The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 14 February 2021
II Kings 2:1-12
II Corinthians 4:3-6
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: Moses and Elijah
Why do these two appear at the Transfiguration of Jesus? There are multiple reasons, but the simplest and most elegant reason is that both sought to see the face of God. Moses requests such in Exodus 33:18-23, when on Sinai he asks God “to show me your glory.” Moses had other opportunities to encounter God, especially the conversation at the Burning Bush when he receives his commission from God and learns God’s name. That should have been enough. To know the name granted Moses a certain amount of power and experience. Now however, following the giving of the Law, Moses wants to be certain that YHWH will continue to accompany not only him, but the nation chosen by God. Moses puts it succinctly, “Now, if I have found favor with you, please let me know your ways so that, in knowing you, I may continue to find favor with you.” The relationship required not only knowledge of the name, but recognition of the face as well. God shields Moses from such glory with the palm of God’s hand.
Elijah seeks God for other reasons. Having confronted the rule of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah flees for his life, and does something that is really quite important, and influential, I think, in the life of Jesus. He goes to the wilderness. There he rests and is refreshed and continues on in his reverse pilgrimage (forty days and forty nights) to Horeb, the mountain of God. In a way, Elisha is reversing Israel’s experience, going back to the very first things – rebooting, if you will. There is shelter in a cave, and a question from God, “Why are you here?” After a rehearsal of all that he has done for God, Elijah expects a further experience and knowledge of God. God promises to pass by. The experience of a strong and violent wind says nothing. The rending of mountains and rocks says nothing. A subsequent earthquake is silent in spite of its tremors. Finally, there was the experience, a sound of minute stillness, or a light silent sound.
Both men experience the full spectrum of experience with God. Both men are called to be prophets, announcing God’s will and way to the present situation. Both men stand with Jesus, the ultimate Word from God, and finally witness God’s glory in the flesh. It is a promise fulfilled, and a promise made in ancient times that is made available to humankind as a whole. Moses and Elijah are indeed prophets, but equally important is their humanity and presence.
First Reading: II Kings 2:1-12
When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
The author of the second part of the book of Kings has a sense of the dramatic, and perhaps comedy as well. As Elisha follows after Elijah he is lead to Beth-el and then to Jericho, and finally to the Jordan. It is perhaps a device to attract the hearer to the story, and in doing so rehearse, in reverse, the history of Israel. The prophet moves from a holy place (Beth-el) to a scene of triumph (Jericho), and finally to the place where Israel had entered the promised land by crossing the Jordan in a repeat of the parting of the Reed Sea. This is also a succession story, Elisha soon to be touched by the Spirit that has blessed Elijah. In it we also meet the future of prophetic ministry in that we meet acolyte, or “student” prophets who will continue the ministry of speaking God’s will.
This replay of Israel’s history sets up the hearer to understand and realize the full context of both Elijah and Elisha’s ministry. The story is a bit of an interlude in which we can see succession, anointing, and departure. We also see courage. It is a similar courage to that which Elijah had when in the wilderness and on the mountain, he asks God for evidence of God’s presence. Here it is Elisha who is brave in asking for a double portion of the Spirit that has been present in Elijah’s ministry. But it is not Elijah’s to grant. If it happens, if you see me taken from you, then it will be – Elijah realizes that it is God’s gift to grant such a double portion.
We also see something new in the Hebrew Scriptures, for Elijah does not die, does not go to the place of the dead, Sheol, but is taken up into the heavens. Here he is similar to Enoch (see Genesis 5:24) who is also taken up. Elijah is not taken up in a passive manner, but with the power implied in the chariot. He has been Israel’s power. This power is given to Elisha in the half garment he is left holding. The whole of ministry, however, is left to him as well.
Breaking open Kings:
1. Why do you think Elijah leads Elisha on a bit of a fool’s chase?
2. Why does Elijah not die, what is the purpose of this story?
3. What is the wisdom in a partial or half blessing?
Psalm 50:1-6 Deus deorum
1 The Lord, the God of gods, has spoken; *
he has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, *
God reveals himself in glory.
3 Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
4 He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.
5 "Gather before me my loyal followers, *
those who have made a covenant with me
and sealed it with sacrifice."
6 Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; *
for God himself is judge.
This is one of the psalms that is assigned to Asaph, a Levite priest who was the father of a long line of priests. This psalm is unusual in that it begins with rehearsing several names for God: El, God, and finally YHWH (for which Adonai is substituted). The principal image here is both light and fire. There is the rising and setting sun, a consuming flame (is this an implication of the purifying qualities of the flame?), and an implication of the stars in the heavens. The other theme that is underscored in this psalm is the Covenant that God has made with the people. In verse four both heaven and earth are called to be witnesses. Such was often the case in the psalter and in the other writings when there was a riv, a judgment to be made about the people’s faithfulness to God and the Covenant that they had with God. God requests that the faithful, those who continue to follow the Covenant gather together as a community. What follows, which is not in our reading (verses 7-23) is a rather long review of the relationship between God and God’s people. You might want to review this and better understand the opening verses.
Breaking open Psalm 50:
1. Why might the people need to be purified?
2. What is your covenant with God?
3. How and when do you remember your Baptism?
Second Reading: II Corinthians 4:3-6
Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Again, the theme of light is taken up, this time by Paul in his comments to the church in Corinth. He contrasts the light of Christ, with the blindness of his time (and for our time as well). Paul takes on a journey here of which he is very much a part as well. The theme of light is undercut by the opening line of our reading, “Even if our gospel is veiled.” The truth of the matter for Paul, and indeed for us as well, is that the Gospel which brings good news into our lives, is not seen by those who walk in life with us. Paul describes them as “perishing.” He names the culprit in this situation, “the god of this world.” In the last days we have seen those who follow this god and who are blinded to the good news that Jesus offers.
Paul makes an important claim, one that ought to be a part of our personal contemplation, especially as we approach Lent. He notes that he is not proclaiming himself, but rather Jesus Christ. In difficult times we can be tempted by a self-righteousness that can diminish others. If there is light in our lives (do people really see it and witness it?) then what is its message and evidence. Paul looks back at creation itself, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’” What might it be like to be a servant to the light? What might change in our lives if we saw that as an obligation to Christ the light of the world?
Breaking open II Corinthians:
1. What is the light in your life?
2. How are you a light to others?
3. What are you possibly blind to?
The Gospel: St. Mark 9:2-9
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Even though it is not included in the reading, please do not forget the sentence that Mark uses to introduce us to the story of the Transfiguration: “He also said to the, ‘Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” With that in mind we, like Moses and Elijah, are prepared to witness the theophany.
We are aware, through the Scriptures, of others who were transfigured in this world, Enoch and Moses. Here, however, the transfiguration of Jesus is a revelation to his intimates, Peter, James, and John. And, for Mark, it is a message to those who follow Jesus as well. As Jesus changes, so Paul saw the life of the individual Christian changing as well, “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” So the Transfiguration story is not only of an event and those who witnessed it but a commentary as well on what Christians would become.
The story is seen through Easter eyes, and eyes that have read the ancient Scriptures. “After six days” is an unusual beginning, and we wonder what its import is. Perhaps it reflects the story of Moses and the seventy elders who see the God of Israel (Exodus 24:9-11), or perhaps it represents the last day of a new creation in which the Son of Man is made manifest to us. It connects the anticipated story of Jesus (for this story will be followed soon enough by a Passion Prediction) with the known story of ancient revelations. Thus, it is natural for Moses and Elijah to be present for they are seeing the fulfilled vision. It is also natural for Peter, James, and John, to be there, for the kingdom had already been revealed to them, and now its fulfillment was the vision for their eyes.
They, however, are not ready. Peter misunderstands and wants to remain there taking in the glory. This, however, was preceded with fear, terror and speechlessness. Peter does understand one thing, however, and that was that this experience was to be a learning for them, for he calls Jesus, Teacher or Rabbi. Once again, the Voice addresses those witnessing the scene. Unlike the Baptism of Jesus when the Voice seems to be internal, here it is evident to all. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” And then it is all over, and then it begins again!
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. When have you seen Jesus in a different light?
2. Jesus here is connected to the ancient story. How do you connect him into your life?
3. How do you walk down from mountain top experiences into the reality of life?
General idea: Seeing it all differently
Instance 1: Taking the mantle (First Reading)
Instance 2: Being purified by the fire (Psalm)
Instance 3: Knowing our blindness and then seeing the vision (Second Reading
Instance 4: How to come down from the mountain (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller