II Kings 2: 1-15
Mark 9: 2-9
Again, good morning. As we see on the leaflet, Quinquagesima on the old Calendar, the third of the Three Sundays of what we used to call the “Pre-Lenten Season,” and on the new calendar the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. In the church year a major point of transition. The last hint of the Silent Night of Bethlehem disappearing from the rear view mirror. We stand with Jesus and his disciples in this holy moment on the Mount of the Transfiguration, and we can begin to make out the glow on the horizon of the Holy City, Jerusalem, crowds of pilgrims already beginning to arrive for the great Passover Festival-- and as we come down from that mountaintop and are stepping toward Ash Wednesday this week we will begin to prepare ourselves for what will soon be here in Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday. We’ve spent the last couple of months talking about what happened at Christmas, and now we turn to the next question: why did it happen? The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so that: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday. The two great doctrinal centers of Christian faith, Incarnation and Atonement, inextricably linked, bound together, and connected here today. Stepping across the continental divide into a new watershed.
In the Address that follows the sermon on Ash Wednesday the formal opening is announced in these words: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” When we commend each other to a “good Lent, a holy Lent” these are the categories we work in. In all the busyness of our day to day life Holy Week still seems a long way off, but the message for us this week is that it will all be here before we know it. So if this Lent is going to do us any good, there’s no time to waste. As our last hymn will remind us once again this year, we put aside our singing of joyful alleluia’s for a season now, to enter into a quiet time of personal austerity and spiritual contemplation. The front page of our St. Andrew’s website will have links to a couple of resources for daily reading and reflection in Lent. We can follow that on our phones while we’re waiting for the coffee to drip in the morning. That great Old Testament reading from the second chapter of the Book of the Prophet Joel always catches my attention. I know for me it is always something dramatic as our first reading at that early 7:15 a.m. service on Ash Wednesday morning: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near . . . .”
So here, right at this pivot, a moment of transition, turning the page, and so interesting that in our Old Testament reading we have what is also one of the great transitions in the Holy Story.
The Prophet Elijah has for a generation been God’s great man in a troubled world. He has spoken truth to power, an army of one, facing down the mighty armies of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, a solitary, bold prophetic voice, boldly proclaiming the power and holiness of the Lord God of Israel in the face of an apostate religious establishment given over to the worship of false gods. Alongside Elijah perhaps only Abraham, Moses, and David would stand in stature among God’s Chosen People.
But Elijah’s days are coming to an end, and there is a great anxiety. Change is always a little scary, and here this big change is coming, on its way soon. With Elijah there, we all know where we stand, we faithful can fall in behind him, unite our voices to his voice. But as we think of his departure from us, there are all these doubts, fears. What will we say now to the rulers of this world? How will we defend ourselves against the powers that seek to destroy us and to ruin the great plan that God has for his people? We will be like sheep without a shepherd, lost, unable to find our way.
So we come to the end of the story in the reading this morning, and we see Elijah riding the circuit through the land on this symbolic pilgrimage, a kind of farewell tour, enacting the pilgrim story of the people, their ancient journey through the great wilderness, crossing the Jordan. Alongside Elijah, his reluctant disciple Elisha, who wasn’t sure at first that he even wanted to begin this journey with the Master and for sure didn’t want to leave home and family and the comforts of his settled life and his wonderful farm—who has no idea what his role is going to be, why he has been chosen to come along, what God intends to do. He asks the Prophet to pray that he will be up to the task, whatever the task is going to be, because he doesn’t see how he can possibly rise to the occasion in his own right. I’m going to need a double dose of the Holy Spirit to be even half the leader you have been, Elijah, and I just don’t know how that is going to happen.
Then we get the dramatic conclusion. Elijah is lifted off into heaven, the chariot of fire, the horses of fire! One of the most dramatic and even cinematic moments in all of the Bible. And in that moment, something happens. A pause. And Elisha leans over, picks up the mantle Elijah dropped as he entered the chariot, and wraps it around himself. And in our mind’s eye and imagination we see something happen to him, in him. One of those Holy Spirit moments, no question about it. Where before he was anxious, full of doubt, now he strides to the Jordan, strikes the edge of the stream with the cloth, and miraculously again the waters part, just as they had for Elijah. And when the prophets of the nearby village see him coming they know right away, right away, what is going on. They can see it with their own eyes! They sing out in joy and wonder and relief, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And from this day forward Elisha sets out in Israel on a prophetic career of miraculous power and testimony. A different vocabulary from that of Elijah, what we would call a different style of public ministry. But with absolute confidence that the God who spoke to his people through the mighty words and miraculous acts of power of Elijah had not gone anywhere, but would continue to lead them and guide them, continue to call them to himself.
The moral of the story really summarized in the words the Prophet Jeremiah would one day sing in his Lamentation over the fall of Jerusalem, which is the lesson the Children of Israel and all of us seem to need to learn again and again and again, in the Biblical story and in our stories, whenever we wake up in the night fearful about an unknown future. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.”
Change is always difficult, of course. Scary. The kids are always growing and changing, our marriages and families, what’s happening at work, in the world around us. The changes of our own physical bodies from health to sickness, from youth to age. Are things changing in those places in our lives this year, this Lent? Maybe we all can fill in our own blanks there. And looking around for Elijah’s mantle, I suppose. The outward and visible, sacramental sign of God’s presence. Sort of what those practices of Lent might be. Prayer, fasting, self-denial—reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
The point in Lent: taking that seriously even for just six weeks or so, and to see what might happen, in us and around us. And we’ll see how it unfolds for us this year. I would just invite you to join me. Figuring out in our own particular context how this Ash Wednesday and Lent and the unfolding story of our lives, one chapter, one page, one sentence at a time, can be connected in new ways and even powerful ways to God’s story. Prayer, fasting, self-denial—reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Everybody, and Elisha especially, was worried about what would happen without Elijah around. But it turned out they really had nothing to fear. That God had a plan better than the best plan any of us could ever have come up with on our own. It’s a prefiguring of the mystery of the Cross, as we enter this Lent. At our weakest point, broken and defeated, lost, not able even to lift a finger in our own defense, we can leave it all in his hands. He’s got this. And in him, better things than we could ever ask for or imagine. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, new every morning, great is thy faithfulness.”
So blessings, as we turn now to the Lent of 2018, to see what God has in store for us this year.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.