2 Kings 2:1-12
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.
13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, 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[a] 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, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
These are big stories packed with multiple meanings. So I’m going to narrow our focus to talk about the gifts of seeing and hearing in the midst of change and transition. As a nation we are transitioning from one administration to another, and it has been the kind of transition that CNN and Fox News love because it is full of the drama and tension that make for good ratings. Even though the whole business has been a bit of a train wreck, it is a train wreck that we care about and many of us have been watching and listening to the news.
In the story of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, there is a transition from one head prophet to the next. Elisha has been in training, a member of this group called the “company or school of prophets,” and now God has appointed him to take Elijah’s place. There is also a transition taking place in Israel’s government from king Ahab who has perpetuated evil and chaos, to king Jehu whose reforms will bring the nation back into greater alignment with God’s desires for justice and peace, mercy and compassion.
In the story of Jesus, there is a transition underway from the ministry of Jesus to the ministry of the disciples. Like Elisha long ago, the disciples are in training. Just before Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, he has told them that he must suffer and be killed, and that following him calls them to give up the deep impulse to save their own lives (physical, psychological, economic lives). Jesus promises that if they follow his way, they will find true life, abundant life as God’s beloved, who love others purely and profligately. What Jesus is trying to tell them makes zero sense. Peter argued with Jesus. Tried to convince him that nobody needs to die. Peter has sharpened his sword. He is ready to march on the Roman capital and win the day. So as they all ascend that mountain, I imagine Jesus is bone weary from his efforts to prepare these disciples, and from the press of crowds who come to him for wisdom and healing. And the disciples, I imagine, are feeling confused and anxious about what comes next. They are clearly not ready for Jesus to be gone.
And I imagine that as Elisha faithfully goes with his teacher Elijah from place to place he is feeling some sadness that he will lose his companion and some anxiety about the transition, and whether he can fill Elijah’s sandals. Elijah was confident and courageous. A prophet who held the king and his minions accountable to what God desires. So Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of the spirit that has rested on him. And Elijah says, “If you see….If you see me taken up by God….If you see beyond this earthbound space….If you see more than the human eye ordinarily sees, then you will receive what you ask for.” Elisha does see beyond the veil and does receive a double dose of the Spirit’s presence and power.
Does Jesus take the disciples up the mountain to see if they are able see more than the human eye ordinarily sees? Does Jesus know that the thin curtain that separates heaven and earth will be pulled back? Does Jesus know that the boundaries of time and space will disappear for a few seconds to join past and future in this present moment where the light that is God will make him shine like the sun? The disciples do see it, and they are terrified. They don’t know what they are seeing or what it means, but Peter, who has sharpened his sword for battle, now decides that staying right here on the mountaintop, wrapped in the glorious light is just about the best idea he has ever had. They are all safe here. They needn’t ever go back down into the press of human need, and the mess that comes of human greed, and the instinctual drive to save our own lives.
My favorite teacher in graduate school was in a horrible car accident, sustained life-threatening injuries, and while being rolled into the operating room, he was suddenly filled with warmth, surrounded by light and spontaneously healed. That experience propelled him back into the world with eyes to see himself and the world wrapped in the light, the Spirit, the life of God. The dramatic breakthroughs, the epiphanies, the sudden rending of the veil of clay do not happen to all of us—but they happen for all of us. They are God’s gifts to all of us. The stories, the witnesses are given to transfigure our seeing, to change our perception of ourselves and others and of this world.
On the top of that mountain, the dazzling light disappears and a cloud overshadows everyone. And suddenly seeing is not the most important sense. Hearing is what matters. A voice says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” There are so many voices speaking into our lives, and so many competing claims about what is true and what is false, and so much confusing talk about what it means to follow Jesus in his living, dying, and rising. We don’t need a mystical experience or a dramatic epiphany to know and understand what Jesus says and does and calls us to. Like the prophet Elisha who walks with Elisha to the end, in the midst of all the changes and transitions we undergo, we just need to keep walking with Jesus, and keep listening to the words he speaks. To fulfill our prophetic calling as the Body of Christ, as a people who see, and hear, and speak and live out the whole truth—together we just keep walking with and listening to Jesus, the beloved Son, the faithful witness, the embodied light and eternal Word of God.