The Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year B
14 February 2021
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
The first time I remember articulating that I wanted to be a pastor was when I was in grade one. The boys in the class were talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most wanted to be firefighters or police officers. I wanted to be a pastor, which even then struck the other kids as odd.
That desire stayed with me all those years and I have always interpreted it as a sign of God’s call.
When I was ready to enrol in seminary I was interviewed by the bishop and the chair of the board of synod council. This was in Germany but that was pretty much the equivalent. I had come from a congregation whose pastor had few if any favours with the synod and so in the interview I was scrutinized as to whether I may be carbon copy of my home pastor.
I must admit that I also had not read a lot of theology and had not questioned my reasons for seeking to be a pastor.
I was asked how I understood the role of a pastor. And I was given a few models.
Perhaps as an intercessor who intercedes on behalf of the people before God. Sort of like Moses. The people rebel, God gets angry, Moses intercedes, and God relents.
Thinking about this so many years later, I imagine that there must also have been the question whether the pastor filled the role of the sage (and therapist?) in the community to which people would turn with their questions.
The last one I remember was whether I saw myself as one endowed with the Holy Spirit in which others would see the presence of God. They key to the question lay in the contrast between the one endowed with the Holy Spirit and everyone else. This one would speak prayers that possessed a certain power.
It wasn’t a terribly comfortable interview and not realizing the relationship between synod and my pastor, it was only in retrospect that I understood what they were trying to learn.
The prophet Elijah in our first reading reminded me of that interview, particularly of the model where one person is gifted with the Spirit in a ways that others are not. It does not describe me but it describes Elijah and Elisha.
Our reading from 2 Kings includes fireworks, literally. It is the story of the ascent of the prophet Elijah into heaven and the anointing of his successor and disciple Elisha who from now on calls Israel and its kings to faithfulness to the God who had led them out of Egypt.
Elijah is a miracle worker like no other.
Elijah’s first miracle is for the widow of Zarephath where he ensures during a drought and famine that he had called, that her meal and oil never run out. He also brings back to life the son of the widow. (1 Kings 17)
Later, Elijah engages in a competition with pagan prophets which he wins handily (of course, it is YHWH who wins the competition). After Elijah has called fire from heaven to burn the bull offered as sacrifice to God the famine comes to an end. Something the pagan prophets had been unable to bring about. (1 Kings 18)
In the chapter before today’s reading King Ahab’s son Ahaziah wants to settle Elija’s account and sends 50 men to Elijah, likely to arrest him or to do some other thing to him. Instead, they are devoured by a fire that Elijah had summoned from heaven. This happens twice and later in the chapter the King dies.
Elijah is an enigmatic figure who finally ascends into heaven in a whirlwind, accompanied by a chariot of fire and horses of fire. Elijah is only one of two biblical characters who ascend into heaven without first dying.1 Yet it is his life as much as the circumstances of Elijah’s ascension that have fuelled expectations of his return.
Walter Brueggemann suggests that what Elijah is doing is calling the royal court and the people to an either or alternative. Either you follow YHWH, or you follow Baal. This is very much reminiscent of Jesus saying that we cannot serve two masters.
Elijah calls Israel to return to be unlike all other nations. Brueggemann identifies the same theme also in the speech of Isaiah to those in exile in Babylon. It would have been easy to lose their identity, to forget who they were, and join the empire that had enslaved them. Yet, Isaiah calls the people to leave Babylon, to go home to Jerusalem, and to worship the God who had led them out of Egypt and was leading them out of Babylon.
To either belong to YHWH or to Baal was the alternative for Israel, and it is also the alternative for the church today.
To remember that we are God’s and not our own will direct us in different ways than the belief that we are self-made men and women and can do whatever we want.
To remember that all things are God’s gift will help us be stewards of these gifts, for the benefit of others and for the generations coming after us.
To remember that our allegiance is with God means that we will not swear allegiance to the rulers of this world and when the ways of the rulers of this world conflict with the ways of God, we choose the way of life.
The wonder of the Elijah and Elisha stories lies in their ability to see possibility where others see despair and compromise with the empire, with the world. The fact that Elijah ascended into heaven keeps this hope alive, which is why Jews at the Passover hold a seat for Elijah at their table.
There are more characters in our reading from 2 Kings. These characters are the company of prophets. While Elijah’s passing of the mantle to Elisha, and Elisha’s continuing ministry seem to be the focus of the story, there is a company of prophets also. These are part of the 100 God-fearing prophets Obadiah had protected from Jezebel. They are the ones who keep asking Elisha whether he knows that this day God will take his master away from him. And Elijah’s sin in 1 Kings 19, after the slaughter of the Baal’s prophets is that he declares himself to be the only righteous who is left in all of Israel, when God declares to him that God had preserved 7000 who shall not bow their knees to Baal.
And so, while this story appears to be about two heroic individuals who in the name of God denounced injustice and idol worship, something like the model of ministry proposed to me so many years ago, and while it is true that Elijah’s mantle is passed on only to Elisha, there is the company of prophets, there are more than one, and this is not the tale of a lone ranger.
Later, God will speak through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
In the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit is poured out on all disciples.
And that means that we can have the courage to be different, to be God’s people, to choose God over the tinsel of the world, to remember that we are not our own but that our lives belong to God, to remember that all things belong to God, and to swear allegiance to God alone.
Flannery O’Conner once wrote, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
We are God’s peculiar people’s, we are not like all other nations.
1 the other one is Enoch (Gen. 5:24)