Transfiguration B: Veiled Glory

 

Fog on mountaintopOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Kings 2: 1-12

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

At the beginning of this passage, we’re given the hint that Elijah will soon be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah has up until now been the key prophetic voice through the region. Now that he is about to depart the scene, the stage is set for the choosing of Elisha as his successor. Elisha is depicted as refusing to leave Elijah’s side. He is obviously very committed to him. He is determined to follow him to the end. It is obvious that Elisha is not being led into this mission unknowingly. He clearly knows what he is being asked to do.

Elijah’s mantle, which he uses to part the waters, is a symbol of his authority and power, the equivalent of Moses’ rod. The implication is that his power resembles that of Moses’. Once they have crossed the Jordan, they are now in the region where Moses had died, where long ago, a mantle had also been handed over. There Elisha asks for a double-portion (an allusion to the legal right of a first-born son). It used to strike me that he was being a little demanding or greedy. Here he essentially asks for twice the wisdom that Elijah had, twice the authority, and a double helping of Elijah’s spirit. Perhaps he was just so unsure that he was prepared for the job that he was about to be asked to do, that he felt he needed this added affirmation. Perhaps in an odd sort of way this was not a case of Elisha feeling entitled but, rather, humbled at the very prospect of what he was being called to do and who he was being called to follow. Perhaps he thought that he was “half” the person that Elijah was.

The whole idea of the chariots and the horsemen almost a resemble a sort of war. In Israel’s ideology of holy war, the Lord’s celestial hosts fight along with and on behalf of the terrestrial hosts, the armies of Israel. It hints at the type of ministry that Elisha will have. The tearing of his shirt indicates a traditional expression of grief. Seeing Elijah leave was like seeing the body of a loved one go; this was real. The mission was now his. One could read this as a time of transition in Israel. The great prophet Elijah was no longer around, having been taken up into heaven. But you could also read it as a time of continuation. The prophetic role is still firmly in place.

We can understand why this text is included in this week’s lection choices. After all, Elijah will once again make an appearance in the depiction of the Transfiguration account that we will read from the Gospel According to Mark. But, really, this is more a story about Elisha and the way he is transformed into one who is faithful to God and to who God has called him to be. It is a lesson to us about our own calling to be transformed, to be transfigured, into who we are meant to be. Elisha wanted desperately to hold onto Elijah, to hold onto his leader, his mentor, his friend. But part of transformation is about letting go and letting newness and recreation happen. For years, Elisha had been doing ministry, working in the midst of the shadow of Elijah. The shadow now was gone and it was Elisha’s turn to walk into the light. Even in the midst of his honest and human grief, he had to go on. He had to take the reins. He was prepared, he had been given the resources that would need, whether or not he knew it.

The truth is that this is not a story about prophetic succession or the passing of mantles. It’s not about Elijah and Elisha; it’s about God. That’s what true leadership is, when you think about it—to lead others to where they need to be rather than to lead them to where the leader thinks they should go. Sometimes being a great leader means stepping aside and passing the mantle to someone else. It makes us realize that transformation doesn’t just happen on an individual basis but, rather, is woven into the community of faith, into the hearts of all of those who have the humility and the strength to take a part in the play.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your thinking on how Elisha felt about this calling?
  3. What does this passage say about leadership?
  4. How could this passage speak to us today?
  5. How do you see transformation in your own life?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Here Paul is responding to questions about whether or not God has hidden part of the Gospel from view. It is a response, once again, to those who are trying to discredit him. After all, if the things about which he spoke were real and believable, don’t you think others would know this? Don’t you think it would be obvious? Why in the world has God hidden the Godself from plain view? He contends that it was not done for manipulation but, rather, that it simply seems that way because some are indeed blinded to the good news. He claims that there is still a veil that prevents some people from seeing Christ for who Christ is.

He links the creation of light with the light that emanates from Christ. Light, glory, and glow are all ways of expressing God’s presence. There’s a lot here about seeing and veiling. What does it take to see through the veil? And why is there a veil at all? Why didn’t God just make it more obvious to us? Maybe that’s the point. It IS obvious unless one is blinded by the bright lights and “gods” of this world. It IS obvious unless one has quit looking toward it because one has already figured out what he or she thinks they see. It takes a change of vision, a new way of seeing. Paul claims that the message is clear. It is just up to us to see it.

Now this is one of those passages that could easily be misused. I don’t think this is about assigning roles or separating “believers” (those who “see”) from “unbelievers” (those who don’t). We don’t all of a sudden miraculously “see” God and everything falls into place. It is a journey. Seeing is something that is an act of faith. Learning to see is the whole point of our journey of faith. It would be ludicrous for us to claim that there are never times on our journey when we miss seeing the way we are supposed to, when our own desires and our own fears and our own perceptions of God get in the way of the God who comes to us each and very day. But there are also times when we do see it, when the clouds of this world part if only for a moment, when the veil becomes thin enough for us to feel and know the Presence of God that has been there all along. The Celtic tradition would call them “thin places”, places where the “veil” that separated the earth and heaven, the ordinary and the sacred, the human and the Divine, becomes so thin, so translucent, that one gets a glimpse of the glory of God. It is those times and places in our lives where God’s Presence becomes almost palpable and where we cannot help but be transfigured into what God calls us to be. Perhaps it is those times when we don’t just think about God but rather create space enough for the sacred and the Divine to penetrate our lives and our flesh in the deepest part of our being.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How is this Scripture sometimes misused?
  3. What gets in the way of our “seeing” Christ?
  4. What are those “thin places” in your own life?

 

 GOSPEL: Mark 9: 2-9

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

In the big scheme of things, we’ve gotten to this point pretty fast. Here it is—a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants turns out to be the Son of God. He grows up, becomes a teacher, a healer, and capable of hosting large groups of people with just a small amount of leftovers. Then he asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission. They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this great person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And we’ve essentially read through all of this in a matter of a few months since early December. And then one day, Jesus leads them up to a mountain, away from the interruptions of the world.

Now, this is sort of interesting. There is no proof of an actual geographically-charted mountain. It is presented as if it just rose up, uninterrupted, from the terrain, as if it is rather a part of the topography of God. Even for people, such as myself, who cannot claim a single, stand alone, so-called “mountain-top experience” that brought them to Christ but rather came year by year and grew into the relationship…even for us…this IS the mountain-top experience. And there, on that mountain, everything changes.

The clothes that Jesus was wearing change, taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding, white, whiter than anything that they had ever seen before. And on the mountain appeared Elijah and Moses, representing the Law and the prophets, the forerunners of our faith, standing there with Jesus. Peter wanted to build three dwellings to house them. For me, that’s sort of an interesting part of the story. Dwellings…I guess because that would keep them here, essentially bound to our way of living. Dwellings…to control where they were. Dwellings…to somehow put this incredible thing that had happened into something that made sense, to bring it into the light of the world where we could understand it. But, instead, they are veiled by a cloud and from the cloud comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” “Listen to him!” And then they were gone and Jesus stood there alone.

The Greek term for transfiguration is metaphorphosis. It means, literally, to change into something else. That is what this experience does for the disciples and for us. It changes us into something else. The account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to us that it should be the climax of the Jesus story. After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him. But there’s a reason that we read this on the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey. In some ways, it is perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now.

Going back to what we said earlier, this is, of course, the ultimate in thin places. The light is so bright it is blinding. God’s glory is so pervasive that we cannot help but encounter it. And these Old Testament characters? They show us that this is not a one-time “mountain-top” experience. It is part of life; it is part of history; it is part of humanity. Rather than everything of this world being left behind in this moment, it is all swept into being. It all becomes part of the glory of God.

And then the lights dim. There are no chariots, Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking. And in the silence, Jesus starts walking down the mountain toward Jerusalem. From our vantage point, we know what happens there. And he asks us to follow and gives us all the portions we need to do just that. And we can. Because now we see the way to go. Let us now go to Jerusalem and see this thing that has happened.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the term “mountain-top” experience mean for you?
  3. Once again, we are talking about “seeing”. They saw Jesus because they were looking for him. What does that mean for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)

 

Learn to see and then you’ll know that there is no end to the new worlds of our vision. (Carlos Casteneda)

 

A faith that moves mountains is a faith that expands horizons. It does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers, but into a larger one where there is room for wonder. {Rich Mullins}

 

Closing

 

The journey to Bethlehem was much more to my liking. I am content kneeling here, where there’s an aura of angels and the ever-present procession of shepherds and of kings who’ve come to kneel to the Newborn to whom we are newborn. I want to linger here in Bethlehem in joy and celebration, knowing once I set my feet toward Jerusalem, the Child will grow, and I will be asked to follow.

 

The time of Light and Angels is drawing to a close. Just when I’ve settled contentedly into the quiet wonder of Star and Child, He bids me leave and follow. How can I be expected to go back into darkness after sitting mangerside, bathed in such Light?

 

It’s hard to get away this time of year; I don’t know how I’ll manage. It’s not just the time…the conversation along the way turns from Birth to Death. I’m not sure I can stand the stress and pain; I have enough of those already. Besides, I’ve found the lighting on the road to Jerusalem is very poor. This time around, there is no Star…

 

The shepherds have left; they’ve returned to hillside and to sheep. The Magi, too, have gone, having been warned in a dream, as was Joseph, who packed up his family and fled. If I stay in Bethlehem, I stay alone. God has gone on toward Jerusalem.

 

Amen. (“Looking Toward Jerusalem”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 14-15.)

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