Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday.
2 Kings 2:1-12
Now the Lord was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”
Elisha said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”
Elijah said, “Elisha, stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went to Jericho.
The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”
He said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”
Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So both of them went on together. Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. Elijah then took his coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “What do you want me to do for you before I’m taken away from you?”
Elisha said, “Let me have twice your spirit.”
Elijah said, “You’ve made a difficult request. If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don’t see me, it won’t happen.”
They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm.
Elisha was watching, and he cried out, “Oh, my father, my father! Israel’s chariots and its riders!” When he could no longer see him, Elisha took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead.
“I can never tell whether it is a comedy or a tragedy.”
I haven’t yet had the honor—and challenge—of being a daily caregiver for someone in the last years of their life. But when folks share those stories with me—what it’s like to care for a spouse with dementia, or a parent in a nursing home, or a friend with a serious illness—I hear over and over again that it’s a mixture of devastating and absurd and even, against all odds, joyful.
I have a friend, Mia who lives with her grandmother. Her grandmother is beginning to develop dementia, and there are bad days, hard days, cry your eyes out days. But there are also jokes and sass and sleepovers and lots of watching the birds. Mia is a bit of a comedian, and the stories she tells about life with her grandma will have you in stitches. Even as they walk the slow path together towards the end of her grandma’s life, even as the important memories slip away, they make new ones, little memories, little fleeting moments of humor and sly joy.
It is a tragedy, and there’s grief and loss plenty, a little more each day. But Mia is committed. It makes her life hard, sometimes. She lives in the small town where her grandma’s lived all her life, which means Mia doesn’t have that many job options. There are medications and doctor’s appointments to keep track of. It’s hard to date. Every once in a while her grandma will tell Mia to find a good nursing home for her and go live her life. And the time may come that her grandmother needs more care than Mia can give her, but either way, she’s staying. She’s finding the comedy and the joy where she can, because she’s walking a road that she knows ends in grief.
I’m telling you about Mia because I think she has a kindred spirit in the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the servant and disciple of Elijah—and, I have to think, his friend as well. Elijah was theprophet of Israel at the time. Not always an easy person to be around, but one who spoke the truth, spoke God’s truth. Elisha has stuck with him through war and famine, changing political regimes and wild swings in popularity. And here in our scripture this morning these two men have come to the end of their road together.
It is a tragedy wrapped in comedy.
Elisha knows that Elijah is going to be taken up into heaven—and while it may have been a relief to know that he wasn’t going to die in the traditional way, a person who is gone from us is gone from us, and a loss is a loss, whether from death or distance or a severed relationship.
Elisha knows that he is about to lose his mentor, his teacher, his friend. He can’t do anything about it, other than see it through.
Elijah tries to send him away. “Stay here,” he says. “God has sent me to Bethel.”
“No dice,” Elisha replies. “I’m not leaving you.”
So they go to Bethel, and this group of prophets from Bethel run out breathless. “Elisha, Elisha! Do you know that this is your last day with Elijah?”
I can just see the eye roll. “Yes, I know. No need to tell me.”
And then the whole thing repeats. Elijah tells Elisha to stay put, that he has to go to Jericho.
“I’m not leaving,” Elisha says again. So they go to Jericho, where another group of prophets runs out, breathless, to tell Elisha what he already knows. Elisha shuts them down too. He knows exactly what’s going to happen and he’s not budging from his path.
A third time, Elijah tries to head Elisha off, but he won’t leave. Finally they go to Jordan together, and Elisha stays till the very end, craning his neck as Elijah is lifted to the heavens in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire. It must have been alarming, frightening, exciting, and deeply, deeply sad. This is the end. And endings are always hard.
Elijah’s end came in a blaze of glory, but more often we find ourselves in quiet rooms, with blinking monitors and the soft buzz of nurses outside the door. The grief is so, so heavy, and it is so tempting to want to run. To be anywhere but where the sadness is. But we stay until the end.
One of the hardest things in this pandemic has been the truth that many of our loved ones are dying without us there. We never wanted to leave them, but it has to be that way. It’s excruciating.
To be faithful to a person—to stick with them no matter what—is to open yourself to loss and grief. To be faithful to a church—to plant your heart deep within its sanctuary—is to open yourself to loss and grief. To be faithful to Christ—to walk resolutely in Christ’s footsteps—is to open yourself to loss and grief.
We hear the story of Elijah and Elisha on Transfiguration Sunday because Elijah shows up in the gospel, chatting it up with Moses and Jesus on the mountaintop. But I think there’s more linking these two stories than just a common character.
Jesus’ disciples see him shining in glory on the mountaintop, see him at the height of his divine power, see him untouchable, impervious: and the first thing he reminds them of afterwards is that he is headed for the cross. His path will end in death—and tragic, traumatic, painful death—and their job is to follow him.
The disciples are called to walk the hard path. They are called to love someone whose days are numbered, whose star is setting, not rising. They are called to be faithful to a doomed mission.
Or at least, that’s one way to look at it.
“Wait until you’ve seen me risen from the dead,” Jesus says. Because the journey isn’t over at the cross.
The disciples will see Jesus shining in glory once again, when he is resurrected. But they cannot skip from mountain to garden. They have to walk the valley, have to stay with him through his darkest moments. Faithfulness cannot pick and choose only the good scenes of a life. Faithfulness sticks it out.
And in that faithfulness—in being willing to look grief and pain and death and loss head on and accept that it will hurt—they are the first to discover the incredible blessings of the Holy Spirit always with them.
Elisha, too, receives a blessing because he stays with Elijah, watches him until the very end. He asks for a double share of Elijah’s mantle—a double share of the gifts that Elijah had. Elisha receives the blessings of the hard road—the gifts that grief brings.
I want to be clear here—I am not saying that we are rewarded for our pain, or that God or karma will always even the scales. But I have seen again and again and again that when we are faithful even in hard times, we receive the … blessing of knowing our own ability to love fiercely, love with a heart that doesn’t falter even when it breaks. It is a blessing to know the strength God gives us, when we are brave enough to put it into action.
We are on the hard road now, my friends. There is hope on the horizon, but so many of us are grieving. There has been so much loss. There is so much worry still, so much anxiety, so much unknowns. But God has given us the strength to walk hard roads, and it is our calling to stick with it. It is tempting to throw up our hands and be done with it all—with the masks and precautions, with obstinate family members, even with online worship, which I know many of us are sick of—and find an easier road, one that doesn’t take so much of us.
But we are about to enter Lent, which reminds us that to follow Christ is to walk hard roads, all the way to the end. It’s only the narrow path that leads to resurrection.
My friend Mia may have years left with her grandma. She may have days. She doesn’t know. But she is learning the blessings of patience and good humor, of faithfulness and gritty love, of sacrifice and self-care, of choosing a path and sticking to it out of sheer, stubborn love. And when the loss comes, and all she has is memories, she will carry those blessings with her and more. She will cook her grandma’s recipes and listen to her favorite singers. She will know the names of the birds in the backyard and certain jokes will make her laugh. She will be full of the love that her grandma has left behind, a double share of blessing to walk the path anew.
Because this is the crazy, crazy thing we Christians believe:
life may be a tragedy wrapped in comedy,
but it is Christ who will have the last laugh,
and when all our tears are wiped away,
we will see that God was writing a happy ending all along.
We just have to keep walking long enough to see it.