Here is a brief commentary on this week’s lectionary readings:
2 Kings 2:1-12
As Elijah prepares to leave this world in dramatic fashion (in a whirlwind accompanied by a chariot of fire) he tours the sites of significance traveled by the Israelites on their initial entry into the promised land (Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho). Elijah’s travels under God’s direction who rapidly pushes the prophet along from one place to another.
When Elijah arrives at each location the prophetic community comes out to meet Elijah’s servant Elisha who is traveling closely on the heels of his master. The prophetic community sympathizes with Elisha, knowing that he is about to lose his mentor, and questions Elisha’s knowledge of the coming events, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” Elisha knows what is about to happen and doesn’t want to talk about it. Twice he silences the prophets who come to him.
In the final scene Elijah roles up his mantle and strikes the water of the Jordan. The water is parted, and Elijah and Elisha travel across the Jordan from the west to the east (the opposite direction of the crossing of the Israelites when they entered the promised land).
On the east side of the Jordan Elijah asks Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha requests a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (the inheritance due a first born son). Elijah answers, “You have asked a hard thing.” The prophetic life is not an easy life, and old Elijah, who has suffered greatly and wondered often about the presence of God in his prophetic career, knows this reality well.
Elijah does not grant Elisha’s request without a condition“If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” Perhaps Elijah knew that Elisha would need this moment of transcendent glory as an encouraging memory during the dark times of his prophetic ministry. Elisha receives the condition and stays until Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind with chariots of fire. Elisha screams up to the heavens, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Finally Elijah disappears in the sky, and Elisha tears his garment in two mourning his loss.
In the scene that follows our lectionary readings Elisha retrieves Elijah’s mantle and uses it to part the waters of the Jordan once again. Elisha has indeed received Elijah’s prophetic power and calling.
(Note that the ascent of Elijah is a fitting reading for Transfiguration Sunday. When Jesus is transfigured upon a high mountain in Mark chapter 9 Elijah and Moses appear beside the glowing Christ. The transfiguration narrative symbolically illustrates that the mantles of Moses and Elijah are passed on to the Christ as he descends down the mountain of glory to be with the people. The passion that follows in the gospel of Mark shows just how difficult a life it is to receive the mantle of God’s prophet to a stubborn and stiff-necked people.)
Matthew Stith writes concerning Psalm 50:1-6, “This passage is more a subpoena than it is a hymn of praise.” In this passage God is gathering the covenant people and presenting himself as judge over their faithfulness. He calls forth the heavens and the earth as his witnesses and proclaims his right as judge by his ability to control all of the created order.
The latter half of the psalm (the part not included in our lectionary reading) presents God’s grievances. The covenant community is offering its sacrifice as though it were doing God a favor. God reminds the covenant community that he already owns the sacrifices they offer. There are also members of the covenant community who are reciting the words of God but living in ways foreign to God. The hypocrisy infuriates God who speaks harshly against those who say one thing and do another.
It is interesting to note that the Psalms were used in the worship of the covenant people. Psalm 50 was regularly sung and heard by those gathered in praise of the Lord. Thus these harsh judgments of covenant failure were sung by the very covenant people who struggled with their faithfulness. Such transparency and confession in worship is a breath of fresh air.
(Note the references to “light” in keeping with the celebration of the transfiguration: rising of the sun; God shines forth; devouring fire]).
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Not everyone who hears Paul’s gospel accepts it. That is because, says Paul, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers.” It is not because they have discovered that Paul is a swindler of words and promises as Paul’s interlocutors might have suggested.
Paul does not proclaim himself. Instead Paul proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as a slave for Jesus’ sake. Whether one accepts the gospel or does not accept the gospel is not in Paul’s hands to control. Only God who “lets light shine out of darkness” can remove the veil that blinds the eyes of the unbeliever.
(Note again the reference to “light” in keeping with the celebration of the transfiguration).
When Moses and Elijah appeared with a glorified Jesus on top of a mountain in Mark 9, Peter knew something big was happening. Fear was his first response, but out of that fear grew a nervous expectancy: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings [i.e. tents], one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter’s mind connected with the words of Zechariah who prophesied about the final victory of God in which the people of God would celebrate the festival of booths (i.e. tents) and worship the Lord in grand and wonderful ways. This was the beginning, thought Peter!
Unfortunately the mountain top experience of glory was short lived. Suddenly Moses and Elijah disappeared, a cloud overshadowed those still present, and a booming voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Peter had to give up his hope of the three dwellings, and he likely descended the mountain questioning his connecting of the event with Zechariah’s prophecy. Is this the beginning? What are we to make of this?
Coming down the mountain is not easy for any of us to do. The conversation on the descent turned dark and threatening: The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him.” What happened to the shalom Zechariah promised? The transfiguration reminds us that we follow a crucified Christ and that each of us has a cross to bear as we serve the hurting in the valleys below.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the difficulty of our calling. The mantle of God’s prophet is a load to bear. Moments of transcendent glory are wonderful to witness (whether on the east bank of the Jordan or on a nameless mountain in Mark 9) but those moments call us to service in our communities of hurt. We must cross back over the Jordan, and descend down the mountain.
All the while we are reminded that the light of God goes with us to remove the veil put over people’s eyes by the god of this world. Our worship on this transfiguration Sunday is bathed in the light of the glorified Christ. This is the Son of God, the Beloved, and we must listen to him.