2 Kings 2:1-12
Perhaps it is because today is Valentine’s Day that I can’t help but see in both of our scripture lessons some key characteristics of healthy and happy relationships.
Perhaps because we are entering the twelfth month of a pandemic that has, among other things, kept us from going pretty much anywhere, I can’t help but think that these stories have something to do with the nature of our spiritual journeys.
Perhaps because the beginning of the great season of Lent is just three days away, I can’t help but see how each story has something to tell us about the process of spiritual transformation and the promise of new life.
Perhaps because pandemic isolation and restrictions have created opportunities for reflection and self-awareness, these stories awaken my own longing—an ache, if you will—not simply to have mystical experiences and holy encounters, but to see the glory of God in everyone and everything from Jesus on a mountaintop to out-of-season bluebirds on the bike trail.
And because there are so many places we cannot be in these times, and because there is so much grace and hope almost anyplace we are, I want to join Peter in saying, “It is good for us to be here.” Even if here is not where we most want to be, even if the dear ones we want most to be with us are not, even if we cannot see one another through our screens, there are blessings to receive, love to be shared, and bread for the journey.
And so, choosing to recognize how good it is to be here—still here in this precious life, here in the mystery that is God, here in the cloud of unknowing, here in this moment that will never come again, here with our hearts open to wonder, here ready and willing to be bowled over, here bringing all that we are and hope to be—let us begin.
First, for those of you wanting to celebrate and renew true love today: Take a tip from Elisha and learn what not to do from Peter.
Elijah wanted to save Elisha from the grief of separation, and surely some of us—when our health begins to fail, when we’re going through a rough patch, or we’re just doubting that we’re worthy of love—don’t want our partners to have to endure our pain. But Elisha will not hear of it.
“As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you,” he tells Elijah three different times.
So, relationship tip #1 for you on this Valentine’s Day: Do stick around.
Relationship tip #2: Don’t insist that your partner stay the same. Don’t limit their growth and development. Peter was so overwhelmed by the miracle of seeing a radiant Jesus joined by Elijah and Moses that he offered to build each one of them a shelter so as to make the moment last. But moments don’t last, and we cause one another harm when we insist that everything stay the same. True love and respect—in a romantic relationship, a working relationship, or in church relationships—encourages the other’s learning, growth, purpose, and fulfillment.
Thus ends the Valentine’s Day portion of the sermon.
And now we move on to Transfiguration Day, where the spiritual journeys of Elisha and Peter, James, and John are portrayed as both physical journeys and crucibles of transformation.
The prophet Elijah seems to be making a symbolic victory lap before he is swept up into heaven in a whirlwind. First, God sends him to Gilgal, where the Israelites first made camp after crossing into the promised land. From there Elijah is sent to Bethel, where Jacob slept on a rock and dreamt he saw a ladder reaching to heaven. And then God sends him to the River Jordan, where, just like Moses and the Israelites at the Red Sea, the waters will part and Elijah and Elisha will cross on dry ground.
At each stop, Elisha’s faithfulness is tested. At each point of the journey, Elijah tells Elisha to stay, and the company of prophets warns Elisha that he is about to lose his beloved mentor. Elisha realizes that loss and grief lie ahead, but still he follows. And when the moment of separation and loss arrives, Elisha seeks only to be transformed for good—to receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.
The spiritual journey for Peter, James, and John is even more difficult. The transfiguration story begins with the phrase “six days later,” words that point to the cross.
They also point to the previous chapter of Mark’s gospel, when Peter had proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus responded by trying to tell his disciples what was coming: that he would be tortured and killed—and raised. Peter, as you may recall, was having none of it; he actually took Jesus aside and rebuked him for being such a Debbie Downer. And then, after telling Peter in no uncertain terms to get out of his way, Jesus called all the disciples together and tried again to explain what it meant to follow him.
“If you want to be like me,” he told them, “if you want new life and all the grace and glory of God, follow me. Follow me on the way of self-giving love; follow me on the path of nonviolent resistance; follow me to the margins of society and beyond; follow me outside the rituals of religion and into the heart of God; take up your own cross and follow me on the path to death. I’ll meet you there—and I’ll greet you in glory.”
It’s unlikely that Peter or the other disciples really grasped what Jesus was saying. But give them credit for not high-tailing it out of there. Give them credit for sticking around, because sometimes the best we can do on our spiritual journeys is to just keep going.
And so it is that six days later Peter, James and John find themselves following Jesus up to the summit of a high mountain. And then after their glorious mountaintop experience, in which they see their teacher revealed as the transcendent and radiant Child of God and they hear a heavenly voice, they trudge back down to the valley, where the pain, brokenness, injustice, and death of the world are on full display.
The ecstasy of the transfiguration moment cannot last, but it has changed them. It has opened their eyes to see that something new and different and huge is happening, something of divine power, presence, and purpose. It has opened their hearts to see more clearly who Jesus is and who they might become. Even as Jesus tells them to keep this experience to themselves, it has opened their spirits to awe and their hearts to joy.
Which brings us, of course, to Lent.
Now I realize that joy may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Lent. It is a season for reflection and self-examination, for sorrow, confession, repentance, release, and restitution. It is a time of letting go of what does not serve life and for making room for what draws us ever further into the Heart of Love. Lent is a time for listening to Jesus. It is a time to practice being faithful. It is a time for being intentional about spiritual disciplines and spiritual journeys. Lent is an invitation to stay faithful, stick with it, and actually ask God to change us, to create in us clean and more loving hearts. It is the season for following Jesus wherever he leads us. It is a journey of healing and transformation.
And Ash Wednesday is simply the first stop on the Lenten journey. I hope you will make the decision to take the journey, to gather on Zoom at 7 o’clock this Wednesday evening—with or without ashes, but with your whole heart.
Let’s reimagine life together this Lent—life with Jesus, life in God, life the way it is meant to be.
We will make the journey together, and along the way we will find joy.