(2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
2Six 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As 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.
Nearly 350 years ago, the great English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, published his highly influential book, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, commonly referred to as simply “The Principles.” It was in this book that Newton first presented his famous “3 laws of motion.” His work was building on the insights of Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, and Descartes. They each wrestled with understanding the orbits of the sun, moon, and planets and the effects of gravity. Newton studied their work and came up with three new laws that governed how objects moved in space and time. According to his first law, known as the “law of inertia,” Newton states that if an object is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless it is acted upon by a force. The second law explains how exactly the force changes the movement of the object. Finally, the third law, commonly referred to as the “law of action and reaction,” states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same force that is exerted on an object will be exerted by the object on its surroundings. Many of us learned these three laws in one form or another back in our school days. We learned that objects that were in motion didn’t just run out of energy and stopped moving. Friction or air or any other type of counterforce is what causes an object to stop. We learned that if we used a certain equation, we could know the rate at which the object would stop moving. And we learned that the object would push back just as hard as it was being pushed on. Sure, the object initially has a force strong enough to push through the air or friction but eventually the air or friction counters with enough force to make the object stop.
So why all the science this morning?! What does Newton’s three laws of motion have to do with our readings assigned for this week? Today we are celebrating what is known as Transfiguration Sunday. It seems like an oddly placed church festival. Weren’t we just celebrating the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi and the subsequent season of Epiphany? Jesus’ earthly ministry was starting after his baptism with the healing of the sick and possessed. Suddenly we have jumped to an event that happened later in Jesus ministry. We hear of how Jesus brought three of his faithful disciples to the top of a mountain only to give them a majestic display of glory. Why the sudden leap? We must keep in mind that a lot happens in these first 3 months of the church year. Yes, we were just celebrating Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi. Yes, we used the last few weeks to witness the beginning of Jesus’ ministry according to Mark’s gospel. But in a few days we will be celebrating Ash Wednesday and the start of our Lenten journeys. We will be setting out on our 6-week walk with Jesus to his death on the cross.
Our readings assigned for this week help us make this sudden transition. In many ways, Newton’s first law of motion also helps us make this transition. You see, what Elijah and Jesus understood and what Newton helped us to understand was that people are not unlike any other object in the world. If people are at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, they will remain at rest or continue moving at a constant speed in a straight line unless compelled by outside forces to change their state of motion. We WANT to stay at rest. If we can’t stay at rest, we WANT to keep moving through life at a constant, steady pace. Unfortunately, we live in world with forces that don’t allow us to stay at rest or in constant speed for very long. We live in a world that is constantly changing because there are so many forces compelling us to change.
In our reading from 2 Kings, we hear the final words exchanged between Elijah and his faithful follower, Elisha. Elijah had spent many years prophesying throughout the region of Israel. Recall how he had condemned King Ahab for his worship of Baal and as a result his wife, Jezebel, set about trying to kill Elijah. Ahab eventually came to his senses about his idol worshipping and sought repentance. God heard his plea and delayed the violent punishment for his son’s house. Elijah went on to bring condemnation to the next king, Ahaziah. Again, he was able to evade the king’s men sent to kill him. In both situations, Elijah’s faithful disciple, Elisha, walked side by side with him, supporting and encouraging him in spite of his fearful circumstances. Our reading depicts Elijah’s last days when false prophets were trying to convince Elisha that his master’s death was coming soon. Ever steady and ever true to his master, Elisha kept telling them, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Even Elijah tried to tell him to stay put so that he might go on to the next town to prophesy in the name of the Lord. But Elisha would not be persuaded to stop following Elijah. He repeatedly responded, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Finally, after Elijah miraculously crossed the Jordan River, he turned to his disciple and asked him what he wanted before he died. He humbly responded, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” A chariot of fire and horses of fire came and “Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
As Elijah’s faithful servant, Elisha was a man in motion, going at a constant speed. All he had to do was keep up with Elijah. And he would have remained at Elijah’s speed no matter what. Neither prophets nor Elijah himself were able to persuade him otherwise. It took a miraculous ascension to finally get him to change his life path. Rather than serve as his master’s servant, Elisha was thrust into the role of leading prophet. His responsibilities changed and people took more notice of him. Elisha went on to become Israel’s beloved prophet and it wouldn’t have happened without Elijah’s unusual and sudden departure. He was compelled to change by the forces around him, just as Newton declared in his first law of motion.
Indeed, the forces that compel objects to change their state of motion have their source in God. God sets all things into motion. Without God there would be no forces of change. God’s hand is at work in all situations of change and this can be praiseworthy. As we hear in our psalm, David lifted up praise of God’s powers to create change. He sang, “The mighty one, God the light, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.” It is good that God refuses to sit by and allow His creation to sit idle or continue at a constant speed. Look around us…do we live in a perfect world? Are we even close to a perfect world? No, we live in a fallen world beset by powers beyond our control. But they are powers not beyond the control of God. God creates forces of change that keep us from sitting idle or going at a constant speed. This is good news, worthy of David’s song!
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul also notes how God saves us from the darkness that idleness and constant speed can put us into. God spoke, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and set forces of change into motion. God’s light is a force of change, compelling static or constant objects into motion or a change of motion. Paul explains that the gospel of the glory of Christ is a light in our dark world. We, like the Corinthians, are to seek out the light of the gospel to have true and everlasting life. Just as Elijah’s death compelled Elisha into change, belief in the gospel can change lives. God wants our lives to change. God wants the gospel to take hold of our lives and change them. We know it had a profound effect in changing Paul’s life on the road to Damascus.
Our gospel text is similar to our first reading from 2 Kings. In the days prior to his death, Jesus took three of his most trusted disciples up a mountain and revealed his sheer glory and majesty to them. Elijah and Moses appeared alongside Jesus and the disciples were overwhelmed by the event. Peter attempted to capture the event by offering to build three dwellings to house the three iconic figures. In a blink of an eye, Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus had returned to his normal state of being. He ordered the disciples not to tell anyone of the event and they returned to the other disciples. How could they have kept such a secret? Would any of us be able to keep such a secret of who Jesus was?! Well, evidently one of the three disciples told someone about the event since we are retelling it today. No, it was an event that changed the lives of the disciples just as Elijah’s departure was an event that changed Elisha’s life.
In both the events of Elijah’s ascension and Jesus’ mountaintop revelation, the main characters are transfigured and changed from their normal state of being. But does their transfiguration deserve a special celebration in the church year? Perhaps we’re called to instead celebrate how their miraculous transfiguration changes OUR lives. Our witness to God’s changing work in Elijah, Elisha, David, Paul, and Jesus ultimately changes who WE are. Today, we ought to celebrate God’s change in OUR lives. Many of us may be sitting here in either a state of spiritual idleness or numbness from a constant speed of development. God doesn’t want us to remain in such states of motion. God compels us to change our lives. The church sets apart 6 weeks in the year so that we might deliberately go about changing something in our lives. Some of us might take away something from our daily lives, some of us might add something to our daily lives, but in either case we are to celebrate God’s forces of change. Change is a good thing! Yes, change can be hard at times. Change can be fearful, not because of what we might be receiving but rather because of what we might be losing. But God encourages change. God allows forces in our lives to help us change. Sin is nothing more than a force of change. Unfortunately, sin forces us to change for the worse. God wants us to change for the better but allows sin as a force of change.
Reflecting on sin as a force of change brings to mind the story of the rude parrot. A young man named John received a parrot as a gift. Problem was, the parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude and obnoxious. John tried and tried to change the bird’s attitude by consistently saying only polite words, playing soft music and anything else he could think of to “clean up” the bird’s vocabulary, but to no avail. Finally, John was fed up and he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back. John shook the parrot and the parrot got angrier and even more rude. In desperation, John threw up his hands, grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then suddenly, there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute. Fearing that he’d killed the parrot, John quickly opened the door to the freezer. The parrot calmly stepped out onto John’s outstretched arm and said, “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I am sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.” John was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued. “May I ask what the chicken did?”
Though all objects long to remain idle or in constant speed, God created a world that doesn’t allow for that to happen for very long. Everything in this world is in some type of change or will be soon enough. Yet we can be assured of our unchanging God. We might be beset by change all throughout our lives but God and God’s deep love for us is never-changing. Scripture gives witness to our unchanging God and we are comforted by being in relationship with our unchanging God. Rather than dread change, let us rejoice in God’s forces of change this Lenten season and be glad to be…on the brink of change.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.