Elijah, Elisha and Transfiguration

2 Kings 2.1-12 & Mark 9.2-9

Sunday next before Lent/Year B


This week I’ve been up in my attic rummaging through old things.

I don’t go up there much because there’s a danger of meeting spiders, but for some reason I had an urge to do some clearing out, and it’s not a big time for spiders right now, so I went.

And while I was up there I came across a portfolio from when I was a librarian and working to get my chartership.

Once you’ve got your academic qualification in librarianship you can become a chartered librarian by working for 1 to 2 years with a mentor to achieve some continuing professional development objectives.

I’d never worked with a mentor before and I found I really enjoyed it.

It was good to have someone interested in my development, and willing to talk and listen about how I could further my career and interests, generously giving me the benefit of her wisdom and experience.

There came a time, though, when I had to leave my mentor behind and begin to stand on my own.

At that point I was on my own when it came to making my way in the library world.

And this feeling of being on your own is what Elisha experienced on the day when his mentor Elijah was taken up to heaven.

Elisha really didn’t want to let go of this relationship, saying three times during our reading that he wouldn’t leave Elijah.

His fellow-prophets also seem worried, as they keep asking Elisha if he knows that today’s the day he loses his mentor and has to take on the job of lead prophet himself.

Elisha isn’t pleased by this, essentially telling them to shut up and stop going on about it.

Perhaps the other prophets weren’t confident about Elisha’s abilities, maybe they were trying to make sure Elisha was prepared, but all they do is rub salt in the wound.

Then Elijah is suddenly gone, separated from Elisha by a chariot and horses of fire, and taken in a whirlwind.

Then Elisha cries out “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

Now, Elijah was not Elisha’s father, but it was normal at that time for a pupil to refer to a master as ‘father’, so that much makes sense.

But I did wonder what that statement about the chariots of Israel and its horsemen was about.

It seems this refers to an ancient image of God as the commander and chief chariot driver of the heavenly host of angels.

Elisha is therefore recognising that God himself, or at least his heavenly host, has come to collect Elijah.

Interestingly, when Elisha later lies dying in 2 Kings 13 the king of Israel uses the same words in grieving for him, as if Elisha is to be taken in the same way.

And this phrase is also where the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” comes from.

But, going back to our story, an interesting thing happens.

Just after the place where our reading ends, having seen this great vision of God’s power and glory, Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle, repeats his miracle of parting the waters of the river Jordan, and is recognised by the other prophets of Israel as having received Elijah’s spirit, meaning that he’s been given the power that Elijah was given – to act as a prophet of God and leader of all the prophets in Israel.

Elisha has been empowered and reassured, and the further story of his life proves that he’s learnt from his mentor and walks in the power of God.

But what does all this have to do with the transfiguration of Jesus, which is what we’re supposed to be remembering today?

Well I think perhaps the link lies in the way in which the visions in the two stories reassure, strengthen and help God’s people in their work.

Elisha was given a vision of glory which equipped him to take on his mentor’s job when he was full of doubt, fear and grief.

The disciples on the mountain with Jesus were also given a vision of glory.

They weren’t yet facing doubt, fear and grief but it wouldn’t be long before Jesus began heading towards Jerusalem and towards his suffering and death.

Then they would begin to doubt – this wasn’t how the story of God’s Messiah was supposed to go, perhaps they’d made a terrible mistake.

And they would be afraid – if their leader had been arrested and executed maybe they would be next.

And they would be grief-stricken – their leader, friend, guide and mentor would be dead, and all their hopes would be gone.

It’s easy for us to underestimate how difficult that time was for the first disciples, as we move into Lent and start to look at the events of Jesus’ suffering and death from the other side of Easter.

For them there was no Easter, and no idea that one person could die and rise from the dead for all of humanity.

To them, resurrection was something that happened all at once to everyone at the end of the world, and then it would be too late to make any difference to things here and now.

So perhaps this vision of glory, like the one given to Elisha, was designed to help them through the dark times to come, to strengthen them when they felt weak, give them hope when they wanted to give up, and to reassure them that God was indeed near them and at work in the person of Jesus – they had only to hold on until things became clearer.

Of course, there is a difference: Elijah was gone and couldn’t help Elisha any more.

But Jesus is not gone, and he doesn’t leave us to carry on alone, but stands with us always.

And, even if we never get a vision like the ones we’ve heard about today, we have the benefit of the Easter story to help us hold on to the truth that God is alive and active in the world, the mentor who never leaves us, and the one whose glory fills both heaven and earth for ever.

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