How does one preach on such magnificent and pivotal moments as the departure of Elijah or the Transfiguration of Jesus when they feel so unrelatable? Sure, they are inspiring and familiar narratives, but what kind of everyday image can both convey the splendor of the moment and move our hearers from observing the stories to responding to their invitations? What personal story can establish our interpretive credibility with our hearers while remaining faithful to the text? Perhaps the core analogy of transitions can ground our interpretation and proclamation of the events in these readings. If you choose to engage the Psalm, you might find its dramatic language helpful for communicating the gravitas of the events from the Hebrew Bible and Gospel lessons. For it speaks of God summoning the Earth in grandiose fashion and capturing the attention of the people to bring them to trial in later verses. Contrary to the traditional arrangement of readings, it might help your hearers to read this psalm in preparation for the narrative passage(s), instead of in response.
In each narrative passage, we find something big… something almost apocalyptic… happening to move us from one way of understanding the world to another. This is why our team settled on the title “Crossing Over.” For our part as the church, we are likewise “crossing over” from one season to the next. We bid farewell to the rhythmic normalcy of Ordinary Time, with its comfortable call stories and Gospel worldbuilding, and we become reacquainted with the pain and perseverance of the Lenten journey to the cross. Even for those congregations less tethered to the lectionary cycles, occasions like Valentine’s Day for your adults, mid-term examinations for your students, or the reevaluation of New Year’s resolutions likewise offer your hearers an opportunity to discern what sort of “Crossing Over” God may be inviting them to receive.
In the lesson from Kings, the author is preparing us to hear about Elisha’s work as prophet, but not before Elijah can make his famous departure. Elisha’s clingy and fearful behavior is easily relatable to the lived experiences of both preacher and hearer; many of us were afraid to spend a night away from our parents for the first time, leave for college, settle into our first day on the job, or even accept our first pastoral appointment. How many of these times did a mentor or loved one tell us that it was time for them to leave… time for us to take up the mantle… but we refused to accept it? Did God not watch over us in those times and seasons? The ambiguous resolution to Elisha’s story may provide us a comforting occasion to revisit how those painful departures turned out in the long run. For the adults in our congregations, stories from our lived experiences where tension and anxiety were alleviated one step at a time, or over a long stretch of time, can be especially helpful memories to jog when interpreting this narrative.
Elisha pleads with his teacher that he would receive a double portion of his spirit, which is a difficult phrase both to define and to interpret. But how did it turn out? Did he receive the double portion? The question has no clear answer. Elisha doesn’t get to see Elijah’s face during his ascent as he had asked, but he does receive power that is at least comparable to that of his teacher. He literally takes up the mantle and parts the waters of the Jordan as he crosses over into the beginning of his own prophetic ministry. At the very least, he is able to take this first step by performing as his first sign the last one his teacher had done. Whatever the case, the responsibility and expectation laid on Elisha was now quite clear. Ready or not, he must now defend the honor and glory of the God of Israel against Baal and Baal’s prophets. The crossing over was painful for Elisha in the moment, but his prophetic ministry would go on to be considered one of the greatest in Israelite history. The growing pain of the transition seems to have borne fruit that was worth the struggle.
In the Gospel lesson, the evangelist is offering us an uncharacteristically explicit story of revelation before the pace of the narrative grinds to an abrupt halt in its second act. The Transfiguration of Jesus also brings him together in the cloud with the only Hebrew prophets who ever had the luxury of appointing their successors: Moses chose Joshua, and Elijah chose Elisha. The marriage of these texts offers us preachers the chance to consider what sort of invitations to leadership and service Jesus is issuing these three disciples. The reluctance of the disciples to accept their responsibility mirrors Elisha’s position in the Hebrew narrative. If we are to be faithful to Mark’s Gospel as we interpret the Transfiguration in this light, we must remember its literary context. Mark tells this story in the midst of Jesus’ frustrated, repeated attempts to help his disciples understand that he must suffer the trial and death that leads to the cross, but they just cannot accept it. Furthermore, we find in Mark this unique dynamic in which nobody seems to understand what messiahship means- and especially not the disciples. What truth can the Transfiguration speak to these circumstances?
We, along with the chosen disciples, have the privilege of hearing the answer in the form of speech directly from God: “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.” The magnitude of a divine encounter like this one characterizes Jesus’ messiahship in two important ways. First, the voice from within the cloud justifies Jesus’ predictions of suffering despite the disciples’ refusal to accept them. Whether they like it or not, “Crossing Over” into the next phase of Jesus’ ministry will come with some challenges for the disciples. You might choose to hold a couple of postmodern proverbs in dialogue with God’s words here: “no pain, no gain;” and, “nobody said it would be easy.” In what sense do those adages help us understand these words of Scripture? In what ways do they fall short or raise concerns?
Second, the message from God endorses Jesus’ authority to transition the work and leadership of his mission to the disciples after the Passion and Resurrection. Like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus knows that God longs to empower far more than just one individual. There is only one Messiah, but all people are called to be disciples. All people are called to “drink the cup” that Jesus drank; all people are called to “be baptized with his baptism.” We all must follow Jesus on the way to the cross and be prepared to take up his mantle when we are called.
The characteristic urgency of Mark continues when the cloud dissipates. Immediately, Jesus instructs the disciples to “tell no one,” and get back to work. In Mark, just like in the Book of Kings, “crossing over” brings growing pains. But ready or not, the time is now for the followers of Jesus to respond to his invitations to ministry. For Mark, the need for disciples- both then and now- to grasp Jesus’ true identity in light of the cross could not be more urgent. For “behold, the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Rev. Tripp Gulledge is a provisional elder in the Alabama—West Florida conference and a pastoral resident at Highland Park UMC in Dallas, TX. He graduated from Perkins School of Theology with highest honor in May 2023.