5 March 2000
Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
How well do you know your best friend? I wonder if you could say what they like to drink, or to eat, or what they don't like? Or what sort of clothes they like to wear? That's fairly easy, of course. What isn't so easy is to predict how your friend - and sometimes even your spouse or your lover - will react in a given situation. I'm never very good at that; I'm always apt to assume other people will react in the same way that I do, although I'm getting better at remembering that this isn't always the case.
In any event, when a friend suddenly acts totally out of character it can be really startling. And in our two readings this morning, we found people behaving totally out of character. Or rather, God treating people totally out of character.
First of all, we had Elijah being carried up to heaven in a whirlwind; his disciple and servant Elisha the only one to see him go. Then we have Jesus being transfigured into something completely - well, not human, not of this earth. And seen, what's more, in an eternal context, with Moses and Elijah with him. Witnessed by his three best friends, Peter, James and John.
2. Elijah Goes to Glory
Elijah, then. Elijah was one of the greatest, if not the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Certainly he is given the most honour in Jewish life and thought today; every year at Passover, Jewish families put out a glass of wine for him, and he is said to go round to every Jewish house and drink - mind you, if he actually did, he'd be as sloshed as Father Christmas would be if he drank all the glasses of sherry laid out for him!
Elijah saw the people of Israel through one of their greatest crises, when almost everybody stopped worshipping God and started worshipping Baal instead, inspired by the foreign queen Jezebel, whose name has become a byword for wickedness and evil. And there was an appalling drought; the writers, naturally, saw this as God's punishment on his faithless people. Elijah had spent most of it by the brook Cherith with a widow whose food supplies he'd helped to maintain supernaturally. And then the great showdown with the priests of Baal, and the cloud "no bigger than a man's hand" that came to break the drought. And Elijah then has something very like a nervous breakdown, and runs away and hides in the country, and God has to heal him, and you have that story of the earthquake, wind, and fire, and the Lord not being in any of them, but after all the upheavals, in the "still small voice". Anyway, it was as Elijah was recovering from his breakdown that he was told to take Elisha on as his servant and disciple, and they go off and rather bloodthirstily mop up all the faithless ones of Israel, helped by Ahab, who later became King of Israel.
Well, that is all in the past now, and Elijah is approaching the end of his life on earth. He's been told - all the prophets of Israel have been told - that the Lord is going to take Elijah away, but they don't seem to know how it's going to happen. And, of course, back then they didn't really think in terms of eternal life, the way we do. For them, serving God was what you did on this earth, and death was, if not the end, then something very like it. It's amazing, really, when you read a psalm and the psalmist is going "Save me, Oh God", you know he means here, now, today - not some unspecified time in the future! We, unfortunately, tend to think of "being saved" as something that affects what happens to us when we die, not what happens to us here and now, today.
Anyway, there was precedent for God's taking people away without them having to die first; Enoch, in the book of Genesis, rates a mention that way. We are told, in Genesis 5:24, that "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him." As God, now, takes Elijah. They are told to go to Jericho, and Elisha, the servant, insists on accompanying Elijah, although he's told he need not. Did you notice how casually Elijah parts the waters of the Jordan for them to cross, as though hitting it with his cloak was the normal way to cross it? Rather like Moses crossing the Red Sea, only lower-key. Anyway, when they get where they're going, Elisha begs for the heir's portion, which he receives. And he sees, too, how God comes for Elijah in a fiery chariot, and a whirlwind, and it all gets rather confused for a time - and when it stops being confused, there Elijah isn't! And nobody sees hide or hair of him again until.......
3. The Transfiguration
Okay, fast-forward several hundred years to the time of Christ. This time, Jesus asks his friends James, Peter and John to go with him. I don't know whether Jesus knew what was going to happen, only that it was going to be something rather different and special, and he wanted some moral support! And so the four friends go up the mountain - and suddenly things get rather confused for a time, and when it stops being confused, there is Jesus in shining white robes talking to Moses and Elijah. Moses, we know, died properly, but this is the first time anybody's seen hide nor hair of Elijah since he was taken away - and the Jews always said that Elijah had to come back before the Messiah could come.
Peter, of course, babbles on about building shelters, but more to reassure himself that he exists, I think, than for any other reason. And then the voice from heaven saying "This is my Son, listen to Him". In other words, Jesus is more important than either Moses or Elijah, who were the two main people, apart from God, in the Jewish faith. To good Jews, as James, Peter and John were, this must have almost felt like blasphemy. No wonder Jesus told them to keep their big mouths shut until the time was right, or he'd have been stoned for a blasphemer forthwith.
Peter, for one, remembered this momentous day until the end of his life. Years and years later, he - or someone writing in his name - was to write: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, `This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain."
For Peter, James and John, it was to be proof that Jesus is the Messiah, and through all the turbulent times that followed they must have held on to the memory of that tremendous day. One thing, though, I've always wondered: how on earth did they recognise Moses and Elijah?
I said at the beginning that sometimes we know our friends very well, and we know when things happen that are out of character for them. It must have been such a shock for Elisha when Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and he had this vision of all the fiery chariots. It must have been such a shock to James, Peter and John when Jesus was transfigured.
The thing is, what has it to do with us today? Why should something that happened about 2,000 years ago have any relevance? Even more, why should something that happened way back in the iron age have any relevance? What do these stories say to us today?
I think it's about glory! All too often we forget about giving glory to God. We are accustomed, and quite rightly, to the wonderful parent-child relationship with God that we can have through Jesus, but we have to remember the other side of the coin. The greatness and gloriousness and majesty of God. Jesus, name above all names, as we sang earlier. We don't always remember that back before the days of Jesus, ordinary people didn't really dare get in touch with God themselves, but only through the intermediary of a priest, for God was so holy, so glorious, so great, that if you put a foot wrong, they were afraid it could mean death. It was all too easy to be unclean, unfit to enter God's holy presence.
We don't have to worry about that sort of thing any more, thank God. We, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, have a great High Priest, "who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, so let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
With boldness. We may approach the throne of grace with boldness, in a way that people in Old Testament times couldn't. We can come to God through Jesus, and bring Him our hearts desires. We can approach the Lady Wisdom for relief for a sick friend, or whatever is on our hearts, whether that is for our own needs, for the needs of our friends and dear ones, or for the needs of the world. We don't have to let anything hold us back, for we are invited to approach the throne of grace with boldness.
Yet it is perhaps as well to remember that in spite of this, God does not change. God is still the God of the whirlwind, the God who required total and utter faithfulness from His people Israel, and who required total and utter holiness of those who were to approach him. Moses, you may remember, was not allowed to see anything of God but the shadow of his passing, and even then his face shone so unbearably that other people could hardly bear to look. When Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured, they fell on their faces to worship him. We need to remember that God is a God of love, yes, a God who loves each and every one of us more than anybody else possibly could - but God is also a God of Glory. Amen.
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