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  • Writer's pictureRev Kalantha Brewis

The Sunday Next Before Lent

Today we are looking at two passages- one from the book of 2 Kings, and the other from Mark’s Gospel- both  involving Elijah and heavenly visions!

2 KINGS 2, starting at Verse 1

2 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 Lordlives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets[a] 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[b] 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[c] 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.

MARKS GOSPEL: Chapter 9, starting at verse 2

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[b] 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,[c] 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;[d] 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. 

Well- where to start- we have some extraordinary readings to reflect on today.  I’d encourage you every week, but I particularly want to encourage you today to take your pew sheets home and read and re-read the scriptures  we have just heard because, honestly, they are pretty mind blowing and I definitely can’t do justice to them in the space of a single sermon.

Our gospel reading is set just a few verses after Peter has recognised Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus has then explained that he will be rejected and killed. Peter, in distress, has rebuked Jesus- protesting that this must not happen. Jesus responds with those terrible words “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but in human things”

Well- the next thing we know, Peter is given something truly divine to set his mind upon- a completely awe inspiring vision- not just a vision in fact, but a vision accompanied by the voice of God speaking out of the clouds. Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, with Moses and Elijah appearing beside him- Elijah who had been taken body and soul into heaven, Moses who had been dead for over 1000 years…all of a sudden these three- the Lord’s Messiah, and the great prophet, and the great law giver, are surrounded by light, in deep conversation on a mountain top.

No wonder Peter is reduced to talking nonsense- shall I build you a tent?? I mean- that would be me- saying something prize winningly inappropriate just as God’s glory is revealed- that fear and awe and disorientation and disbelief- what and who are they seeing, what and who are they hearing? James and John don’t do be doing anything at all- other than being terrified.

In our old testament reading we read about the vision Elisha has of Elijah being swept up in the fiery chariot, leaving Elisha weeping and tearing his clothes- a whirlwind, horses of fire- whatever they are, a fiery chariot, sweeping the prophet up and ascending into the heavens with him.

Again, this follows Elisha’s realisation that Elijah is to be taken from him: he and Elijah come across two groups of prophets and they both say “You do know what’s going to happen today, don’t you?”, and to each of them Elisha basically responds- I don’t want to talk about it”- the idea of being separated from Elijah is as painful to him as the idea of Jesus’s death is to Peter. He follows Elijah from one place to the next, determined not to let the man out of his sight. Elijah keeps trying to shake him off- “stay here while I go to Bethel” or “stay here while I go to Jericho”, but Elisha is having none of it, faithfully following along to Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho and the Jordan with unwavering steadfastness and commitment.

Just as its true for Elisha, its true for peter james and john that the master they follow will be snatched away from them in ways they don’t understand, and that they will have to take on the mantle- in Elisha’s case, literally, and carry forward the work that their master has started.

For both Peter and Elisha, there is a supernatural and terrifying vision

So- what does this mean? What do these passages tell us today? Most of us, I am willing to bet, have not seen any fiery chariots or heard any voices booming out of the clouds lately. And yet, we are all invited to experience something of the transcendent, inexplicable glory of God. Visions that touch our hearts and change our perspectives.

 

There is something – I think- in both these passages- about an assurance that when our hearts really ache, when we are really longing for closeness to God, really seeking an understanding, we will be given the vision we need to keep going- even if that vision comes in the middle of loss or confusion or uncertainty- somehow God will be revealed in ways that resource us- just as that vision of Jesus transfigured must have strengthened and encouraged Peter, James and John as they went down the mountainside, even though they knew- they still knew- that Jesus was facing death.

Going deep into prayer, we may not come out with anything close to the kind of answer we had hoped for or expected, but nonetheless we may find that we have received enough to keep us going- a glimmer of God’s glory to renew our faith and keep us trusting. For Elisha, that vision of the chariot means that he does, in fact, receive the prophetic spirit of Elijah- he is given the strength and wisdom he needs to continue the work Elijah had started, teaching the people of Israel, performing miracles, healing the sick, even raising the dead. Simply knowing what the Lord CAN do gives us confidence in what the Lord WILL do, makes us, perhaps, more ready to step out of our comfort zones and into the wildness of our untameable and unsearchable God.

But for me the heart of our learning today comes from this phrase in the Gospel Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no-one with them any more, but only Jesus.

When everything else is stripped away, Peter, James and John are left simply looking at Jesus.  All they really need is to know and follow him, to go back down the mountainside keeping him in their sights.

Unlike poor Elisha who is left on his own by the Jordan; Peter, James and John are not left comfortless and alone.

 They have Jesus to follow, as their teacher, friend and  redeemer- God’s anointed – the well beloved Son.

Christ Jesus is all we need- after the clouds have rolled away and the visions of Moses and Elijah have vanished from sight, and the booming heavenly voice has faded to silence, all we need is to see Jesus and to follow Jesus.

As we come to the beginning of Lent, this is what we are called to do- to see only Jesus. That is why we give things up for Lent- we try to strip away distractions that take our focus from Jesus, or self-indulgences that blunt our instincts of love. That is why some of us will give more during Lent to charities than we normally would, donating the money that would otherwise be spent on beer or chocolate or lottery tickets. We seek to practice love, and so to draw closer to Christ, who is love.

Some of us will give up particular foods during lent because we know that when life gets tough we comfort ourselves with cake or chocolate instead of confronting our pain and taking it to the foot of the cross, asking for Christ’s help in fixing our difficult relationships or our sense of self doubt or our grief. We seek Christ’s presence, instead of the presence of a biscuit tin.

Some of us take up an extra discipline of prayer during Lent, an extra 10 minutes in the day, or an extra habit- praying each time we boil the kettle, or each time we get in the car, or as we get ready for the day. We seek the company of Christ through our day. 

All we need is that one, simple thing. If, instead of seeing all the other clutter of our lives, we were really able to simply focus on the person and example and love of Jesus, our lives and our communities would be revolutionised. Imagine, just for a moment, seeing only Jesus, as your friend, your guide, your help and your Lord. What does that feel like? The only thing in your line of vision is Jesus, on the mountaintop, waiting for you to follow him back down into whatever the day might hold for you.

He's not necessarily leading us into easy places, but wherever he goes, if we follow, we can be sure he has gone before us, and if he has gone before us, we have nothing to fear. He calls us over all the noise and nonsense we find ourselves surrounded by- our Lord and our God. This Lent, let’s renew ourselves by gazing only on him, and listening to his voice.

Amen

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