Sometimes we don’t know our own family history. I’d say that, once a year, I’m completely surprised by something my mom or my dad says about our family’s past. I come from a place, from a specific group of people, just as all of you do. Every single one of us has a past that we weren’t even there for that determines our lives. It is valuable to know where we come from, because it helps explain how we got here.
But, of course, knowing where we come from is not something we’re born with. It’s the job of parents and grandparents to explain family histories, to show us who we are, and to teach us about what that means. I love hearing about it in my own family.
But as Christians, we have an important duty to know our history, too. Unlike family history, our history is not just about knowing where we as individuals come from, because our history is not so self-centered. Our history is the interactions we’ve had with God. Those interactions teach us, not just about who we are, but about who God is. Unlike most of our family histories, we can read about our Christian “family history” in the Bible.
Sometimes, though, I fear that we know just as little about our Bibles as we do about our family history – maybe we even know less. And that amuses me because, at the end of the day, genealogy is a lot bigger than the Bible! The Bible is a finite book, which means it’s possible to read the whole thing. We can certainly learn our history from that.
Today’s readings focus on the Transfiguration. Now, Transfiguration is one of those holidays that comes up every year in the church calendar. It’s about the day when Jesus went up a mountain, had his clothes transformed to dazzling white, and was greeted by Moses and Elijah. It’s a good passage to preach on, which is helpful, because it comes around every year.
But as I thought more about this story, I realized that the story of the Transfiguration itself doesn’t really make sense outside the context of knowing Moses and Elijah. Now, I know that I’ve preached about Moses more than once. Beyond that, you may have grown up watching The Ten Commandments or, if you’re younger than I am, perhaps The Prince of Egypt. Both are great movies that help us learn the story of Moses. But that’s the thing: most people know about Moses. But Elijah? Well, that’s a different story.
Elijah was a prophet in the time of the Divided Kingdom. Some of you may know that there were several hundred years, following the rule of King Solomon, when what we think of as Israel was divided into two parts. The country to the south was Judah, and had its capital at Jerusalem; the nation in the north was known as Israel and had its capital in Samaria. It was in Israel that Elijah did his preaching, prophecy, and miracle-working.
Before we talk too much more about him, I’d like to point out that Elijah’s name literally means “the Lord is my God.” It’s probably no surprise that he goes on to become a prophet. After all, we know that, in ancient times, names were thought of as somehow inextricable from identity; your name is not just what people call you, but it truly says something about who you are. Perhaps you even know the meaning of your name, and perhaps you receive some comfort from its meaning.
Regardless, when we talk about Elijah, it’s impossible not to talk about the times in which he lived. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings, you probably don’t realize that most of the kings who ruled in Israel and Judah were thought of as wicked and no good. Elijah lived during these times. And since the king was inadequate to serve as the moral authority for the nation, Elijah often served that way. He was the one with a connection to God, and he was the one people listened to on important matters.
Many of his types of miracles would be familiar to you: he made food for hungry people, healed the sick, and showed up the prophets of false gods by showing the power of the One True God. And, along the way, he took on a disciple. This disciple was the confusingly-similarly-named Elisha. Elisha followed Elijah around, learning from him. Elisha was more than just a lap dog who followed Elijah around; he truly wanted to be like him.
And that’s where we get to our passage today. Basically, Elijah knows that his ministry has come to an end. Elisha, though, stubbornly follows him around, even though Elijah wants to be left alone. Eventually, the time comes for Elijah to leave. Seeing how persistent Elisha has been, Elijah asks, “What’s one last thing I can do for you?”
Now, knowing that Elijah has performed miracles, it would make sense for Elisha to ask for a miracle – a miracle of healing, perhaps, or for Elijah to just once use his remarkable abilities for selfish gain. It could also make sense for Elisha, devoted as he is, to make his final request that Elijah would just choose not to go up to heaven. Yet, he doesn’t do that, either.
Instead, Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. In other words, he wants, not just to be like Elijah, but doubly so. He wants to be better than he is – he wants to be better that his mentor is. And when I read that, I don’t see it as greedy or selfish; I see it as a genuine striving to be better. That’s something we can all relate to, I think – the desire to be better than what we are; to break out of the “regular” shell we have and become something better.
And that’s where we return to the Transfiguration of Jesus. Now, we’re given a moment in which we’re supposed to see Jesus differently. Now, we’ve had these before; most notably at Jesus’ baptism, when the sky broke open and God said, “This is my son, the beloved; with him I am well-pleased.” Surely, that miracle was something that would make people stand up and take notice. But this one was a little different.
In that moment, we saw a miracle from heaven; we saw that Jesus was a significant prophet. And here, if all that happened was that Jesus’ clothes turned whiter, that would be neat. But the truth is, it’s Moses and Elijah showing up that really makes this special.
Moses, as you probably know, is the central figure of the first five books of the Bible, which in Hebrew are known as the Torah. “Torah” means “Law” or “Instruction.” These five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) lay out the history of the Hebrew people leading into the Promised Land, and they explain how God has been active in the world in those trying days. They are the central “family history” for the Jewish people, right up to today.
Elijah represents the next segment of the Old Testament. This section is known as the “Prophets,” and one of the central figures there is Elijah. Even in modern Jewish celebrations of the Passover meal, an empty seat is left at the table for Elijah, and he is poured a goblet of wine. This is to symbolize how Elijah – who, as our reading from 2 Kings teaches us, never really died, but was simply taken directly up to heaven – would return at the time of the Messiah. So him showing up here is a big deal.
You may know that, in the New Testament, Jesus speaks a couple of times of “the Law and the Prophets,” which means the whole Bible, because of course there wasn’t anything else at the time. Moses and Elijah are there, representing each of those sides of Scripture. And at this moment, by their presence, they are showing Jesus to be the central point of creation – that to which all of history was pointing, and God’s plan for the redemption of humankind. Positioning Jesus in this way allows God to show the disciples – and, by extension, us – that Jesus is the culmination of all that God has done, is doing, and will ever do. He is the both present with Moses and Elijah, yet greater than either of them. Even these two giants of faith were not what Jesus is. We see a clear sign from God that Jesus is, truly, the Messiah who has come to save the world.
This may seem like a small thing on this side of history. But from the disciples’ perspective, they saw the two men they thought of as the greatest symbols of devotion to God, the two men with the most special relationship with God, be eclipsed by the One whom they followed. This was a big moment for them, and is a good reminder for us to never let our familiarity with Jesus overcome the awesomeness of who he is and what he came to accomplish.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we must learn the stories of the heroes of our faith, like Moses and Elijah. When we learn these old, old stories, like the story of Elijah, we are better able to connect to the more familiar stories, like the story of Jesus. Perhaps we are not only more able understand the words of the Bible, but they become less intimidating to break into. We simply need to know where we come from to know what’s going on.
But the fact remains, we don’t just learn old stories to understand other old stories. Jesus is not a relic or a thing of the past; Jesus is very much alive and present with us today. We can connect, even now, with this very one who was transfigured on a mountaintop 2000 years ago. We are able to connect with this Transfigured Christ, who promises to transfigure us, too. So pray for the double-portion of the spirit of your greatest mentor, and pray freely. In the Christ who greets us at the mountaintop, all things are possible. Amen.