In this sermon, preached on the Sunday next before Lent 2018, the Revd David Newton takes a fresh perspective on the extraordinary stories of Elijah taken up in a whirlwind and Jesus transfigured on the mountain.
Can you imagine standing in a field just out Jericho as Elisha and Elijah come near? The sentinel sounds the trumpet and shouts that Elijah, the holy man of God, is approaching with his apprentice hot on his heels.
A gaggle (or prudence or flock – whatever the right collective noun is) of prophets get very excited and run out to meet them. Somehow they are aware that this is Elijah’s last day on earth, and they waste no time telling Elisha.
You’re just watching, hoe in hand, from your field, mesmerised by this spectacle. You decide to follow at a distance, and see the great mighty Jordan River part to allow the holy men to cross. You rush across after them, before the waters dive back into place.
You keep your distance, not sure what they are saying to each other, and then you see this chariot of fire descend from on high. Suddenly Elisha is on his own. He rushes past you, you’re left in the middle of nowhere – stunned.
What an extraordinary day. What an extraordinarily bizarre story.
The stories of Elijah and Elisha are full of the bizarre and the miraculous. You probably know the story Elijah’s face off with the prophets of Baal. Or perhaps you’ve heard of Elisha raising a child from the dead, or making an axe head float, or healing the commander of an enemy army.
A whole bunch of incredible stories surround these two figures.
Incredible stories, but probably not your story.
You may have heard or read about such amazing people or fantastical stories in our day.
I remember reading a book called ‘The Heavenly Man’ by someone called Brother Yun. He was very influential in the House Church movement in China when persecution against Christians was rife and very serious. He tells of angels opening prison cell doors, of scaling walls 20 foot high, of memorising the whole NT because it was too dangerous to own a bible. The bizarre, the miraculous and the utterly audacious all woven together in a story of extraordinary faith.
An incredible story.
But not my story.
It is often hard to connect with stories like that of Brother Yun or Elijah and Elisha. They are so alien, so removed from our own fairly ordinary existence that we simply do not have the tools we need to build a ladder to such dizzy heights.
But I want to say this morning, that that is okay.
The stories of Elijah and Elisha and Brother Yun are not there to be replicated on a daily basis by every Christian under the sun. Such people and such stories have always been the exception, not the rule.
They are there to remind us of the power of the living God. They are there to remind us that nothing is impossible with God by our side. They are there to remind us that one or two are called to such an extraordinary life – but most are not.
Such stories should rouse our faith and our spirits. They remind us that God is acting in extraordinary and miraculous ways in our world. But it is not the norm!
Normally, God is found in the midst of the ordinary. In the beauty of a flower, or the conversation with a neighbour, in the midst of pain and sorrow, in the act of kindness and in the midst of creativity, in education and in science, in technology and literature. God in the ordinary.
The story of God in our lives, is on the whole, about God in the everyday.
Our Gospel reading also recalls an extraordinary, bizarre and miraculous event. Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus – who is transformed into dazzling white radiance.
Even for Jesus and the disciples this moment of transfiguration was a one off ‘wow’ moment, not the everyday stuff.
But Peter, bless him, wants to hold on to this moment. He says ‘Let’s build some tents’. He wants to stay on this mountain top in this moment of ecstasy; he wants to forget the real world with its aches and pains and struggles.
Most of us won’t have seen a dead person raised or the Jordan part to make dry land. But many of us will have had some kind of ‘mountain top’ experience. Those moments that we will recall if someone asks us to talk about our journey of faith. It might be dramatic, or it might simply have been significant to you… a sermon that clicked, a moment of stillness in a busy world, a word from a stranger or friend.
I remember lying on my bedroom floor having been hit by the story of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15. I remember a Maundy Thursday service at my old church where the drama of it all lifted me to the heavens. I remember reading the story of Corrie Ten Boom hiding Jews in Holland and crying my eyes out as I was hit by this story of faith.
There will be special moments in our Christian walk for each us.
But these are not the substance of faithful Christian living. These are the mountain tops, and faith is lived in the valleys.
Faith is lived in the valleys.
Jesus had no intention of staying on the mountain with Peter and John. It was good for them to be there for a second, but they had to come back to reality. And reality really hit home pretty hard for them… the next story we hear is about of little boy who is having seizures. The disciples try and help, but completely fail and an argument breaks out.
The stories of the mighty prophets can inspire us, the mountain top moments can help us on our way. But really, following Jesus is lived out in the valley, and often in the valley of the shadow of death.
We find God in the midst of the ordinary. We proclaim the good news that in the middle of our ups and downs, our work and play, our friendships and quarrels, God is at work. We proclaim the good news that in the midst of the ordinary every day, God uses ordinary people like us, to build his Kingdom and witness to his Love. Amen.