On Holding the Extraordinary
February 11, 2024
2 Kings 2:1-2; 7-12
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.” 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, and 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.
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.
Today’s sermon is titled On Holding the Extraordinary
Oftentimes I fantasize about being Empress of the World. I imagine what changes I would make in order to secure peace, and insure all people were fed and housed and engaged in meaningful work. I like to think that I could pull it off, if only I were given a chance. I turn to this problem-solving fantasy when things in the larger world are not going the way I think they should, which is, basically, all the time.
In both of the stories we are offered today, we find a similar theme if we consider the perspective of the students. Things are not going the way they hoped. Elisha is about to lose his beloved teacher, the prophet Elijah, and the disciples have just been told for the first time that their teacher will be leaving them, too. Elisha and the disciples are all struggling to understand what this may mean for them; in both cases, extraordinary events help them to hold on to their hope for the future.
Before we get into these stories, I want you to know right upfront that I will not be trying to explain how in the world these extraordinary things could have happened. That would be missing the point. Our job here today is to hold space for the extraordinary in our imaginations because in doing so, we are in a place where we are receptive, ready to receive insight and gain understanding. We would be wise to remember the famous words of Albert Einstein who said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” We are holding space for miracles today; Einstein would approve. We will also be considering the wider context for both of these stories that come from the Jewish tradition, a tradition that has a deep appreciation for the unexplainable because it invites curiosity and encourages debate and dialogue about how to interpret such mysteries.
In the case of Elisha, he was really up against it and he could use all the help he could get. The king at the time, King Ahab had married a princess, Jezebel, and she brought the worship of other gods to the Hebrew people. Jezebel worshiped Baal and Asherah. King Ahab and the Hebrew people worshiped Yahweh. The prophet Elijah issued a famous challenge to the prophets of Baal. Two bulls were slaughtered; one was given to Elijah and one was given to the prophets of Baal. Wood was laid for two fires to roast the meat but no fire could be brought. The prophets were to pray to their god to light it. All day the prophets of Baal prayed and danced but no fire. When evening came, Elijah instructed for the wood to be doused with water three times, and then he prayed to Yahweh to light the fire. The wood caught flame and that began the turning of the tides in the hearts of the Hebrew people, away from Baal and back towards Yahweh.
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel continued to rule, however, and at the time that Elijah was leaving there was still much work to be done. Elisha, in a beautiful display of devotion, refused to leave his teacher, saying, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” In the end, Elisha asked for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. He was granted it, along with a spectacular display of this teacher’s departure. Elisha needed all the help he could get; he knew there were still great challenges ahead. Elisha was determined to depose the King and Queen and he eventually succeeded. The encyclopedia Britannica characterizes Elisha as “a prophet, political activist and revolutionary;” he forever changed the course of history for the Jewish people.
900 later, another prophet was challenging the Jewish people to hold space for the extraordinary. Jesus of Nazareth had been traveling far and wide, when we find him in the scriptures today. He had been healing all manner of physical and mental illnesses and had amassed a wide following, especially after feeding 5,000 with one basket of food, and having twelve baskets of food left over. Jesus had already begun to criticize the Pharisees and even King Herod, which gives his disciples even more reason to hope that Jesus has come to drive out the Romans. But there are three significant events recorded in the Gospel of Mark that lead up to this event on the mountaintop that we call the Transfiguration.
Listen to these passages from Mark, chapter 8. After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus asks his disciples, “‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’
‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the mountain and gifts them with an experience that they will never, ever forget. And we should not forget it, either, Friends. This is why: There was a long line of prophets who gave their lives to be leaders in their communities, using their voices to call for justice, and urging their neighbors to walk in the ways of righteousness, to care for one another, and to keep the goodness of God at the center of their lives. On that mountaintop appeared two of the most beloved prophets, Moses and Elijah and their presence connected Jesus and his disciples to the long history of prophets calling for social change.
In our reading, and in our following of Christ, we, too, take our place in the same lineage. We, too, take our place as advocates for justice, fairness, truth, and peace. In all our relationships with family and friends, in our civic responsibilities, in every encounter we have, and in every endeavor we undertake, we can carry the light of Christ that shone so brightly on that mountaintop. What does it look like to carry the light of Christ? It looks like we are holding space for the extraordinary because we are living with hope for the future. It looks like we are problem solvers, not complacent complainers. It sounds kind and encouraging because the words we speak are spoken with intention. It feels positive and full of possibility because we resist negativity and refuse to entertain gossip. It looks transformative because carrying the light of Christ changes our culture from the bottom up as we use our voices and our votes to bring positive change. Carrying the light of Christ into all aspects of our lives is a never-ending practice, Friends. It’s not always easy, nor should it be. It’s a good thing we have one another.
I hope that these stories will send us into the season of Lententide with the assurance that, surely, Jesus intended for his disciples to receive there on that mountaintop. Things were about to get really intense for them. From this time forward in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is moving towards his final trip to Jerusalem. From this time forward, over the next six weeks of Lent, we will be turning our attention in the same direction. We have been asked today to hold space for the extraordinary. Over the next six weeks of Lent, we are invited to expand that space in our own lives by either taking up something that will enrich our lives and feed our spirits, or to lay down something that is robbing us of fullness or draining our spirits. It is up to each of us to determine what would best benefit us and I encourage you to join me in making some change in the coming weeks; it will bring a whole new level of meaning to the celebration of Easter at the end of March.
In closing, Friends, I thank you for the many ways you carry the light of Christ in the world. We don’t have to be Empresses and Emperors of the world to make significant changes that will have far-reaching effects. Let’s keep shining the Christ light however and wherever we can, and may we live, as Einstein suggested, as if everything is a miracle. So be it. Amen.
God of wisdom, we are living in a world where love is too often obscured by fear and violence, and our hearts and minds are heavy with the weight of the struggle to understand. Our hearts are broken open by the shock and we grieve for the victims, their families, and for those moved to violence by unseen forces of sadness, illness and desperation. Dear God, we need so much healing on so many levels. Lord, we pray for ourselves, that we may hold fast to the golden thread of hope for the future of humanity. Save us, please, from sinking into apathy. We are in desperate need of a great shift in our culture. In this place, together, this morning, we are aiding in the cultural shift as we for deeper understanding, as we live into the lovingkindness of Christ, and as we share our best selves with one another. This we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the closing of 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound.”