14th February 2021
Readings: 2 Kings 2: 1–12 Elisha succeeds Elijah, who is taken up to heaven Mark 9: 2–9 Jesus’ Transfiguration
1. Introduction. Alexei Navalny, the Opposition Leader in the Russian government, is a good modern-day example of a person of great courage, who despite an attempt on his life, returns to his home country to challenge the leaders of his country and in so doing, encourages his supporters. Prior to the event of Jesus’ Transfiguration, our Gospel reading today, Jesus had spoken to all 12 of his close disciples about going up to Jerusalem, where he would die. Peter had taken him to task, causing Jesus to rebuke him. The Transfiguration is an important event for Jesus himself and for three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, who would take on important roles in the leadership of the Church. For two of them it would be at the cost of their lives. We can read in Acts 12 of Herod having James put to death. Not in the New Testament, but in tradition, supported by Jesus words to him after Jesus’ resurrection, “Someone will lead you where you do not want to go.” (Jn 21 v 18), Peter was crucified. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent with a strong focus on the passion of Christ, we do well to reflect on the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration.
2. Liturgical. Despite the significance of the transfiguration, the Church of England, and perhaps more widely in the Church, has found it difficult to give due recognition to such an enigmatic but profound event. The Book of Common Prayer allocates 6th August as the day to mark the Transfiguration, but without any special readings for such a profound event. But then we are not too good with other celebrations. Ask anyone whether churchgoer or not about the significance of today, 14th February, and almost everyone would say, “St Valentine’s Day”, but in the Church of England calendar it is St Cyril and St Methodius’ Day. I guess that Lea, as a native of Hungary, would be one of the few people that we know, who could tell us much about those two great 9th century missionary brothers probably of Slavic origin but from Macedonia, now N Greece, who went to the Slavic people in what is now Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. They were keen on people having a liturgy in the own native language and to this end Cyril invented the Cyrillic script, still in use in parts of Eastern Europe. To return to the Transfiguration, the Alternative Service Book allocated the 4th Sunday of Lent for the observation of the Transfiguration. This was a sure-fire way of it being overlooked by most individual churches as they celebrated Mothering Sunday. Probably the Common Worship position of allocating the Sunday next before Lent is a good compromise, ensuring that however few Sundays there are before Lent, the Transfiguration is marked every year, with the gospel in the liturgical Year B from the second synoptic gospel, Mark’s Gospel and related readings; the Old Testament being Moses receiving the commandments on the first or second time or, as this year, Elijah’s ascent to heaven as he hands over to Elisha.
3. Elijah and Elisha. I will just draw out a few points from that OT reading. First of all, the two prophets had a demanding journey setting out from Gilgal about 1 to 2 miles from Jericho, down in the Jordan valley at about (Mediterranean) sea level, 13 miles up to Bethel in the hills N of Jerusalem, probably at about the same height as the city. The Jerusalem Central Bus Station is at 2,700 ft (817 m) above sea level. Bethel literally means ‘house of God’, where Jacob, when fleeing from his brother Esau, stopped for the night and had a vision of angels going up and down a ladder between heaven and earth. At Bethel there was a school of prophets. I reckon that Elijah was keen to introduce his successor, Elisha, so that the School accepted Elisha. He suggests that Elisha should even stay there, but Elisha knows instinctively that he must stay with Elijah until that became impossible. Perhaps they stay a night, before returning very close from where they set out, namely Jericho. An easier down-hill journey of about 14 miles, to a second school of prophets, where again Elijah invites Elisha to stay with the prophets, but Elisha firmly resists this and again, perhaps the next day, they set out, but accompanied by no less than 50 prophets from the School, down to the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea at 1,250 ft (-382 m) below sea level.
Old Testament prophets were known for their performance of miracles. Elijah’s final miracle is to strike the River Jordan to provide a way to cross to the other side, before he is then received into heaven. Some people find such a miracle hard to accept. When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, crossing the River Jordan, a natural explanation is given, that a landslip higher up the valley was the physical cause of the water ceasing to flow. The miracle is in God’s timing, of bringing the Israelites to the brink of the river at just the right time. The Arabian historian Nuwairi records a similar event in 1267 A. D. In the early 20th Century, in 1906 and again in 1927, similar events of landslips stopped the flow of the river, and now, so much water is regularly extracted, that you can almost paddle across in places. On the East side of the Jordan, the remarkable life on earth of the man, who again and again had challenged authority, including Ahab, King of Israel, putting his own life in danger, comes to an end as he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. As a representative of the prophetic line, he is the one to be present at Jesus’ transfiguration, together with Moses, the great law giver.
4. The Transfiguration. What was it that Moses and Elijah talked about with Jesus? St Luke tells that “They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem.” (Lk 9 v 31). The Greek word translated ‘departure’ is ‘Exodon’, literally, ‘the way out’. The Greek therefore gives us a natural link with the OT Exodus from Egypt, under Moses’ leadership. From beginning to end, Jesus is the one who supports and fulfils the Law and the Prophets. You may wonder about Peter’s response to the situation, especially as it has been translated in Church Bibles that we use. He proposes three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. This is not meant to be some sort of self-isolation for 10 days. The Greek word is variously translated ‘booths’ (RSV), ‘tabernacles’ (KJV) or ‘shelters’ (NIV). I like tabernacles, as this links with the Feast of Tabernacles, a sort of week’s camping holiday with tents or tree branches, perhaps in the garden, to remind the Jews of their forebears’ wilderness experience. This meeting was not only important for Jesus but for the early Church, to help counter any idea that Christians were rabble rousers, intent on flouting the moral law of the Jewish people. The gospels helped any thoughtful Roman citizen to have a more balanced view of conflict between Jew and Christian.
The climax of the transfiguration is a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud which guided the Israelites in the wilderness, coming over the mountain and out of the cloud comes the voice of God the Father, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’. It can be quite frightening being up a mountain enveloped in cloud. Many years ago, when our younger son Andrew was 7 years old (and he is now 50), I was leading a walking group of 12 in the Lake District. We were at a high level on Sergeant Man in thick cloud and rain and I could not find the track to take us down. We had to go down, on compass and reference to the map, quite a steep slope. I held Andrew’s hand and he was quite unperturbed. We all got down safely.
5. Application. At the beginning of my sermon, I spoke of the courage of Alexei Navalny, a man much in the news. I want to tell you now of Fadzayi Mahere, a woman of great courage who recently returned to her own country of Zimbabwe. A committed Christian and a qualified lawyer, she had worked at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but then decided that she must return home to defend people whose human rights had been abused, and to protest against police brutality. She was quite soon arrested and thrown into prison, a prison with appalling conditions, lacking any kind of human dignity. The Christian way is by no means always an easy way. We may not have the calling or the opportunity to courageously challenge authority where power is misused and people are abused, as did Jesus, and as do Alexei Navalny and Fadzayi Mahere. May we though, out of the clouds of life, hear the voice of God the Father saying ‘You are my son, I love you’ or ‘You are my daughter, I love you.’ and so press on to serve Our lord in all the challenging circumstances of life.
I conclude with the words from the hymn, ‘The King of love my shepherd is’, based on Psalm 23, “In death’s dark vale, I fear no ill, with thee, dear Lord beside me; thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.