Sunday, February 22, 2009

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

This is my beloved Son: hear ye him.

When Moses met God on the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, he came back to earth glowing with an eerie light, a reflection of the glory of God. It was probably quite beautiful, but it was frightening to the people because it was unnatural, they were uncomfortable looking upon his face because they were reminded about how unworthy they were to stand in the presence of holiness. Not that Moses was all that holy: he was human with human foibles and faults. But Moses had lived through standing face to face with God and hearing God’s voice. He was the one to whom God gave the tables of the Law. He was anointed to be leader and given the authority to rule over the people. The people were afraid when Moses had that glow, so Moses covered his face with a veil to hide it. Fear kept the people from seeing God's glory. Fear also makes us misunderstand what we are seeing and hearing.

Our world is full of words. Everyone has something to say and there are so many outlets where they can express their thoughts. Most of the news sites on the Internet post boards where the topics can be discussed by the readers. Reading these discussion boards is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes hysterically funny. Everyone has an opinion and many people are willing to post their thoughts for the world. Unfortunately, sometimes those thoughts are incoherent and unrelated to the topic at hand.

The number of blogs on the Internet has grown, also. It is so easy to set up a site to share whatever comes to mind. Though my format is different than the blogging sites, I’ve been doing it for nearly ten years now with my daily devotional and more than six years with Midweek Oasis! And, there have been some people throughout the years willing to read the words I put to ‘paper.’ I’m sure, however, that in those years I’ve said some things that are foolish or trivial. I’m sure there have been times that someone has disagreed with my point of view. I’ve considered myself very blessed that so many people have found value in my work, but I often shake my head in wonderment as to why. Why do so many people ‘listen’ to me?

The Gospel lesson for this week is an amazing story. Peter, James and John were invited to experience a most incredible moment. They witnessed God briefly breaking through to our world in a powerful tangible way. The Law (seen in Moses) and the Prophets (seen in Elijah) are brought together with the fulfillment of everything they spoke as promises in Jesus Christ. They saw Jesus in a form that is beyond anything earthly. They heard the audible voice of God speak to them personally. This is something we can read and imagine, but we can’t really know what it was like for those three men. We read this story and experience awe, but they were afraid. We think Peter was silly for wanting to build tabernacles, but what would we have done? How would we have responded to this incredible moment?

The message God spoke to the disciples was simple but very powerful, “Listen to Him.” In a world when we have so many voices screaming at us with opinions that are built on biases, it is hard to know to whom we should listen. There’s a commercial on television that says “You know that expert that said this, the one that came on just after the expert that said that.” Which one is right? Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? But God tells us what to do, “Listen to Jesus.” I’m not sure it is that easy, because there are so many voices trying to tell us what Jesus meant, and they rarely agree. But we can listen. We can pray. We can do our best to live as God calls us to live, serving Him with our hearts and our hands and our voices, knowing that God is faithful and that He is more powerful than our failure.

Sometimes the words God speaks to us are frightening. He doesn’t let us stay in our comfort zones. He pushes us out into the world to do the work He’s called us to do. That work is rarely simple. Like Jonah, sometimes we have to share a word of hope with our enemy. Like Job, sometimes we have to face difficulty and pain. Like Ananias, sometimes we have to face those who make us afraid and bring healing and peace to their lives.

Paul was a zealous Jew, set on a course of extermination. He wanted to destroy the new way of seeing, ‘the Way’ as it was called in that day. Luke tells us in the book of Acts that Saul, which was his name at that time, was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He had letters to take to the synagogues of Damascus, giving permission to punish those who were following ‘the Way.’ As he made his way to Damascus on this very important mission, he was struck blind by an incredible light on the road. Inside the light he heard a voice calling out to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Jesus called Saul, whom He renamed Paul, into His ministry with that light. Saul remained blind for three days and during that time he fasted. Jesus sent Ananias to heal his vision and help Saul, Paul, begin his new ministry.

So, it is natural for Paul to talk about the Gospel in terms of light and blindness. He had experienced it himself in a very real and powerful way. He was blind by his own understanding of God, using his knowledge of the scriptures and his position of power in Israel to persecute Christians. He was involved with the death of Stephen, and perhaps many other Christians. He was given the most incredible encounter with the Living Christ, Jesus, who met him on that road to Damascus in a very dramatic way. His conversion experience was certainly something to remember, and something that came up often in his teaching and preaching. He’d been blind, both spiritually and physically, and he’d been healed of both.

It must have been a frightening experience. Paul had done terrible things and he was faced with the reality of how he’d hurt the God he claimed to serve. I wonder if he even felt worthy to be healed, and if he ever questioned God’s judgment in choosing him to take the message to the world. And yet, when the voice is so clearly speaking to you, it is hard to doubt. Paul did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do.

Elisha knew where he needed to be, following Elijah in those final days. The journey left from Gilgal and it was to be Elijah’s last journey. Elijah was prepared to take this journey alone, but Elisha would not leave him. When Elijah said he was going to Bethel, Elisha insisted on going also. At Bethel the company of prophets came forward to tell Elisha that his master was about to be taken away. Elisha answered, “Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.” It happened two more times that Elijah tried to go on without Elisha but Elisha insisted on accompanying him. Emphatically he said, “As Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.” At Jericho a company of prophets met them with the same news; Elijah would be taken away today. Elisha answered again, “Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.”

Again, this must have been a frightening time for Elisha. Was he ready to take on the responsibilities of being God’s prophet? Being a prophet was not a pleasant job, especially if the word God speaks is unpopular. Elisha knew that he would experience persecution and threats, but he also knew that it was where he belonged. He did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is about the proper succession of power. Elijah was about to be taken to heaven and it was time for a new head prophet to be selected. Elisha insisted on accompanying Elijah on his trip, a trip that took them along the journey of previous Hebrew leaders. It was a journey Moses was not allowed to take. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised and restored into a right relationship with God. Elijah traveled back to the Jordan, to go into the land where Moses was buried.

Religious communities were situated at each of those places, gatherings of prophets who did the Lord’s work. They all considered Elijah their father, in the sense that they were sons who might inherit the place as the head prophet. They followed Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan, constantly reminding Elisha that he’d be left alone. Elisha refused to leave Elijah alone, thus showing his commitment to the task that would be required of him. Being a prophet was never easy, and being God’s main voice against the injustice and sin of His people meant persecution.

When they arrived on the opposite bank of the Jordan, Elijah asked Elisha what he could do to repay his loyalty. Elisha asked for a double portion of the spirit. This was not a greedy request. He didn’t want more spirit than Elijah had. Elisha was asking that it be made perfectly clear that he is the true heir and successor to Elijah’s ministry. With so many other ‘sons,’ all of whom may have been hoping that they would become the head prophet, it was important that the inheritance be made clear. The first born, the rightful heir, was always given a double portion of the inheritance—not twice as much as the estate, but twice as much as any other son. Elisha was given what he asked, the mantle of leadership fell on his shoulders and the other prophets recognized him as the head prophet.

Elijah was taken up into heaven suddenly in a fiery chariot, the sign of God’s blessing on Elisha’s ministry. His request was granted. Elisha mourned the loss of his master, but picked up the mantle and returned to the other side of the Jordan. He crossed the same way Elijah had gone over, by hitting the water with the mantle. The water parted and he walked across to the company that waited. They recognized the sign that the spirit of Elijah had fallen on Elisha, but they did not believe that Elijah was gone. They wanted to send a company of men to search far and wide, thinking that God had lifted him and set him down on a mountain or in a valley. They were blinded by their own desires.

From that day forth, the Jews continued to look for Elijah, believing that he would return to announce the coming of the Messiah. He did return. On the way down from the mountaintop Jesus explained to the three disciples that Elijah had returned in John the Baptist. But the leaders missed him and then also missed knowing that Jesus was the one for whom they waited. I suppose they might have believed if they had experienced what Peter, James and John experienced on the top of the mountain.

The transfiguration must have been a most incredible experience. Not only were they on the top of a mountain, but they were there with the Messiah. At that moment, they did hear the voice of God, not in the whisper of the quiet wind but in a voice coming out of the clouds. The words were repeated from Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son.” Whether anyone heard that voice at the Jordan we may never know for sure, but now it was heard by Jesus’ inner circle of friends. It was a moment worth grasping forever. Peter even wanted to build permanent structures so that Moses and Elijah and Jesus would have a place to stay.

But Jesus hurries them off the mountain, back into the valley because He knows that it is in the valleys where life is truly lived. They could not stay on the top of the mountain; they had to get back to work. There were still people who needed healing. There were still demons to be cast out. There were still so many who needed to hear God’s word and learn about God’s kingdom so that they might be saved for eternity. It would not happen if they lingered on the mountain top. The real work was in the valley.

Do you ever feel like you want to go to a place far away, perhaps to the top of a mountain? Have you ever had one of those moments that you never want to end? Those experiences are incredible, but they are not where we should stay. It is time to move on, to get back into the muck and mire of real life to share the Good News with others so that they too might hear the voice of God.

Jesus commanded the disciples to be silent about their experience. Wouldn’t it have been better to tell everyone what they saw? The transfiguration was proof positive that Jesus was who they thought He was. Couldn’t it have helped others to believe? And yet, Jesus did not come to convince everyone that He was God. He came to stand in our place, to go to the cross, to pay the debt we owe. We would know He was the Messiah, but He had to accomplish the cross first.

Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before Lent and the last Sunday of Epiphany. For the past seven weeks we have been experiencing the revealed light of Christ Jesus. In His words, in His healing, in His exorcisms, Jesus showed by powerful signs that He has the authority to forgive sin and make people whole. Some saw His signs as the beginning of an earthly kingdom, a kingdom that could be harnessed and kept on earth. Peter thought so when he offered to build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. If the people had heard the story from the mountain top, they might have tried to keep Jesus from going where He needed to go, not only in the valley but to the cross.

We hear a lot of words each day: on the television, on the radio, between co-workers, family and friends. Some of those words are helpful. They lift us up, give us courage, guide us on our way. Sometimes those words are less than helpful, causing confusion and fear. We might now always know or understand what we should do. We tend to put God in a box, keeping Him small enough so that we can keep some control over our lives, avoiding those things that make us afraid and doing what feels right.

The image of God as judge in Psalm 50 is not a comfortable image for us. He is described as preceded by a devouring fire and angry tempest. He calls forth the heavens and the earth to judge His people. We don’t read the rest of the psalm in today’s lectionary, but in it God calls His people to account for two things: their mindless rituals and the lip service they pay to God. They do not worship with heart, but do everything out of some sense of duty or some idea that God will repay their generosity with blessing. They can recite the laws, but they do not live according to the intent of God’s Law. They’ve lost touch with the God whom they are called to worship and serve.

Unfortunately for us, mindless ritual and lip service is easy. It keeps us in a place where we are comfortable and happy. It helps us to mold the world around us, including the spiritual realm, into a form where we have control. In mindless ritual and lip service we have nothing to fear. But, it is because of the mindless ritual and lip service that some people reject the Gospel message.

Not everyone will see the reality of the Gospel message. They will be blinded, as Paul was blinded for awhile, by the things of this world. He was blinded by his power and his understanding of the scriptural texts. He was blinded by the traditions of his people. He was blinded by his perception of the people who were following ‘the Way.’ He could not see the reality of God’s love and mercy and grace as found in Jesus Christ. Saul was a great man, but he was serving God in all the wrong ways. In his story, we are reminded that nothing we can do can overcome spiritual, and physical, blindness. It is by God’s grace and mercy that people will see.

So, we go forth sharing the Gospel message, always remembering that it isn’t about us. The mantle has been passed to us, today’s Christians. We are no longer commanded to stay silent, for Jesus has finished the work He came to do. In the next few weeks we will follow Jesus to that cross, the cross that saves. In that journey we will see the light fade as the people and things in this world seem to win the battle for people’s souls. It could be a time of fear. But we know the rest of the story. We know that the story doesn’t end on the cross. That’s the story that needs to be heard. We love to share the stories of Jesus’ nativity and the stories of His miracles, but those stories are not enough. We have to tell the world that true healing comes not on the mountain top but on the cross. It is there that the veil was finally lifted, where Jesus finally said the words we most need to hear, “You are forgiven.” From there we can walk in the grace of God, living the life He has called us to live, sharing His message with the world without fear so that everyone can see God’s glory.

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