A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 15, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’m glad you’re all sitting down, because I’m going to do two things in today sermon that some of you will find shocking. First, I’m going to talk about football. I know, I know. What does Jeff know about football? The answer is, “Not much.” But something happened at the Super Bowl a couple weeks ago that is really important, and yes I did grow up in Massachusetts, and no it’s not the fact that the Patriots won the game.

In the final seconds of the game, New England Patriot Malcolm Butler intercepted a pass from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on the one-yard line, keeping the Seahawks from scoring a touchdown. This play sealed the deal. It was a case where the Butler did it. Malcolm Butler’s interception guaranteed the Patriots their win. Even on YouTube for this non-football-fan, it’s an exciting play.[1] I imagine that if you were watching the game live and were emotionally invested in the outcome, there would have been screaming in your house – elation or devastation.

Of course, there was rejoicing on the field. From a television sports reporter’s point of view, Malcolm Butler was the interview to get. An NBC reporter got next to him and ran beside him until the control room went to her for a few-second interview with Butler. They stopped and she asked him, “What happened on that play?”

“I just had a vision that I was going to make a big play. And it came true and I’m just blessed,” he said. “I can’t describe it right now. I’m just …”[2] His voice trailed of.

“I had a vision … I’m just blessed … I can’t describe it right now.”

If you watch the video of this very brief interview with the sound down, you’ll see interesting body language. Butler barely glances at the reporter; he is not smiling (he just made the game-winning play and he’s not smiling); his head is shaking back and forth as if he’s saying “no”; his eyes are almost shut or are shut, as if he’s seeing something inside, there in the dark, that the light outside will hide. With the sound up, his voice is winded, breathless, but still steady. There is a calmness, a deliberateness, as he tries to put words to his experience.

Rod Dreher wrote about this for The American Conservative. Yes, that’s the second shocking thing I’m doing in this sermon. I’m quoting from a website called The American Conservative. “[Butler] just pretty much won the Super Bowl for his team, yet he was not filled with customary exuberance, but with a sense of awe. I wanted to know more about what he meant. Was he talking about an episode of precognition? Of what did this vision consist? Where did it come from?”[3]

When a colleague shared this story a few days after the Super Bowl on Facebook, tongue in cheek, I suggested that maybe we should have spiritual directors on the sidelines of sporting events instead of reporters. Today’s scripture readings make me wonder if I might not have hit on a good idea.

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is a story of transition. Like almost all of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, Elijah focused on fighting idolatry and injustice. I think Elijah is most famous for a confrontation he had with the prophets of Baal during a drought. The story ends with the prophets of Baal slaughtered, Queen Jezebel ordering soldiers to pursue Elijah, and Elijah running off into the mountains for safety.

Today’s story is the fourth of the four major Elijah stories told in 1 and 2 Kings. As I said, this is a story of transition. The Elijah era is ending – prophets from around the country are aware of this – but the Elisha era hasn’t begun. In the story, we are entering an in-between time, and in-between times can be filled with uncertainty. God was clearly present in the prophetic ministry of Elijah, but when his ministry ends, will God still be present? If so, how?

Ancient icon of the Elijah and Elisha story.

Elisha, Elijah’s servant and student, wants to be as faithful as Elijah. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. I’ve always heard that as asking for a faith as strong as Elijah’s. Elijah’s response to this request is an enigmatic, “maybe, if you see this thing through to the end.” And then the end comes. As they’re walking along, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them, and Elijah’s ascends into heaven. Elisha watches Elijah disappear, and tears his clothes in an act of grief as his mentor disappears.

Some scholars claim that this story has no historical basis, that the story is a literary device only. They say that “[t]his story [is only] … aimed at binding together two great prophets of the past.”[4] I think the story has additional meaning and purpose.

Whether is happened or not, it raises some interesting points about profoundly spiritual experiences. Sometimes they can happen in the midst of deeply troubling events. Here, it was the disappearance of Elijah. The fact that he ascends into the heavens rather than dying becomes important much later. For now, the separation by the chariots and horses of fire can represent any sort of separation from a loved one any of us experiences. The implication of the story is that God can be at work in the midst of those separations, that God can be at work through our grief.

How we grow to be aware of how God is working, well that’s the second point I think this story raises. Listen to what happens next in the story:

“Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
“When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.”[5]

“Where is God?” Elisha cries out.[6] It is the company of prophets who are able to answer the question. It is the company of prophets who can help Elisha process the spiritual experience he has had. “God has gifted you with Elijah’s spirit.” Elijah benefited from a community to help him process what had happened spiritually. I hope Malcolm Butler has a community to help him process what happened to him at the Super Bowl.

Peter, James, and John could have benefited from a community to help them process the profound spiritual experience we heard about today, too. There’s a lot going on here, of course, and I think the context is important. Immediately before the passage we heard in Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say he is. Some people say that he is John the Baptist come back to life. Others say that he is Elijah, returned from the heavens. Others say he is a prophet.

Jesus asks them who they say he is. Peter says it clearly: You are the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ). Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone this. Then Jesus starts teaching about his death. It’s almost as if, upon hearing someone outside himself say that he is the Messiah, Jesus realizes what that means – that he’ll go to Jerusalem, challenge the principalities and powers, and be executed by the state.

Peter won’t have any of that. There is no way Jesus is going to be killed. So he raises an objection, which is met with a stern rejection: “Get behind me Satan.”

“The Transfiguration” by Rafael

The story continues. It’s six days later, and Jesus has Peter, James, and John join him on a retreat. There, while Jesus is in prayer, the disciples have a spiritual experience. Mark says they see Jesus transfigured and the two great prophets of Judaism standing with him. What do we do with this terrifying weirdness? Peter decides he has to say something, so he suggests that he build some tents, some booths, some sort of dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Then a cloud overshadows them, they enter into the darkness, and they hear the voice of God say words Jesus heard at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And God gives them some advice: “Listen to him.”

And as they’re coming down the mountain, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about what they experienced until after he has risen from the dead. Don’t talk about it, you guys.

I find it interesting that the story – not in this version nor in the versions in Matthew or Luke – does not say anything about what Jesus experienced. It just talks about what Peter, James, and John experienced. Perhaps Jesus never talked about it. After all, he’d asked the others not to talk about it, so why would he?

And maybe they followed his directions and didn’t talk about it until after the first Easter. Then, finally, they could start to process the experience with their friends. “We were up on a mountain, and Jesus started praying, and I swear he changed. Something happened. It was like all the law and the prophets were there along side him and he …

“And then we heard the voice of God. That’s what it had to be. It called Jesus ‘beloved son,’ and it said that we should listen to him.”

I don’t know what they would have said, but I suspect it would have been something like that. They would have talked about it and tried to make some sense of it.

We have a need to process our spiritual experiences. Maybe not always. Sometimes what’s happening and what God’s doing and what God’s saying can be crystal clear. But most of the time, we need to tell the story and in the telling we can understand what’s happening. And sometimes we need to be intentional about creating opportunities for God to act. It’s not like God isn’t always at work, but sometimes it’s helpful to intentionally create an opportunity in which we will have our eyes and ears and hearts open to God. Really, this is part of any spiritual discipline.

This Lent, a group of us are going to create these opportunities by performing what we’re calling “spiritual experiments.” We will meet this afternoon at 2:00 at the Masonic Home to get started and to hand out the books we’ll use. Throughout Lent, Pastor Brenda and I will preach a sermon series on themes coming out of the Lord’s Prayer. And the members of the group will undertake spiritual experiments during the weeks on those themes and gather again to process our experiences. The hope is that we’ll get a sense of what God’s doing in our lives.

Whether you participate in the small group or not, I hope you have or will create a group of people with whom you can process your spiritual experiences so that you can get a better sense of what God’s up to in your life. When you do this, I think you will discover ways to walk for faithfully in the way of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7rPIg7ZNQ8 (accessed 10 February 2015).

[2] Quoted from this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpzFYrNGK9s (accessed 4 February 2015).

[3] Rod Dreher, “Malcolm Butler’s Miraculous Vision,” The American Conservative, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/malcolm-butlers-miraculous-vision/ (posted 2 February 2015; accessed 4 February 2015).

[4] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed., p. 257). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[5] 2 Kings 2:13-15, NRSV.

[6] Elisha’s question, “Where is God?” is one that I frequently ask in spiritual direction: “Where (or how) did you experience God in that situation?”

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