Last Epiphany B
February 13, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
“This is my Son, whom I love. Look at him. Isn’t this display something! I mean, just get a load of this light show!”
That’s what I’d expect God the Father to say.
Last week was the Super Bowl and as has become customary across recent years, the halftime show pulls out all the stops to create a visual spectacle designed to take people’s breath away with lights, explosions, smoke, and then even more lights, usually extending to the whole stadium as each fan in the seats is given a light to shine at some pre-arranged moment in the show.
It’s not the kind of thing designed for radio.
So how odd it would be to hear the producer of the halftime Super Bowl show to say to reporters in the run-up to the event, “People will be amazed to hear this—it will be great even on the radio!!”
No, no, that’s not right.
And yet, in Mark 9 at the climax of one of the Bible’s grandest visual light shows of glory, God the Father comes and advises not that the disciples look at Jesus. Nope, what we get is: “Listen to him.”
Listen to him?? Listen? Did they hear that voice from the cloud right? It reminds me of a scene from the rather quirky film, Forrest Gump. At one point in the movie Forrest’s erstwhile childhood sweetheart (and future wife, as it turns out) is trying to launch a singing career, but the only gig she can secure is one that requires her to appear on stage wearing nothing but her guitar. Perched on a stool naked as the day she was born, she finds it powerfully difficult to get the audience to listen to her singing and guitar playing. The men in the audience had come to look, not listen, and the figure on the stage was ensuring that looking was what it was going to be all about no matter how well she tried to also sing.
Listen to him. It’s not what we expected to be the bottom line of this exceedingly striking event up on that mountaintop. And yet at this juncture in the Gospel of Mark, that is exactly the message that needed to be conveyed.
After all, even though Mark tells us that this incident took place some six days after the preceding story that rounds out Mark 8, we as readers are brought directly from Jesus’ words about death, suffering, and cross-bearing to this moment on the mountaintop. And that’s key because what Jesus had just said had not set well with the disciples and principally with Peter at that. Peter had recently correctly identified Jesus as the Christ of God, and although Mark does not record this part of that famous incident, the other gospels assure us that Peter was mightily blessed by Jesus on account of knowing the answer to that linchpin question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter got the answer right but behind his good answer was a whole lot of confused thinking and wrong-headed definitions as to what constituted Christhood / Messiahship. Peter had stars in his eyes—or at least in the eyes of his imagination—as he confirmed Jesus as the Christ. Peter and the others could already envision the posts of honor and glory they’d occupy when Jesus brought in his kingdom by chasing out the Romans and re-establishing the halcyon days of David and Solomon to the people of Israel. So when, without missing a beat, Jesus then went on to talk about suffering many things, getting rejected by the very people of Israel, and then dying . . . well, the roar in Peter’s ears was so great that he did not even hear the part about “after three days rise again” because everything within him was raging against the first part of what Jesus had said. For Peter the formula was a simple as basic arithmetic: Jesus + Christ = Glory.
So, seeing as he was feeling like he was on a roll, Peter took it on himself to teach Jesus this basic theological formula, rebuking Jesus for this doom-and-gloom talk. Jesus has to wheel on Peter, label him Satan’s little helper, and then go on to explain the real dynamic of the gospel. It’s an upside-down, counterintuitive world that Jesus goes on to sketch. It’s a world where living under the sentence of death, giving up oneself, losing one’s very life, are all the ticket to the top (or to the top by way of the bottom).
It’s been six days since Jesus said that, and you have the feeling that the passage of time has not helped Peter and the others make peace with any of it. We’re not told what their reaction to Jesus’ words were, but subsequent arguments among the disciples as to who is the greatest among them (cf. Mark 9:33ff) and then James and John’s request for the top two cabinet posts in the upcoming Jesus Administration (cf. Mark 10:35ff) tell us that they had not listened to Jesus’ words (or if they had listened, they had not taken the words seriously, much less to heart).
So God himself puts in an appearance, throws in some divine razzle-dazzle, brings in two heavyweights from Israel’s past, and he really does do all of that not for the sake of the visual spectacle per se but to back up everything Jesus has ever said, including what Jesus had just said at the end of what we now call Mark 8.
In fact, not long after this incident, the disciples would see something else before which they’d cower and tremble: they’d see their friend Jesus impaled on a spit of wood at the Place of the Skull. But even on that dark day the key activity would be the same: don’t go with what your eyes show you. Listen to him.
“It is accomplished!”
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
I know I can approach things from a quirky angle sometimes (or so I’m told!) but I’ve always wondered: How did the disciples know it was Moses and Elijah? It’s a cinch Peter, James, and John had never seen photos of these two men from Israel’s history. And I suspect oil paintings of them likewise did not hang in some “Saints of Renown” gallery in the Temple. They had never had their faces plastered onto $5 bills or stamped onto a denarius or something. And you likewise suspect they were not donning some “Hi My Name Is ______” sticky badges on their chests.
So how did they know?
Maybe as good Jews these three had been sufficiently well schooled in the belief that Moses and Elijah would have something to do with the coming of the Messiah that they were able immediately to surmise who they were. There were just enough clues on display as to maybe even make it a cinch they’d figure it out.
In February each year in the United States we celebrate what is known as “Presidents Day,” and if this year some editorial cartoon around the time of that day depicted Barack Obama flanked by two figures completely in silhouette, the cartoonist would need to include only a bare minimum of little details in order to immediately let most any educated American know that the two flanking figures were Presidents Washington and Lincoln. The outlines of a powdered wig and a stovepipe hat would be more than enough to do the trick.
Maybe it was like that for Peter, James, and John. Given who they figured Jesus was, what other two ancient figures could possibly appear next to him at such a startling moment except Moses and Elijah!?
Of course, the easy answer to the question “How did they know?” is that the Holy Spirit revealed it to their hearts and minds, and that is no doubt part of the answer, too. But however it was they knew, Peter at least was enthused enough by the gathering as to want to bottle it and keep it going. Maybe he thought the eschaton had come, that heaven had come down to earth and so it was time to just settle in to the glorious reality. Maybe he thought that heaven had come just for them and the rest of the world was on its own but he at least was going to make sure he snagged his own portion of the glory.
Whatever his thinking—or perhaps better said whatever his lack of thinking given the dazzlement of it all—he suggests to Jesus that they build three “shelters.” The actual Greek word is skenas, which is the same word used in the LXX for “tabernacle” and is the root of the verb form John used in John 1:14 when he told us that the Word made flesh “tabernacled/tented” among us.
The Tabernacle in ancient Israel, of course, had been the temporary—and highly moveable—home of Yahweh prior to the formal establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Maybe Mark’s use of that word in Mark 9:5 was not meant to carry this much theological freight but there may be a sense in which Peter wanted to capture the glory of God in Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in a kind of latter-day tabernacle right there on that mountaintop. It looked like something worth preserving, after all. Maybe over time the glory of it all would radiate out from that mountaintop and begin to fill the whole earth. Maybe they could move those latter-day tabernacles much like the Israelites used to pack up and move the original Tabernacle—glory and Ark of the Covenant and presence of Yahweh and all—to a new place. Maybe they could eventually cart the glory of those little tabernacles all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem and infuse it with the glory of the Christ, ushering in the kingdom of God once and for all.
Maybe. Or maybe he just didn’t know what he was saying. (I am pretty sure I would have been tongue-tied had I been there so we can give old Peter a break here!)
But here is a curious point: if the apostle John was later right to say in his own gospel that the Word made flesh lived in a skene or a “tabernacle” of flesh, maybe he was himself harking back to this very incident on that mountain. Because as quickly as the Transfiguration had begun, it ended and the disciples were left with just Jesus. Peter did not get to build his little tents to hold in the glory of it all but then, if John was right years later when composing his own gospel account, neither did Peter need to build that tent. The real tabernacle containing the glory of God was still right in front of him.
And from the overflow of that humble tent of glory, the whole earth really would eventually become filled with the knowledge of the glory of God!
It’s interesting that verse 2 says that when Jesus took the three disciples up onto a high mountain “they were all alone” (monos in the Greek). Then in verse 8, after the cloud lifts, the disciple see “Jesus alone” (again, monos). Perhaps there is nothing to this, but it’s curious that this incident is bracketed by the sense of being “alone.” Perhaps one idea that can be drawn from the Transfiguration is that it reveals how when you are with Jesus, you are never really alone—you are always in the company of a great host, a great cloud of witnesses (no pun intended on the cloud in this story!). In the end, they see Jesus alone, standing by himself again. But when it is Jesus you’re talking about, you never have just him all by himself. The Father and Spirit are always with him and great glory is never far away.
In his fanciful “Theological ABCs” book Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner muses on the Transfiguration this way: “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing” (Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).
In one sense Buechner here is maybe rendering the actual Transfiguration of Jesus a bit too mundane, a bit too much like what could happen to us on most any given afternoon while riding the bus or walking down a sidewalk. But on the other hand, he may be on to something, and I would add to his musings this one: Even on all kinds of days when the disciples and Jesus were by no means having a mountaintop experience and when dazzling garments whiter than white were nowhere to be seen, even then when Jesus smiled kindly at lepers, looked pained to see a “sinner” being shunned by the Temple establishment, or looked winsome after telling a hurting prostitute to go in peace because her sins were forgiven, there was sense in which the disciples were seeing the face of the divine transfigured in also those ordinary moments. They were seeing hints of glory. They were seeing true God of true God, vividly and surprisingly and, yes, dazzlingly on display in God’s One and Only Son, full of grace and truth.
2 Kings 2:1-12
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
This story in II Kings 2 is strange enough as it is. But ending it at verse 12—before we get to what most commentators agree is the whole point of what can otherwise look like a pointless story—is odder still. The whole movement of this narrative appears to be in the direction of confirming that Elisha had inherited the prophetic office and power of the great prophet Elijah. That gets confirmed for us readers in verse 14 when Elisha’s question “Where now is the LORD, the God of Israel?” gets answered as Elisha’s striking of the Jordan River with Elijah’s cloak has the same effect as earlier when Elijah did so; viz., the waters divide. But stopping—as the Year B Transfiguration Sunday Lectionary has us do—at verse 12 with Elisha tearing his own clothes at the departure of his beloved master does not get us to that crucial moment.
Ending it there ends the story in sorrow instead of in confirmation, which is surely the point of the story.
But even if we agree that seeing this transfer of prophetic office and power is vital for the narrative of II Kings, it could still be pointed out that we take a highly roundabout way to get there. Elijah’s path meanders from Gilgal to Bethel to the Jordan for no discernible reasons even as Elisha tags along loyally and even as both men are shadowed by the Greek chorus-like “company of the prophets” whose main job seems to be only to remind Elisha repeatedly that Elijah was soon to depart this earth. And each time Elisha hears of this, he replies (again, for no easily discerned reason) “Yes, I know, but do not speak of it.” It may be emotionally hard for Elisha to own up to this imminent departure. It may be that Elisha believes that the mysterious nature of it all required that people not speculate or speak of it openly. We don’t know and cannot really tell from the terse narrative.
In the end it takes the chariots of fire from Yahweh himself to finally separate the two men (Elisha had been sticking like glue up to that point). And so Elijah departs in spectacular fashion, never to be seen again until the Transfiguration of Jesus nearly 1,000 years later (which is clearly why this text is the Old Testament lection for Transfiguration Sunday in the Year B cycle).
Of course, we cannot conclude anything metaphysical about this manner of departure. It is true that both of the men who appeared with Jesus in Mark 9 were not only key Old Testament prophets and leaders but both also had been whisked away in non-standard fashion by God himself (Moses from Mount Nebo and Elijah in this chariot of fire). But we need not and cannot conclude that they had been preserved bodily somehow from the typical manner of human death and decay and use that as the explanation as to how they could later appear next to Jesus and before the eyes of Peter, James, and John.
So what is the point of this story and how in the world can one preach on a text so shrouded with mystery and so laced with narrative loose ends? The whole story seems so removed from ordinary experience—even ordinary experience in ancient Israel much less in the church today—as to make it mighty tough to find real-life connections for people to latch onto today.
Perhaps we can get a little homiletical traction on this by picking up on something Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote on this text in the first volume of Roger Van Harn’s The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001). Achtemeier notes that both this story and really also the Transfiguration accounts in the gospels take place somehow just outside the ordinary realm of space and time. Neither event is typical or the kind of thing anyone would expect ever to happen again (all those good old songs and spirituals about all of us getting picked up in a chariot of fire by and by notwithstanding). Both events are shot through with the divine and with the unexpected.
But above all both events assure us that God is always at work and that the power of God that saves the world and that preserves his people (and his whole creation) is always present and is always active often just beyond the limits of our physical sight. Indeed, Elisha obviously learned this lesson well. By the time we get to II Kings 6 and see Elisha and his servants in peril, Elisha is able confidently to say “Those who are with us are more than are with them” and asked that his ignorant servant have his eyes opened so as to see the great host of chariots and horses of fire that had been surrounding Elisha all along.
Often today when theologians and pastors dialogue with people who work in the physical sciences, the point has to be made—especially in the face of the Richard Dawkins types who insist that reality is limited to what science can see and study and investigate—that there are dimensions to reality that go far beyond what physical eyes can detect. Divine revelation and the invisible machinations of divine providence are real even if no scientific instrument could ever detect or uncover them.
But I sometimes think that even those of us who make that important point in the face of scientific and philosophical naturalists and materialists are not ourselves sufficiently open to or aware of the spirit dimension to reality, to the mysterious but certain workings of God that surround us and infuse us and indwell us at all times. Our scientific age and the scientific mindset that has come to dominate the world has co-opted even the more religious among us to define “hard reality” to what we can see and touch and smell even as we relegate the spiritual to something we ponder rather seldom and believe in only in more “soft” ways.
What Elisha saw that day by the Jordan River—like what the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration—may have taken place just slightly outside the ordinary flow of the space-time continuum but it was still a part of the fabric of this world. Jesus did not change into something he had not ordinarily been all along that day—the disciples just saw a different dimension to Jesus than they could usually spy. And Elijah’s being taken up by a chariot of fire may have been out of the ordinary but the existence of that chariot was no ephemeral thing that came into existence only for that moment and then winked back out of existence the moment Elisha could no longer see it blazing its way heavenward.
We should not conclude from either II Kings 2 or Mark 9 that events like these are things we can anticipate witnessing any moment now in our own lives. But it likewise would be a mistake to conclude that the spiritual and divine realities both stories allowed us to get a glance of are not still real at also this very moment.
The Peter Jackson film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings trilogy contained numerous visual flourishes and flashes of brilliance as Jackson brought the richness of Tolkien’s imagined worlds to the screen. But one set of images stands out in connection to the Transfiguration story of Mark 9 and this Old Testament lection about the chariot of fire from II Kings 2.
Frodo Baggins in the Ringbearer in the story, charged with the unenviable task of returning the evil Lord Sauron’s one ring of power to the fires of Mount Doom. The only way this powerfully evil ring can be destroyed is by casting it back into the molten fires whence it was forged millennia before. But now and then, while undertaking this potentially fatal quest, Frodo feels compelled to put on the ring and when he does, the world around him is transfigured.
What had been light now appears to his eyes to be shadow and what had been shadowy and ghost-like now blazes forth in terrifying clarity. But above all what Frodo can see when wearing the ring is the great Eye of Sauron—a fire-wreathed and lidless eye that scans to and fro across the whole of Middle Earth from the top of Sauron’s black tower in the Land of Mordor. No matter where Frodo may be when he puts the ring on, soon the eye of Frodo’s imagination finds itself captured by the intensely evil gaze of that awful Eye even as the otherwise inaudible voice of Sauron threatens Frodo and all the earth with every form of mayhem imaginable.
Of course, as soon as Frodo removes the ring from his finger again, the world returns to “normal.” But having seen what is really present just underneath and beyond where his eyes can ordinarily penetrate, Frodo can never view that world quite the same way again. There are more dimensions to our everyday existence than we usually suspect, both for good and for ill.
In a way, that may be the point of these two Transfiguration Sunday stories, too.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Those who choose to preach and teach Psalm 50 may wish to invite hearers to imagine a kind of courtroom and trial scene to help them think about this psalm. After all, while it’s a covenant renewal liturgy, it also has vivid courtroom imagery. Psalm 50 features a judge, a convening of the court, witnesses, testimony and defendants.
The witnesses in this courtroom drama are nothing less than the heavens and the earth. While they may seem to us like odd witnesses, their status relates back to Deuteronomy 30:19ff. There God, at the institution of God’s covenant with Israel, says to her, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”
Now God re-summons those cosmic witnesses to testify to Israel’s failure to be God’s faithful covenant partners. Their witness emphasizes the fact that while Israel hasn’t recognized it, she has been so unfaithful that even the creation can see it. God’s summons to the cosmos to serve as witnesses to Israel’s unfaithfulness takes on a special poignancy in light of our modern degradation of creation. The heavens and earth, the air and the soil, bear witness to the way we have been God’s unfaithful covenant partners through our pollution of the air, soil and water.
Psalm 50’s judge is the God of heaven and earth. However, this judge doesn’t silently glide into the courtroom in her somber black robe as a bailiff calls out, “All rise.” There’s nothing quiet or subtle about this judge’s appearance. This Judge will not be silent. The Lord dramatically storms into the courtroom accompanied by a blaze of fire and the roar of a storm.
Since Psalm 50 is a covenant renewal liturgy, we’re not surprised that its imagery is reminiscent of Exodus 19’s account of the Lord’s appearance to Israel in the wilderness: “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord ascended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 50 may want to contrast its imagery of God with that which at least some of the modern church has adopted. It’s tempting to think of God as a best buddy who only gives what people want and never asks anything of them. The church is always tempted to domesticate the God of heaven and earth into a kind of benign deity who is hardly concerned about peoples’ behavior as long as they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Such divine indifference is hardly consistent with Psalm 50’s imagery of the Lord. After all, its names and titles for God are evocative enough all by themselves. This God is the “Mighty One,” (1) perhaps better translated as “Yahweh, the God of gods.” This Judge is the God not just of Israel, but of the whole creation and, as such, has the right to summon the entire cosmos as witness against unfaithful covenant partners.
In fact, verse 6 explicitly refers to God as “Judge.” The following verses indicate that it’s Israel whom this divine judge summons into God’s courtroom to, in a sense, stand trial for her faithlessness. Israelites are God’s “consecrated ones,” those whom God has graciously set apart for service and faithfulness to God.
However, God judges Israel’s worship to be unfaithful. Psalm 50 suggests that Israel assumed that just going through religious “motions” such as bringing sacrifices was enough to please God. God, however, insists that God doesn’t need what Israel sacrifices to the Lord. After all, God already owns all of it. God doesn’t need bulls or goats. Every animal, head of cattle and bird already is the Lord’s.
What, then, does the Mighty One, God, the Lord want? How do God’s faithful covenant partners worship the Lord? God longs for Israel to express both her thankfulness and dependency on the Lord. After all, that’s the double response of those whom God has created and for whom God cares. Genuine thanksgiving to God arises out of a deep awareness that God is the giver of every good gift. Human realization of our complete dependence on God fuels our thanksgiving for that generosity.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 50 may want to explore with hearers what sorts of things we’re tempted to substitute for such a relationship of thankful, dependence. What sorts of things keep God’s covenant of grace’s partners from worshipping the Lord in Spirit and in truth?
However, Psalm 50’s God doesn’t just judge consecrated Israel’s worship. This God also judges Israel’s behavior. God insists that while Israelites say one thing, they act in a completely opposite way. They’re able to recite the Ten Commandments and the terms of God’s covenant with them. Yet at the very same time they’re willing to engage in theft, adultery, lying and slander. Of course, while verses 18-20 specifically address several specific sins, we should see that list as illustrative rather than exhaustive. Clearly Israel is guilty of faithlessly violating God’s whole law.
Some may find it challenging to preach and teach Psalm 50’s liturgical and ethical demands to those whom God has saved by grace alone. After all, Christians know that our obedience to the Ten Commandments can’t save us. We can’t obey them perfectly enough to fully satisfy God’s righteous demands. Only Jesus Christ could obey them and keep God’s covenant perfectly.
So perhaps Psalm 50’s preachers and teachers will want to set it against the Christian tendency toward what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It’s always tempting for those whom God saves by God’s grace to assume that God doesn’t care how we worship and behave as long as we believe in Jesus Christ for our salvation. Psalm 50 vividly reminds us that God cares passionately about what kind of faith we evidence through our worship and behavior.
Those saved by God’s grace alone received through faith may recoil a bit at Psalm 50’s harsh tone. Yet as Richard J. Clifford points out, its abrasive tone shouldn’t particularly surprise us. What we might think of a vicious scolding and questioning was typical of covenant renewal ceremonies. What’s more, texts like Judges 24 show that God designed such scolding to prompt God’s covenant partners to self-examination and repentance.
That would seem an approach avenue for preachers and teachers to follow into Psalm 50. It can be used to invite God’s sons and daughters to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all of creation, including their worship and behavior. By God’s Spirit, Psalm 50 can also stimulate God’s modern covenant of grace partners to renew our commitment to responding to God’s grace with a faith that includes genuine worship and obedience.
Among the first words at least some children learn to say is the word, “Mine!” As they scan the “kingdom” that is their various toys they exclaim, “Mine!” Children try to protect what belongs to them from other children by insisting, “Mine!” By doing so, they’re trying to keep from sharing their treasures with others. And while adults may be more sophisticated about our longing to hoard what we have, we too naturally say, “Mine!”
Interestingly, God also says, “Mine!” in Psalm 50:10: “Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle of a thousand hills.” Yet God doesn’t hoard what belongs to God. Were that true, every one of us would die. Thankfully, while God is the Sovereign to whom all of creation belongs, God is extraordinarily generous with what belongs to the Lord. Even as God says, “Mine!” God opens God’s hands and arms to share God’s bounty with God’s creatures.