Sunday, February 19, 2012

Transfiguring the Bible

The readings for this morning were 2 Kings 2:1-14 & Mark 9:2-10 2 and I preached on both combined as follows:

Recently the Bishop invited a theologian from London to come and speak to the clergy about the imaginative use of the Bible and among some fascinating ideas to enrich our understanding of scripture he suggested that we look at the Bible not as merely a collection of books stacked on an imaginary shelf and ordered as they are or in some quasi dewey decimal system by type but as a city to be explored. This idea brings a three dimensional concept to how the Bible is understood as a whole. The Bible is not one long A road from Genesis to Malachi and a new motorway extension from Matthew to Revelation. It can be seen as a city with districts: The Legal district, The left bank where poems, songs and wisdom abide, the historic quarter with museums filled with stories of the past, the residential areas where letters are exchanged, the edges of the city where prophets challenge the establishment and speak up for those whose voices which are not heard.

For me it was such a captivating idea that I am using it as my Lenten discipline this year. I am spending lent building a model city of the Bible (with a little help from my husband and his woodworking tools!) so that I can set it all out before me and explore. How would that image change the way we might explore this bestselling book? What might be round the corner of a passage? What might be linked by the same underground line? What might we see in the background of a book and what might be in the same vista or over the horizon? Sometimes when we hear two passages from different parts of the Scriptures we can struggle to see why these two have been put side by side. But with this city idea, we can imagine how it is natural for passages to be related, perhaps even constructed to be viewed alongside each other.

Today we have two stories that seem very clearly located in the same landscape. The Story of Elijah and his disciple Elisha is mirrored by the story of Jesus and his three closest disciples. Yet more than just a simple comparison, these stories help illuminate each other when considered together in partnership. For read together a third key biblical figure also becomes visible – that of Moses as it reminds us of that passage from Exodus 24 when Moses and Aaron go up the mountain covered with cloud and meet with God. These echoes are not just about mountains not just because these two prophets appear on the mountain with Jesus but also in the figure of Elijah himself in the passage from Kings

Where does this story come in the life of Elijah? “Elijah heroically opposed the subversion of Israel's authentic faith and called the nation to a decision, but the earthly life of this majestic prophet, the Moses of his generation, was coming to an end. Was the mission of Elijah also to end? How could Israel carry on without his great spirit?” Likewise Jesus has been calling the Israelites back to the spirit of God’s commandments to them and calling others to follow him in that mission. Just before this passage he has warned the disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees” For Elisha and the disciples, it has been abundantly clear that the man they are following is out of the ordinary. The disciples have just seen a large crowd fed by a small amount of food and Elisha has seen Elijah, form a rod with his mantle and, with Moses-like authority and power, strike the water of the Jordan; he’d seen the water part; and walked across with Elijah on dry ground. Yet the stories we have here demonstrate even more clearly the special importance of Elijah and Jesus.

For each story the main character’s death is recounted as being soon. For Elijah this is frequently mentioned whereas for Jesus his own prediction of his death is just around the corner in following verses. Yet for both stories, the issue is that of succession. When Elijah and Jesus are gone, those with them in these stories are the successors of their spirit and their mission. In both cases the culmination of the story is painted in mystical terms. Elijah is surrounded by a whirlwind; Jesus is transformed into dazzling white. These are both ways of saying that something out of this world is going on. A genuine whirlwind would have made it near impossible for Elisha to see anything and similarly this washing powder advert dazzling whiteness motif is something more than a very clean robe! These stories both describe a day when heaven and earth, time and eternity, meet. When we get a glimpse of heaven. As Elijah is carried up to heaven, we hear Elisha calling after Elijah “Father, Father”. In Mark’s account, the voice we hear is, in some ways a response from God the Father, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Other echoes are also to be heard. Elisha commits himself to following Elijah three times, and reading this alongside the transfiguration story makes me see the parallel with Peter and his promise to follow Jesus even to death. Of course here, a difference is apparent. Elisha loyally follows Elijah and receives his just reward – a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (a double portion being that which was traditionally inherited by the first born son not double what Elijah had but double what any other “son” would have). Peter’s promises are not so solid and that might be a disappointment but it is also a reassurance for us.

In the first story, Elisha seems the ideal and perfect disciple: The loyal servant and successor; A great example to follow. In the transfiguration story, the disciples are not so exemplary. Unlike Elisha who seems to know just how to act, Jesus’ disciples demonstrate a more human and familiar response. They are confused and don’t know what to do or say. Peter knows that something amazing is happening and tries to make the moment last forever – he wants to build a dwelling place for each of the great prophets. He wants them to stay there as they are. Yet this is not what this moment of transfiguration is about. Like Elisha before them, this transfiguration for Peter, James and John is the signalling moment that Jesus is indeed the Messiah – prefigured by Elijah and Moses and that they are to succeed Jesus with their ministry after him. The good news for us is that even they didn’t get it right all the time. Because of course this transfiguration story isn’t just to be read alongside the story of Elijah and Elisha but alongside our own stories too.

For all of us there need to be those times when we turn aside with Christ, when we are dazzled by his glory and made to feel special and that we are part of a great line of believers stretching back to Elijah and Moses. Yet these moments are not the place where we can build our homes. We can’t stay there and keep that experience in that place. We need to take that feeling and experience with us into our lives. We need to share that light. We also need to remember that we sometimes get it wrong but that we can return to that mountain each week in places like this church!

There may be places where you are trying too hard to restrict God in your life – to build a place for your faith to live in a controlled safe reassuring place. Where instead can you let Jesus take you to the mountain and dazzle you? And what is that bedazzling preparing you for? It might be somewhere you’re expecting but like the winding roads of the city which is the Bible, it might be something unexpected, just around the corner.

The readings for the morning were:

2 Kings 2:1-14
2Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah 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. 3The 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.” 4Elijah 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. 5The 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.” 6Then 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. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then 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. 9When 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.” 10He 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.” 11As 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. 12Elisha 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. 13He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

Mark 9:2-10 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As 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. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.