Mark 9.2-9, 2 Corinthians 4.3-6, 2 Kings 2.1-12
In our Old Testament reading today Elijah seems like he is on a farewell tour, even his own funeral procession, and the company of prophets come out to see him at Bethel, Jericho and the Jordan. They know that Elisha is soon to lose his master, the father of all prophets and insist on telling him. In doing so they are also reinforcing their credentials as prophets.
But Elisha is already aware and seems a bit fed up that they might even think that that he wouldn’t know this. Elisha had ploughed fields before being called as Elijah’s servant so maybe they are reminding him of his previous lowly status and asserting their supposed superiority.
It must have been a stressful and worrying time for Elisha yet Elijah doesn’t seem to be offering much comfort or reassurance as he suggests that he doesn’t journey with him on these final travels, a strange way to treat someone who gave up their work and family to follow you.
Finally Elisha gets his moment alone with Elijah after they cross the Jordan and when asked what he wants as a final gift before he dies Elisha tells him that he also wants to be a prophet, only with ‘a double portion of your spirit’.
Elijah’s importance is reinforced through the dramatic symbolism of a chariot and horses of fire, seen only by Elisha, an incredible affirmation of God’s power, leaving him confirmed as Elijah’s successor. If we were to read on in the second book of Kings we would see that despite these amazing events Elisha doesn’t get stuck in the moment but recognises his calling and is quickly engaged with his work among the people bringing healing and meeting their needs.
Of course the past is important, often full of precious memories we treasure, and events we have learned from but there is also a danger that we can get stuck there if we look back and feel that one great event defines us or that we reached a peak we could never hope to repeat.
We often hear people recounting their sporting prowess, business success or military service in a way that seems to devalue the today.
I recall an American friend of mine who stayed with me for a while. A beer salesman from Seattle, he had an outgoing personality which would become evident as he rose before everyone else each morning with his daily proclamation of ‘Hey guys let’s get going, today is going to be a great day’! We don’t need to be quite so loud about it but the positive sentiment at the beginning of a new day is certainly to be commended.
The opposite can also be true of some people. Fans of ‘Fools and Horses’ will remember Uncle Albert, who only seemed to perk up when events meant he got an opportunity to start telling a story with ‘during the war’. One time when Del Boy and Rodney were moaning about the cold he told them ‘You should have been with me on the Russian convoys, one night it was so cold the flame on my lighter froze’.
Talking of the cold I think of hikes up in the Brecon Beacons, an area not particularly in demand from those seeking long hot days, particularly Pen Y Fan, Welsh for ‘top of this place’. I’ve set off facing rain like stair rods and stumbled through disorientating mist only to reach a high point where suddenly the clouds have parted, the sun has broken through and the majesty of God’s creation is revealed. Sometimes it even lasted 10 minutes before it poured with rain again.
In our Gospel Reading we heard of Peter, James and John as they are taken up a mountain by Jesus, whose ‘clothes became dazzling white’ and they are the only witnesses to Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. God instructs them to listen to his son. Surely this is a high point for the disciples in every sense of the word leaving them in no doubt as to who Jesus is, only for Peter to put his foot in it by trying to cling onto the moment, make a suggestion that will make the whole experience more earthly, as if God needed his help. As if shelters were required.
Perhaps Peter came out with this just because the experience was so wonderful, terrifying, uplifting and shocking all at once that he couldn’t think straight. I guess we can all look back on times where we wish we hadn’t opened our mouths. Even in the Welsh Mountains it can be hard to find the words for the beauty around you and there’s definitely a time and place just to be still, silent and let your soul be nurtured.
Perhaps there’s a lesson for us, whilst there is a time to speak out when we have good cause to do so there’s also a time not to. Occasionally it’s better to remain silent and risk being thought foolish than to open our mouths and remove all doubt.
Of course, it’s also Peter, James and John who Jesus invites to watch with him in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and that doesn’t run too smoothly either with the disciples falling asleep. It’s as if we are invited to think ‘crikey surely these guys should have done better’ and yet at the same time encouraged. Encouraged because if we reflect on our own failures, we realise that Jesus doesn’t give up on them or us despite everything.
So we have Moses representing the Law of the Old Testament and Elijah the prophets, deferring to Jesus. They are indicating that they had pointed to him in all that went before and that he is their fulfillment.
Jesus brings us quickly back to earth as he tells the disciples to keep this to themselves until he had risen from the dead, knowing that there is much work to do. The disciples are far from clear what the future holds but at least 3 of them have no doubt who Jesus is.
Mark’s account is an important one for us as we move from Epiphany towards Lent. It’s a pivotal point as we revel in the fact that Jesus power and authority are revealed and yet know what he must face up to in order to complete his work.
We start to see that for both Elisha and the 3 disciples, whilst Gods powerful messages made matters clear for them it wasn’t the spectacular events which they were to dwell upon, these were a reference point for their work which lay ahead.
It’s a message for us too not to get stuck on mountain tops, whilst the literal interpretation can also be a bad idea hanging onto those times when everything peaks is to be enjoyed in the moment, then treasured in the past, but we are to return to the valley, back into the mess of everyday life as Jesus did to make God’s message real.
As we contemplate what we hope to achieve this Lent once we set our minds on a course of action let’s see it through even if it proves to be a struggle to do so.
It’s so easy to be motivated and have good intentions when we feel inspired by people or events in a great moment and yet the reality is that the outcomes are the personal responsibility of each of us. Let’s just say that there’s a lot more space in gym again now that January is over!
Perhaps the parents among us might consider the joyful imagery of having children versus the reality of getting up in the night to change nappies and feed them. In the long run we wouldn’t change anything but it’s certainly not a constant mountain top experience.
Maybe the thought of freeing yourself from the shackles of employment to be your own boss versus knuckling down to tax, compliance and responsibility, but it’s still worth it.
Paul is aware that our gospel is veiled to many which can make Christianity a challenge at times. Yet he offered encouragement to the church in Corinth as it faced adversity and his personal authority was being undermined. He pointed out that it can be the distractions that we allow to become our gods which have the potential to blind our minds from seeing the light of Christ.
I doubt whether we can ever have the same clarity that was bestowed upon Elisha and yet we choose to keep following Christ without miraculous revelations because we find the love of God made real in each other, in the Bible and in the Spirit. It’s a message of great encouragement and hope for us as people travelling onward together with purpose.
Our past, both good and bad does not define us or constrain us as we move forward, confident that God wants us, loves us and has a future for us.
Lent is a great opportunity to reflect on those things which may get between us and the light of Christ and to decide whether we are going to do anything about them. In doing so we have the potential to be transfigured ourselves.
11th February 2018