All Souls Church, Washington, D.C.
Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC
RCL - Last Sunday after Epiphany B - Sunday 22 Feb 2009
2 Kings 2: 1-12
2 Corinthians 4: 3-6
Mark 9: 2-9
Today’s lessons are about the power and the presence of God. They relate incidents of the divine breaking through the veil of ordinary life to reveal aspects of God’s presence which almost defy description in human terms, and are all the more powerful for taking us to the edge of the possibilities of language itself. They give us a glimpse of the utter otherness of God which should leave us, like Peter, breathlessly inarticulate at the sight of divine majesty. More importantly, they tell us something unexpectedly wonderful about the nature of God and God’s intentions for his world and for his people. And each of these encounters with God is unspeakably mysterious.
Elijah is the prophet who never died. He fearlessly opposed the political evils of Ahab and Jezebel, their personal wickednesses and their apostasies from the God of Israel. God was with Elijah over and over as his prophetic ministry took him to the brink in daring acts of confrontation, mysterious acts of power over nature, and compassionate deeds of mercy. Time and again he called upon God and God’s power revealed itself in him. His first recorded act was to bring a three year drought to Israel in protest of the wickedness of the King, and then to provide food for the family of the widow of Zarephath who had been kind to him, and who were starving as a result of Elijah’s power over nature. He raises her son from the dead. He theatrically confronts the priests of Baal, and after God has sent lightning to consume Elijah’s water drenched offering, the prophet himself slays the prophets of Baal, 450 of them, by the brook Kishon at Mount Carmel. He curses the Queen, Jezebel. No wonder he has to flee for his life. But in doing so, in his hidden and fearful humility, cowering in the cave on the mountain, he discovers that God is not in the great noise but in the still small voice. And so, after he has called Elisha, he is taken up to God in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire.
The divine chariot is a primary Old Testament manifestation of the majesty and presence of God. Its most developed account is in the beginning of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. In Jewish mysticism that chariot is the symbol of God’s unspeakable presence, God’s energy and God’s power. When he wrote, Ezekiel was doubtless thinking of the chariot event of Elijah’s ascent to heaven. Elijah’s direct ascent to God, without the mediation of physical death, sets the seal of God’s power on the deeds of his life, showing Elisha and us that God is mysteriously and powerfully present in prophetic work.
St. Paul uses the image of light and sight to tell us that God has veiled the eyes of those who do not believe so that they might not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” This passage always makes me wonder if Paul knew of the Transfiguration and is recalling it here. But there is of course another reference to the revelation of God’s presence and power in this, and it is to Paul’s own experience. Paul tells us in his own words, in the first letter to the Corinthians, that the resurrected Christ appeared to him personally (1 Cor 15:8). And Paul tells us in Second Corinthians something even more striking: that he knows a man (meaning himself) who was caught up into the third heaven, into Paradise, where he heard “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor 12:2-4). And so as not to get puffed up by this, he is given his thorn in the flesh, so that God’s power may be made known in weakness. Consequently, when Paul writes of the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, he is not simply using a vivid image to convince the Corinthians of the truth of Christ, but is speaking of the mysterious, indescribable presence and power of God which he himself has seen and known, and not just once. And of course the power Paul announces is the power of the Cross, the power of weakness transfigured by God into grace and victory by his own Son’s suffering and death, the paradox of the Christian faith then and since.
So the mysterious moment on the Mount of Transfiguration is not an event without analogue. Mark must have Elijah and Ezekiel and possibly Paul in mind as well as he tells a story which doubtless the three witnessing apostles had already preached to the early church. It is the moment when the presence of God identifies who Jesus really is to his disciples.
The Transfiguration is the center of a narrative passage which answers Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) The Transfiguration is part of the answer to that question. The disciples answer that people think Jesus is the second Elijah, John the Baptist, come back to life, or even Elijah himself, or one of the prophets. They are perhaps thinking of the brave prophetic confrontations sealed with glory that the Baptist and Elijah represent. And they perhaps wish Jesus would show himself more clearly as the political Messiah of Israel they may want him to be, breaking the yoke of Roman oppression and setting his people free. But Jesus’ answer to them is the cross: That the Son of Man must suffer, be killed and on the third day rise again. And more, that anyone who would follow him must be prepared to suffer as well. Which the disciples simply do not understand. This is the context of the Transfiguration: the prophetic ministry and glorification of Elijah, and the implied desire for a new Exodus, a new release of Israel from its political bondage into a new land of promise.
But what happens is something for which the disciples are utterly unprepared, as no doubt Elisha was unprepared for the whirlwind, for the chariot and for the fire. It is something for which Paul was unprepared when he met the resurrected Christ in person and was taken into the third heaven and heard the truth of Christ from heaven itself in words he could not repeat, but fortunately for us, labored mightily to communicate for the rest of his life. Elijah and Moses appear standing at either side of Jesus, giving him the central position of honor, and they are illuminated in blinding, dazzling light, the sign of God’s presence. This is the clearest possible statement that the prophetic and redemptive work of Elijah and Moses will find its consummation in Jesus, and precisely in his death upon the Cross, the least likely place for the manifestation of God’s presence and power. This is the revelation of the presence and power of God in Jesus.
The message was not entirely clear to the disciples at the time, as no doubt it was not entirely clear to Elisha and to Paul at first, But how could it be? Our eyes are veiled by our unbelief. These revelations of God’s presence and power show the truth that human beings did not yet know: That God is with us even if we cannot see it. That the politically dangerous prophecy of Elijah was not the work of a troublemaking crank bent on upsetting the system but the inbreaking of God against a corrupt and faithless regime. That the works of power of Moses are not the tricks of a shamanistic charlatan but the precursor to liberation and new life for God’s people. And so it is with Jesus. His acts of confrontation, his acts of power, his word and work of teaching about the Kingdom of God, are not what they seem to human eyes to be, but are the inbreaking of God himself into the world.
God lifted the veil when he took Elijah up to heaven, and Elisha heard and saw the glory. God lifted the veil when the resurrected Christ appeared to Paul, and again when Paul was taken into the third heaven. Paul heard and saw the glory. God lifted the veil when he revealed who Jesus really is to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter, James and John saw and heard the glory. God’s presence and power are not where we expect them to be. They are in the dangerous and daring work of a prophet, but also in the still small voice. They are in the dramatic ascent to the third haven , but also in the thorn in the flesh. They are in the quiet whisper, in infirmity and weakness, in the Cross.
All these stories are told so that we might understand how the veil across our eyes might be lifted. Where are the presence and power of God in our lives? Have we considered how God has already shown us where to look? It can be in the life of the fearless champion of God, but also in the one who is persecuting the people of God. God can reach us and find us and give us strength and lift us up when we pursue what we know from God is right, as he did for Elijah. But God can also reach us and find us and lift us up even if we, like Paul, have given our best energies to what is wrong.
Most of all, God can and will be with us in the crosses of our lives, the great and dramatic ones but also our smaller, daily crosses, when we find our lives in the course of losing them for the sake of the love of God, for the sake of the Gospel.