The Last Sunday after The Epiphany, 15 February 2015

II Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
I Corinthians 4:3-6
St. Mark 9:2-9

Background: Theophany
Theophanies are not peculiar to the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures but are known in both Greek and the religions of the ancient near east. A theophany is the appearance of a deity to a human being. The Gilgamesh Epic is one of the earliest examples of such a manifestation in the ancient near east. The Hebrew Scriptures have several examples of such appearances: a) The burning bush, b) the pillar of cloud and of fire, c) the appearance to Moses on Mt. Sinai, d) appearances to both Isaiah, and Ezekiel, and e) appearances in the Psalms. Similar appearances are found in classical Greek literature, especially in the Iliad.

In the Christian Scriptures there are notable examples: a) The Baptism of Jesus both in Mark and in Luke, although the appearance in Mark is more of an internal, psychological revelation to Jesus himself. The great theophany is the appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, which is the Gospel for today. St. Paul experiences a theophany in his trek to Damascus and his subsequent conversion. Christian legends, largely surrounding Peter, have other appearances as well.

2 Kings 2:1-12

Now 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.

Like Jesus, Elijah has an interior experience of God, for he seems to know that his time had come. And it is a knowledge that seems to be widely known, by Elisha and by the various schools of prophets that serve as a sort of Greek chorus in the scene. Like Ruth’s promise to Naomi, Elisha promises that he “will not forsake you,” which he repeats twice. What is apparent here is not only the commitment to the well being of Elijah by Elisha, but of Elisha’s role as heir apparent. Soon Elisha will request a double share of the Spirit that has anointed Elijah, and it is this hook that the consequences of this tale hang. The storyteller, however, has some serious business of authenticating his story. There is the vision or knowledge that the “company of prophets” shares with Elisha, which is repeated three times, in good storytelling fashion. What follows, however, binds the story to the corporate history of Israel, as the waters of the Jordan divide to allow the prophet and his protégé to cross the Jordan. Israel’s history is relived and turns on this point, and affirms not only Elijah, but also the prophetic status of Elisha as well. The two step out of Israel, and then the one returns to do an on-going ministry.

Here the vision takes an unusual step that winds from Elisha’s request for a “double portion” of the Spirit. This is something that Elijah is unable to do, for this gift is God’s, not his. Thus he advises that the confirmation will come with Elisha’s seeing the vision as well. So what happens here is out of the usual realm of things in the Hebrew Scriptures. Elijah does not go to Sheol (the place of the dead) but is taken up in a chariot of fire. The only other character that enjoyed such a being “taken up” was Enoch. Although Moses is not “taken up” in such a fashion, his burial place is “unknown”, and so we are left to wonder. It is significant that both Moses and Elijah flank Jesus at his transfiguration, a means of continuing the ancient story and linking it to the story of Jesus.

Breaking open II Kings:
  1. What would it mean to you to get a “double portion” of the spirit?
  2. Who has been your mentor in Christianity?
  3. How have you mentored others in their faith?

Psalm 50:1-6 Deus deorum

The LORD, the God of gods, has spoken; *
he has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, *
God reveals himself in glory.

Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.

He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.

"Gather before me my loyal followers, *
those who have made a covenant with me
and sealed it with sacrifice."

Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; *
for God himself is judge.

We have an unusual concatenation of “god names” in the first verse, literally “El (God), the Elohim (God) YHWH (read as “the Lord”. The English translation above obliterates most of the mystery of this ensemble. In his commentary on this psalm, Robert Alter, dismisses this as a “problem in textual transmission.”[1] I rather like the mystery of the collection of names – making this vision of God totally other. We are witnesses to a theophany here, “God revels (God’s)self in glory,” which quite nicely ties this reading with the first reading and the Gospel for the day. But the reader is not the only witness, “(God) calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of (God’s) people.” Like the Song of Moses, we are reading a psalm with a certain prophetic import. If the prophet speaks the word of God to a particular time and place, then that is certainly the role of this psalm as well. God speaks directly throughout the psalm. There is also a covenantal character to this psalm, not only with the witness of heaven and earth, but also with the gathering of “my loyal followers, those who have made and covenant with me, and sealed it.” God is the judge who sees how heaven and earth respond, and these heavens are called upon to, “declare the rightness of his cause.”

Breaking open Psalm 50:
  1. How does God speak directly to you in the words of this Psalm.
  2. How does God speak to our society?
  3. What do you think God wants to say?

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.

The theme for today is one of manifestation and realization, so the words with which Paul begins his reading is stunning, “Even if our gospel is veiled.”  Jesus on the mountaintop is not veiled, and is Paul’s image of God revealed to and indeed present with us. There is a push-pull here, between the “god of this world”, and the glory of Christ that confounds such blindness. Here Paul plays with vision and blindness, light and darkness, for the play between these two forces reveals the glory of God in Christ. So it not the proclamation, but revelation of God’s glory that convinces us.  Paul is also quick to remind us, as he does so often, that it is not about him, or about us, but rather it is about “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” As we stumble about trying to discover what it is that the Church must be in this day and age, perhaps the real clue lies here.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. What about your faith do find hidden?
  2. How might you go about unveiling that?
  3. Who might be helpful to you in revealing what is hidden to you.

St. Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, 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.

The first verse of this pericope (verse 1) is not included in the liturgical readings for this day, and for an understandable reason – it is difficult.

And he said to them: “Amen I say to you: There are some people standing here who will not experience death until they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

It’s interpretation turns on whether this saying represents the coming as a future even, but imminent, or as already present, a realized eschatology. That is the context of this appearance, and we could well use both sides of the argument to understand the appearance and Mark’s use of it. Once pronounced, a period of time intervenes – six days. Is this a reference to the story of Creation, to the vision that Moses experiences, or does it anticipate Jesus’ passion? Any of these could be used, for it is significant time that separates the saying for a realization of the saying. With that thought expressed, I prefer the Moses option, for it binds the experience to what has gone on before that will be useful in seeing that which is coming.

When we talk about the transfiguration as a vision, we lose some of the impact of the vocabulary. The idea in the Greek is that of a metamorphosis – a change of form. If that seems like a remove from our theological experience with this scene, we might do well to consider the hymn in Philippians:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

What the disciples see is not what Jesus seems to be, but what Jesus actually is. And this revelation of Jesus’ true form is set in the context of all that Israel knew God to be – thus the conversation with Moses and Elijah. Jesus is not some “Johnny come lately” but is, as John expresses it, the one who has been before as well. Peter represents an incipient knowledge of the Lord. He recognizes the goodness of the present, and wants to freeze it into a reality that takes both him and his fellows out of the world. Jesus wants the opposite – an understanding of his mission and kingdom and then a return in silence, until the time is ripe. So what do we do during the intervening period? There is grist for the sermon mill.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why does Jesus ask the disciples to keep silence?
  2. Are you silent about Jesus – why?
  3. How has Jesus been transfigured in your life?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Alter, R., The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary Kindle Version, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007, location 54.


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