Sermon: Living in the face of death

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
14th of February, 2021

2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-9

Today, on the last Sunday before Lent, we celebrate the transfiguration, a theophany, a revelation of God. In the transfiguration the separation of earth from heaven is overcome by the presence of Jesus. Mark’s first readers would have recognised the heavenly nature of this event from the way Mark uses elements from the Hebrew Scriptures. The transfiguration takes place on a mountain, the traditional site of revelations of God, the place on earth closest to heaven. Mark tells us that the transfiguration takes place ‘after six days’, referring back to the six days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai in the presence of the Lord before the Lord called to him. (Exodus 24:15-16) Jesus’ clothes are described as ‘dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them’. They’re the colour of light itself; revealing that the person wearing them is an angelic figure, a messenger from heaven. The cloud that overshadows the mountain symbolises the divine presence, and God speaks from the cloud to the disciples on this mountain as God spoke from the cloud to Moses on Mount Sinai. Mark’s first readers would have had no doubt that what he is describing here is an encounter with God.

The presence of Elijah and Moses, prophets to whom God had spoken on mountains in the past (Exodus 24:17, 1 Kings 19:11-13) is also important. Moses and Elijah are representatives of ‘the Law and the Prophets’; their presence shows that the law and the prophets point to Jesus, and that in his coming they’ve been fulfilled. Elijah and Moses both suffered because of their faithfulness to God; their presence here foreshadows the suffering that Jesus will similarly experience in obedience to His Father. Finally, Jews considered both Elijah and Moses to be alive in the presence of God, part of the company of heaven. As we heard today, it was believed that Elijah had never died, but had been swept up to heaven by a chariot and horses of fire. At the time that Mark was writing many people believed that Moses had similarly been taken up to God’s presence alive; because although Moses’ death was recorded in Deuteronomy (34:5-8) his burial place was unknown.

Each part of this story tells us, as it told Mark’s first readers, that in Jesus’ transfiguration the separation between heaven and earth has been overcome, a revelation of God is occurring, and in Jesus the veil that normally hides the Immortal, Invisible One from human sight has been removed. In the transfigured Jesus, we see God. It is a wonderful story; a high point; a mountain-top experience for us to hold onto during the penitential days of Lent as we journey with Jesus to his death. But it is not the story I want to focus on today.

Last week I talked about the exhaustion of the covid19 journey. We are incredibly lucky in Australia. Life is far from returning to what it was before covid19, but we do not have the daily death counts of other countries. While we are now back in lockdown, which is frustrating and a little frightening, we still only have active cases in double figures, and so far no new deaths. I have family and friends in the UK, so I always watch what is happening there, and every single day hundreds of British people are dying of covid19. On some days this past week more people died in a single day over there than have died in Australia through the entire pandemic. In comparison, we have much less to be anxious about. And yet as I have listened to the Victorian Government’s media conferences this week, I have felt my stomach rolling. After last year I suspect a lot of Victorians are having the same disproportionate reaction to a few cases of community transmission and the current ‘short, sharp’ lockdown. Given this, rather than looking at the stunning theophanies that today’s readings describe to us, God revealed in light and fire, I want us to focus on the relationship between Elijah and Elisha, and what it says about how we are to live in the face of the absolute certainty of death.   

Everyone dies. Life ends in death. It is one of the very few things of which we can be sure. We are neither Moses not Elijah and so we know that we are going to die. But what is possibly more difficult to face is that everyone we love will die, too. If the people we love die before us, we will be left behind to mourn them. I am the eldest of my three siblings and so I have a quiet hope that I will die before them. I have a similarly quiet hope that my friends will die after me, or at least when we are all so old that I won’t have a long time to live without them. But I know that it is likely that my parents will die before me, as my grandparents have done. And as someone whose job involves conducting funerals I know that life doesn’t end neatly, with everyone dying at an extreme old age in order of age. Life ends in death, and the lives of those we love might end at any time.

In today’s reading Elisha knows that he is going to lose Elijah that day. There is no question of that. Twice companies of prophets tell Elisha, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ Twice Elisha replies, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent’. Elisha is going to lose his mentor, his teacher in the faith, the man who has been a father to him. Three times Elijah tells Elisha not to accompany him, to stay in Gilgal or Bethel or Jericho and let Elijah go on alone. And three times Elisha refuses, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’

We do not know why Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind. One commentator suggests that Elijah might be testing Elisha; finding out whether Elisha has the faith and strength that he will need as a prophet. But Elijah’s attempts to dissuade Elisha remind me of a few people I have known who have told their family and friends not to be with them as they died. They said that they wanted those they loved to remember them as they were when they were well. They also wanted to spare those they loved from seeing them weak or in pain. Maybe Elijah wants to spare Elisha from seeing him leave, even if it is in a chariot of fire.

Nor do we know why Elisha insists on accompanying his mentor against Elijah’s own request. Another biblical commentator suggests that Elisha was tenaciously following Elijah to inherit that double share of his spirit, the eldest son’s portion, and so prove that he is Elijah’s rightful successor. But I think that Elisha accompanies Elijah out of love. His beloved mentor is going to what is, for all intents and purposes, his death, and Elisha will not let him take that journey alone, no matter how much it hurts when he can no longer see Elijah. He accompanies Elijah, from Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho, and then beyond the Jordan into the wilderness, outside the land of Israel, away beyond the land of the king and the company of prophets. He is there when a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate them, and a whirlwind takes Elijah into heaven. Elijah is not dying, but this would be even more terrifying for Elisha than a death would have been. The death of someone we love can strike us like a cyclone, but there usually is not a literal whirlwind involved. Elisha has proved that he is Elijah’s rightful successor, the inheritor of the eldest son’s double portion. Elisha is the one who has been a son to Elijah.

Elijah

We live in time, and time takes us and everyone we love. In the hymn ‘Our God, our help in ages past’ (Together in Song 47) Isaac Watts writes ‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all of us away; we fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day’. But that isn’t entirely true. We remember those we love, and they remember us. Time bears everyone we love away, and so love is painful. It makes us vulnerable. And yet the rewards of loving and being loved are astounding. I am almost sure that this was not what the writer of the books of Kings intended, but for me today’s story is a parable about love in the face of death. When everything tells us to turn back, not to take the hard journey of love, if we have the courage to continue to love we see a revelation of God. If Elisha hadn’t accompanied Elijah to the end he might not have had to tear his own clothes in two in grief, but he also would not have been able to cry out ‘The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’

Over the past year the covid19 pandemic has reminded us that human life is fragile and vulnerable and that it always ends in death. The story of Elijah and Elisha reminds us that while life always ends in death, that is no reason not to love or live. On Wednesday we enter the season of Lent, to spend six weeks accompanying Jesus on the journey that leads to his death, a death that will break his disciples and friends, Peter, Mary Magdalene. But his death will also be an astounding revelation of God, another theophany. Jesus’ death will reveal that while death is the end of mortal life, it is not the end of our relationship with God. We know that life ends in death; we have the sure and certain hope that death will end in resurrection. As we journey with Jesus towards the cross and the tomb, we are also journeying to the revelation of the stone rolled away. In Jesus’ resurrection we see the hope of our own resurrection and those of all the people we love. At funerals we pray, ‘Comfort us now with the assurance of the life that is beyond this life, and of a reunion with those we have loved long since and who wait for us in your heavenly presence.’ It is the Easter story that enables us to make that prayer.

As we continue this strange, frightening, journey that is a global pandemic, let us remember that no matter where we might go God walks with us. And as we accompany Jesus on the journey that leads to his death, let us remember that death always leads to the hope of new life. Amen.

 

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