2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
I don’t hardly know what to do with the Transfiguration. I mean I’m not sure how to make it useful spiritually or give you a take-home from it.
I could talk about it doctrinally, if you have that old-fashioned taste for doctrine as an end in itself like my Dutch Calvinist immigrant farmers in Canada. Sjoerd Sierdsma told me that he liked to have something to think about all week when he milked his cows.
I could talk about it mystically, if you have that un-American love for worship as an end in itself like the Oriental Orthodox, and you cared about contemplation more than application. I could talk about it philosophically, or historically, or as literature, but what shall you make of it for your ethical life or spiritual life this week? I don’t know if it even wants that kind of application.
The disciples did not know what to make of it. They were confused by it. Quote: “They did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” And then the Lord Jesus told them not to speak of it till after his death and resurrection, I’m guessing for the reason that they did not comprehend it even though he had wanted them to witness it. Just the week before they did not comprehend his prediction of his death and resurrection, and that had terrified them too, and they argued against it. So why does the Lord Jesus want them to witness what he knows they will not understand?
There are many things that St. Mark does not explain to us. As I said last week, he does not write as an omniscient narrator. He never tells us what Jesus was thinking, he only shows us what could be observed of him. He does not tell us what Jesus knew or when he knew it. How much did the Lord Jesus know about the Transfiguration ahead of time? Did he control what happened there or was it more like it was done to him? Did he summon Moses and Elijah or was he surprised and delighted to meet them there? Did his heavenly Father do this to strengthen and encourage him or did he make this happen for himself? Did he know what his Father would say there? I think John Calvin would say Yes and Martin Luther would say No. I think St. Augustine would say Yes, as would the Cappadocian Fathers, but maybe St. Irenaeus would say No. I guess we’re not expected to know. We are not to put words in his mouth or in his mind, we are to listen to him.
St. Mark doesn’t explain why Moses and Elijah were there. And why those two—why not, say, Abraham or David? Was it because only Moses and Elijah had had their private talks with God on mountaintops? Was it because Moses and Elijah were prophets, while Abraham and David were not? Is there something inherently prophetic in the Transfiguration, if prophecy is the revelation of hidden things, or the future becoming visible in the present, or the exposing of secrets, and the truth that underlies appearances? In viewing Jesus transfigured, were they suddenly glimpsing the future, with Jesus resurrected and glorified, still in his physical body, but glorified with God’s glory?
I won’t be obstinate. Despite the mysteries and unanswered questions we can make some decent deductions.
We can say that God was in Christ.
We can say that the God of Moses and Elijah, the One God of the Old Testament, who shared God’s glory with no other, was investing that glory in the body and person of Jesus, such that Moses and Elijah talked to Jesus just as they had talked to God in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai. St. Paul can say the same in other words in our Epistle for today.
Also we can say what the disciples will have found confusing, that this One God who was in Jesus spoke as if there were two persons in God, a Father and a Son, which was hitherto unthinkable.
No less confusing for them was that with Jesus having recently told them that he would be killed, then how could this One God be fully in someone going to die, but we can say, after the fact, after we have surveyed the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, we can say what they didn’t yet see, that the Transfiguration was a prophetic glimpse of the unfathomable strategy of God’s self-sacrificial love.
And finally, we can say that the apostles were his witnesses, and through the ages they offer us their testimony as something we can choose to believe.
The Christian tradition has made those deductions and said all these things despite the mysteries still unexplained. The church has this story but does not possess it, the story stands beyond the church and its control. Such is Biblical prophecy. The church produced the Bible but it does not own the Bible and is not the Bible’s master, the Bible keeps breaking free.
This story I’ve known as long as I can remember, and it’s stranger to me now than ever before. The same with the story of Elijah and Elisha, how little I understand it. How foreign these familiar stories are, how uncontrolled, undomesticated, like wild animals that we can see are living just beyond the fence.
We are not told what Elijah knew nor when he knew it. We are told what the companies of prophets knew but not how they knew it. What the companies of prophets were is not explained to us, though scholars have opinions. We are told what Elisha knew and when he knew it, but not how he knew it. We are shown his prophetic power coming into play. The larger narrative of Second Kings is shifting from the story of Elijah to the story of Elisha, and our observation of Elijah is now from Elisha’s point of view.
Elisha is more with us than Elijah was. Elijah was the fiery prophet from the desert, a loner, the stranger, the wanderer. He stands for judgment and a jealous God and the absolute sovereignty of the Lord God. His name is “Eli-jah,” which means, “My God is Jah, my God is Adonai, the Lord.” While Elisha is more with us, he lives in town, and his name is “Eli-sha,” which means, “My God saves.” He’s the prophet of healing and rescue and reconciliation.
Elijah resists Elisha but Elisha will not leave him. The Bible so often resists us but we will not let it go. Elisha will not let Elijah send him away, and we will not be put off by those things in the Bible that we cannot understand and may not ever fully comprehend. If it’s true, as I have been saying, that all of you are expected to be minor prophets in some measure, then you have to stay with such stories and keep repeating ideas that you cannot master but still must love. Not only Biblical stories but the story of the world and even the story of yourself.
I see this difficult walking of Elisha with Elijah as a general paradigm. You are Elisha and your God is Elijah, and God keeps disappearing but you will not let go of God and you demand God’s Spirit.
You are Elisha and your best self is Elijah, and you will not let your best self reject or abandon the self that you are now.
You are Elisha and justice for the world is Elijah, justice, fairness, truthfulness, honesty in politics, economic equity and basic safety, and it keeps eluding our grasp, but you will not stop going for it and calling out that you see it.
You are Elisha and Elijah is the light in the darkness, and you keep reaching for the light.
You are Elisha and Elijah is the Transfiguration, and you don’t know what’s behind it, but you hope that you are glimpsing the future shining back into the present darkness in his body with the justice and the light of God.
This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him. There are many competing voices in the world, and much confusing talk of what the Christian faith means, especially on the current issues of the day. But it’s wonderful to me how Jesus is respected in the world not least by people not in church.
I was watching a comedian named Alonzo Bodden, he’s a regular on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. He talked about healthcare in Canada, and he said, “In the United States . . . the Republicans are like, ‘Healthcare for poor people? We will shut down the government! In the name of Jesus.’ (Laughter.) They always slip Jesus in on things Jesus would have nothing to do with. (Cheering and applause.) Listen, I’m not Biblical, I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty confident Jesus would be okay with healthcare. I mean it just seems like the kinda thing he’d go along with. I mean Jesus used to lay hands on the sick.”
My point is not healthcare or Republicans but that the secular audience was cheering about Jesus. As I watched I thought that Jesus keeps getting his message through. “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”
There is so much we do not understand nor can we. But you don’t have to be an expert to know what the messages of Jesus are. Stay with them. Repeat those messages. Among all the voices, listen to him. You keep on walking with Jesus, for he has told you where he is going.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.