Sermon Seeds: Coming Through the Clouds
Sunday, February 14, 2021
The Last Sunday after Epiphany Year B
(Liturgical Color: White or Green)
2 Kings 2:1–12
2 Corinthians 4:3–6
2 Kings 2:1-12
Coming through the Clouds
Where is the place for the pause? When should we take a moment…catch a breath…just stop what we’re doing for a moment?
Transfiguration Sunday reminds us to take a pause. The scripture passages this week remind us of God’s light coming into the world. Light here reflects revelation. The contrast between light and dark noted in 2 Corinthians does not reflect good and evil; rather, it emphasizes known and unknown. Lack of knowledge is not problematic, in and of itself; after all, too much information without the proper context or background can lead to confusion and engender greater mistrust than information shared judiciously based on the recipient’s ability to comprehend and process that information. As an association treasurer, for instance, my presentation to a working group filled with various financial backgrounds is different from a presentation at the association’s annual gathering. One group’s familiarity with balance sheets and other financial tools enables a deeper dive into the specifics while the other’s more inclusive composition means that some in the room only see a cash flow statement while attending this meeting and have no interest or desire to learn how to read and respond to them. Revelation takes preparation.
Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday after Epiphany, a season that often gets overlooked as a bridge between Advent/Christmas and Lent, the two seasons of the Christian calendar that take up so much of our attention and energy. But Epiphany as a season, rather than as a distinct day, is a time that seems to encourage us to “Look at God!” Look at Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan with the whole Trinity showing up for the occasion. Look at Jesus venturing out into ministry and calling those first disciples to come along for the journey. And, this Sunday, we seek Jesus revealed before three of his closest disciples in his transfigured, dazzling glory. Look at God!
It’s a proper time to take a pause. To be still and know. To gaze upon the beauty of God’s splendor.
Pauses also mark transitions. They help us to pivot to a new thing or notice the change in circumstances. Our focus text from 2 Kings serves just that function. Gina Hens-Piazza shares a helpful framing of this moment:
Chapter 2 marks a pause in the progression of stories about kings and the dramas of their conflicts with other kings and prophets. References to events, rulers, and other chronological markers are notably absent. The story of the transition of religious leadership from Elijah to Elisha is fittingly positioned in a kind of liminal space. Elijah is about to leave history and narrative, leaving Elisha to succeed him. The story will climax in a space between heaven and earth.
1 and 2 Kings are about just that—the reigns of human leaders, their leadership of the nation, their relationship with God, and the impact of all those things. But this passage is about the prophets who spoke to them. Those called out by God, just as Peter, James, and John who accepted the role of ministering in the name of the Holy One. This part of their story is all about them. They do not consider its impact on the rulers of the day or even the people themselves. While they dedicated their lives to the telling of God’s truth to power, this moment paused that activity.
It doesn’t stop it or change their course. It is a divinely executed transfer of power. Both men understand the significance of the moment. Elijah has concluded his term, and Elisha has been selected as his successor. In different ways, both prophets are elevated. One to rest and reward while the other takes on the mantle of leadership for a new day.
Such moments deserve their time. Think of all the ceremonies and intentional liturgical action we have to mark transitions, such as marriages, ordination of clergy, the installation or release/retirement of a pastor, and even the dissolution of a marriage have their moments when the community assembles, notices, and responds.
As Elijah and Elisha traveled to Gilgal, Elijah directs Elisha “to stay here” three times. Each response from Elisha affirms that he will “not leave.” The text provides no explanation for the stops made on this journey. No action accompanies these destinations other than the company of prophets attempting to dissuade Elisha for his continued fidelity to Elijah. The trip itself unfolds like an elaborate test of Elisha’s dedication and commitment to follow Elijah’s path. Rather than receiving a grade at the end of the testing period, Elisha is promised a sign…coming through the clouds. He will see his mentor and predecessor ascend into the heavens. Elisha’s only desire in this moment is to “inherit a double share of your spirit.” As T. R. Hobbs notes, the request “indicates that Elisha is asking for the status as rightful heir to the prophetic leader’s role. The phrase indicates twice as much as any other heir, not double the amount Elijah had….The persistence of Elisha is now given explanation. His right to the succession is dependent upon his witnessing the departure of his [Elijah].” Hens-Piazza seems to concur that the rationale for a double portion. “Elisha is not requesting twice the spirit of the prophet. Rather, drawing upon the language of Israel’s legal tradition (Deut 21:17), Elisha is asking for the inheritance of the oldest son who must carry on the work of a father. The language here does not carry so much a legal connotation legislating inheritance, but rather narrates the intimacy between them.”
Jesus also cultivated intimate relationships with his disciples. In the Markan passage, the idea of staying put comes from Peter, who parallels Elisha in these narratives, as the one who will eventually take on the mantle of leadership of the burgeoning community of faith. Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, has invited his companions to experience the coming moment. Of course, Jesus’s ascension is not immediate. There are more stops on the road, including one that will feature a thrice-repeating test of Peter’s fidelity. Both leaders will have to grow and live into the responsibility assigned to them. But, Peter’s test is not included in this moment. The moments found in 2 Kings and Mark this week were pivotal in moving Elisha and Peter from preparation to fulfillment. Both events chronicled in this week’s lectionary fix their gaze on the glory moment.
Even prophetic and missional ministry needs a pause, not a break that separates us from kin-dom building work, but a moment of rest to refocus and refuel. This is captured in the larger concepts of sabbath, which “sanctifies time through sanctioned forms of rest and inaction” (Walter Brueggemann), and jubilee, an extraordinary time of extended sabbath, celebration, and demonstration of the kin-dom fulfilled. The ascendancy of Elijah and the Transfiguration of Jesus give their respective followers a taste of jubilee. It serves as a reminder of what their labor promises, their commitment pursues, and their hope proclaims. The glory of the Holy One on earth.
It comes through the clouds.
Most of us do not relish the cloudy day. We love blue skies with plenty of sunshine. Clouds, we associate with coming storms of wind and rain or snow. We forget that clouds are accumulators of water, power and life. Evaporated H20 consolidates and condenses in the atmosphere to form clouds. That coalescing continues until the new structure (cloud) can no longer hold its contents and releases it back into the atmosphere. Because creation needs water to survive, this mechanism is essential for sustaining life. So while we may dread the rain, we need the rain coming through the clouds. It helps to remember that even storms serve a purpose.
The 2 Corinthians passage, in conversation with the glory texts, reminds us of purpose, what fulfillment seeks to demonstrate, the point of the messages we proclaim, where the work of ministry leads. Worship of God also does that. It does not distract us from ministry; it demonstrates the ends. Even the best of our worship encounters imperfectly fail to reach the heights that Peter and his cohorts experienced. But in worship, we are reminded that we are reaching for a destination that is glorious–not simply better or adequate, but glorious. Our goal is not just to feed the hungry but to participate in a world when all are fed. Our call is not to merely accept the immigrant in our midst, but to shape a world in which no one is labeled stranger.
Through worship, we are reminded that a just world for all is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, but the mission of the body of Christ participating in realizing the kin-dom of God on earth as it is in heaven. One striking aspect of the 2 Kings passage is that it begins by revealing what will happen at the end of it. Jesus, in his relationship with his disciples, was also known for telling them what was to come at various points of the journey. He would amplify and expand the closer they came to the most climatic events of his earthly ministry. That too is part of preparation. There is the aspect of getting ready for something, but being informed of what is to come is a different form of readiness. The advance warning only becomes clear as the journey unfolds.
At the dawn of the pandemic, there was a great deal of conversation about sporting events. In particular, the questions of if, when, and how they might be played arose; different entities made decisions based on the nature of their sport and the impact on their business model. The NBA immediately shut down their season as they understood the health of their players was paramount. The Wimbledon Championship also cancelled their scheduled matches for 2020. At the time that decision was announced, it was revealed that the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts the event, had an insurance policy that covered infectious diseases and would receive over £100 million from submitting a claim due to the cancellation. On Twitter, sports commentator Jemele Hill made the point that “You don’t have to get ready when you stay ready.”
We take a pause to stay ready. We reach for the sky in worship to get ready to face the otherwise unfaceable. Elisha would have to face continuing the prophetic ministry of his mentor and parental-figure. Peter, James, and John would have to face the horrors of the crucifixion of their teacher and friend. Daily, followers of Jesus Christ confront the challenges of a world sicked by evil and polluted by greed. We would do well to take the advice of that R&B song, “Keep you head to the sky.”
The glory of the Sovereign God will be revealed. Hope will flourish. The promises fulfilled. Take a pause and envision it, reach for it, sit with it for a moment. It’s coming…through the clouds.
For further reflection:
“One of the greatest gifts from God is the eternal perspective. It is a level of fearlessness, a level of understanding where one can experience even emotional harmony with God.” — Criss Jami
“Why did I pray? A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?” — Elie Wiesel
“You can change the place you live, your clothes, your interests, your friends, your religion and even your partner. However, if you forgot to change your mind, attitude, beliefs about the world, how you treat people and how you plan to be different this time around, why did you even bother?” — Shannon L. Alder
“We often need to lose sight of our priorities in order to see them.” — John Irving
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite the congregation to take a pause in worship. After the sermon, provide inspiration (perhaps in the form of artwork that may be displayed virtually or a searing piece of instrumental music) and give space for unscripted response. (I am deliberately not suggesting a moment of silence so not to discourage a vocal response.) After the pause, you might invite worshippers to share a word or short phrase out loud or in the comments or chat.
Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.Hens-Piazza, Gina. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: 1 – 2 Kings. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.
Hobbs, T. R. 2 Kings. Bruce M. Metzger et al, Ed. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1987.
Yee, Gale A. “1, 2 Kings.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Lectionary texts : 2 Kings 2:1–12 | Psalm 50:1–6 | 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 | Mark 9:2–9
2 Kings 2:1–12
2 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, 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.” 10 He 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.” 11 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. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
1 The mighty one, God the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6 The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge. Selah
2 Corinthians 4:3–6
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 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. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 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.
2 Six days later, 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, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org), Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ (Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”