2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Cor 4:3-6
1 Cor 10:31-11:1
Sunday next before Lent/Transfiguration
by Canon Stephen Murray, Chaplain at St. John’s Anglican Church, Ghent, Belgium
NOTES ON THE READINGS
OLD TESTAMENT 2 Kings 2:1-12 – the transforming whirlwind
Second Kings 2 has a chiastic structure. Unfortunately, we only read half the narrative arch.
The readings are replete with images of nature: wind, water, fire, sun, mountains, light, clouds, etc. It would be difficult to explore all of these in one sermon. The Old Testament reading and Psalm juxtapose the will of earth-bound humans with the activity of heaven.
Elijah and Elisha undertake a journey together, while only Elisha returns. Elijah’s journey takes him beyond his earthly life. Even so, Elisha refuses to leave his company even though he is repeatedly warned that his master will be taken from him. Is this a response of faithfulness or stubborn denial? Verse 8 evokes the story of the Exodus and Elijah as a new Moses figure, parting the waters and crossing the Jordan on dry ground.
Wind is often linked to God’s Ruach. Here the whirlwind evokes power, but also chaos, and yet there is an element of predictability. It is mentioned in verse one, and features in verse 11 which is the climax of the story when Elijah ascends into heaven. What type of whirlwind lets its plans be known days or weeks in advance? Such fiery winds might call to mind the nightmare of the Australian bush fires in January 2020.
PSALM 50:1-6 – The Transfiguration’s Prequel?
A shining light, a tempest and the thundering voice of God open this psalm. These themes reflect what will happen to Jesus on the mountaintop.
Psalm 50 was likely intended to be used at the Festival of Booths (aka Festival of Tabernacles, aka Festival of Sukkot, aka Festival of Ingathering). It was associated with the autumn harvest. In this part of the psalm, God summons the Israelites.
God’s “shining forth” is an image of theophany. The Gospel reading is as well. The psalm is a liturgical re-enactment of the original theophany, while the story of the Transfiguration is an actual theophanic experience, but they are certainly meant to be linked in our worship.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 – Removing the veil
Allusions to a veil, being blinded and a bright light connect to Moses’ transfiguration in God’s presence. In this context, Paul applies it to the life of the church.
For Paul, Christ is the image of God (icon). God intended the light of this icon to remove our blindness, but there are those who are still unable to see. When we do see, not only is God’s light revealed through Jesus, we also become capable of passing this light of knowledge on to others. However, Paul is adamant, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Paul seeks to encourage the Corinthians to turn from the ‘darkness’ of the world as they know it and to live in Christ’s light as a way to a engage with a new kind of world.
GOSPEL Mark 9:2-9 – No special effects needed
What was intended as a prayer retreat becomes a theophany. The mountaintop experience links Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Moses encountered a burning bush, Elijah ascended upon clouds of fire, and Jesus radiates with unnatural light. However, the voice from the cloud makes clear that Jesus is not simply another prophet. God is doing something new.
Mountains are one of Gods’ favourite places to communicate – Exodus, the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Micah, Nahum, etc. Jesus’ own story involves several mountains – Tabor, the mount of olives, Golgotha, etc. Mountains often symbolise closeness to God. The Celts refer to them as ‘thin places’, a liminal space where the division between earth and heaven is minimal, permitting new visions and insights.
Western society often depicts nature as ‘earthy’ or even ‘dirty’ compared to the cleanliness and hygiene of our modern living. Yet, on the mountaintop, in the midst of nature Jesus’ clothes become, “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” The cleansing effect of God’s light is more powerful than the best detergents.
The transfiguration story operates as a ‘hinge point’ from the season of Epiphany towards the cross and resurrection. It could be described as the midpoint of a journey from the light of Christmas to the light of Easter.
DRAFT SERMON/SERMON OUTLINE
Today’s readings not only reveal God’s glory through Christ and the Prophets, but through the natural elements of wind, water, fire, sun and light. We are invited to draw closer to God by the waters of rivers and on the mountaintop.
How has our sense of wonder with mountains been changed by satellite imaging? Why go through the effort of climbing a mountain when you can simply zoom in on Google Earth? Once thought impossible to climb, Mount Everest has become a waste dump from the number of visitors leaving behind their CO2 tanks on the peak. Is this what happens when our awe, wonder and fear for nature has been overcome? The Book of Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Without fear and danger, have such places become yet another thing that we can consume? If such remote locations are no longer considered ‘holy ground’, where might be? Where in the world do we feel compelled to remove our shoes as we stand in the presence of the Divine light?
What can our own mountaintop experiences teach us about Jesus?
A personal story: as part of a trans-Canada cycling trip, I once rode my bike to a place called Roger’s Pass, which is 1330m above sea level. We were warned about the gruelling climb and our muscles ached at the mere thought. Cycling in mountains requires constant focus on the ground right in front of you and perseverance to simply keep pedalling. We were surprised when the ground began to level out and we reached the Pass before lunchtime. It was a spectacular panorama of glacier covered mountains at the height of summer. The beauty was stunning. However, we faced a question, ‘Having achieved our goal, do we remain… after all, it IS good Lord to be here… or do we continue down the mountain not knowing what lies ahead?’ In the words of Joe Strummer, lead singer of The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go now?” Faith revolves around this question. Are we tempted to remain where we are through beauty, comfort or success? Why would we ever leave such dizzying heights once they have been scaled? Who is the God who calls us there and names us as his child, and then sends us back down the mountain? What awaits us there?
Mountains are often regarded as firm and immoveable, but they are among the most sensitive ecosystems to climate change. According to UNESCO, mountains are being affected at a faster rate than most terrestrial habitats. Snowpacks are melting. Avalanches and rockfalls are increasing. Water sources are declining. Plant growth is shifting. Fire seasons are lengthening. Diseases such as malaria are able to reach new populations that were previously inaccessible. Let’s not even start to discuss the impact of mineral extraction! If the Bible depicts mountains as places where we can communicate with God, what do these changes mean for our faith and our relationship with God. Will it be possible to undertake these kinds of journeys in the future?
Transfiguration and transformation are closely related. Jesus was always planning to leave the mountain. Peter’s offer to build a dwelling does not tempt him. However, the experience on the mountain is essential for Jesus as preparation for all that he must accomplish in Jerusalem. Not only is Jesus reminded of his baptism, he is assured in his identity as God’s Son, the Beloved. Now, the disciples are also given a task – listening.
Our world seems to have difficulty listening to the clear evidence of climate change. As Jesus’ disciples today, are we listening? Can we help others to listen? Can we help God’s messengers to be heard? Moreover, as Christ’s disciples today, are we listening to the warnings from the planet, specifically the warnings from mountaintop ecosystems that our way of life needs to be transfigured and transformed? As we prepare to enter Lent, how can we embark on our own ‘mountaintop experience’ and bring the message of the mountain to God’s people?
Heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain: give us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross that we may see him as he is; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Or, the Collect for the 2nd Sunday before Lent
Almighty God, give us reverence for all creation and respect for every person, that we may mirror your likeness in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Holy God, we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ: may we who are partakers at his table reflect his life in word and deed, that all the world may know his power to change and save. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A reflection on the story of the Transfiguration by Joy Mead
by Canon Stephen Murray, Ghent, Belgium