The lectionary gives us this bit from Kings to tell us who Elijah is, why he’s in this scene and why Jesus is talking about him. It invites a preacher to do what I’m about to do: talk about who these people were, and why they mattered. What does it mean that the scribes said Elijah must come first?…
Elijah was one of the great Old Testament prophets, who lived in the time when David’s ancient kingdom had split into two kingdoms. Elijah’s words are encompassed in the historical books, Kings and Chronicles, rather than in a separate book bearing his name, like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Micah.
Today’s lesson gives us the end of Elijah’s time on earth. His story begins in 1 Kings 17, when the word of God first comes to Elijah and he is sent to King Ahab of Israel. In the passage introducing King Ahab, the Bible says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” Notably, he worshipped Baal, the god of a neighboring nation. So Elijah goes to Ahab and tells him that God is punishing Ahab with a drought. (Which seems a little hard on everyone else!)…
The story unfolds from there. Elijah has several run-ins with Ahab and his queen Jezebel. In between, he hides out in the wilderness or neighboring countries. Ahab has a nickname for Elijah: “Troubler of Israel” – because he always seems to have something critical to say. Ahab does not truly understand or perhaps care that Elijah is speaking for God.
Elijah’s prophetic vocation takes a lot out of him. Finally he tries to run away from it all. He literally lies down under a tree and wishes out loud that he were dead… does that remind us of anyone?… Then he journeys on to Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God. And there God appears to Elijah – not in powerful forces like wind or earthquake or fire, but in the sound of utter silence. And the voice that speaks in that silence tells him that he is to anoint Israel’s next king, Jehu, and Israel’s next prophet – Elisha. Elijah’s successor. In other words: You’re going to get your wish soon, Elijah. Your work is almost finished. But not yet.
Going forth from Mount Horeb, Elijah encounters Elisha almost immediately, plowing a field. Elijah throws his mantle – his cloak or outer garment – upon Elisha. And Elisha become his student and servant.
Today’s lesson offers the moment when Elijah is taken up to God, and Elisha succeeds Elijah as prophet. At a basic level, the Jews of Jesus’ time – and today – anticipated Elijah’s return because Elijah didn’t die. Instead, he was taken up to God in some mysterious way. At some point the idea that Elijah might return became the teaching that Elijah WOULD return, just before the coming of the Messiah. The book of Malachi, written relatively late in the Old Testament, contains this prophesy: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)
There’s a great deal of Jewish folklore about Elijah. Themes in the stories echo those in the Biblical texts about him: a helper of those in need and zealous prophet of God’s truth. Though I was delighted to learn that there’s also an idea that when dogs are happy for no reason, it’s because Elijah is in the neighborhood.
In addition to the folklore, Elijah is an important figure in Rabbinic literature and Jewish religious practice. At Passover Seders many Jews leave an empty chair and cup for Elijah – a sign of expectation and future redemption of God’s people. Some follow a custom of opening the door of the house and inviting Elijah in.
At the end of the Sabbath celebration, one of the prayers calls on God to send Elijah: “”Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah from Gilead. Let him come quickly, in our day with the messiah, the son of David.” You might hear a resonance with some of our liturgical texts that call for Christ to come again – soon!
So: Expecting Elijah’s return, as a sign that God was about to act decisively in human history, was a pretty normal idea in Jesus’ time. That’s our context for today’s Gospel, the Transfiguration story.
Notice that Elijah appears in this story in two ways. There’s the literal Elijah, visiting and talking with Jesus. (How did they know it was Moses and Elijah, anyway? Did they assume it, because those were two figures who were widely expected to return in some way? Or did they just KNOW in the way you sometimes just know things?…)
Regardless: The text seems clear that the two figures talking with Jesus were actually Elijah and Moses. Incidentally, although the book of Deuteronomy tells of Moses’ death, there were later traditions that Moses also had been taken up to God while still living.
But in addition to an appearance by Elijah himself, Jesus also talks about a different Elijah: “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things… I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” What is Jesus talking about here? Well – he’s talking about John the Baptist.
Jesus’ cousin, according to Luke; the wilderness prophet who proclaimed that God was about to do a new thing, and that people should prepare by changing their hearts and their lives. John the Baptist, who – like Elijah – got in trouble with the king for saying things the king didn’t want to hear. John the Baptist, who by this point in the Gospel had been executed by Herod.
Jesus – and the Gospels – don’t think that John was literally Elijah, but that he fulfilled Elijah’s role in some sense: in his prophetic work, in preparing the way for Messiah, and even in his imprisonment and death.
The dual appearance of Elijah in today’s Gospel works as a kind of icon of the Christian relationship with the Old Testament. There are things we receive directly, just as they are offered, such as the importance of Elijah as a holy figure; things we do not carry with us, such as continued expectation of Elijah’s coming; things we adapt and re-interpret, like seeing John the Baptist as a second Elijah.
You may have noticed that I usually use the expression “Old Testament” rather than “Hebrew Bible.” I’m not entirely consistent about it, because to be frank, a lot of clergy use “Hebrew Bible” and there’s some amount of peer pressure at work!
The intention in that terminology is to get away from describing the compendium of canonical holy texts from before the time of Jesus as if it were incomplete on its own, or has been replaced by the New Testament. I understand all that and basically agree with it. But.
There are a couple of issues with the term “Hebrew Bible.” One is that some of the later texts of the Old Testament were originally written in Greek, like the New Testament. But that’s a detail, really. Fundamentally, I use the term Old Testament because Ellen Davis uses the term Old Testament.
Ellen Davis was my Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School. She’s one of the great living professors of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Her class introduced me to Jewish Biblical scholarship. Dr. Davis works closely with Jewish Biblical scholars. She often helped us see the texts we were studying through Jewish eyes. She never let us forget for one moment that we shared these holy texts with another living tradition – and that we needed to read and study with curiosity and humility. And: She uses the term Old Testament. (At least, she did in 2005.)
Because, she explained, we are reading it as Christians. We can’t set that aside. It’s always part of our interpretive framework. Her assessment was that there’s something false and even appropriative about Christians using the term “Hebrew Bible.” So, even though there are real issues with the term “Old Testament,” I follow Dr. Davis’ practice. I trust her judgment on this matter.
We DO read the Old Testament as Christians. We can’t help looking for the ways it seems to anticipate Jesus, for the undergirding principles and texts of our own faith. The New Testament is built on the foundation of the Old Testament, in so many more ways than most Christians realize.
But I, we, also try to read and study the Old Testament for its own sake. Not just to collect the bits that seem like they might really be about Jesus and press them between the pages of our New Testaments like dried flowers. But to hear its voice and receive it as part of the great story of God and God’s people.
If we were only reading the Old Testament for what it brings to the Jesus story, this is all we’d need: Elijah was a great prophet who was expend to return, thereby foretelling the coming of God’s Messiah. But if that’s all we took from this story, we would miss SO MUCH.
This chapter about Elijah’s departure is so beautifully crafted. The repetition of the prophetic guilds addressing Elisha – “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” – and Elisha’s response: “Yes, I know; keep silent.” The crossing of the Jordan – doubly evocative: Crossing the Jordan stands for entering a new chapter, new territory; and the parting of the waters reminds us of Moses at the Red Sea. Elisha’s passionate cries as he watches his master taken from him are heartbreaking – there’s no questioning the depth of his devotion and grief. Elisha’s taking up Elijah’s mantle recalls Elijah’s initial calling of Elisha by casting his mantle over him.
And the story continues, beyond what we heard. The prophets want to send out some men to search the surrounding territory, in case Elijah fell to earth somewhere. Elisha says there’s no point. But the text says, They urged him until he was ashamed, and finally he said, Fine. Send them. Of course they don’t find Elijah, and he says, I told you so.
Then Elisha begins his work as a prophet. First he purifies the water for a nearby town.
Then, as he’s on his way to Bethel, some children come out and mock him, saying, “Go away, Baldy! Go away, Baldy!” Elisha becomes so angry that he curses them, and bears come out of the forest and maul forty-two children. So, right out of the gate, the authors of this text want us to know that Elisha is not Elijah. Elijah was kind of cranky in the classic prophetic style, but not cruel or vengeful.
Did you notice that Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit?Maybe it’s not because he’s greedy or ambitious. Maybe it’s because he’s desperately afraid that he’ll never be the prophet Elijah was.
This is a story about devotion. It’s a story about loss, and grief. It’s a story about trying to step up to a responsibility that’s been handed to you. About aspiring to live up to someone you admire… and failing. Sometimes failing badly. But sometimes managing to do some good anyway. It’s a story at once deeply human and deeply holy. And that’s just this tiny slice – there’s so much more, even just in the surrounding chapters. So many other stories I’d like to share… (We’ll get another one in a couple of weeks – you won’t want to miss it!)
In gratitude for the gift of Scripture, let us pray… Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may recognize ourselves and our times in ancient stories; know ourselves not alone; and learn to see God at work even in times of struggle and grief; through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.