2 Kings 2 vv 1- 12 Elijah taken up to heaven
Mark 9 vv 2 – 9 Jesus’ transfiguration
Theme: The Significance of the transfiguration of Jesus
- Introduction. In the Summer of 2005 I went to Tanzania as short term volunteer with Mission Aviation Fellowship, based at Dodoma, then the centre for their operations in that country. Quite early on 6th August with 3 others from our team, I flew to the village of Chidudu (I have an airline ticket to prove it). This was the second of their monthly medical flights to the village after the people of Chidudu had prepared the airstrip earlier in the year. After dropping the 3 of us, the pilot then went to collect the medical team of doctor, nurse and medical assistant from Kilimatende. I could speak no more than a greeting in Swahili. The people of Chidudu could speak no English, albeit they could speak their own tribal language and Swahili so they were better at languages than me. The reason I remember the date is because I sat there both observing what was going on and saying Morning Prayer for the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The 6th August has been the date for many centuries on which this important event has been recalled. Unfortunately in modern society with people commuting to work all over the place, weekday celebrations don’t get much notice. In the 1980s and 90s with the Alternative Service Book, the Transfiguration was placed on the fourth Sunday of Lent. That was not very successful as it generally was neglected in favour of a Mothering Sunday theme.
In Common Worship the Gospel reading on the Sunday-next-before-Lent is always one of the 3 accounts of the Transfiguration, from Matthew in year A, Mark as today in year B and Luke in year C of the Common Worship lectionary. This is quite a good place to ensure that such an important event in Jesus’ life is not neglected. It is appropriate as the event is a preparation for all that happened to Jesus in his last week in Jerusalem. Also, although we loose some of the Sundays before Lent, depending on the date of Easter, we never lose the Sunday-next-before-Lent. Associated with this year’s reading is the account from the books of Kings, of Elijah being taken up to heaven. We have two important events in which heaven and earth touch each other, where God is particularly seen and heard by those on earth. Let’s look at these two events and see something of their significance then and now.
- Elijah. Firstly consider Elijah, a leading figure in both events. The essential feature of his being taken up to heaven is his handing over of the role of chief prophet in Israel to Elisha. He takes Elisha round the theological colleges or schools of prophets as they were then, perhaps more like a monastic order than a passing student population of a theological college. Elisha has already been acting as Elijah’s personal servant, learning much of his master’s way of acting. Elijah test’s Elisha’s commitment to taking over the much more demanding responsibility. At each of their visits, to the schools at Bethel, Jericho and Jordan, Elijah instructs Elisha to stay at that School whilst he, Elijah, goes on to the next venue, but Elisha is insistent that he will stay with his master right to the end. Elijah recognises that Elisha is fully determined to take over the role of chief prophet, so invites Elisha to make a final request. Elisha’s request may seem a little strange when he says “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit” (v 9). One needs to recall that the Israelite law of inheritance was that the eldest son had twice as much as the other sons (Deut 21 v 17). For example if a father had three sons then the estate would be divided into four with the first-born son receiving two shares, and the other two sons, one share each. Elisha, as well as expressing his dependence on God, needing the Holy Spirit to enable him to carry out a demanding role, is asking that Elijah recognises him as his successor. After that final interchange, Elijah’s handover was complete and he was taken up to heaven without passing through death, to appear again at the mount of transfiguration.
- Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus’ transfiguration also has elements of preparation and handover. Jesus has recently at Caesarea Philippi, North of the Sea of Galilee and not to be confused with Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, been speaking of his forthcoming suffering and death. This was when Peter took Jesus to task and Jesus said to Peter “Get behind me Satan”. We don’t know which the mountain was where the Transfiguration took place, possibly a bit further north, on Mount Hermon, on the borders of Syria and Palestine. I draw to your attention three aspects of this
- Link with the Old Testament. First is Jesus’ link with the Old Testament. As a good Jew he was firmly imbued with and embedded in the Hebrew Bible which we know as the Old Testament. He said early on in his ministry in what we know as his Sermon on the Mount, “I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfil them” (Matt 5 v 17). Here he meets with the supreme representatives of the law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah. Moses was the one who under God’s guidance and with his provision had led the people out of Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land; God’s great saving act of the Old Covenant. Jesus is the focus and fulfilment of so much of the Old Testament prophecy. Jesus in his public ministry had fulfilled the role of a prophet, teaching, healing, raising from the dead, challenging those in authority. Elijah stands there as the representative of the whole of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, to affirm that Jesus has indeed inherited a double portion of the Spirit, he is God’s first born son from before all time as we were reminded by Paul in his sermon last Sunday.
- Personal preparation. Secondly it was a special preparation for Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. What did Jesus, Moses and Elijah talk about? Luke tells us that that spoke about his departure. The Greek word is Exodov, meaning ‘way out’, Ex = out and odov = way. In a car one has an odometer to measure the way. Jesus as a young boy had already identified himself with the Exodus in the journey with Mary and Joseph from Egypt to Nazareth. Here he affirms that continuity as he prepares for God’s great saving act of the New Covenant, to be enacted shortly in Jerusalem. But not only that, as Mark tells us, God the Father is very evidently present and says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matt 17 v 5). God the Father had endorsed in a similar way at Jesus ministry at his baptism, Jesus’ forthcoming ministry and now endorses his supreme sacrifice in Jerusalem.
- Disciples’ preparation. Thirdly the transfiguration is an event to counter the negative response of the disciples a few days before at Caesarea Philippi. God the Father instructs them to listen to his Son. It is part of their preparation to accept the forthcoming events in Jerusalem and be ready for Jesus’ departure, his exodov, when they will be thrust into leadership and as the inner core of the 12 like Elisha would inherit a double portion of the Spirit to enable them in their ministry, in their leadership of the emergent Church
- Application. Many great spiritual events, meetings of God with his servants have occurred on mountains. Moses received the law on Mount Sinai, he saw the Promised Land just before he died, on Mount Gilboa, Elijah’s great contests with the prophets of Baal was on Mount Carmel. Many great cities, London, Paris, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, are in the plains, beside the rivers and the sea, to ensure good water supplies and sea trade routes. Not so the holy city of Jerusalem, built in the hills of Palestine with its temple, the great meeting place of God and his people, set on a hill. The spiritual is pre-eminent. We speak of ‘mountain top experiences’ albeit spiritual experiences of Christians occur in a variety of places. My own chief one was more in the desert than on the mountain top, on Easter Day 1970 in Bahrein, through the words of an RAF Chaplain’s wife, who said “Christopher have you ever thought of being ordained?” I was really challenged and felt that she was right. It wasn’t until 14 years later, when I invited her husband to preach at Leigh, that she realised the impact, through the Holy Spirit, of those words. Spiritual experiences are not something to be sort for our own spiritual enjoyment. Rather we need to be open to God’s guidance and challenge, which may be costly. In my own case it led to my leaving the Royal Air Force after 20 years of a career in the Engineer Branch. However the Lord graciously gave me instead the opportunity to have an indirect link with the RAF through 30 years of chaplaincy with the Air Cadet Organisation and separately a continuing involvement in a rather specialised, fascinating and I hope somewhat useful field of engineering.
People find these points were heaven and earth met, where God speaks to one in a special way, in a variety of places. It may be up on a mountain or out in the desert. I will finish with just one example, in a poem written by Dorothy Gurney, a devout Christian lady, the guardian, with her husband, of my mother and two aunts, when my grandparents were abroad.
The poem is entitled, ‘God’s garden’:
The Lord God planted a garden
In the first white days of the world.
And he set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.
So near to the peace of heaven
The hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.
And I dream that these garden closes
With their glades and their sun-flecked sod
And their lilies and bowers of roses
Were laid by the hand of God.
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.