February 14, 2021


2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-9

“Transfigure us, O Lord”

I haven’t often preached on the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. My first congregation in Saskatoon had a long-standing tradition of holding a special service about the ministry of Presbyterian World Service and Development on the Sunday before Lent each year. Then they would raise money for a PWS&D project as part of their Lenten discipline, and that worked well. But it meant that we always skipped the Transfiguration, so it’s only recently that I’ve had to grapple with this strange and wonderful story.

On this last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany, and the Sunday before we begin the Season of Lent, we hear one of the most spectacular epiphany stories. As you may know, “epiphany” means “showing forth” and this story “shows forth” and reveals Jesus as a prophet par excellence, and above all, as God’s Beloved Child.

The SALT Lectionary commentary helpfully describes the importance of the passage, making me wonder how we could skip over it for so many years. It explains that “The episode takes place at almost the exact midpoint of Mark’s Gospel, as well as its highest geographical elevation.

“In broad strokes, the first eight chapters describe Jesus’ ministry of healing and liberation, and the last eight chapters describe the descent into Jesus’ passion and death, arriving finally at the stunning news of his empty tomb. The Transfiguration stands as the fulcrum, the pivot point between these two great movements in Mark’s symphony.”

While we continued to avoid the story in my Presbyterian congregation, I did encounter it when I attended worship in my husband’s Catholic Church. And almost every time it came up, the music ministers would choose this song by hymn writer, Bob Hurd:

Transfigure us, O Lord, transfigure us, O Lord.
Break the chains that bind us; speak your healing word,
and where you lead we’ll follow. Transfigure us, O Lord.

And I was baffled. Why were we singing about ourselves being transfigured when the story was all about Jesus? I mean, there were a few disciples with him up on the mountain, but it was Jesus’ clothes that became dazzling and bright. It was Jesus’ status that was raised up by the appearance of the great prophets Moses and Elijah talking with him. And when the cloud overshadowed them and the voice came out from it, God was speaking about Jesus when it was declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

It was Jesus’ identity as the Son of God that was being revealed – shining forth so brightly and being proclaimed so clearly that the disciples could not miss it or ignore it. And yet, the hymn writer suggests that we pray “Transfigure us, O Lord.”

Although the Transfiguration story is included in the Lectionary every year on the Sunday before Lent, it is matched up with a different story from the Old Testament in each of the three years of the cycle. This year (Year B) we heard another strange and spectacular story about the prophet Elijah at the end of his life. Often, exploring one of the readings illuminates the other, so I decided to spend some time delving deeply into the story of Elijah and Elisha and the day that Elijah was swept up into the sky in a chariot of fire caught in a whirlwind.

The story that inspired the African-American Spiritual, “Swing low, sweet chariot” tells us about the unusual end of the Prophet Elijah’s life in this world. Rather than going through the process of dying like the rest of us human beings, Elijah is instead swept up into heaven. Instead of dying, he is simply taken by God, raising the possibility that he might return again, and providing also the hope that there is another reality beyond this physical world where life continues in the presence of God.

But as much as those are the miraculous and spectacular parts of the story, this story is more about Elisha than Elijah, the latter’s triumphal ascension into heaven notwithstanding. It is Elisha who is transformed in this passage – and transfigured beyond his role as Elijah’s apprentice to a completely new place.

First, we see him walking with his mentor and friend. He’s already been walking with Elijah for some time, listening and learning from the great prophet in whose steps he feels called to follow. That sounds a lot like the disciples, doesn’t it? Peter, James, John and the others had responded to Jesus’ call, dropped their nets, and followed him on the Way.

And at this point in the story, both the mentor and the student know that Elijah will not be present for much longer. The other prophets ask Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he says, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

Does that remind you of the Gospel stories too? It should. Because it’s later in the same chapter of Mark that Jesus says to his disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

The difference, of course, is that the disciples don’t get it. They don’t understand why Jesus must die. They push back against this possibility. And when the betrayal begins to unfold, they all eventually abandon him. In contrast, Elisha is determined to stay with his teacher. “As long as the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” And they travel on together.

Now, before Elijah is taken up, he has a final conversation with Elisha. It makes me think of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, of his final act of washing their feet and showing them how they must continue to live in the world after he is gone. Elijah says to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha says, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

It sounds like a very bold request, and it is. The spirit (ruach, in Hebrew) refers to the energy equipping a person with power, wisdom, bravery, and physical capacity. Elisha is asking for the vitality and the authority characteristic of Elijah’s ministry so that he can continue his work.

I discovered that a “double portion” doesn’t mean that he wants twice as much spirit and power as Elijah had, but he wants the special inheritance reserved for a first-born son. You see, a “double portion” was the share of inheritance the elder son and legitimate successor received from his father in the patriarchal structure of ancient Israel.

Elisha is honouring Elijah as his spiritual father, showing his commitment to follow in his footsteps – a path that will not be glorious, but risky, difficult, and burdensome. One commentator, David Lose, puts it like this: “To be Elijah’s heir, as it turns out, means far more than simply to do similar miracles; it is to go wherever the prophet goes, to bear the same burdens, to risk the same hardship, to venture into times of both solitariness and solidarity in order to receive and ultimately bear the word of the Lord.”

This is, of course, what it means for the disciples to follow Jesus also. They also will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen them. Before Jesus’ own ascension into heaven, he will promise not to leave them orphaned. He will depart, but he will ask the Father to send another Comforter, another Advocate, another Empowerer to help them – and to help us.

Elijah, however, does not immediately promise Elisha that he will receive the spirit. Perhaps Elijah doesn’t have the power to grant it himself. Maybe that’s God’s prerogative to determine where the spirit settles. But he tells Elisha to watch as he is taken up into heaven. And if Elisha sees Elijah as he goes up, then he’ll receive the spirit. Elisha must witness Elijah’s departure with his own eyes, and be brought to a new place – transfigured by it.

At first, it may seem like an odd requirement. Why would Elisha’s calling to be a prophet following after Elijah be determined by whether or not he could watch as Elijah was taken? One thing I notice is that Elisha keeps watching and crying out with emotion and despair. His friend and mentor is disappearing, and he will be alone. When finally he can no longer see the prophet, he grasps his own clothes and tears them in two pieces.

In other words, he is devastated. He grieves. He does not remove himself from the situation to protect his heart, but he stays with Elijah and watches as he is taken, and lets himself be vulnerable to the pain and sorrow of that loss.

Think of the disciples once more… how hard it was for them to stay with Jesus through his passion and death. While a few of the women looked on, most of them fled. They protected their hearts, they protected their bodies, and it wasn’t until later that they also would accept the vulnerability and risk involved in continuing his ministry in the world.

The lectionary ends the reading of Elijah and Elisha’s story at the end of verse 12 with Elisha tearing his clothes in despair and grief, but the story does continue: Elisha picks up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and goes back and stands on the bank of the Jordan. He takes the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and strikes the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” And when he strikes the water, the water is parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha goes over.

In other words, the spirit does indeed rest of Elisha, and Elisha will have the power and authority to do miracles and wonders, and to proclaim the words of God to the people. He has been transfigured.

The transfiguration of the disciples on the mountaintop takes a little longer. They will look upon the revelation of Jesus as God’s Beloved Child, and they will go down the mountain with him and struggle to enter into the vulnerability and risk of his passion and death. Eventually, they will embrace Jesus’ Way and they will be gifted with the Holy Spirit too. They will be transformed and transfigured from fearful and self-centered individuals into the church – the Body of Christ – living courageously and ministering hopefully in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God.

As we begin the Season of Lent this week, I hope this may be a time for us to enter into that same kind of transformation. Whether we give something up for Lent, or we take on a new spiritual practice of prayer or study, or we invest our time and resources into service and mission in a new way… I hope this will be a season of entering into the passion of Jesus.

You see, the Way we are called to follow as Christians is not primarily marked by glory and wonder and mountaintop experiences of faith and joy. We may get a few of those like the early disciples did, and we can be thankful for that.

But the Way of Christ is a difficult one – a way of service and sacrifice, of trusting God through uncertainty and sorrow, of picking up the mantle of our calling and continuing the journey. When we respond to Christ’s call to follow him, we are choosing to accept the vulnerability and risk that he embraced, so that we may be transfigured into the living presence of Christ in the world today.

May this be our prayer:
Transfigure us, O Lord, transfigure us, O Lord.
Break the chains that bind us; speak your healing word,
and where you lead we’ll follow. Transfigure us, O Lord.

Down from heights of glory into the depths below,
the love of God self-emptied, the love of God to show.
You light the path before us, the way that we must go.

Transfigure us, O Lord, transfigure us, O Lord.
Break the chains that bind us; speak your healing word,
and where you lead we’ll follow. Transfigure us, O Lord.