Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12 Commentary
Comments and Observations
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.
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