Sunday, February 19, 2012
End of Epiphany, Beginning of Lent: Put On Your Crash Helmets!
Fairly or not, noted author Annie Dillard describes church folk as “cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute...The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship...The wind seems to be picking up...”
Today the season of Epiphany concludes, and we prepare for the forty days of Lent, beginning this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. You can hardly read the Scripture passages today with any kind of real understanding and not notice that, indeed, “the wind is picking up”! Try as we might be tempted to ignore, to pass off, or to resist it, -- and you and I do all of the above -- these readings are full of visions of transfiguration, transformation, something new in the making: the end of “business as usual”. God’s reign is coming among us in full force!
Along with Elisha and the company of prophets from Jericho in the first reading (2 Kings 2:1-12) we can hardly believe our ears and eyes in witnessing the whirlwind, the chariot and horses of fire which sweep Elijah up and snatch him “into heaven”, according to the writer. Our modern skeptical minds, are probably thinking, along with those motley prophets: “Let’s get the search party out there! It was a nice show, but surely God must have dropped Elijah out on some mountain or into a ravine. Let’s go and seek your master.” And Elisha forbids them. Elisha knows that this isn’t business as usual. The event has nothing to do with confirming his credentials as a prophet after his mentor, Elijah.
Prior to the event the Jericho prophets had been chittering to Elisha: “Hey, you know that God’s going to take your master away from you today, right? Now, you’ll be the master!” Partisan politics. Good PR to secure Elisha’s credentials. The motivation for spiritual and political self-advancement. But Elisha knows better. God has taken Elijah away in a unique and revelatory event: a sign of something which has nothing to do with cheap religion or politics. When the prophets’ search party returns, after three days, there’s no Elijah. Elisha reminds them: “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?”
Using a literary device known as epanalepsis (repetition, resumption, taking up again) the passage from 2 Kings is set between two passages which say (the end of Chap. 1): “Jehoram succeeded [Ahaziah] as king in the second year of King Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat of Judah...” and (the beginning of Chap. 3): “In the 18th year of King Jehoshapat of Judah, Jehoram son of Ahab became king...” -- all political stuff. The writer means to single out the Elijah event to show that it is outside and beyond the “business as usual” of narrating Israel’s political history. God has taken Elijah, bodily, from this world, exempting him from death and receiving him into God’s glory. It’s a symbol for us that Death has met its match, because God is triumphant. We’re thereby assured that the same thing can happen in our time as when, historically, God’s power was demonstrated to all in Jesus’ Passion & Resurrection, and that it continues to happen with all humankind. God’s saving power affects all of creation; new life and hope emerge from the darkness of Death. We and our world are reoriented. Just as Elisha, later in Chapter 2, immediately turns, by God’s power, to ministering to others, so God shows us in the Elijah event that the only meaning our human lives can have is in serving God by caring for one another.
When we turn to Mark’s Gospel passage (9:2-9), lo and behold, who should be there again but Elijah, along with Moses and with a now resplendent, transfigured Jesus on the mountain. Mark declares that by this event, too, God’s ultimate, open restoration of all things in power is here. In Jesus the reign of God has arrived.
If Peter, James, and John, who knew Jesus firsthand, had travelled with him, heard him proclaim God’s good news, if they, as Mark says, “did not know what to say, for they were terrified” at this sight, then what about us who live our lives so routinely and lackadaisically most of the time! What will it take to shake us up and open our eyes to become really serious about our commission to be God’s Church??
Just as Elisha had to shush the prophetic company as they mistakenly chittered on and on about religion and politics, so Jesus and his Father, in essence, shut the disciples up. Peter is going on and on: “Rabbi, isn’t just great that we’re here! Look at us. We need to build some dwellings here: for you, for Moses, for Elijah, and [by implication] for me too.”
What Peter has in mind are the tents mentioned in Numbers (11:1-30). Remember that scene in the wilderness? The people were not only on Moses’ back, but on God’s back: they hated the place; they hated the food; it was all much better back in Egypt when they had cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic, and now they’re tired of walking, and all God gives them is this...manna stuff. Yech! The writer of Numbers clues us in that, at this point, God has just about “had it” (v. 1): “...the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp...” Then Moses starts in (vv. 11-15): “Why do you treat me so badly? Why do I get stuck with the burden of these idiots? Did I conceive them or give them birth, that you should say to me ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a child’? Where do you expect me to get food for all of them -- you know there aren’t many supermarkets along the way out here! I can’t do it alone! It’s too much! If you’re going to treat me this way, then why not just shoot me now?!” And what does God finally do: he tells Moses to gather together 70 elders and bring them to the tent of meeting “and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you...” (v. 17) So it’s there at the tent where God send his spirit on some new “bureaucrats”, people who now have some political standing among the people.
And that’s what Peter thinks is happening on the mountain, and he’d like to believe he’s now Jesus’ new bureaucrat. Politics as usual; business as usual. “Let’s get tents pitched and me in office as the new administrator!”
And don’t we in the Church repeat that same scenario over and over and over again! The Good News in Christ is right before our eyes and we miss it; we don’t want to be bothered to hear it, much less to live it. Because it’s demanding; it costs. It’s not business or religion or politics as usual. And if you don’t believe it, look at the other 11 verses of 2 Corinthians, Chapter 4, the verses before and after the snippet which is today’s second reading (2 Corinthians 4:3-6): “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In 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. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For 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. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
Annie Dillard, whom I mentioned before, writes: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews...”
The Lenten season ahead of us is not time for “business as usual” in our spiritual lives, for worrying about ourselves and our wants, but time for prayer, fasting, and reaching out to others, for becoming one with our Master who “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified...” God grant that we, “walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ...our Savior...”