Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Transfiguration Sunday, 15 February 2015 (Year B)
- 2 Kings 2:1-12
- Psalm 50:1-6
- 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
- Mark 9:2-9
It’s transfiguration Sunday in the churches using the Revised Common Lectionary, the day we see Jesus in all his divine glory, standing on the mountain with Elijah and Moses.
And we are terrified. And we should be. Because that’s what the presence of God really does.
I’d like to present the whole gospel passage from Mark dealing with the transfiguration, including the very strange conversation Jesus has with his disciples as they come down the mountain.
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
This is the second time in Mark where Jesus disc “adopted” as the “beloved Son.” (ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, a similar construction is used in Mark’s version of the parable of the wicked tenants in 12:1-12) At the beginning, in Mark 1:9-11, when Jesus wanders over to the Jordan River to receive baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. God proclaims and pronounces, for all to hear, that Jesus is the “Beloved Son” with whom God is well pleased and to whom we should listen.
And if we aren’t clear, when the words are spoken, Elijah and Moses disappear, leaving Jesus alone with Peter, James, and John in the midst of the mountain fog.
Again, Jesus tells his disciples not to say anything to anyone about any of this until he has risen from the dead. At this point, the lectionary reading ends. But three disciples try to figure out amongst themselves what on earth this means. Rise from the dead? Really?
You’d think that would be the question to ask, but no, the disciples ask a question about Elijah, a question that seems to make no sense. “Why must Elijah come first?” And the answer Jesus gives about Elijah coming and setting things right, and the Son of Man suffering, makes even less sense. You mean Elijah came? Yes, Jesus says, and “they did to him whatever they pleased.”
This takes us to the Hebrew Bible reading for the week. It’s a short passage from 2 Kings about Elijah being taken up in fire and wind to Heaven, but I’m going to deal with the entire first and second chapters of 2 Kings, and a little bit about Elijah himself, because I think they might help us understand why Elijah’s on that mountain in the first place.
Elijah shows up out of nowhere at the beginning of chapter 17 of 1 Kings. He’s a pain in the ass to Ahab, the reigning King of Samaria (Israel, the northern kingdom), and because of Ahab’s idolatry, Elijah imposes a drought on Israel. Eventually, he defeats the priests of Baal in the service of Jezebel, the pagan wife of Ahab, flees into the wilderness, calls his disciple Elisha, and hides for a while.
Really, Elijah is a professional pain in the ass, and he is constantly condemning the kings of Samaria for their failure to trust and worship the God of Israel. At the beginning of 2 Kings, King Ahaziah was injured falling out of his toilet (at least I think that’s what it means) and he send messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether Ahaziah would get any better. God send Elijah to meet those messengers, and he tells them:
It is because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Now therefore thus says the LORD, you [Ahaziah] shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.
I suspect nothing pisses a king off quite like being told he’s wrong, and because of that, he’s going to die. So, Ahaziah (not remembering the power Elijah possesses) sends out 50 men to bring Elijah to him. Elijah indirectly calls down fire from heaven to consume those men (“If I am a man of God, left fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.”), and that’s that. Ahaziah sends another fifty, and they befall the same fate.
Ahaziah dispatches a third fifty, and their leader — fearing for his life — begs Elijah for mercy. So, Elijah goes to Ahaziah, speaks the words of condemnation, and Ahaziah dies.
In the midst of all of this, Elijah, is described as wearing “a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8) Add locusts and honey to that, and you have an almost word-for-word description of John the Baptist in Mark 1:6.
Elijah has come, Jesus says. And he has restored all things.
Which gets us to the Old Testament reading:
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 And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please 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. 3 And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”
4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please 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. 5 The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Please 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. 7 Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” 10 And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” 11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
A couple of things. First, this route from Jericho across the Jordan that Elijah and Elisha take out of Israel is very likely the same route that Israel took coming in. There’s a lot of Joshua 3-4 in this, where Israel entered the land of promise dry shod as God held back the waters of the Jordan River. The first place God gave over to Israel was Jericho. This also echoes God’s command to Moses to strike the sea in Exodus 14 to use his staff and part the waters.
The power of God is clearly with Elijah. He has called fire down from heaven. And yet, this power to part the waters, Elijah only uses it for himself and his disciple — a disciple he tries several times to get rid of during the course of this journey.
I find Elisha’s devotion to Elijah touching. “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Those, along with the words of Ruth to Naomi, could be marriage vows. (Peter echoes these words when he proclaims his devotion to Jesus to the end, a devotion he cannot faithfully adhere to.) Elijah wants to send him away, but doesn’t object when he stays. Elisha wants to be with his master until the very last moment.
And he is. He is there when Elijah is pulled up into Heaven in the midst of an army of fiery horses and chariots. These are the “chariots of Israel and its horsemen,” the host that the Lord has assembled to fight Israel’s battles for it. (This would be the same thing Joash king of Israel would cry out as Elisha lay dying.) This is what he sees, and what he confesses, as Elijah is swept up.
No doubt Elisha was likely terrified as he receives the promised double portion of Elijah’s spirit. It doesn’t say he is, but how can he not be utterly terrified? As he stood in the midst of this fiery army, the army that finally separated the two, feeling the flame licking at his cheeks and the hot breath of panting horses. As he watched Elijah ascend into heaven in a whirlwind.
Unlike Elijah, Elisha dies. He is buried by King Joash. During his career, Elisha performs miracles like Elijah, spends more time healing Assyrians, and is less troublesome to the kings of Israel than Elijah ever was. (Which may explain why he dies in a palace.) But he dies. He is not taken up bodily and very much alive into heaven. He is like Peter, James, and John standing there watching Jesus changed into something unimaginable.
And he doesn’t really receive his own strength until Elijah ascends, giving him a double portion of his spirit in doing so. Several verses after the end of our approved reading, Elisha is able to use Elijah’s rolled-up cloak to part the waters of the Jordan, but only after asking, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” He has power of his own now, but it will take him some time to come into it.
(At which point, obnoxious children should watch out, because the man knows what to do with hungry she-bears.)
We are Elisha. We are Peter, James, and John. We have followed a call we didn’t really understand and it took us places we never expected to go. We have seen — and been part of — great and horrific things. We have been silent, incoherent and terrified by it all. We have also been given a double portion of the spirit, blinded by the light and the cloud, seen the chariots and the horsemen of Israel pass in fire through us, beheld the “Beloved Son” in his glory — upon the cross — and we have seen him rise and ascend to heaven.
And we can tell the world about it. About all of it.