The Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
11 February, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
✠ ✠ ✠
I love the story of Elijah’s assumption into heaven, especially the part leading up to the actual event. Three times Elijah tells Elisha to stay put while Elijah goes on to the next town. And three times Elisha tells Elijah no: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I won’t leave you.” Elijah is testing Elisha’s faithfulness by trying to shake him off, and he’s passing the test. Elisha knows that Elijah is somehow going to leave and not come back. Yet in each town they come to, the sons of the prophets keep telling him that Elijah is going to leave him. “Sons of the prophets” is the Old Testament way of referring to the disciples of the prophets. There were a lot of minor prophets in those days, most of whom aren’t mentioned in the Bible. And they proved faithful to the Word of the Lord, a number of disciples would usually gather around them. That’s what Elisha is to Elijah, a son of the prophet. “Don’t you know,” they say to Elisha, “that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?” They know this because they have the gift of prophecy themselves. “Yes,” he says to them, “don’t remind me!” He knows it’s got to happen, but he doesn’t want it to. He wants to capture the moment, to keep his master with him for as long as he can.
Then when they come to the river Jordan, Elijah strikes the water with his sheepskin mantle to open it up so they can cross over without getting wet. It doesn’t say in this reading that he wore sheepskin, but that’s what it was. And that’s important, because this event is full of imagery that looks forward to Jesus– his sacrificial death and our participation in it through baptism. Elijah was probably the fiercest of the prophets, and one of the greatest, second only to Moses. He fearlessly proclaimed the Word of the Lord without any regard for the threats against his own life for refusing to back down. He comes to the Jordan river, which is a pretty important place in salvation history, which God separates so that he and Elisha can cross it. This hearkens back to the time long before when Moses stretched out his hand over the Red Sea and God separated the waters so that the Israelites could cross over to safety, and afterward God let the waters close in again over Pharaoh’s army. Then forty years later, when they arrived at the river Jordan, God again opened a dry road through the water so that the Israelites could cross over into the Promised Land.
God uses water throughout Scripture as a symbol of life and death. We need it to stay alive, but it can also drown us. So here’s a little refresher in sacramental theology for you. By going into the water himself, at the hands of John the Baptist in the river Jordan, Jesus elevated baptism from being just a ritual act of purification to being the action by which we die with him as we go down into the water, and are raised up out of it to the new life of the children of God. And do you remember what John declared when he saw Jesus coming to be baptized? “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Jesus is the perfect lamb whose sacrificial death on the cross atones for our sin. And by being joined to him in a death like his, as St Paul teaches, we’re given the promise of being joined to him in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:5).
That’s what the Israelites crossing the Red Sea points to. And that connection is made in one of the Church’s great Easter hymns:
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness;
God hath brought his Israel
into joy from sadness;
Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters,
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.
And then the second verse draws the connection to Jesus’ resurrection:
‘Tis the spring of souls today;
Christ hath burst His prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun hath risen…
Hymnal 1982, #199
Elijah strikes the water with his sheepskin cloak and it divides so that they can pass through it. The sheepskin represents Jesus the Lamb of God who, by going into the water in baptism in that same river, opened the way for us to go down into it and come up to the new life on the other side. By his own death and resurrection, and by making baptism the way for us to join him in his dying and rising, he has destroyed the power of death over us, because we can now see that beyond our eventual deaths is the promise of life in his eternal kingdom.
Then the chariots and horses of fire swooped down from heaven, passing between Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah was carried up in a whirlwind into heaven. So here’s a man who was faithful to the Word of the Lord against all odds, prophesying by his actions what Jesus would do for all who are faithful to that same Word. And as we all know, Jesus is that same Word of the Lord, who became one of us in order to accomplish our salvation. Long before he came, he had raised up Moses, Elijah, Elisha and all the other prophets, right up to John the Baptist, to prepare the way ahead of him, and to point the way to him.
Just as God uses water to demonstrate heavenly realities, he also uses things like fire and whirlwinds, smoke and clouds, and mountains. Fire and wind represent the power of God; smoke and clouds represent the mystery of God; and mountains are places where people come to meet God directly. That’s why the altar in gothic churches is several steps above the level where the congregation sits (even here it’s elevated by one step), and why incense is used in worship. The priest censes the altar at the beginning of the worship to demonstrate that we’re about to celebrate a divine mystery. During the offertory all the people are censed just at the point when we’re about to go deeper into that mystery. And during the prayer of consecration, the thurifer kneels before the altar so that the cloud of smoke reaches its thickest just at the most mysterious point in the worship, the point when the Church offers up her bread and wine in prayer and the Lord fills it with himself in order to fill his people with his divine life.
It all symbolizes the fact that God veils himself in mystery so that we’ve got to set aside everything else in order to draw closer to him, like Moses whom God commanded to take off his shoes before coming any closer to the burning bush. Shoes are worldly things– they’ll take you wherever you want to go in the world, but they can’t take you closer to God. Humility and repentance, letting go of worldly values, are what we need in order to do that. That’s what St Paul is getting at in the second lesson when he says that “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing,” only to those who refuse to set everything else aside, to seek God above all things.
Moses and Elijah are the two pivotal figures in the Old Testament– Moses the lawgiver and liberator of God’s people, and Elijah the boldest of the prophets and the model of what a prophet should be. He bequeathed a double portion of his spirit to Elisha, or rather, God gave Elisha double the prophetic spirit that he gave Elijah. And John the Baptist, being the last of the OT prophets, was filled with that same fearless prophetic spirit. That has nothing whatever to do with reincarnation, and everything to do with the Holy Spirit empowering the prophets, along with the rest of God’s people, for their particular ministries.Just after what we read in today’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples had a conversation about Elijah in which Jesus indicates that John spoke with the same prophetic zeal and power as Elijah. So in that sense, John was every bit as much a son of Elijah as Elisha was.
So Jesus has led Peter, James and John up a mountain to witness his transfiguration, to give them a glimpse– an epiphany– of his divine glory. Transfiguration means essentially
the same thing as transformation. The figure/form is changed, but not the substance/essence of who Jesus is. You might say that what he’s doing is peeling back a little bit of his human wrapper so that the three disciples can see what he’s like underneath. Since it was such a special event, and since transformation is such an ordinary word, the Church uses the less ordinary word, transfiguration, to distinguish it. The original Greek word that the gospel writers all used is metamorphosis, like how a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. But what Jesus went through that day was not a complete metamorphosis. He just gave his disciples a little peak. The real, lasting transformation took place when he rose from the dead. He was born with a natural body, as St Paul teaches, but when he rose again, it became a supernatural body (1Cor 15:44). His resurrected appearance was such that when the disciples didn’t recognize him until he spoke to them. They knew his voice.
Once he was transfigured, then Elijah and Moses appeared with him– not the ghosts of Elijah and Moses, but the real guys. Elijah never died, you see, he was assumed, carried up to heaven in a whirlwind, as we read. But nobody ever really knew what happened to Moses. It says that when he died God himself buried him, and that “no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (Dt 34:5-6). What we know from the fact that he appeared with Elijah during Jesus’ transfiguration, is that he didn’t stay dead. God raised him.
So here they both are talking with Jesus in this brilliant moment. Mark doesn’t say what the conversation was about, but Luke says they were discussing Jesus’ “departure [εξοδον], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). What God was showing the three scared disciples in the cloud on that mountain was that the two greatest men in the history of Israel, the two who represent the law and the prophets, thus the witness of the whole of the OT scriptures, attest to the fact that Jesus is truly, not just a human anointed by God to deliver his people, but God’s own Son come to save, not just the chosen people, but the whole world from sin, and to reconcile the world to God and to bring it fully into his eternal kingdom. And to top it all off, to put the ultimate stamp of approval on this revelation, this epiphany, God the Father speaks from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Scripture repeatedly declares that the testimony of two or three witnesses establishes a fact (cf Dt 19:15, Mt 18:16). In this case, it’s the testimony of Moses, Elijah and God himself that establishes who Jesus really is, and their testimony is affirmed by the testimony of Peter, James and John.
This whole scene is so astounding that the three disciples are speechless. Always the first one to speak or act, quite often without thinking first, Peter says, “Teacher, it’s a good thing we’re here. We should make three tents for the three of you.” Like Elisha, he wants to capture the moment. He wants to stay up on the mountain, the place where God meets his people, and to stay in the cloud, enfolded in the deep mystery that God has revealed. But they can’t do that. They have to go back down to continue the journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will “depart” from them. And they have to witness his departure, his suffering and death, and his resurrection and ascension, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will finally give them the understanding of all these things they’ve witnessed, so that they can tell the whole world.
Just as what happened to Moses and the Israelites, and to Elijah and Elisha point to what Jesus was coming into the world to do, so what the Church is called to do is the outworking of all of it. When we gather for worship, we enter into the mysterious cloud and we have a direct encounter with the living God. Regardless of whether or not the altar we gather around is high up or obscured in a cloud of incense, it’s a wonderful moment for the people of God, a supernatural moment, because it’s when God meets, and feeds, his people. But we can’t stay there for long. We’ve got to come back down the mountain and continue on our way toward the greater glory that God’s going to reveal in the fullness of time. And along the way, we’re meant to be witnesses to the things we’ve seen and heard.
But in the immediate future, and as concerns our own spiritual lives, we’ve got to go down into the deep valley to deal with our sin as we head into Lent. That’s why we read about the Transfiguration on this day, to encourage us in our conviction that Jesus is Lord, and that he alone can relieve us of the burden of our sin. The Church calls us to self-examination, and prayer that God will bring to light things hidden in the darkness of our hearts. Then, as Lent gives way to Easter we’ll climb the mountain again to bask in the joy of the resurrection of Jesus, to celebrate the infinite love that took him to the cross for the sins of the whole world, and that brought him up out of the grave, opening the way for all people to be able to return to the Father, and to carry that love to the world that badly needs to feel it and to see it in action.
The Transfiguration makes no sense at all apart from Easter. And the Church has no other business than to proclaim Jesus as the glory of God in human flesh, who conquered sin and death in order to give life to the world. Jesus strictly ordered those three disciples not to talk about what they had seen on the mountain until after he had risen from the dead. And now that he is risen, his Church is not supposed to stop talking about it, and celebrating it, and inviting more and more people to become part of it. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.