Episode 8

February 02, 2024


B208 Transfiguration

B208 Transfiguration
By the Well
B208 Transfiguration

Feb 02 2024 | 00:32:01


Show Notes

Robyn and Fran discuss 2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthaisn 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9.

We mention Gail Ramshaw's book "Treasures old and new: Images in the Lectionary"

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:04] Speaker A: You're listening to by the, well, electionary based podcast preachers recorded on the land of the Warunderi people. I'm Fran Barber. Hello, everyone. [00:00:17] Speaker B: Hi. And I'm Robin Whitaker. And this is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before lent begins. And we're going to be looking at briefly all four readings, but a focus on two kings, chapter two, one to twelve, psalm 51 to six, mark, chapter nine, verses two to nine, and lastly, two corinthians four, three to six. So let's begin with second kings. Fran, what do we need to know to kind of give us some context for this rather bizarre story? [00:00:51] Speaker A: Yeah, I think we can probably see why the lectionaries paired it with the mark and one. But in another level, it is a semi arbitrary cameo of Israel's history that we're a little portion of what's happened. A moment of transition, really. So the book of Kings obviously traces the history of Israel under the leadership of kings when the kingdom was divided between north and south. And I believe there were 20 kings in each portion of the kingdom they were part of. The Book of kings also is putting these kings under assessment. Do they deal with idolatry? Do they promote the worship of God alone? Do they keep the covenant as king David kept it? Not surprisingly, we find that most of the time they don't do any of those things properly. And so prophets are, I'm speaking very generally here, super important contributors to our understanding of Israelite's history and their self understanding. There were oceans of prophets, as this reading indicates, and some actually were the henchmen, perhaps, of the kings and not all that prophetic at all. Others were. And the ones we hear mostly about in our scripture readings, challenging the status quo, utterly challenging Israel for social injustice and for violence and so on, which is what Elijah and Elisha are doing. So we come in when at the end of the era of Elijah and the passing over of the mantle. So a lot to hear for our sort of more secular conversations about leadership and about, or mentoring, putting up your hand and being willing to walk alongside someone who's starting out. And also questions about leadership, maybe you could even tap into, although not in this reading, but that whole thing about are these leaders behaving ethically? And we live in a world that doesn't. Well, many of the leaders we observe are not behaving. [00:03:09] Speaker B: Yeah, that's right. So Elijah is. I mean, he's remembered in the tradition as one of the great prophets. And as we'll see when we get to Mark, there is also partly because of the way Elijah leaves, which is this story being taken up to heaven. The later apocalyptic expectation is that Elijah must come before Jesus or before the son of man can come. So because of the mysterious nature of his death, so to speak, I mean, he doesn't really die. He's taken up. He becomes unusual. That's part of the kind of communal memory of him as the exceptional prophet. And he's also exceptional. I mean, as you said, fran, there were prophets who were very much in the court of the king, right in the center of power. And then there are prophets, and Elijah is one of them, who I think had a lot of power, but he spoke against the king because he was operative under Ahab, who worshipped Baal. So the prophets would also call out when the kings had forgotten the covenant and who they're supposed to be worshipping. But let's look at the details in this passage. So we've got Elijah and Elisha traveling together. So got a bit of a travel narrative. [00:04:18] Speaker A: Those place names are crucial. [00:04:21] Speaker B: What do we know about them? [00:04:23] Speaker A: Well, Elijah and Elisha, in this trajectory from Gilgal to Bethel, is reversing Israel's entry into the promised land. So already we can see in the text that Israel's failing to live up to the covenant, according to the author and the prophets here. And he's making her way backwards from the promised land, and they're leaving. And when they cross the Jordan, they do it in the reverse direction. [00:04:53] Speaker B: Yeah, that's entering the fascinating symbolism, isn't it? [00:04:56] Speaker A: So that's the kind of little detail that just reading those places and ignoring it would miss. [00:05:01] Speaker B: Yes, because we don't know the geography, but it's actually significant. So, yeah, it's interesting that this sort of activity of God in taking Elijah as it's framed is then something that happens on the cusp of or on the edge of the promised land, not in the heart of it. Right. So says something about where God is operative. And again, and the other thing I found quite lovely, and this is the very human element of this story, is there's this repeated, sorry, I can't speak today, repeated kind of movement of Elijah telling Elisha, stay here, you don't need to leave with me. And he says, no, I won't forsake you, or whatever your translation is. And this gets repeated several times as they're on this journey, I won't forsake you. I won't forsake you. And he knows Elijah is going to leave. He's been warned, and yet it still kind of seems to come as a shock when he actually is taken up, maybe because there's fire, horses and chariots and all sorts of strange things going on. But I think there's something very human here about we can be prepared for change or prepared for a change of leadership or whatever that looks like, and it can still be a shock when it actually happens. [00:06:17] Speaker A: I was thinking about the psychology, the dynamic in the psychology there a bit as well. From the perspective of Elijah, that is. Stay here. Is it that he wants to be alone? [00:06:32] Speaker B: Don't burden me with your emotions. [00:06:33] Speaker A: Well, yeah, I'm on my way out. You stay. [00:06:38] Speaker B: Mean. There's lots of. And this is pure speculation is the stay here. Stay here and be a prophet in the land. And Elisha's kind of dedication is to Elijah and he's got to then go back and sort of learn that, almost re enter the land. Thinking of the geography could play with some of that stuff. We are in this sort know visionary tradition that we get patches of in the know with like, think of Isaiah and the vision and the temple and stuff where we've got this sense of heaven breaking in. And scholars really don't know what to make. There's not a lot of precursors for this idea of fiery horses and chariots. But it is, of course, tapping into probably a kind of a divine warrior type imagery for God, that God is sending these horses and chariots. Chariots would have mostly been used in warfare, sort of down to grab elijah. So again, we've got this image of God sort of operative in the heavenly realm with agents at his disposal to order around which we get a glimpse of in the psalm of God, sort of in heaven. [00:07:49] Speaker A: But there's this sort of thin veil here at this experience where the earthly and the heavenly are sort of attaching, I suppose you could say, yes, I think that's right. Which is very much like the transfiguration. The other thing to think about with this one is what Elisha asks for. Yes. So double portion, which I gather in the original language could be double mouthful or belly full. It's quite sort of a bodily phrase, but could also be asking for the inheritance of the firstborn. [00:08:27] Speaker B: Yes. Who gets a double portion in the family allotment of sons inheritance. [00:08:34] Speaker A: That's an interesting one as well. Around again at the level of psychology, being willing to ask, to be daring and I suppose put yourself forward in that way instead of saying, oh, yeah, no, I'm not good enough, I'm not wanting to do this. Well, actually I do. And give me the double portion of your gifts and calling. [00:09:00] Speaker B: Yeah. Because it's actually Elijah that says you've asked for a hard know, this maybe a little bit of sense of you don't quite know what you've asked. Do you know what you're asking for? But, yeah, that double portion, I was interested when I read that eldest sons would get the double portion of inheritance because towards the end of our lectionary reading, when Elijah is taken, Elisha cries out, my father, my father. So we get this quite intimate, like their relationship is almost like a father and a son. And we've got resonances of that without throughout this passage. [00:09:37] Speaker A: And then there is that biblical theme of the secondborn actually taking leadership over the firstborn in many instances through the hebrew stories. [00:09:48] Speaker B: Yeah. And of course, Elisha would go on to be also a very successful prophet. [00:09:54] Speaker A: Well, yeah, I did see some statistics on that. That in fact, he got what he asked for. And that in the narrative, Elijah gets eight miracles in the scriptures and Elisha gets 16. But I didn't go and double check those figures. [00:10:10] Speaker B: We'll believe them. If you feel like counting them up and emailing us, tell us what you find. [00:10:15] Speaker A: But, yeah, I mean, there's also a theme here for churches around new leadership or risky leadership or recognizing that something new and wonderful might come from the reluctance to let go of something familiar. [00:10:35] Speaker B: Yes. [00:10:36] Speaker A: And that the call out of conservatism in that sense is a real one and might give someone a chance to lead the people and express their gifts in the community. [00:10:50] Speaker B: Yeah. And I think, too, at the risk of sort of psychologizing the text a bit, we can do what this text does, which is it's telling this kind of over the top, miraculous, wondrous story of Elijah's sort of climactic exit from the scene, if you like. And we can do this right with leaders. We can eulogize them even when they're not actually dead and imagine that no one can fill their shoes. So there's something here about the promise of God and the reassurance, even acknowledging the shock and the grief that Elisha does go on to fill his shoes. And do you know, in our uniting church tradition, we have something in our basis of union. And I can't remember the precise words, but around the, you know, God will never leave her church without prophets and scholars and martyrs and teachers or whatever the language there is ministers. [00:11:45] Speaker A: The last thing to strike me in this text, not quite so significant, but interesting, is the tearing of the garment in two. And presumably meaning the former identity has been broken open, perhaps. [00:11:57] Speaker B: And grief. [00:11:58] Speaker A: And grief. I mean, there's a lot in the scriptures around clothing, and we hear about it in Mark and reading, and then. [00:12:06] Speaker B: He picks up the mantle. Right. So there is symbolism in the clothing that he puts on, literally. Elijah's cloak. [00:12:12] Speaker A: Yes. [00:12:14] Speaker B: So, yeah, we've got the grief and then the kind of redressing all mean. If you're preaching on this passage, you could speculate around the kind of the rituals and the performative things we do around transition of leadership that. I mean, in ordinations, we dress people with a stall. Right. Like, we undress. We do this with baptism. There are lots of ways. We use clothing quite significantly to mark new stages of someone's life. [00:12:43] Speaker A: The other angle, too, just before we move on, is it's a whole notion of prophecy and the prophetic voice and the church's role in having. In being a witness and a prophetic witness. That's a very big theme. But it's fairly telling that in the big picture here, the prophets are not terribly successful in the end. Not these ones always, no. [00:13:07] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:13:09] Speaker A: And so, yeah, there's a conversation there. The faithfulness of God still with us, even though this task of prophecy is hard and risky and not successful in worldly terms often. [00:13:24] Speaker B: No, that's right. Might leave you leaving the land and going to the edges somewhere or sitting next to the king and saying hard things could go either way. [00:13:33] Speaker A: Should we talk about the psalm? We should. So, psalm 50, only six verses. [00:13:38] Speaker B: Yeah. I mean, I like this, and I'd probably use it liturgically, but I think the imagery here matches very much with what we've seen in two kings, two of a kind of God who's shining his language of beauty. Of course, this is also going to point us forward to Mark, where we're going to get some of these same shining, beautiful images for Jesus as a sign of his divinity. We had the whirlwind in second kings. Here we've got God as fire and tempest. So a sense of God is controlling the cosmos and in heaven, surrounded by heavenly beings, but who can kind of call and command people. So I quite like verse five. You could play with this liturgically. Gather to me, my faithful ones who made a covenant, gather. What is it like when God gathers us? [00:14:26] Speaker A: That's a good call to worship. [00:14:28] Speaker B: Yeah. And as God has gathered Elijah into kind of God's bosom, what does it mean to be gathered that into God's fold. [00:14:37] Speaker A: Okay. The gospel of Mark. [00:14:49] Speaker B: Yes. Chapter nine and verse two. [00:14:53] Speaker A: Now, before we go into that, I just want to make mention of a book that is not new, but I've just come across properly, and it's Gail Ramshaw's book treasures old and new. I think it's probably from 20 years ago. There's fabulous chapters on images in the lectionary like light and clothing and covenant. Several of them are pertinent for this week's readings. And the chapter on light is a really good one to read in preparation for preaching and transfiguration. Of course, she talks about the archetypal nature of the image of light for religions and faiths and traditions going back thousands of years, and the distinctive judeo christian creation story, where it's clearly the light comes from God and is not the sun, whereas other traditions have worshipped the sun and so on. But she also draws your attention to that issue of darkness and blindness and the problem of getting into racist areas where you use light and white interchangeably, and how we should be very alert to that. [00:16:05] Speaker B: Mindful of that. So that's Gail Ramshaw, treasures old and new, and we can put a link in our show notes if anyone wants to follow up that book. So this transfiguration scene in Mark nine comes right in the midst of, or right after a kind of a turning point in the gospel, really. At the end of chapter eight, we've had the famous who do people say? And where Jesus rebukes Peter and then tells him to be silent. And we get the first of his passion predictions. Yeah, he's turning towards Jerusalem. They've been as far north as they get and they're now. So geography again. They're now heading south, back down towards Jerusalem. And obviously, in Mark's gospel, that's very much a journey to the cross. And Jesus will three times talk about the son of man must die and suffer. So we've just had that. And then we get this scene six days later. Jesus took with him Peter, James and John. So they're the kind of three often named the inner core. Yep. Up a high mountain. So, of course, as soon as we get to a high mountain, we're in. [00:17:15] Speaker A: Well, a heavenly realm, or I think I've heard Dorothy Lee describe it as the suburbs of heaven, is where Peter, James and John are here. [00:17:25] Speaker B: Yes. [00:17:25] Speaker A: The thin places, which is what we know biblically. [00:17:29] Speaker B: Yes, exactly. [00:17:30] Speaker A: Places of revelation of God or revelation of God's covenant or law, et cetera. [00:17:36] Speaker B: Yeah, exactly. And I think we've got a couple of resonances of that. Mount Sinai, Moses a. We've got the presence of Moses coming up, but down in verse seven, we get a cloud that overshadows them. So we've got a lot of things. The cloud, the mountain. Moses takes us right back to Sinai. So we've got the conflation of various traditions going on here. It's very thick with symbolism. [00:18:03] Speaker A: And some astonishing things take place. Firstly, Jesus'clothing becomes dazzling bright. [00:18:11] Speaker B: Yes. And Mark describes this. It's almost like he doesn't have enough words for something supernatural dazzling bright, such. [00:18:20] Speaker A: As no one on earth could brighten. [00:18:22] Speaker B: Them or bleach them. Literally. Literally. This is not a human whiteness. This is a dazzling brightness of clothing that is not human. He's trying to then. [00:18:39] Speaker A: And then the next amazing thing is that Elijah and Moses just turn up. [00:18:43] Speaker B: Just turn up on this mountain having a chat with Jesus. So, I mean, this strange verse does a few things, I think. I mean, for starters, just portraying them as talking with Jesus, as if this is a totally normal thing for Jesus to do, says something about Jesus'status and identity, that he belongs with these two significant prophetic figures, one associated with the law, one associated as the sort of prophets. They're both prophets, but I feel like. [00:19:14] Speaker A: The whole passage is just flashing lights itself to the hearers. [00:19:20] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:19:21] Speaker A: You recognize. You do know who this guy is because he's come from all of this. [00:19:26] Speaker B: Yeah, that's right. [00:19:28] Speaker A: It's freaky. I mean, that's very colloquial. But, you know, it. You knew it was coming and this is him. This is the one. Because there's all these connections that you know about. [00:19:39] Speaker B: Yeah, exactly. And then we've got Peter's lovely little interjection. Let's make three tents, three dwellings for you. I mean, we could psychologize that, as people have done. Is Peter trying to honor them? Is Peter trying to keep them mean? Scanae dwellings. Tents are also the word for tabernacle. Is he building little mini places of worship? We don't know. [00:20:06] Speaker A: Well, even if it's any of those things, it's all wrong in inverted commas. I know, but it is not getting it. Whether it's those things, he's trying to capture the moment figuratively and literally, almost. [00:20:20] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:20:21] Speaker A: And the honoring in such a way that Jesus will not be mean. You know, he goes to the cross. So there's a misunderstanding there, as, I. [00:20:31] Speaker B: Mean, and I think the fact mean Mark tells us he didn't know what to say. So this is a bit like the luck. He felt he had to do something. So, I mean, again, if you wanted to preach a more sort of, I guess, reflection on our behavior, as a kind of conversation with this passage, how does this hold up a mirror to us about how when we're confronted by things we don't understand or are challenging or are miraculous or whatever that transformative, we default to kind of, we've got to do something like make a cup of tea, vacuum the floor. What are the things we do to try and feel normal when we can't actually just sit with the wonder and the challenge or the fear of what we're experiencing? So I just think of, again, we're in a world, and you and I, Fran, have talked about this before, where we distract ourselves in so many ways. Right? We've got constant streaming, we've got phones, we've got podcasts. Podcasts. Obviously not this one. This one's vital. But we've got a million ways to distract ourselves from sitting with the divine and sometimes with the discomfort of the divine and just being attentive to our feelings and what the hell's going on with us? I don't know. Yeah. [00:21:53] Speaker A: No, I think. Well, in another language, what you're describing we tend to want to do is domesticate the moment or domesticate the gospel. So we'll say, oh, well, the resurrections, it's like the butterfly coming out of the cocoon. This is categories we all get, don't we? So it's like that. And it's like, no, not really. [00:22:12] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:22:12] Speaker A: And it's more mysterious and bizarre than that. [00:22:15] Speaker B: It is, yes. [00:22:17] Speaker A: And so there's ways we might explain this story that would empty it. We'd put realism in it and just empty it of imagination and wonder and of the possibility that there are categories we don't grasp. [00:22:33] Speaker B: Yes, exactly. And I think whatever we do on this Sunday, it is not our job to explain the transfiguration. This is like Trinity Sunday and the resurrection on Easter Sunday. These are not things to explain in any kind of normal, scientific. [00:22:48] Speaker A: It's a bit boring to do that. [00:22:49] Speaker B: Oh, no. It's tedious, and it's also, I think, impossible and not the point, but to sit with the wonder. Right. [00:22:56] Speaker A: This is why I do recall, again, Dorothy saying a few years ago when we were talking to her about this, the vital role that icons from the eastern orthodox tradition in particular, can play generally. But in relation to this story in particular, because of their depiction of light around the head of Jesus and that, in fact, one of them, she described, the disciples, are almost falling down the hill in fear, but the light still captures them. There's something about. Yeah, there's a capture of this mysterious moment that is also quite human in this. Well, perhaps I'll get to that. Just what does Peter not understand? And this is a depiction again and again in Mark, of disciples failing to. [00:23:43] Speaker B: Grasp, which is everywhere in Mark. That's a big mark and theme. [00:23:48] Speaker A: And we of weak faith, that's us. [00:23:51] Speaker B: Yes. [00:23:52] Speaker A: So the story depicts that, but doesn't leave us there. [00:23:58] Speaker B: No, it doesn't. And in fact. Yeah, because there's other significant things that happen. And I don't mean to bag up Peter, I'm actually quite sympathetic. I come from english stock, where when terrible things happen, what do you do? You go make a cup of tea, because actually doing something very normal is a coping strategy for. And just on a greek note, that word for they were terrified. This is a form of phobos, the fear word phobia, but it's ek phobos. So he's like, literally fearful, out of his mind. This is a very strong word. So it's not just that he's puzzled. There is a really strong reaction to what he's experiencing because he has no way to map onto that. I mean, nothing's prepared him for this experience. [00:24:40] Speaker A: So one of the important theological points of this good news from this story is that this remarkable moment of transfiguration and revelation we share so that we become transfigured in the light of Christ. And so we're not left in our misunderstanding. Well, we still are, but we're not left fearful that we are actually taken up and transfigured in the moments as well and through our baptism. [00:25:15] Speaker B: So are you saying, fran, this story functions and we haven't talked about this yet, but not only to point us to who Jesus is, but to remind us of our own ultimate transfiguration. [00:25:31] Speaker A: Yeah, well, I mean, it's like a glimmer of the resurrection, isn't? [00:25:33] Speaker B: Yes, I think so. This story, and it's interesting, it's midway through Mark, because it points us. We haven't got to verse well seven yet with the cloud and the voice. This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him. And of course, the last time we heard that was in his baptism back in chapter one. And the third time we hear this is the son of God, framed slightly differently, will be at the foot of the cross, in the mouth of a gentile soldier, where he sees Jesus die and says, surely this is God's son. So it points us back to the baptism and the giant affirmation of Jesus. It points us forward to the cross, but it also gives us a glimpse of the resurrection, I think. So it's the whole doing all of that and telling us about Jesus'identity too, as divine. Because in this world, jewish or greek, things that are shiny and light and bright and can talk to dead people are divine. [00:26:31] Speaker A: So it makes total sense. We're at the high point of epiphany. We're right at the end and we're coming into the journey into Lent. We are getting writ large reaffirmation of who this Jesus is, and we are transfigured by his coming. [00:26:48] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:26:48] Speaker A: Now, we haven't forayed into. I don't even know if that's a verb, had a foray into two corinthians. [00:26:55] Speaker B: No, we haven't. [00:26:56] Speaker A: It's very evocative of the same sort of imagery of light and understanding and not understanding and blindness and so on. [00:27:07] Speaker B: Yeah. And it's just a few little verses from two corinthians four, verses three to six. And Paul in this section, and he'll get there in verse seven, is riffing on treasures in clay jars, so plain outsides. Clay jars are not ordained ornate. Sorry. [00:27:28] Speaker A: I knew what you gained. [00:27:29] Speaker B: Yeah. Mixing up my words today, people. But there's a treasure inside, and I think we've got the same language here of veiling and unveiling, so things being hidden and uncovered and seeing light. So we've got images of light and associated with Jesus, who Paul will call the image of God. So in some ways, it's not enough text to really preach on the second Corinthians passage all by itself. I find it a curious choice by the lectionary organizers, but I think for me, it sparks some of the bigger questions that I would want to ponder as a preacher. [00:28:10] Speaker A: I was just going to say that. And that verse five there. What we preach is not ourselves. There's something about. There's perhaps not this fragment, and you're right, it's just a fragment. But Corinthian, this part of Corinthians could very much be encouragement to the church and to preachers about the message that we bring. [00:28:31] Speaker B: Yeah. And what Jesus are we preaching like? We all default to, I think, a dominant image. Right. Is it the Jesus of the transfiguration? Is it the Jesus of the cross? Is it the Jesus of the baptism? How do we make sure we're holding all of those things together? [00:28:47] Speaker A: Sorry. The challenge of not preaching ourselves is a big one in a culture that is highly performative and has social media and TikTok with everyone on there telling their stories. [00:28:56] Speaker B: Yes. [00:28:57] Speaker A: So this becomes a reflection for the preacher. I mean. Yeah, you could talk about that with your people. It might be quite good. [00:29:02] Speaker B: Yes, exactly. I think, too, this image of light and dark. I mean, you could pick up some of the images in these readings and the emphasis on God as light and think about. There's a cluster of questions for me about how do we imagine God? Where do we find the bright spots in our lives when we feel the darkness might overwhelm? Like, what is it that sustains us in faith, in life? [00:29:30] Speaker A: Sorry, that reminds me of something I've interrupted. In Gail's Ramshaw's chapter on light, she makes mention of this parts of the scripture, and I think it's Isaiah, where God is actually described as darkness as well. [00:29:44] Speaker B: Yes. [00:29:44] Speaker A: And what she wants to do is not have us only talk of God as light. It's utterly dominant. She's very clear. I mean, we can see that that's the case. But by having a look at this other imagery, we start to see nuance in reality and how it's not simple to find the good and the evil sometimes. [00:30:03] Speaker B: Yeah, like that. There's a sense that light is only light when darkness is there. Right. So even this image of light shining in the darkness is actually an image that affirms that God is in the middle of the darkness. Right. I don't know, Fran, what you would preach. The last one. That occurs to me, while you think about, you know, again, we could return to where we started with both the Elijah image and Jesus in the transfiguration about how we deal with transition and change and often how we want people to stay the same. We want things to stay the same. Can we accept that our leaders morph and move on? Can we accept that our faith in God, like our relationship with God, will morph and move on? So there's a whole theme you could play with there around, I think, again, we live in a culture that says we don't like people changing their minds. In fact, if you're a politician and you've changed your mind, it's a criticism. And yet, I would say any growth requires us to constantly be changing our minds or at least expanding them. [00:31:10] Speaker A: I don't know. We've not got much time left. But there's something for me in both these stories we've touched on around imagination and letting the gospel speak its categories to us and the wonder of it. So I'd be wanting to preach something that didn't try to domesticate and control all of that. But the good news for me speaking very, is that we are captured, we are brought into this light. It's not just something we observe. [00:31:38] Speaker B: So we too are trans formed by it and with it. [00:31:43] Speaker A: That's probably enough for this week. Thanks everyone. [00:31:48] Speaker B: By the well is brought to you by Pilgrim Theological College and the Uniting Church in Australia. It's produced by Adrian Jackson. Thanks for listening.

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