A Reading from the Second Book of 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.” 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. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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.
1 The Lord, the God of gods, has spoken; *
he has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, *
God reveals himself in glory.
3 Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
4 He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.
5 “Gather before me my loyal followers, *
those who have made a covenant with me
and sealed it with sacrifice.”
6 Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; *
for God himself is judge.
A Reading from the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (4:3-6)
If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark (9:2-9)
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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 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.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
So what are we supposed to do with the accounts in today’s first reading and gospel reading: stories describing things that we have never seen or are ever likely to see in our lifetimes, things that that just don’t happen in the world in which we live?
First, the prophet Elijah is walking along, accompanied by his protégé, Elisha, when “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them.” And looking past, or maybe through, this bizarre, flaming sight, Elisha sees his mentor being picked up by a whirlwind and carried up into the sky.
Next we hear about Jesus and his three closest companions hiking up a mountain, when suddenly his clothes become unimaginably bright and start shining. Then two men appear out of thin air and stand there talking with him; and the three observers somehow determine that these two newcomers are actually heroic figures from Israel’s past: one from over 800 years earlier, and the other from over 1200 years earlier.
What can we possibly make of these accounts: we who live our lives in what is mostly a practical, down-to-earth world, one in which most people no longer take stories like these literally? If somebody we know were to come up to us today, claiming to have seen these same sorts of things happening, we would probably start backing away slowly and start suggesting that they get some professional help in dealing with their hallucinations.
Come to think of it, why do we even retell these stories here at our church service, year after year, on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, right before we enter into the much more practical and down-to-earth season of Lent?
Maybe what our liturgy is trying to do is to remind us of a greater reality: not one that suddenly appears and then is gone again — like the visions seen, in the one case, by Elisha and, in the other, by Peter, James and John — but one that is always present, even though we can’t often perceive it. Maybe it is trying to pull us back for a few moments from the ever-present immersion in the details and concerns of our everyday lives so that we can be reminded of and catch a momentary glimpse of the big picture: the ultimate context in which we live day-in and day-out, namely the presence and life of God.
At one time, in the 19th and very early 20th centuries, scientists and philosophers and those who idealized them tended to approach all of reality as something that could be fully comprehended, that could be precisely measured, and, with sufficient data, whose future could be accurately predicted. But then, we began to recognize how little we actually know and how little we actually perceive of even this so-called “ordinary” world in which we live. We began to realize that there were aspects of this world that we could no longer measure or predict exactly, but for which we could only give probabilities. We came to recognize that, at the most minute, quantum levels, reality is not at all what we perceive it to be. Eventually we came to realize that 95% of our physical universe is apparently made up of what we call “dark matter” and “dark energy”: which are just terms for things that we have no idea what they are.
And that’s just the physical world in which we live. Yet even more intangible and mysterious are those dimensions of life that people experience for which we have no so-called “sensible” or “rational” explanation. In the course of our lives, all of us have experiences that touch us in a deep and lasting way and that occur at precisely the right time to have that powerful effect; and we find it nearly impossible to relegate their occurrence to chance alone. Some people feel intensely the presence of a loved one who might be living far away or even of one who has died. And at times, all of us seem to perceive in a very vivid and powerful way the presence of a reality that we can neither see nor hear nor touch: as though nothing but a very thin veil separates that reality from the daily world in which we live.
The practice of our faith and especially the church’s liturgy open us up to that greater reality, helping us to recognize that we live our entire lives in it even though we don’t always perceive it or allow ourselves to sense it. Robert Ferrar Capon, the late author and Episcopal priest, reminded us of that fact in his book, Hunting the Divine Fox. He wrote: “Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate idea, and the hopeless quest.”
People struggling, either with their own faith or maybe even with the whole idea of faith, sometimes ask what place God has or might have in their lives. Over the years, I have suggested that they have the question backwards. The real question, the far deeper question, is what place we and our lives have in God, for God is the far greater, all-encompassing reality.
Maybe seemingly strange stories, like the ones that we heard in our readings this morning, can serve to remind us of that greater, all-encompassing Presence. Maybe our weekly liturgy can enable us to sense, if only for an hour or so a week, that Ultimate Reality. And in doing do, our time in worship can serve to refresh and renew us so that, throughout the week, we might better recognize that our entire life is part of something far greater than we can often perceive, and that all our life is lived in God: the one in whom we and all creation “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).