Exodus?—you’ll know how important the campfire can be. It’s a cook-fire and it’s light and warmth as it gets dark and cold at night. Finally, if your sleeping bag is warm enough, you snuggle up and go to sleep. And when you wake up in the morning, you find that the campfire has gone out—or not quite. You can stir up the embers and get it going all over again.
Does that sound a little bit like Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth? Were they getting discouraged—burned out—because the message of the gospel was “veiled”? Because people weren’t getting it, despite how often and how enthusiastically the church told the story?
So Paul stirs the embers. “You may think the gospel is ‘veiled’, but it’s veiled only to those who will never get it anyway. The god of this world—Satan, the evil one, the denier—has blinded them and kept them from seeing the glory of Christ. But we serve God by proclaiming the glory of God—the same God who said, ‘Let there be light’—as seen in the face of Jesus Christ. And that light shines in our hearts.”
And how do we proclaim that glory? By being slaves, by serving. And how does serving show the glory of God? By being rooted in love.
Mark 9:2-9 There are two camps regarding the Feast of the Transfiguration. One camp says, “The Feast of the Transfiguration is August 6th. I’ll celebrate it then.” The other camp moves the Feast to the Last Sunday after Epiphany. Is that a good idea?
Well, six years out of seven, the Transfiguration is on a weekday, and the vast majority of the people of the church never see it; it’s “veiled”. It seems a shame to have the Transfiguration hidden like that. Some might say, “Well then, transfer it from the weekday to the nearest Sunday.” My question is, “What are you doing on the first or second Sunday of August?” More than likely, you’re on holidays somewhere, and church attendance isn’t uppermost in your mind, so even if we did slide it onto a Sunday, you’d miss it anyway.
Another solution is to put it where people can see it easily. Based on one very important utterance from the Transfiguration in the gospels—“This is my Son, the Beloved”—it seems we might do well to put it in the Epiphany season, which begins with the Baptism of the Lord. The gospel reading for that Sunday has a very important utterance: “You are my Son, the Beloved … .” Of course, we always think of the Wise Men in conjunction with the Epiphany, the ‘showing forth’, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg; the entire Epiphany season is a manifestation, each Sunday with a gospel reading which is prominently a manifestation, and this week’s reading is a gorgeous example.
So why is the Transfiguration traditionally situated on August 6th? For the same reason as any other feast: it’s what the leaders of the early church did. It’s not quite arbitrary; there must have been some reason, but we don’t know the date on which the Transfiguration took place any more than we know the date on which the birth of Jesus took place. It just seemed right to put it on the date we now celebrate. So, I don’t get too hung up about it—in fact, I like the scriptural connection with the other Epiphany readings.
Today’s reading calls forth a whole bunch of questions:
- Why “six days” later? (By the way, that’s six days after Jesus has foretold his death and resurrection.) Well, it turns out that the Transfiguration story is in tight parallel with the story of Moses at Mt. Sinai, right down to the order of the events (Exodus 24, and parts of Exodus 34). So, Moses begins preparations to ascend Mt. Sinai, and after six days, he starts out.
- Why three disciples? The three whom Jesus takes are Peter, James, and John, three of the first four disciples whom Jesus called—poor Andrew gets left out a lot. They’re the inner circle, and they go with Jesus on several significant occasions: the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the Transfiguration, and Jesus’ last time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. I’m inclined to think it’s no coincidence; Moses took three companions with him on the ascent of Mt. Sinai: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu.
- Why “a high mountain”? I won’t bore you with the details, but when you have a moment, take advantage of a good concordance program, and look up _mountain_ in scripture. Many significant events take place on a mountain, including the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and the Transfiguration.
What mountain is it? Honest answer? We don’t know. Some just use the term “the Mount of the Transfiguration”. There are some candidates, though. Given that the events of six days before took place in Caesarea Philippi, it’s reasonable to assume that the mountain in question isn’t too far away from there.
- Tabor – it’s eleven miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee—not too far from Caesarea Philippi—but it’s only 1,886 feet high. Is that high enough?
- Carmel – but it’s up in the north of Israel, possibly too far away.
- Meron – it’s northwest of the Sea of Galilee—again, not too far away—and it’s certainly higher than Mt. Tabor: 3,926 feet. High enough?
- Hermon – it’s on the border between Lebanon and Syria—a little far away—but it’s 9,234 high. Maybe that’s the one?
Of course, all of this is just speculation.
- “And he was transfigured before them” – what does “transfigured” mean? The Gospel of Mark isn’t very helpful with that, but both Matthew and Luke are, e.g., Matthew says, “His face shone like the sun.” Well, that’s a direct parallel with the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 34.29ff.); his face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil to talk with anyone. The Gospel of Mark does say, “his clothes became dazzling white.”
- Why Elijah and Moses? For one thing, both Elijah and Moses had theophanies—revelations of God—on mountains. For another, Elijah was a forerunner of Jesus, just as John the Baptizer was—and many people thought John was Elijah anyway. Finally, Moses had predicted the coming of Jesus; go back to Deuteronomy 18.15, 18-19. And between the two of them, they represented the Law and the Prophets.
- Why a cloud? Cloud has always been one of the revelations of God, e.g., way back in the Exodus, where God goes before the people as a cloud by day and flame by night to lead them, but undoubtedly the parallel here is the cloud on Mt. Sinai as Moses is ascending to receive the Law.
- Why a voice out of the cloud? Moses is called by a voice out of the cloud on Mt. Sinai to complete his ascent (Exodus 24.16), an invitation which confirms his position as God’s voice to the people. The voice from the cloud in the Transfiguration is also a confirmation: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Jesus is God’s voice to us.
- The people are astonished – in both stories? In Exodus, it’s because Moses’ face was shining. In the Transfiguration, I suspect it was a combination of things: A) The Transfiguration itself, the shining face, B) the dazzling white clothing, and C) the appearance of Elijah and Moses (by the way, how did they know it was Elijah and Moses?). Actually, the only astonishment we know of is Peter—Peter who’s never at a loss for words, Peter who speaks often for the disciples. Was he blown away? Was he afraid? Was he just babbling? Why booths? Was it anywhere near the Festival of Booths? Was he looking for a way to prolong the event, building booths so Elijah and Moses could hang around for a while?
And then FFFFFT! In a flash (not literally), the whole thing is gone, and they’re just standing there again with Jesus. Jesus looks normal again, and Elijah and Moses are gone. Is there a point to this? For much of what we’ve been hearing in the past several weeks, the point has been to centre on Jesus—no distractions—and that was the point of the voice from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” For the sake of us focusing on Jesus, he’s the only one left? How’s that for a manifestation—an epiphany?