Worship was unfortunately cancelled this morning due to safety concerns (even for good reasons I still hate to write that sentence). But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a sermon so I invite you to read what I was planning on preaching. As you read please keep in mind that we were planning on celebrating Communion today. Also remember that these are sermon notes so if it reads a little funny it’s because you were supposed to hear it not read it. 🙂
2 Kings 2:1-14
2Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah 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.” So they went down to Bethel. 3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 4Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lordhas sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 6Then 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. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9When 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.” 10He 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.” 11As 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. 12Elisha 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.
13He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
This is the word of the LORD!
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
This is the Word of the LORD!
2Six 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As 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. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
This is the Word of the LORD!
Last week you all graciously granted me the opportunity to take a couple of days off and go on vacation. So naturally, it being winter and all, the family took this opportunity to pack up and travel to scenic Ohio. Indeed, despite the fact that someone offered to let us use a place at the beach and despite the fact that we really love camping and winter camping is a blast, after all there aren’t any mosquitoes, we nevertheless decided to travel north during this winter.
Which at first probably seems like an odd decision, in fact, the more I think about it the more I realize that it was in fact a very odd decision, but we did have a reason for it. My best friend from college and his wife are living in Dayton Ohio. She’s in the Air Force and they will be moving soon and he really wanted to have me up so I could see what they have been up to. He’s been down here a couple of times and so we decided to return the favor.
We had a blast. We continued our tradition of watching terrible movies. We stayed up late reminiscing about old times. We ate fried food and generally acted like college students again. But one of the most exciting things that we did was he showed me their collection of Icons.
You see, we both collect religious artifacts and they had an entire wall covered with Christian icons to show off. I mean seriously, they probably had a good 25 to 30 icons displayed in their four room apartment.
And they also had an entire closet full of them, and since they are moving soon they let me take a big box to add to my own collection. Which was awesome.
If you don’t know already an icon is something that to the untrained eye would look like a religious picture. They often show a scene from the life of Jesus. Usually they are painted – though that’s not the right word – on wood and they serve as a reminder of the stories in the bible. They are inspiration for the faithful because they remind us of what we have heard in church and read in our bibles.
Although that’s not quite right because they are more than just a reminder really. Icons first came into existence when most people couldn’t read or write or for that matter afford a bible even if they could. So really early on in Christianity people began to show what the stories looked like so that everyone could have the chance to learn the stories.
That’s why, technically, they’re not ‘painted.’ Icons are written, not painted or drawn. They are written because even though they are not using letters, the idea is that they are writing down the story so that all can see and learn them regardless of if they can read.
So I got a big box of these from my friend and I am excited about all of them, but the one that immediately caught my attention was the icon that told the story from today’s Scripture passage.
That’s because, icons, as much as I love them, are rarely what someone would really describe as beautiful. That’s not their point because they really aren’t, strictly speaking, meant to be aesthetically pleasing, they’re not supposed to be ‘art’. They’re functional. And that means that they can start to look kind of, well, weird.
But this one icon, it was nothing short of gorgeous. While most of the icons used browns and dark reds with maybe a golden halo over Jesus’ head, this one was done almost completely in gold except for the whitest white on the garment of Jesus.
Everything you looked at was gold, in fact from the other side of the room I bet it just looked like it had actually been painted gold, but up close you could make out every little detail. Jesus, clothed in bright white, face serene, and simply glowing. In fact the paint used made the entire icon sparkle in an incredible way. It is beautiful.
And quite frankly, it put me to shame. It reminded me of how little I think about what things in the Bible looked like. I don’t often think about the visuals in the bible and that’s alright most of the time because, well, it doesn’t come with pictures. It doesn’t usually matter if I am picturing the wood on Noah’s Ark as a slightly different shade of brown than it actually was.
But here, in this story, looking at that icon, I realized just how little imagination I have. Our Gospel passage today is from Mark and Mark is famous for not giving detailed descriptions of things. And maybe that’s why he describes the transfiguration so sparsely, but I like to imagine that it is for another reason.
I don’t think that words can capture what happens in this story.
Jesus and two of the disciples go up the mountain. And then Mark simply says that he was transfigured and his clothes turned extremely white, whiter than earthly means could make them. And that’s all of the transfiguration.
After that there is an appearance by Moses and Elijah and then a voice says from heaven, “This is my Son the Beloved, listen to him” and it’s all over. And maybe Mark is just being Mark here and as my Sunday School class learned he is just telling his stories how he always does: with as little detail as possible.
Or maybe Mark is at a loss for words to describe what has happened, because… what has happened?
Well, literally speaking a transfiguration is a religious event in which a person is so affected by the divine that their body is briefly transformed. When Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the law he was forced to wear a veil over his face because he had been so affected by his experience that his body had transformed.
His time speaking with God changed something about him so that his face shone bright, so bright that it was impossible to look at him, so bright that he had to cover himself up or his fellow Israelites would not be able to stand face to face with him.
And to a certain extent that is what is happening here in this story. Jesus has another mountaintop experience, an interaction with his Father, and that changed something about his body. But when we are talking about Jesus I think we are talking about something even more than that.
Moses’ face shines because he encounters God on the mountaintop, but Jesus is God the Son. Jesus always has contact with the divine because he is divine. So I think that what we see in this story is slightly different. On the one hand, there is clearly a change. Jesus doesn’t usually radiate light like that. If he did then there would be no reason to tell this story.
So something shifts here. Jesus’ body goes from being a human body to looking like something different. But I think what’s happening here is less of a change in Jesus and more of a change in what the disciples are seeing. For a brief moment the disciples see something that is always true but they usually can’t see.
There is something else about icons. In the Eastern Church they believe that icons are windows into heaven. The mystics claim that by looking at the icon you are literally seeing into heaven. When you look at an icon of Christ enthroned, in a very real sense you are seeing him enthroned in heaven.
And thats, you know, that’s probably a stretch, but I think they are on to something nonetheless. I think that sometimes God does give us a glimpse into the heavenly reality. Sometimes we can see beyond what is happening around us.
And I think that that is exactly what happened at the transfiguration. I think this was more than simply some kind of divine laser light show like some kind of Rock ‘n Roll concert. I think this was a lifting of the curtain separating this world and heaven. The disciples were able to catch a glimpse of Jesus in all of his glory.
And just like the Eastern Christians believe about icons, this gave them a window into a higher reality. Jesus, of course, was not in heaven, he was on earth with them, but through this miracle they were nevertheless able to see his heavenly glory.
And we get to experience that same miracle today. We have that same theology of a window into heaven, we just have it about something else. In the Reformed Tradition it’s not icons that are our windows to heaven but, we believe that when we celebrate Holy Communion we experience this gateway into heaven.
When dining at the table we see and taste and touch Christ’s heavenly body. We are no longer merely dwellers of this earth, but we are Communers in the heavenly realm. And even now I struggle to verbalize it because I am suffering from the same problem that Mark was. You can’t describe this type of experience.
Mark tries to when he talks about glowing clothing and whites that are whiter than any earthly white, but in the end he seems to give up. Those that write the icons try to show it by revealing the visual sense of it, but even there it fails. So let us go to our own icon. Let us go to our own window into this heavenly domain, where the Christ invites us to join him.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.