On Spiritual Turning Points
As 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. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’
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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
It is a lovely thing to experience a child growing in their understanding of something; watching the “penny dropping” for them, so to speak. Not long ago I was talking with my eight-year-old granddaughter about how old we were. She wanted to know how old I would be in 51 years (not sure why 51—it was just a number she threw our there.) I told her I didn’t expect to be living on earth at that point but gave her the number nonetheless. So I asked her how old she would be in 51 years. She was puzzled at first. So I prompted her to use math skills. It was delightful to see the penny drop; her sense of personal satisfaction as it dawned on her that she could calculate the answer by adding her age of eight to the 51. And so she counted, 52, 53 and with great excitement in her voice and delight in her eyes announced the answer when she arrived at 59. And so her vision of how her math skills could be used just got enlarged.
I invite you to consider with me today these two Biblical stories of rather unusual happenstance—Elijah’s chariot ride to heaven and Jesus’ transfiguration. They are stories of spiritual turning points; stories of the enlarging of spiritual vision for those involved. As we do my hope is that our spiritual vision will be enlarged; perhaps a penny or two will drop for us.
Let me begin by asking, when did you first know? When was it that Jesus became for you more than a name of an important religious figure? When was it that you knew that Jesus had made incursion into your heart and life? When was it that you first said “yes” to his call to follow him? For some it was a sudden experience like an alarm clock jolting one awake; for others it was slower and more like awakening gradually to being fully awake.
And as important as that initial awakening is for each believer there has been a number of other spiritual turning points along the way; times and events where some penny dropped from a sentence of scripture or line of a hymn or a sermon and our spiritual understanding or vision was enlarged. We understood our Lord’s work in our lives in a far more comprehensive way. Like a child who discovers that what she has been learning at school about numbers and how they work opens a whole host of new calculations she can make in life. So we too find that a scripture sentence is akin to a diamond and shows its wonder as we turn it looking again and again at its various facets from different vantage points. We discover there is much more God wants to say to us through it that we ever imagined at our first reading.
1. Come with me first to this story of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah, who also features in the Transfiguration story, is the fiery prophet of Israel. Moses gives Israel God’s law; King David gives Israel her worship structure; Elijah establishes in Israel her prophetic ministry. When you think of the prophetic ministry think preacher. In our story it is evident that schools of prophets/preachers have been established to multiply what Elijah has begun. These preachers were charged with a ministry of proclaiming the word of God and calling Israel to faith in God.
It was a few years earlier, following a crisis point in Elijah’s life that Elijah found Elisha son of Shaphat ploughing on the family farm and Elijah threw his mantle (cloak) over Elisha’s shoulders—a act of inviting Elisha to join him in this ministry. (1 Kings 19:19-21) Elisha was Elijah’s first recruit to this prophetic ministry. Elisha joins Elijah and becomes Elijah’s protégé. It is clear that Elisha is very attached to his mentor in the ministry; he refuses to leave Elijah’s side even when invited to do so by Elijah; and when Elijah is gone Elisha tears his garment in two—a sign of intense sorrow and grief.
As the moment of Elijah’s departure approaches “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.’” Elisha’s request is couched in the language of the common practises of inheritance; the eldest male inherited a double portion of the father’s wealth. Elisha knows that he won’t have Elijah to lean on in the future; he won’t have his mentor to consult on matters theological. Elisha knows he will need his mentor’s courage to be able to lead this prophetic ministry into the future. He is perhaps worried and afraid that he won’t have what it takes to carry on. So he asks for the double portion.
Elijah 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.’ Elijah responds that what he has asked for is no simple thing and not his to give. What Elijah knows is that Elisha needs an enlarged vision of God. He isn’t saying that there is some special magic dust that will descend on Elisha—he knows that if Elisha sees what God is up to everything will change for Elisha. His spiritual vision will be enlarged.
You see, it was a few years earlier that Elijah had come into the wilderness and wanted to die. It was following his great triumph over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) that all seemed to be lost because Queen Jezebel put a price on his head. So Elijah fled for his life. Elijah was depressed and exhausted. He said to God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10)
After a time of rest and nourishment God invited Elijah to Mt Horeb where he experienced a very special encounter with God; first a great wind, then and earthquake, then a raging fire—but the Lord was in none of these. Then the sound of sheer silence and with the silence the voice. It was then that God disclosed to him that Elijah was not alone as he imagined but that there were 7000 in Israel who had not bowed their knees to Baal, had not kissed the Baal image with their mouths. (1 Kings 19:18) With this renewed and enlarged spiritual vision Elijah sets out and chooses Elisha as his protégé; Elisha was one of the 7000 who had remained faithful to God.
Elijah knows that if Elisha sees his departure he will catch a glimpse of what Elijah had experienced of God on Mt. Horeb. Listen again to what Elisha sees. “As 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. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’” This is the first time in his life he has ever seen them; he catches a glimpse of what God is up to in protecting this prophetic/preaching ministry. This vision will sustain Elisha throughout his ministry. On one occasion when an enemy army came up against Israel he prayed that his servant would have his eyes opened to see the “horses and chariots of fire” that surrounded Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17)
And this story isn’t told just for Elisha’s benefit. It is for us too; that we would have our spiritual vision enlarged to know that God is at work for the sake of his people. If we could peel back the veil we would see what Elisha sees. There is much more to our existence than what our five senses detect—there is the reality of Jesus Christ that only the eyes of faith apprehend. Furthermore, we can discern that God is active in the work of making his word known; in the ministry of preaching and proclamation. We noted a moment ago that Elijah is also present at the transfiguration of Jesus indicating that this ministry of proclaiming is gathered up in Jesus.
2. Come with me now and join Peter and James and John as they journey with Jesus to the mount of transfiguration. The disciples have been on a kind of retreat with Jesus in the region around Caesarea Philippi; a time away from the press and pace of ministry demands; a time for Jesus to teach his disciples. After some months of being with Jesus, it is here he asks them who they think he is and Peter answers for the disciples—“you are the Messiah.” It was after this that Jesus began pointedly to teach them “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)
Mark tells us that it was during this time of teaching Jesus said “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ Recall that Elisha was going to see something; he saw “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” Note with me that Jesus said some of the disciples standing there would “see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Mark then relates the story of Peter and James and John going with Jesus to the mountain where they will see Jesus transfigured and Elijah and Moses in conversation with Jesus. Mark wants his readers to understand that this transfiguration event was the fulfilment of Jesus’ claim that some would “see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
What did they see? Keep in mind as we ask that question we are not asking merely what their physical eyes took in—see includes that but carries the idea of apprehension. First the visible alteration of Jesus before their eyes demonstrates him to be more than a merely human teacher. Second, Jesus’ association with Elijah and Moses demonstrates his messianic role—all the prophets and the law were pointing to Jesus because here the two heads of those ministries are in conversation with Jesus about his ministry. Third, the voice from heaven declares Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. In other words, when the veil between earth and heaven is peeled back the disciples see that all is focussed on and organized for Jesus. Or as Jesus put it, they would “see that the kingdom of God has come with power.
These factors—Jesus transfigured, Elijah and Moses in conversation, the voice from the cloud—set in context of the new understanding of Jesus and his mission which these disciples has gained at Caesarea Philippi and through Jesus’ subsequent teaching, mark a gigantic step forward in the disciples’ developing appreciation for the scale of the divine plan that they he been caught up in—the same divine plan in which we are caught up into.
At first the disciples don’t know what to make of what they saw—Peter tries but in truth didn’t know what to say. Not unlike Elisha who could only shout “Father, father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Didn’t he think Elijah could see them? Moments of spiritual enlargement are like that—our apprehension is not often with words and understanding. They just invade us and take over our being—what we perceive we can’t put into words. Yes, later, upon reflection, the disciples can speak of this glory. But at first they didn’t know what to say—and so too for us, when the proverbial spiritual penny drops it sends ripples through our entire being which is frankly hard to put into words.
3. In both instances—Elijah’s chariot escort and Jesus’ transfiguration—the veil closes. Elisha returns to the daily reality of leading this preaching ministry; Peter and James and John return with Jesus to the daily press of proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near. But their spiritual vision has been enlarged; a spiritual turning point and everything after will never be the same. Further, Jesus’ promise that some would “see that the kingdom of God has come with power” isn’t just for Peter and James and John. Through the eyes of faith we apprehend the same as we hear their story. We too have our spiritual vision enlarged as we apprehended the scale of the divine plan in which we are caught up in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul said it in his second Corinthian letter it is God “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Here is the spiritual penny that I hope has dropped in our beings today. That we apprehend something of the grandeur of what we have been caught up in through faith in Jesus Christ; apprehend a little more of the cosmic scale of its scope, the perfecting envisioned as its goal, beyond our imagining in its glory, and eternal in its significance. So here we are in the routine of church life having caught a glimpse of what is beyond the veil. So when you do the ordinary stuff of singing in the choir, meeting for worship, studying scripture, caring for the building, bringing food for fellowship time, serving on council or committee, attending to the finances, setting out communion elements, running worship visuals, extending yourself in friendship, visiting the sick or shut-in, caring for loved ones in declining health, helping a family member through a rough time, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—it is never merely those things. If you could peel back the veil for a quick glimpse—as we have done today—you would see heaven organized to bring all this to fruition for glory of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
I love the way the Apostle Paul spoke of Jesus as the one “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’
And he (Jesus) was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Amen.