2 Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50: 1-6; Mark 9: 2-9
******** United Church of Christ
February 26, 2006 (Transfiguration Sunday)
Elijah was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, prophets in Israel. A prophet was someone who was chosen to read the signs of the times of his people and then proclaim to the king and to the people what would happen in their relationship with God if events continued to unfold, what could happen if they changed course; the kind of preaching that happens when one has a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, as William Sloan Coffin puts it. Elijah was prophet to the people and to the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE. Because of the miracles he performed and the miraculous events that followed him, his fame grew beyond legend to the point of being regarded as the one who would usher in the Day of the Lord, the end of time when God and righteousness would reign.
Now we join his story at its end, after he has walked the length and breadth of Israel, when he is to be taken up into the heavens. He is with his disciple and chosen successor, Elisha. Both know somehow that Elijah’s time has come, but neither of them will speak of it. Even so, their emotion is palpable; even though it is not stated outright we can glean a sense of how close their master/student relationship has been. Elijah gives Elisha (and perhaps himself) a way out this painful goodbye three times; three times Elisha vows to stay with Elijah as long as he lives. It is a scene reminiscent of Ruth and Naomi, when Ruth promises to go with Naomi to a foreign land to be her daughter.
When they finally reach the Jordan River and cross over, imagery we now use for passing from this life into the next, Elijah grants Elisha a final gift of their friendship. By his answer we can hear what he is not asking for: “I’ve learned everything I can from you about being a prophet, a leader, how to turn the people toward the Lord, except how to be a prophet without you. I can’t beg you or the Lord that you should stay. I’ll ask for the next best thing.” Elisha asks for a double-share of his spirit. A son would normally receive a share, a third of the father’s possessions as an inheritance; to double that might put the rest of the family in jeopardy. It is a hard thing for Elijah to grant for it is not up to him to decide; God will make the decision if Elisha is to receive this.
As they go, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them and Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind on the hot breath of God. Elisha calls out to his beloved master “Father! Father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” When he could no longer see him, Elisha performs an act of mourning and tears his clothing in two. Having seen his master taken into heaven, we now know that Elijah’s spirit is with Elisha. In the next verse he picks up the mantle that was Elijah’s and carries it, wears it as his own.
I wore my father’s robe when I was ordained about 14 ½ years ago. I’m wearing it today. But he was not the example of prophetic ministry to me in the way that Elijah was to Elisha. My father was an alcoholic and was asked to leave his position as a minister of Christian Education. He was not very happy as a minister because he was not a happy person. When I told him that I was thinking about going into the ministry, he said why would I want to do that to myself. I think he went into the ministry as a way of healing the pain in his life. Within a year of leaving ordained ministry he quit drinking and began a crisis counseling center in the church where we had begun worshiping, the church I would eventually be ordained in. But his body had already taken enough abuse from drinking and smoking and buried sorrow that the counseling work took its toll and he left ministry altogether. He died of a heart attack when I was nineteen.
To say the least, my mother was concerned when I told her of my plans to attend seminary, not to mention the same seminary my father attended. She was afraid that I was trying to live out my father’s life, to redeem it somehow by following in his flawed footsteps. Later she came to see that indeed I was happy in the ministry and enjoying my vocation.
What I did not realize until I was older is that I did receive a portion of my father’s spirit. In reading reports that he wrote while in his intern year I saw that he was passionate about the kingdom of God and justice for all people. So am I. He questioned authority. So do I. He was a person of deep feeling to the point of wearing his heart on his sleeve sometimes when it came to caring for others. So do I. Though he was not an ideal example, I still learned from him, both about myself and about what kind of minister I wanted to be.
All of us, leaders, parents, teachers included, are formed in the crucible of our experience. We learn not only in the light, but in the dark as well. God is revealed not only in the bright light of the transfiguration, a mere glimpse of the resurrection, but also in the darkness of the cross.
In the gospel lesson we see that Peter is beside himself, terrified at the sight of Jesus and the sound of God’s voice. Like Elisha, he seems to know what is being asked of him by being allowed to witness such an event. With Elijah and Moses present, it is a sign that the Messianic Age is at hand, that the end times are near. When the moment is over, they are alone with Jesus again, signaling that it is Jesus who is the harbinger of the Day of the Lord, that Jesus is the new Elijah, the new Moses of God’s people.
But then Jesus tells them not to say anything until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. There is an even greater glory to come but at the cost of the cross. God’s greatest love is revealed not only through healing but also through pain; not only through life but also through death.
It is easy for us to associate light as a gift of God, as well as love, healing, peace, and life. It is much more difficult for us to see darkness and pain and death as gifts or as having anything to do with God. We love to learn from good examples but shun or ignore the bad or painful example. Yet God is still with us in the darkness, in pain and in death, and none of these can separate us from God’s love. God’s love is still at work, revealing to us how far God will go to keep us close.
One of the most well-known and most-beloved sayings of Jesus is said by him at night, in the darkness, when he reveals who he is to Nicodemus the Pharisee when he says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” It is not only through Jesus’ life and teachings that we learn the depth of his love but much more so through his death on the cross.
The Church came into being because Mary Magdalene and other Easter morning witnesses, the disciples, the apostle Paul, and many others were captured by the story of the events of Holy Week; of how one man sent by God, preaching justice and the forgiveness of sins, was arrested, tortured, crucified, was buried and rose on the third day to live again. Their imaginations were so enraptured that they were willing to suffer pain to remain a part of this salvation story and to share it with others.
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, said that it is not easy to resist the offer of a gospel of success, an invitation to “a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” In the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Jesus has a vision while being crucified of climbing down off the cross to settle down with Mary Magdalene, to have a family, live out his days, and die an old man. But in the end he realizes that the cross is inevitable, that it cannot be escaped. The only way to escape darkness is to take part in the light, to love, but there is no love without pain in this world. And the only remedy for love is to love even more.
The life of the Church is where love and pain, where darkness and light meet, in the shadows. We are called to go to those who live in the shadows. U2’s lead singer Bono put it this way: “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives. And God is with us, if we are with them.”
The bright light of the transfiguration reveals the darkness of the cross, creating a long shadow that extends through all life, showing us the depth of God’s love and the path for God’s people. What are moments of insight, when you as a church both saw God’s glory and heard God still speaking to you, calling you to the path of discipleship? What are the shadows, the challenges that face you as a congregation as you strive to be the church in the world? What are the gifts, both painful and healing, that have helped you be the church you are now? How has God been revealed to you in Epiphany, this season of light? What are you going to do this Lent to keep God’s presence so very real in your every day life?
Let’s keep our eyes and ears and hearts open these forty days of Lent. When we see and feel pain, let us look also for the healing that Christ gives. When the darkness creeps in, may we turn and find the light of God’s glory poking through a crack. When we hear of war and rumors of war, let us also witness to peace and justice and hope. When we reflect on our past, as a church and as individuals, may we have grace enough to learn from painful lessons as well as from times of joy. Let us be on the lookout, that when God is revealed in this wide wonderful, crazy world, we will be there as witness, that we too may become a revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Amen.