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2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-10, from The Message
Transfiguration Sunday is supposed to be all about Jesus. It is, after all, the last Sunday in the season of revealing, and the mountaintop experience Peter, James, and John have with Jesus is a pretty big reveal. Whatever the details of what did or did not happen up there, it seems to have been pretty dramatic.
I would like to tell you that morning on the mountain changed everything: that after the blinding white, the enveloping cloud, and the booming voice, Peter, James, and John were never the same—that from then on they always did listen to Jesus, that they never again doubted the Jesus way, that their personal prejudices and needs took a far back seat to the wisdom of the divine plan.
But they were only human, after all, so how could they grasp the mystery and glory of God? As many stories as they had heard of Elijah and Moses and the Messiah still to come, what did these poor fishermen living under the oppressive thumb of Rome know about belovedness, power, or resurrection? If Jesus was transfigured, they were transported; if Jesus was more fully revealed, they were told to conceal what they seen and heard and not quite understood, to carry it in their hearts and let it do its work on them.
It seems that truly life-changing experiences are almost as rare as trans-figuring moments.
Real change—true healing, deep transformation—is hard to come by, and it usually takes longer than we want it to. As much as we want instant healing and dramatic turn-arounds, lasting, life-giving change is more likely to be the result of a process, complete with fits and starts, small victories, big set-backs, and what Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction.” 1
And so it is that in thinking about change, I found myself considering constancy. As much as we love transcendent experiences, as much as they might inspire us, I’m not sure how much they actually change us. It seems to me that transformation is less likely to come from what happens to us, those things we experience, than the choices we make—again and again and again. (I think our friends in 12-step programs have much to teach us about this.) In remembering how Peter, James, and John would later abandon Jesus in his hour of need, I was struck by Elisha’s refusal to leave Elisha.
And that is why, on Transfiguration Sunday, I want to talk about staying power. Elisha had it. Jesus had it. The earliest Christians had it. If any church is to survive and thrive, its members must have it. And if we hope for healing, if we hunger and thirst for justice and peace, if we long for the kind of inner transformation that changes us and our lives, we need to practice “a long obedience in the same direction.” We need to show up, stick around, refuse to give up, and keep coming back.
We need staying power.
And for staying power we need love. And for love we need Christ. And, thanks be to God, for all that we need we have the Spirit. (Spirit power is the Christian super-power.)
The prophet Elijah had had quite the career. He had challenged the prophets of other gods—and won. He had confronted a corrupt king and queen and then had to flee for his life. He had despaired to the point of wanting to die, but was revived by angel-food cake and living water. When he was sure he was all alone, he heard the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence. And, somewhere along the way, he had taken on an understudy, a generous farmhand named Elisha.
We don’t hear of Elisha again until Elijah’s life on this earth is coming to an end, and he is on one last journey. Elijah knows it, the entire company of prophets knows it, the whole world seems to know it—and they all seem to think this means that Elisha should take this opportunity to get out of the prophecy business.
Two different times, everyone else tells Elisha that hard times are coming, his beloved master will soon be gone. Three different times Elijah tells Elisha to stay put while he journeys on. And three different times, Elisha disobeys his master’s command, saying, “I will not leave you.”
Now, this is no starry-eyed, wedding-day promise. Elisha knows full-well that he is going to lose his beloved teacher, and that it will be more than he can bear. He hears both Elijah and the world giving him permission to take the easy way out. But he will not have it. Neither difficult circumstances nor the certain grief to come will alter Elisha’s course. Nothing can change his trust in God’s faithfulness or his sense of who God has created him to be.
“As God lives, and as you yourself live,” he tells Elijah, “I will not leave you.” Three times he says it, and each time requires of him more love and more strength.
And, so, the story says, the two of them—Elijah and Elisha went on. And while Elijah is taken up into heaven, it is Elisha who is transfigured and transformed. He had stuck it out, he had stayed with his teacher until the end, and the teacher’s spirit had been passed on to him.
Now I want to be clear: I am not at all suggesting that we stay in abusive relationships or oppressive situations. Indeed, sometimes we must seek the strength and the courage to leave a bad situation, and sometimes we must encourage someone to get out of an unhealthy relationship or a soul-sapping job. I have been there, and I know many of you have, too. But that’s not what I’m talking about when I speak of Elisha and staying power and transformation.
I’m speaking of the kind of love I see you living all the time. I’m speaking of caregivers and peacemakers. I’m speaking of the love that stays with a partner whose health is declining, even though the costs are high and the grief is deep. I’m speaking of the love for justice that continues to pour heart and soul, time and effort into the struggle, even when the outcome is, at best, uncertain. I’m speaking of the parents who refuse to give up on troubled children, even though their hearts are broken. I’m speaking of the faith that keeps praying even when the outlook is bleak, and the steadfast commitment to a long obedience in the same direction—even we when don’t know where the path leads or how long it will take to get there.
I’m speaking of what it takes to walk through this broken world, of what it means to be faithful to the Lord of Love, of how to live when we know hard times are ahead, when we know we will lose those we love. I’m speaking of how to love when there’s no way around getting hurt. I’m speaking of how we are healed, how we are transformed, how we are changed from glory to glory.
“As God lives, and as you yourself live,” Elisha said, “I will not leave.”
I’m not saying it is easy. Staying power requires an external power source—the indwelling Spirit, the love of a supportive community, worship that forms and transforms us, the Bread of Life that nourishes, and the cup of blessing that never empties. Staying power is renewed by the occasional mountaintop experience, an awareness of God’s tender love and dazzling power. It requires a trust that those experiences are all around us if we will but pay attention, if we can only tune our hearts to the transcendent Christ in our midst. It is about looking around, wherever we are, are saying, it is good to be here—because Jesus is here, because love is here, because hope is here. It is about staying the course, following the way, even when it leads to a cross.
Elisha was a disciple of Elijah. We are disciples of Jesus. In the following, we will be healed. In the staying we will be transformed. And in walking the way together we will share God’s glory with the world.
So let is draw on the power of the One who always stays with us. Let us stay with the God who lives. Let us stick with love. And let us listen to God’s beloved, for in that is the way to life abundant.