The Sunday next before Lent
11 February 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
2 Kings 2. 1-12; Mark 9. 2-9
Six days ago, near the town of Caesarea Philippi to the north of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus has asked his disciples: Who do you say I am? Peter has made a bold assertion: You are the Messiah. Jesus affirms this startling insight of Peter in a rather understated way – by telling his disciples not to speak about who he really is. He then goes on to talk for the first time about his coming suffering and death. Peter, though, will have none of it and rebukes Jesus. This time Peter gets no marks for insight. Get behind me, Satan, says Jesus. Peter has relapsed into his more customary state of getting hold of the wrong end of the stick.
So here we are six days later. Jesus, as he often does, withdraws to a remote place to pray – on this occasion he goes up what Mark describes as a ‘high mountain’. With him are Peter, James and John – Jesus’s inner circle of friends. As Jesus prays Mark tells us that he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. Jesus is still Jesus, but he is utterly changed. The disciples then have the extraordinary experience of seeing Elijah and Moses talking with the transfigured Jesus. Mark tells us that in their terror the disciples don’t know what to say – though Peter rather prosaically offers to build a shelter for the three of them. Finally a cloud overshadows them, out of which comes the very voice of God: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him. Then Moses and Elijah are gone and the bewildered disciples journey with Jesus back down the mountain.
So why are Moses and Elijah on the mountain? What is it about these two great figures of God’s ancient Covenant, that they should be the ones present at this moment of transfiguration, at this time of manifestation of God’s glory? There’s an obvious connection with mountains. In the book Exodus, Moses had met God on Mount Sinai in thunder and lightning, trumpet-sound and smoke; in the narrative of the first book of the Kings Elijah had also met God on Mount Sinai, a fugitive on the run from his enemies, the prophets of Baal, whom he had condemned to death because they refused to worship Israel’s God.
For the Jewish people of God’s ancient covenant those two mountain encounters had deep, particular, and enduring significance. Moses had returned from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, a reminder to God’s people of how they should live, a framework that held out a way of life based on justice and on a right relationship with God and with each other. Elijah had returned from Sinai with a deeper understanding of the need for God’s people to remain faithful to their covenant with him, with a renewed sense of affirmation of his calling as a prophet to speak out against covenant breakers who would sacrifice to idols. Now, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the guardian of the ancient covenant stand together for a brief moment, in divine glory, with God the Father’s beloved Son. Then the two commanding figures of that ancient covenant are gone, leaving the beloved son, Jesus Christ, to call into God’s future those who will become ministers of the new covenant.
Our Old Testament reading recounts how Elisha succeeded Elijah, how he took on his mantle. In their writings the rabbis suggest how the back story to this incident might have unfolded. When Elijah first met him, the rabbis tell, Elisha was a rough diamond, awaiting the polishing process. So it was that when Elisha first saw Elijah he began to laugh at his thick crop of hair as he himself was rather bald. Elijah did not lose his temper but quietly asked him: ‘Do you know any of God’s law?’.’
‘No I do not,’ answered Elisha, surprised.
‘And why not?’ countered Elijah.
‘Because I do not have enough brains for studying God’s law,’ said Elisha.
‘But when I came along just now I found you ploughing a field. Where did you get enough brains for that job?’ asked Elijah.
‘God gave me the brains for that, of course’, replied Elisha, wondering what Elijah was getting at.
‘The same God who gave you understanding to plough a field has also given you sufficient understanding and brains for study. You only need to be shown how. Come with me and I shall teach you.’
I like that story, because it seems to me to connect very closely with what happens when Jesus comes down from the mountain with his disciples. Like Elisha they seem pretty clueless, but through following Jesus and by listening to him, as the heavenly voice commanded, they learn the ways of God, they learn how to be his disciples, the ministers of God’s new covenant.
Our challenge is the same as the one that faced Elisha, Peter, James, and John: to learn how to listen to God’s Son so that we too may reflect his glory as ministers of the new covenant; to live lives based on justice and integrity; to be faithful in our relationship with God. To do all this will require an acceptance that as baptised Christians we must seek God’s glorious grace to transform our lives and our patterns of behaviour so that in time something of God’s glory will shine from our faces too; an acceptance that transforming our lives and our patterns of behaviour necessarily involves deepening our relationship with God through prayer and the study of scripture both individually and together; an acceptance that transforming our lives and our patterns of behaviour necessarily involves a commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation – not as a substitute for a relationship with God but as an outworking of it. We can begin by heeding the voice that spoke to the disciples from the cloud: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! ; and by imagining Jesus saying to us, as the rabbis imagined Elijah saying to Elisha: ‘Come with me and I shall teach you’.