Now You See It -- Now You Don't!

2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-8
(c) Stacey Steck

“Now you see it, now you don’t!” -- the magician’s favorite phrase. Adept at hiding and producing an object, the magician plays with the audience and its limited perception. It doesn’t hurt that the magician knows how to do the trick and the audience doesn’t. Of course, what most magic tricks have in common is that what we see isn’t really what’s there. There isn’t one egg, really, there’s two. There’s not one ace of spades, there are several. We just don’t get to see all the tricks of the trade.

Thank goodness that God deals with us differently. With God, what you see is what you get and it’s always there, even though at times it’s hard to see. The Gospel tells us, and you can take to the bank, the fact that God loves us and wants us to have life and have it abundantly. That’s no illusion! But it’s also not always so easy to see that fact. But the reason it is hard to see is not because God is adept at hiding and producing it, but because we are not so adept at perceiving it. Watch the children in the audience at a magician’s show and their little eyes are glued to the performer’s hand. The performer has to get the trick right or those kids are gonna know that the Wizard of Oz is really a small man with a mechanically aided voice. But in the divine revelation game, even when we fix our eyes on the prize, we are often disappointed, not because God has tricked us, or because God is not God, but because the eyes it takes to see God all the time have yet to be dispensed to anyone but Jesus.

The story of the Bible is the story of God revealing Godself to human beings, first to Israel and then to the whole world in Jesus Christ. In that capital “S” story are the stories in which we mere human beings encounter God -- walking in the cool of the garden, camped out on a mountaintop, thrown into a fiery furnace, and on and on. Out of those encounters come a direction for living, an understanding of where to go, a purpose for life. In the midst of these encounters, the characters do their limited best to discern what God wants from them. Some do it better than others, as we heard in our stories this morning.

You will recall that Elijah was a prophet of the Lord who took on the powerful King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal. Blasting them for doing evil in the sight of the Lord, Elijah flees for his life to Mount Horeb and encounters God not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, an experience in which God reveals to him his successor, Elisha, son of Shaphat, the Elisha of our story today, who will carry on the work of the Lord amongst the kings of Israel who seem never to be able to walk the straight and narrow. In this final scene of Elijah’s life, as he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, he passes on to Elisha a double portion of his impressive spirit, the double portion Elisha has requested and the double portion a father customarily gives to his first born son. Elijah has literally and figuratively passed the mantle to the next great prophet of Israel. The stories that follow our reading confirm Elisha’s power, especially my favorite part in verses 23-25 about when Elisha went up to Bethel; while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. Words to the wise: don’t mess with the bald prophet of the Lord!

In our other story, Peter, James, and John receive the invitation of a lifetime - a trip up a mountain with Jesus. They see something no one before or since has seen, Jesus shining like the noonday sun, talking to two of the all-time great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Moses. After some fear and trembling and some confusion about what is happening, they hear a voice from the cloud proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” You will remember that the very same voice proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That first announcement is made to Jesus alone, this one to the three disciples, and a final one will come from the lips of the Centurion at the foot of the cross, when he says, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” Mark is making clear the gradual revelation to the world that Jesus is the Son of God; Peter, James, and John are there for this amazing event and yet, Mark lets us know that they did not really get it, for as they are coming down the mountain, what occupies their minds is what it means when Jesus says he will rise from the dead. They seem singularly uninterested in the fact that God has spoken to them; they are the “duh-sciples” not the disciples.

The reading of the stories of Elijah and Elisha and of the Transfiguration of Jesus are an occasion to reflect on the art of discernment, the ability to see things for what, and who, they really are. Taken together, they say much about God’s revelation, and about our ability to perceive that revelation. In the Elijah story, Elisha is blessed with “eyes to see.” In the Transfiguration story, Peter’s vision is somewhat less clear, and although he sees Jesus shining like the very sun, he doesn’t quite get the significance of what is taking place around him. Rather, like Mary who disparaged her sister Martha for sitting at the feet of Jesus while she herself worked to prepare for her guests, Peter misses the opportunity to bask in Jesus’ glow when he proposes his construction project. These two stories, taken together, represent our own experience, don’t they, being able to see so clearly at times exactly what God wants from us and for us, and at others missing it completely, stumbling around asking the wrong questions. How many earnest prayers have gone up over the centuries asking for direction and guidance for God’s people, both individually, and collectively? Trillions, perhaps, and still, some seem to be answered and some seem to be delayed in being answered.

In the next little while, and indeed forever, we at Thyatira Presbyterian Church are going to be about the business of discerning what God has in store for us. Sometimes it will be clear, other times it will not. Sometimes we will be able to keep our eyes on Elijah until he is gone, and at others, we will want to build booths even when the Lord is blazing right in front of us. What is important for us to remember is that the revelation is always there, and if it seems elusive, it is not that God has abandoned us, but that we are a work in progress, neophytes at discernment, the blind leading the blind.

So what can we do to make the discernment process a little easier? Let me suggest a few lessons drawn from the characters from our two stories. The first lesson is simple: Hang out with the right people. Peter, James, and John hung out with Jesus; Elisha hung out with Elijah. Stay close to the best and something is bound to rub off on you. What this means for us is not to try to get close to Billy Graham or some other famous Christian, but by prayer, study, and service to be in fellowship with those who have gone before us in the faith and those who are with us on the journey, those people who live their lives as if God matters. Those heroes of the faith, from the Bible, from our church history, from the pew in front of you, are the people whose ability to keep their eyes on the prize help us to learn to do the same and will help us in our task of discernment.

Second, don’t listen to the voices that would deter you. Elisha received counsel from several reputable sources, including Elijah himself, yet he did not let the advice sway him from following his course. His answer to those who would deter him by saying, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” in other words, “Do you know that it will be unwise for you to follow him,” was “Yes, I know; be silent.” The prophets who tried to warn Elisha may have sensed something dangerous, or may have wanted the honor for themselves, but Elisha would not listen. What this means for us is that in a world of negativity, let us focus on the positive. There are all kinds of reasons why the church of Jesus Christ shouldn’t succeed, but that should never deter us from our task. We are not a sinking ship and neither is our God.

Third: be persistent. Even after Elijah, the company of prophets in Bethel, and the company of prophets at Jericho told him to stay behind, Elisha was persistent enough to be able to ask for the double share of Elijah’s spirit, and to see the chariots of the Lord. The process of discernment takes time, patience, prayer, and much more, all needing to be undertaken with persistence. If we give up because it seems to be taking too long, or because there seems to be an easier way, we will have veered off the path before we get to the River Jordan or up the mountain, and we shall miss the revelation that awaits us in those places.

And fourth and finally, rejoice in the good news that God does not give up on us. Even when Peter and the other disciples miss the real point of the Transfiguration, they are not banished from Jesus’ side but invited to continue on the journey. We will not always comprehend the divine will fully, and at times, we may be going in the other direction. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, crossing their path again and again. Yet they were still loved by God who ultimately lead them to the promised land. If we are faithful in our attempt to discern what God will have us do, how God will use us to address the human hurts and hopes of our community, how each member of this body can be in active ministry, it will be revealed to us finally, perhaps in fits and starts, perhaps in a grand vision, but revealed nonetheless. And then the adventure will really begin. May God bless us as we do our best to keep our eyes on the prize, and even when we can’t, because with God, what you see is what you get and it’s always there, even though at times it’s hard to see. Amen.