February 11, 2024 Sermon

The Rev. Joseph Farnes

Transfiguration Sunday

February 11, 2024

            Elijah and Elisha make this long journey together. They both know that soon Elijah will be taken away, but Elisha won’t let him go away alone. Elijah gently tries to give his apprentice prophet permission to go, but Elisha won’t let Elijah go. Elijah keeps telling Elisha, “God’s sent me just a little further on.” And Elisha says he will stay by Elijah’s side.

            The companies of prophets come out and tell Elisha that Elijah will be taken away by God soon. And Elisha tells them that he knows, and that they should stay quiet.

            In reading this passage, I’ve always felt that pang of grief in Elisha’s heart. He deeply cares for Elijah. He knows that he’s going to be with God – but that means Elijah is going to a place where Elisha will not be. Elisha will not see Elijah face-to-face anymore on this side of eternity.

            Most times I have read this story, I’ve focused on Elisha’s dedication to Elijah. But what if we turn it around? Elijah knows what is ahead for him. He knows that God will be taking him away, and he’s ready.

            But his apprentice, Elisha, is grieving this loss that is about to come. He knows Elisha is having a hard time letting go. It’s inevitable, and at best it’s being postponed. Each time Elisha promises he’ll accompany Elijah, Elijah adds the next step. “God’s sending me to Bethel. God’s sending me to Jericho. God’s sending me beyond the Jordan. God’s sending me far, far away, Elisha … you don’t have to follow.” But Elisha promises to follow Elijah all the way.

            I imagine Elijah looking at Elisha with a soft smile. Elijah is ready, but Elisha is not. Elisha’s heart is breaking, and Elijah’s heart breaks for this apprentice prophet.

            And when Elisha asks for a double-share of Elijah’s spirit, perhaps it’s asking for a double share of his inheritance, as was fitting for a first-born son. Elisha loves Elijah as if Elijah were his father – and he wants to know that Elijah loves him as a son. Elisha wants to be Elijah’s beloved son, the prophetic son of a great prophet.

            But Elijah tells Elisha that this is not his call to make. If Elisha sees Elijah being taken up, then he has inherited that double-share of the prophetic spirit. Elijah loves Elisha with fatherly affection, but it is God that makes a prophet. A king’s son may eventually one day become a king, and back in that day a priest’s son may grow up to become a priest, but a prophet is solely by God’s call. Elijah is not beginning a dynasty of prophecy, and it is not his call to anoint a successor – if there is even to be a successor. A prophet is called by God, and God alone. A prophet like Elijah, or a prophet like Moses, is called by God.

            We forget that Moses was also a prophet. In the usual interpretation of the Transfiguration story, Moses stands in for the Law and Elijah stands in for the Prophets, but both are described as prophets in the Bible. Moses saw God face-to-face, and Elijah was present with God in the silence on the mountain and was swept up by God in a chariot of flame. Prophets who not only spoke the words God has given them, but these two were prophets who had this intimate closeness with God. They are prophets and mystics.

            And Moses and Elijah have deep tenderness. Mysticism does not deny the wonders and holiness of creation. Elijah has deep tenderness for Elisha, he knows Elisha’s grief. And Moses wishes that everyone were prophets, not just a select few, and his frustration and exhaustion for Israel’s repeated failures emerge from a heart that cares so much.

            Jesus is Transfigured in glory, but it’s not about the glory. He is the beloved Son, he is God incarnate, he is the one that prophets have longed to see face-to-face. And like the prophets and mystics Moses and Elijah, his heart is tender toward us. Jesus will be journeying along now the way of Lent with us – and he knows where he has been sent. He has decided to walk the way of our pain and suffering, taking it into himself that we may not be alone. Jesus is going to Jerusalem, and to the cross on Golgotha, and to the tomb, and beyond.

            So to return to Elijah and Elisha – maybe it wasn’t Elisha that was accompanying Elijah. Maybe it was Elijah who was accompanying Elisha, walking with his apprentice in his grief.

            And maybe it’s not us accompanying Jesus in the way of the cross and the resurrection – it’s Jesus accompanying us as we walk this way.

            Jesus and Elijah looking on us tenderly. They are aware that we know what’s ahead. They know our stumbling. They know how, in our best moments, we will follow them the long distance, even though we so often get distracted. In our daily lives we go to Jerusalem; we go through our daily lives with endless distraction and chaos. And we go to Golgotha; times of trial and pain that rip apart the world we know, and we feel so alone. And we go to the Tomb; as we will hear on Ash Wednesday, we all will one day die. And, we go beyond that – to a life that overcomes death.

            And Jesus is accompanying us every step.

            Maybe we should be asking Jesus for a double-share of his Spirit, to inherit the mantle upon his shoulders when he ascends, to be chosen to carry on Jesus’ ministry and prophecy and mystical prayer.

            So yes, Lent is coming soon. We shall go like Elisha onward, to Jerusalem, and Golgotha, and the tomb and beyond. We shall see our Lord ascend into heaven, and then on Pentecost we inherit a wondrous share of the Spirit.             On this mountain we have seen a marvelous miracle – and the journey ahead this marvelous miracle shall accompany us with deep tenderness.