February 11 2018 Sermon
2 Kings 2:1-12
2:1 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.
2:2 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.
2:3 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.”
2:4 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.
2:5 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.”
2:6 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.
2:7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.
2:8 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.
2:9 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.”
2:10 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.”
2:11 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.
2:12 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.
9:2 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,
9:3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
9:4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
9:5 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.”
9:6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
9:8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9:9 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.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Let me begin by reiterating a word of greeting and thanksgiving to Reverend Ken Edwards and his wife, Kathryn, for sharing in ministry with us this morning. Ken was my senior pastor for seven years. He taught me how to be a pastor and preacher-so if you think I’m the best or the worst pastor you’ve had, it’s mostly his fault. He has seen me through seasons of difficulty and great joy. One Wednesday night at dinner I slipped him a receipt from the jeweler so that he knew I was working on proposing to Keeli. He presided at the service when Keeli and I were married. He and Kathryn were some of the first folks to come visit Serena after she was born. So of course he should have a continuing role in being one of our family’s pastors. I hear he and Kathryn are pretty great grandparents!
I say all that about Ken so I could really preach about the Transfiguration. When we used to share in worship planning over those 7 years, Ken would look ahead in the lectionary and find opportunities for his associate pastors to preach on the lectionary. That’s a senior pastor perk-pass the weird and difficult text off of you want to. He loved giving others the opportunity to preach the Transfiguration.
That’s where we find ourselves this morning-encountering Peter, James, John, Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and the voice of of Almighty God up on the mountainside. It’s otherworldly. It’s a thin place between the realm of heaven and the dirt on the mountainside. It borders on the brink of being incomprehensible. Moses and Elijah from centuries prior are standing there beside Jesus of Nazareth probably carrying on conversation in front of three fishermen from the lake district. Peter begins babbling because he’s scared to death. Then God speaks out of a cloud and Jesus orders confidentiality on this matter.
Encountering this story by itself is like turning to your favorite work of fiction, reading one chapter in the middle of the book, without recalling how the book began and knowing or anticipating where it’s going. The Transfiguration takes place in Mark’s account six days after Peter and the disciples were gathered in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus begins with a question, ‘who do people say that I am?’ He’s crowdsourcing for a moment. The disciples say folks think he is John the Baptist, maybe Elijah, or Jeremiah. Jesus asks the question a second time, more directly asking for the disciples to answer.
Peter nails it. ‘You are the Messiah. You are the Christ. You are the one in which all of Israel’s hopes for salvation and redemption are held.’ This is a high point in Mark’s gospel. And as soon as Peter hits the nail square on the head, Jesus begins teaching that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.
That wasn’t part of the plan, at least as the crowds and the disciples understood the Messiah’s arrival. Imagine this, Peter takes Jesus aside and Peter tells Jesus that he doesn’t understand the scope of his own ministry. The Messiah shouldn’t suffer-he should be triumphant. Jesus has some choice words for Peter and then he continues teaching.
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.’ Now we’re starting to see the trajectory of the gospel and where the Transfiguration fits.
The disciples are starting to learn that following Jesus will not result in his coronation in Jerusalem. It will result in a cruciform shaped life, full of suffering, trial, and moments of despair when the movement seems to fall apart in failure.
Six days after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Peter, James, John, and Jesus go hiking by themselves. Jesus’ appearance took on a form that was resplendent with divine beauty and glory. His clothes dazzled whiter than white. And beside him stood Moses and Elijah, two prophets of old, who were reported never to have died but to have entered directly into the presence of God. It could be that Jesus is in the presence of the two traditions of ancient Israel, the Law and the Prophets. All of Jesus’ ministry hangs on those two traditions of ancient Judaism. Who knows what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking about but Peter is about to come out of his skin. Terrified, he begins speaking, proposing plans that only sound good to him.
Let’s stay here. This is amazing, glorious, overwhelming. In other words, it’s a mountaintop experience and there’s hardly anything that can compare to it in ordinary life. It’s an epiphany in which God’s presence is palpable in ways it normally isn’t during the everyday rhythm of life. Maybe, just maybe Peter is thinking that the resplendent glory of Jesus right in front of him is far more appealing than the rebuke and lesson he just had about the future suffering of the Messiah. Let’s stay here because it’s not going to get much better than this.
The Transfiguration is a glory laden thin place in the life of faith where we get one of those clear glimpses into the very heart and nature of God. It is my experience that those moments in the life of faith that approach the resplendent beauty of the Transfiguration are few and far between. We don’t always or often or ever get to see Jesus dazzling in white, shooting the breeze with the prophets of old. So when these moments open up, our inclination is to slow down and we hesitate to move on. Peter wants to build shrines for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to commemorate the event until a cloud envelops them causing terror.
Being enveloped by a cloud is a more than adequate way to describe the life of faith and discipleship. It gets at the hiddenness of God. We don’t see the way ahead as clearly as we wish we could. It can be a treacherous way to journey, when you can’t see well.
I recall a night when Keeli and I were driving to my parents’ home in Virginia so I could preach the 75th homecoming anniversary at my home church. As we climbed higher and higher into the mountains heading toward the highest spot in the state, visibility exponentially decreased. I couldn’t see more than 20’ in front of me of a winding mountain highway, knowing that to my right was sheer mountain side drop offs. If we had to do that for more than a few miles, we would’ve stopped, stayed the night, and waited for clear skies. Those conditions will make you plant your feet and stay put.
For many, cloud cover on a treacherous road is a deeply felt way of faith. ‘Along the way, there are times when we would give anything for a shorter route, to be able to take the bus around the weariness of grief, or the radiation treatments, or the couples counseling, or the 12 step meetings, or the unemployment line. We just wish there were a way to skip ahead, to show up at the ending an easier way.’ (Feasting on the Word)
Then God speaks like God did at Jesus’ baptism. For a moment, the veil between heaven and earth wasn’t as thick as it normally is. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.’
Before they know it, Jesus is standing by himself and then they’re hiking back down the mountain. Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of Jesus in his glory, which they wouldn’t see again until his death and resurrection. As we stand on the edge of the season of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday, the trajectory of the Transfiguration makes more sense.
Once Peter confesses Jesus as Christ and Messiah, the disciples begin to understand that suffering is on the horizon. The Transfiguration marks a glorious turning toward a triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then a week that seemingly ends in death and despair, only to be surprised by an empty Easter grave. From the Transfiguration until the crucifixion, Jesus is helping his disciples understand that his kingdom is different from every other kind of kingdom they imagine. His reign will be marked by suffering, humility, self-sacrifice, hope, welcome of the stranger, compassion, and the dissolution of isolating boundaries. And life in this kingdom, life in the reign of God, should be markedly different.
If you follow Jesus down off the mountain top when you’ve experienced the living grace of God in glory (maybe on retreat, maybe in the sacraments of baptism or communion, perhaps in a particularly moving service of worship, or some other way), you’ll follow Jesus into some places you wouldn’t have gone to on your own. Following Jesus will take you into relationship with folks you wouldn’t choose to be in relationship with on your own. Following Jesus will have you advocating, standing up, and fighting for folks who’ve been kicked by Rome, trampled by Caesar, or who’ve never had the fortune to walk through life with the sun shining in open sky.
If you follow Jesus far enough down from the mountaintop you’ll end up at a torturous crucifixion. Go a little bit further and there’s an empty garden tomb. Go a little bit further and there are corners of God’s good creation that are begging for someone to be a beacon of hope.
How far down from the mountaintop are you willing to follow a suffering, crucified, and risen Christ?
Bless you in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.