Sunday February 11, 2018
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Daniels
II Kings 2:1-12
One of the most dramatic stories in scripture of a religious vocation is that of the calling of Moses. The Lord promised to Moses that he would save the people Israel from their Egyptian taskmasters and lead them to the Promised Land. Sure enough, with Moses at their head, they escaped Pharaoh and his chariots, the very sea itself parting for the Hebrews, and they walked through it without getting wet, across the sea floor, the ground dry under their feet. For forty years they wandered the desert, with Moses still at their head, and God always with them.
But the Moses that led them over the dry floor of the Red Sea never set foot in the Promised Land itself. He died and was buried in an unknown valley. The Lord did grant him a view of that land of promise, however, before his death. With his own eyes—eyes that had once seen a bush, burning, but not consumed—he eventually saw the land that was their ultimate destination, the land to which he had been traveling for those decades upon decades, the one promised to Abraham, his forefather. But he never stood in that promised land, never touched that ground, never felt it solid and real under his feet.
That vocation fell to another, to a man named Joshua, an assistant of Moses, who had stood beside him for years. Joshua stood beside Moses when the latter ascended Mount Sinai to be together with God, and to receive the Ten Commandments. He stood next to Moses when he descended from the mountain. He was with him when they saw their people worshipping a golden calf.
It would be Joshua’s vocation to continue what Moses had begun. It would not be easy. As you may have heard at some point, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.” But the Lord made clear that Joshua was completing Moses’s work: when the Hebrews, with Joshua at their head, came to the Jordan River, separating them from their future home, the waters of the river parted for them, and they walked through it without getting wet, the ground dry under their feet.
Dante remembers Joshua in the Divine Comedy as one of the “warriors of the faith.” He isn’t Moses, whom God knew “as a friend.” He didn’t receive the tablets of the Law, or receive the divine name (YHWH). But Joshua was nonetheless an important part of the fulfillment of God’s will, the ongoing fulfillment of the covenant the Lord had made those centuries before.
It is because of Joshua and his vocation that we hear of Elijah’s strange itinerary in the second book of the Kings, our first reading this morning. As the second chapter opens, it is the day that Elijah will be taken away, by God, from his apprentice Elisha as well as from all of the prophetic community that has gathered around him. They are in Gilgal to start with, but then, at the Lord’s direction, they travel together to Bethel, then Jericho, then the Jordan. It is not the most efficient route: getting from Gilgal to Jordan does not take very long, unless you make detours to Bethel and Jericho. But these detours, here in the final moments of Elijah’s earthly life, replicate Joshua’s movements in the promised land, tracing the same route taken by that “warrior of the faith.” At Elijah’s touch, the waters of the Jordan River part for them, and the two walked through it without getting wet, the ground dry under their feet. Wherever Elijah is going, the scriptures seem to be saying, it bears some analogous resemblance to, or some important association with, the land of promise.
But it is a poignant scene between the two men that we read, as they travel together for the last time. Elisha, the younger man, standing alongside the elder Elijah in a tour of Israelite history. It is Elijah’s final day. Three times the “sons of the prophets,” likely other members of that prophetic community, ask Elisha if he knows that the Lord will take away Elijah that day. He knows. Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan. He knows the absence that is coming.
When the inevitable moment arrives, the two men do not part gracefully. Instead, flaming chariots and horses of fire appear and separate the two men, dividing them violently one from another. Elisha stands beside Elijah no more. The Bible sometimes describes deaths with the relatively peaceful, “And then he slept with his fathers,” but not here. Here the men are driven apart with violent force, as the chaos of a whirlwind sweeps down and yanks Elijah away, carrying him off, into the air and out of reach, beyond the horizon. And Elisha “saw [Elijah] no more.”
Now without him, without the Elijah he had walked next to, Elisha retraced his steps: to Jericho, then Bethel, then Samaria. He crossed the Jordan River again, going the other direction, again parting the waters and walking through them without getting wet, the ground dry under his feet. He becomes the new leader of the prophetic community, bearing Elijah’s mantle in every sense.
Elijah and Elisha’s final trip from Gilgal to the Jordan, following the steps of Joshua, was an indication by analogy that Elijah was going to the true promised land, in that whirlwind. And it is this Elijah whom Elisha loved—the Elijah who was taken up into heaven—that the gospel of Mark tells us is standing with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration, in our gospel reading today. Peter, James, and John see Moses and Elijah, prophets and leaders both, there in the presence of Christ, his glory blinding and disorienting for the disciples, though apparently not blinding and disorienting for Moses and Elijah. They are, it seems, at peace.
This was the better place to which Elijah was going: to be in the presence of the Messiah about whom he had spent his life prophesying. This was Promised Land that Moses was searching for: the land of milk and honey, of bread and wine, of life with God in a place of peace. On the Mount of Transfiguration, he finally stood in that very place he hadn’t been able to reach before, solid and real, looking at the face of the God who had first called him out of the bush that was burning, but not consumed.
I think of the Transfiguration as a kind of promissory note for the disciples, there on the brink of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It is a promise that one day they could participate in the glory of the Lord, in that promised place of peace. But that day would not be yet. It would be deferred for them just as it had been deferred for Moses and deferred for Elijah. The disciples had opponents to deal with first, as Joshua had with the Canaanites. They had communities to lead, as Elisha did with the prophets.
But at the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples saw that eventually Moses got there. Elijah got there. And maybe they could, too. When the disciples left the mountain, Israel’s promised Jerusalem would murder Jesus. But in the New Jerusalem, on the other side of death, he would reign supreme. Until that day, the disciples were to be the Joshuas and Elishas of Jesus, followers left behind until it was their time, who must until then pick up the heavy mantle of discipleship. For some coming period of time yet, the destructive power of sin would reign supreme instead, as it has for every human generation since the origin of our disobedience, as it has in every city since our first parent’s movement east of Eden.
But one hopes that Peter, James, and John could remember the promissory note of Christ’s glory on the mountain, as the coming season came of watching their Lord be destroyed by the ever-present forces of chaos, darkness, and evil. One hopes that they could imagine, could hope, could remember, that one day they too could stand on solid ground with Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah.
I hope we can remember that promise of God. The promise that, in his unknowable time, the seas will part for us, and we will walk over dry ground into the land of promise. The promise that, in God’s good time, the Canaanites and all of the other forces of death will be defeated by the fiery chariots and horsemen of God’s purification. The promise, that is, of heaven: the lives of the faithful, on the other side of death, sharing in the life of the king of glory.