Welcome members of Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church!
Below are the scripture readings and sermon for Sunday February 15.
Sorry I won’t see you tomorrow morning but I hope everyone’s staying warm! ~ Peg
2 Kings 2:1-12 NRS Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.
12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Mark 9:2-9 2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
“And he led them up a high mountain… and Jesus was transfigured before them.”
What must it have been like to be there with Peter, James and John on that mountain? To see someone you know, someone you’ve been friends with and traveled with, suddenly change before your eyes into something beyond human understanding of reality? To see important people from history standing in front of you alive and talking? To hear God’s voice speaking out loud?
The transfiguration is a one-of-a-kind thing. There’s nothing else exactly like it in recorded history. People sometimes see visions, but not quite like this. People sometimes hear voices, but not quite like this. People sometimes, when they’re nearing death, see the faces of loved ones who have gone before, but not people they’ve never met, let alone historical figures from thousands of years ago. Mark tells us Peter and the disciples were “terrified” at what they saw, which sounds like a very reasonable reaction! How do we go about getting a handle on what Mark is telling us?
You’ve probably heard the phrase “mountaintop experience” before. Most of us have had one at one time or another. A ‘mountaintop experience’ is a high point in life, a time when we get away from everyday life and spend quality time with God. It may or may not take place on a mountain, but often it does. It might be a retreat with the whole church family. One of my favorite places to go when I need a ‘mountaintop experience’ is Jumonville. Many of you have been there too. I love to walk around the woods up there, and to the top of the mountain where I stand at the foot of the cross. The beauty of nature and the kindness of the people who work there really help me to feel close to God.
A ‘mountaintop experience’ is a good place to begin to get a handle on what’s going on in Mark’s story. Like our own experiences, the disciples are getting away from the world and away from the crowds and spending some quality time with God. But that’s just a start.
Mountaintop experiences also have to do with vision. I don’t know about you but I do some of my best thinking when I’m sitting on a mountaintop. I planned a business once sitting on a mountain-top, a long time ago. My husband and I had our first date on a mountain-top. It was a weekend a lot like this one, snow everywhere, and it was quite a hike. We like to joke that we walked up the mountain friends and came back down dating. The day I went to talk to my pastor about maybe going to seminary, that was on a mountain-top too. Mountain-tops are great for getting fresh perspective, getting the big picture, surveying the horizon, or getting someone else’s insights on the big issues.
When we think about the experience Jesus had on that mountain it brings to mind one other mountain-top experience: the one Moses had toward the end of his life, when God told him to climb a mountain and be the first to look out over the Promised Land. In a way Jesus is doing the same thing. Jesus was physically transformed, for a moment, into his future self… or, to put it another way, Jesus’ true self became visible for a moment… as it says in the book of Revelation:
I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire… (Rev. 1:13-14)
The disciples were seeing Jesus – the real Jesus – for the first time.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah that day. But we do know, after this meeting, Jesus started talking to his disciples a lot about his death. He started preparing them (as much as they were able to receive it) for the events about to unfold.
So I imagine at least part of the conversation would have been Jesus getting input from Moses and Elijah on exactly how His ministry should unfold from that point on. Did Jesus know the Cross was coming? Most likely yes. The Old Testament scriptures point to it. Did Jesus want to go there? No; Jesus asked God in the Garden of Gethsemane many times to take the cup from him. He was probably double- and triple- checking the Old Testament for other options, getting the advice and input of two men who knew a lot about God’s master plan for salvation.
Of all the people who had ever lived, it made sense for Jesus to talk to Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets). Moses was the only person in history who had ever talked to God face to face and lived to tell about it. The book of Exodus tells us “the skin of his face was shining” after he talked to God (Exodus 34:30) so much so that Moses had to wear a veil over his face in order not to frighten the Israelites. Moses knew what it was like to shine like Jesus shined.
And Elijah was the one prophet in the Old Testament who never died. He was taken into heaven alive, as we read in the Old Testament reading today. Elijah was one of the first prophets in Israel, and he was best known for taking a stand against the worship of false gods. (Talk about a message that is relevant to our own day!) In the book of Kings, when King Ahab and his wife Jezebel tried to turn God’s people away from God, Elijah confronted them and said to the people:
“How long will you go limping along between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him.” (I Kings 18:21)
Elijah succeeded in turning the hearts of the people, at least some of them, back to God. Turning peoples’ hearts back to God was Jesus’ mission as well, so the two of them would have had plenty to talk about.
Moses was the man who received the Law, and would have been able to talk about why God commanded the sacrifice of a lamb for the guilt offering, and what it might mean to be the Lamb of God.
Moses would also have known what the apostle Paul shared in the book of Galatians about the relationship between salvation by promise (that is, God’s grace) as represented by Abraham, and salvation under the Law, as represented by Moses. Paul writes:
“once a will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. 16 Now [God’s] promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; [scripture] does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. 17 …the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise. 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made…”
Paul the Lawyer can be really tough to follow sometimes. To sort of translate what he said into English, what Paul is saying, and what Moses was most likely reminding Jesus of, is that Abraham was the chosen patriarch. The covenant, or the contract, or (as Paul puts it) the will, was God’s promise to Abraham. The law, on the other hand, God gave to Moses 430 years later as a means of confronting sin, of dealing with covenant-breaking on the part of God’s people. The law is meant to bring us to repentance; but it cannot bring us salvation because we can never be perfect. We can never keep it 100% perfectly. The covenant itself is not law, it is God’s promise. Or, as New Testament Christians would put it, salvation is by God’s grace received through faith, not by works, lest anyone should boast.
So Jesus is the one offspring of Abraham, the fulfillment of the Covenant, of God’s promise, as well as being the fulfillment of God’s law. Jesus is the one seed, the offspring through whom (as it says in Genesis) “all nations of the earth will be blessed”. (Genesis 22:18)
Whatever Moses and Elijah shared with Jesus that day, it certainly tied together everything that had gone before, it detailed God’s plan for salvation in the big picture view of history, and left Jesus with clarity of vision and purpose.
So where are we in this story? We’re obviously not Elijah or Moses, but their appearances – the fact that Moses comes back from the dead, and Elijah comes back from heaven – give us a glimpse of our future. Their appearance makes real the promise that this life is not all there is. There are times when the veil between this world and the next is pulled aside for a moment and we get a glimpse, too wonderful to describe in words, of the life to come. The Transfiguration is a moment like that. We can take great comfort in the appearance of these two fellow human beings who lived thousands of years ago and are still alive today.
But more clearly, we find ourselves standing with the disciples, at Jesus’ side, ready to do whatever is needed, including offering hospitality to visitors, and ready to bear witness to who Jesus is when the time is right.
We may find ourselves standing with Elisha in the Old Testament reading – loyal to the prophet Elijah and longing for a measure of his spirit. Elisha’s repeated words “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you” remind us of Ruth and her words to her mother-in-law Naomi:
Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; (Ruth 1:16)
We may resonate with Elisha’s tender-hearted passion toward God, or perhaps his desire to take up the mantle (so to speak) of the generation before us and carry on God’s work.
We certainly stand with the disciples in hearing God say, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” It seems so often we do a lot of talking but not so much listening. I don’t know about you but I’m constantly having to remind myself, when I’m praying or reading scriptures, just to be silent and let God speak. God’s words also remind me of Mary’s words at the wedding at Cana when she says to the wine stewards, “Do whatever Jesus tells you.”
And to be certain all of us stand with the disciples in beholding a vision and getting a foretaste of glory to come. By God’s grace we have a vision that will encourage us and sustain us even if hope itself seems lost. AMEN.