THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD
2 KINGS 2:1-12
Let’s do a little time travel! Let’s go back in time nearly 3,000 years. We’ll set our destination as the northern kingdom of Israel, and the time to about 850 B.C. This was a long time ago, and in a culture totally different than ours. In order to land on our feet, we’d better know the lay of the land. They didn’t have a Bill of Rights or a constitution, they had a king. There was no separation of church and state; they were completely connected. Worst of all, no messiah/savior Jesus. Elisha was the main Hebrew prophet of the day, and Elisha his apprentice. Elisha has followed Elijah for many years, and was a devoted companion.
The people of Israel had drawn away from the Hebrew God Yahweh, and found the Canaanite god Baal more appealing. There is repeated confrontation between Elisha and the prophets of Baal. The problem worsened when the Hebrew King Ahab married a Canaanite woman named Jezebel. With her came a host of prophets of her god Baal. Maybe Ahab was more interested in expanding his trade options than in serving the God Yahweh. The grass must have looked greener in Canaan. There was constant conflict between the prophets of Yahweh and the prophets of Baal. These stories of conflict are found starting in 1 Kings 16:29. They set the stage for today’s reading.
Today’s reading is about the transfer of authority from Elijah to Elisha, and the end of Elijah’s stay on earth. Understanding Elijah and this story is key to our study of the gospel lesson for today, the transfiguration of Jesus. Elijah and Elisha are on a journey to cross the Jordan River. They both know that Elijah is about to “check out”. I can’t say “die”, because the story is not that simple.
- So, they set out, and find their way to Bethel. Along the way, Elijah urges Elisha to stay behind. But Elisha is too devoted to him, and swears that he will never leave him. (vv. 1-2)
- At Bethel, they are met by some Hebrew prophets came out from the city to greet them. They confide in Elisha that the Lord is going to take Elijah from him. He says “Yeah, yeah, I know. Now keep it to yourselves.” (v. 3)
- The exact same thing happens at Jericho—“Stay here”. “No, I will never leave you.” And the prophets telling Elisha what is about to happen. (vv. 4-5)
- By verse six, they are collecting an entourage. Again, Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind. You should know by now that that ain’t happnin’! (v. 6)
- Now it gets interesting. At the bank of the Jordan River, Elijah takes off the outer coat he’s wearing—his mantle. It is the garment worn by the main prophet. He rolls it up, and strikes the water with it! The waters part, and the two cross the river without getting even wet feet. (vv. 7-8)
- After crossing, Elijah asks his companion if he has any requests. Elisha really sticks his neck out, and asks for a big one. He doesn’t ask for the power and authority that Elijah has, he asks him for twice the amount! Elijah’s answer is interesting. He doesn’t laugh. This is serious. He says that if Elisha can endure the intensity of his being taken up to heaven, that this wish will be granted. If he can’t handle that power and glory, then he’s out of luck. (vv. 9-10)
- The scene is nearly indescribable. But Elisha holds on, and keeps watching. He cries out. It is over. He tears his clothing in two, which is an act of grief and mourning. (vv. 11-12)
There are several points to take from this story.
- Elijah was one of the most famous of all the Old Testament prophets. He worked many miracles, as would Elisha. The parting of the Jordan River is a hint to the reader that this prophet was on a par with Moses. This is a key to understanding the meaning of the gospel reading for today.
- Elijah was one of only two people in the Old Testament to never die, but go directly to heaven. Enoch was the other person (Genesis 5:24). The tradition was that Elijah would return to earth to herald in the second Davidic kingdom. Gospel writers Matthew and Mark are quick to identify John the Baptist as their Elijah.
- The people of Elijah’s time were torn between worshipping two deities—two ways of living and being governed, since religion and politics were intertwined. Some chose one, some chose the other. I imagine that there were many in the middle, trying to cover all the bases.
2 CORINTHIANS 4:1-6
Have you ever done a difficult task to the best of your ability, only to have someone come after you, insult your work, and redo everything? This is what happened to Paul in Corinth. He built that church (the people, not a building) as best he could. When he left to spread the Gospel, other preachers swooped in. They criticized Paul’s style. They put him down. They preached a different “gospel” than Paul The details of their actions are given both in the previous chapter and in chapter 11.
The passage chosen for this Sunday begins with verse 3, but verses 1 & 2 are worth adding to the selection. We’ll start there.
- We can’t become discouraged in our efforts to spread the gospel message. God has given us this task, and we have to persevere. It’s hard, but we have to keep plugging away. (v. 1)
- We must lay it all out before our audience, including the things that are embarrassing. Nothing should be hidden, or wrapped in clever speech. The whole truth should be presented, so we may have a clear conscience. (v. 2)
- Some may think that our gospel message is shrouded in mystery; that we’re holding some facts from them. But this is only because they are blinded by outside influences. (vv. 3-4)
- It’s not about us, it’s all about Jesus, and letting His light shine through us.
In the verses preceding this passage, 3:7-18, Paul also uses the word “veil”, to call to mind how Moses veiled his face from the people. His face was radiant, after he had seen the glory of God on Mt. Sinai. The people couldn’t take it! Moses had to cover up. Some of Paul’s detractors were complaining about his preaching style and message. Paul says that his detractors’ “veil” is different. They were being secretive; Paul told them everything. They (“the world”) it hid the true meaning of the gospel from their gullible followers (“those perishing”); they were leading people away from the true Gospel message. Paul tells everyone to keep it simple, and proclaim Jesus. Let your gospel light shine!
AN EXCERPT FROM MY PARAPHRASE OF THE BIBLE
Peter: “Well, we thought that Jesus was taking James, John and me on a hike. Then, it looked like we were going to do a little mountain climbing. Little did we know what was in store for us. Once we got to the top, Jesus’ whole appearance changed. It was hard to describe. He was dazzling white, I guess you could say. I wished I had brought my sunglasses. Then, it got really weird. Suddenly Moses and Elijah showed up, and started talking with Jesus. I wonder what they were saying. Then, I started babbling, and said something about building little shelters for all three of them. Man, was that a stupid thing to say! But I was scared out of my wits. You’d probably do the same, if you were in my shoes. Anyway, suddenly it got cloudy. That’s when a voice came from the cloud proclaiming Jesus to be his beloved Son, and that we should listen to him. And then, just like that, BAM! It was all over. We walked down the mountain with Jesus. The killer was that Jesus gave us clear orders to keep this to ourselves. We couldn’t tell anyone until he had risen from the dead, whatever that meant. Do you realize how hard this was going to be?”
The transfiguration of Jesus has always been a curious story to me. Why did it happen? What am I supposed to do with this story? Over the years, I have come away from the story with a couple of points that I’d like to share with you.
- On the mountain, Jesus’ appearance makes a radical change. We get a temporary glimpse of his heavenly glory. This “glory”, as we call it, is a hard thing to take. Moses had to put a veil over his face after his encounters with God on Mt. Sinai, because the people couldn’t stand to look on this radiance. Elisha’s ordeal during Elijah’s ascension also required strength and endurance, to overcome the intensity of the moment. Peter’s delirium is evident in his encounter with heavenly glory. For one brief moment, we get to see Jesus in his true heavenly state, and we can’t take it.
- Why Moses and Elijah? I think of this occurrence as a sort of divine summit meeting. Moses was there, because he was the first and biggest of the Old Testament prophets. He was the shepherd, who led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. He was the giver of the law. Elijah was there, not only because of the miracles that he performed, but because of his ascension into heaven. Since it was expected that Elijah would return at the right time, he is a key player in this summit meeting. The fact that these figures meet with Jesus and have a discussion cements Jesus’ place in the grand scheme of things. This is not merely the son of a Jewish carpenter, but the messiah. The Son of God!
- The voice of God makes two appearances in the New Testament. One is at Jesus’ baptism, and the other at his transfiguration. Both times, He calls Jesus his Son. This time, we are instructed to listen to him. This is our takeaway. Listen to Jesus.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Imagine that you have found a great preacher. You have been attending his church for a few months. He invites you to join him on a prayer retreat. Something surreal happens on that retreat. His face and clothes become incredibly radiant. Suddenly, Jesus, Martin Luther, and Billy Graham are standing next to him. They are having a conversation. It doesn't stop there. A voice booms out "I like this preacher. Listen to him." What would that tell you about that preacher? How would that affect your opinion of the preacher? What thoughts and feelings might have been in the minds of Peter, James, and John, as they hiked down that mountain?