Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, 2nd March 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12; Matt. 17:9-23 – Elijah and Jesus

I’m not quite sure whether you still find some of the stuff in the Bible surprising or not: just in case it did just flow over you, I will just highlight a couple of surprising things which we have heard in this evening’s lessons.

In the second Book of Kings, we heard about the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven – but first of all, parting the waters of the River Jordan, so that he and his successor Elisha could pass through to the other side: ‘They went over on dry ground’ (2 Kings 2:8). And then ‘a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, and took Elijah up in a whirlwind to heaven’ (2:11).

Then if we turn to St Matthew’s gospel, we have picked up the story, as Jesus, Peter, James and John the brother of James were coming down the high mountain on which they had seen Jesus ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah. A bright cloud had suddenly overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (Matt. 17:5).

And then as they came down the mountain, Jesus cured a man’s son who had epilepsy, by ‘casting out a devil’ which had made the boy have fits. Jesus challenged his disciples by saying that they did not have enough faith: ‘If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there: and it will move. Nothing will prove impossible for you.’

What do you think? Is there any way these days that we could understand Elijah suddenly appearing with Moses and Jesus, in some way ‘transfigured’? I’m not sure what ‘transfigured’ really means. There is that wonderful piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night, a night of strange light, a supernatural aspect. What do we feel? Are we in the camp which feels, along with C. S. Lewis, that anything is possible for God, and therefore there is no reason why God could not make miracles like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven?

Elijah being taken up into heaven, of course, is somewhat like the Ascension of our Lord Himself. So are we comfortable saying, ‘Because of the omnipotence of God, there is no reason why, given that Jesus was God, he shouldn’t be able to have transfigurations and ascensions: and no reason that Elijah, as the prophet of God – as the other great prophet with Moses – couldn’t be taken up into heaven in the way described?’

On the other hand, we could be sensitive to the charge of humanists and rationalists, who object that everything that we believe in ought to be subject to the same rules of logic and science, and that you could not make sense of stories such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind or the Transfiguration in the normal way: just contrast the way in which you would describe the arrival of a number 38 bus with the way in which these stories about Elijah and Jesus are told. Quite different.

We can generally agree that if I tell you about seeing a number 38 bus, you will know what I am talking about, even though perhaps what you and I actually see when we look at a number 38 bus might in fact be different. We can’t get into each other’s heads to prove what it is exactly that we are looking at: whether it is the same thing. Nevertheless it’s sufficiently similar for us to be able to communicate about it successfully. What it is for something to be a number 38 bus is sufficiently similar in my understanding to what it is in yours for us to be able to talk about it.

But on the other hand, if we talk about something like Elijah going up to heaven in a whirlwind, or Jesus being transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we can’t necessarily be confident that we will be understood by everyone in the same way.

Jesus adds a twist, by asking whether or not the disciples have enough faith; if they do have enough faith, even the tiniest quantity, it will be sufficient to move mountains.

But – are you going to beat yourself up over the fact that you aren’t able to go out there and transpose K2 for Everest using pure will-power and faith? Nobody else has done it. So what did Jesus mean? Clearly we are in a different area, different from simple mundane questions like whether the 38 bus has arrived or not.

Of course some of the Oxford philosophers of the 50s and 60s, like the late, great, A. J. Ayer, would have said that, unless a statement is verifiable, in the same way that something about the number 38 bus would be verifiable, then it is meaningless. So everything about Moses and Elijah, transfiguration, being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind and so on, is, according to Prof. Ayer and others, meaningless.

So on the one hand you have C.S. Lewis accepting miracles and saying, ‘This is just the sort of thing that an omnipotent god would do’, and on the other, you’ve got a sort of common sense view, either that they’re not true, or that there’s no way in which we could make sense of these stories in any literal way.

Does it matter? We are just about to start Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and in fact our Lent courses are going to start on Monday morning, so that we can get six sessions in before Holy Week. We’re going to be studying St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, ‘Be Reconciled’.

St Paul wrote, ‘He has made known to us His hidden purpose – such was His will and pleasure, determined beforehand in Christ – to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ We will be studying all the various aspects of this ‘unity in Christ’, this reconciliation, over the next six weeks.

But for the purpose of this sermon, I simply want to draw attention to the process, to the way that our faith can work. There must be a very strong suspicion that unless something very remarkable did in fact happen, it’s tempting to feel that no-one would have said that Elijah was a prophet, someone through whom God spoke.

Without the miracles, the revelations, perhaps no-one would have said that Jesus was not only a prophet – as the Moslems and Jews acknowledge – but was in fact God on earth, the Son of God. But it’s not so much a question how God manifested Himself through Elijah, or became incarnate in Jesus Christ, not a question of how, but that He did. The exact mechanism is beyond our powers of understanding.

One can say that these big miracles, like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, are indeed beyond our power fully to describe or explain. But that doesn’t mean to say that they did not happen in some sense. Because if they did happen, we can recognise through them that God cares for us, that God is involved with us.

And in the light of that wonderful fact, we ought to be reconciled, to be reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is being separated from God: salvation is being brought back together, reconciled.

So much for this rather philosophical excursion. You might be rather scornful that I could stay in this rather rarified vein in the face of all the momentous events which have been happening this week. As Christians preparing to rehearse, to act out, the drama of Jesus’ Passion, prepared to accept the reality of God on earth, how do we look at the conflicts in the world, in Syria or in the Ukraine?

Nearer to home, what do we think about the two criminals who murdered the soldier, Lee Rigby? ‘ROT IN JAIL,’ in bold capitals, read the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. What is the Christian perspective? How would we see it if we ourselves had just come down from the mountain with Jesus?

Who are the good people and the bad people in these stories? What happens when the dust has settled? When the Syrians have finally stopped killing each other, and the Ukrainians have decided whether they want to go with the Russians or with the Europeans, where are we going to stand as Christians?

Are the killers of Lee Rigby really condemned to rot? Is there no redemption for them? Clearly now the killers don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. They have a crooked justification for it. But let’s suppose after years in gaol, they appreciate the wrongness of what they have done, and they repent. What shall we say then? Jesus’ message was a message of forgiveness, not ‘rot in jail’. How would it feel to us if we had just come down from that high mountain?

The same with the civil war in Syria and the terrible divisions in the Ukraine. Will people be reconciled? In these situations the church can speak. The church can remind the world of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation: we Christians should be fired up by the thought of that mountain-top experience.

We can be prophets; we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us. Let us pray that, at the end of the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine – and in all other places where there is a breakdown of law and order, where there is civil war or civil unrest – that there will be a resolution, not based on victors’ justice, but rather on true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s words: truth and reconciliation. Come down from the mountain. Be reconciled.

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